Motorsports photography - a complete guide

Discover some simple techniques to master an advanced subject with the assistance of professional motorsports photographer, Mike Veglia .

| Sports and Action
Words & Pictures Mike Veglia

Motorsports photography - a complete guide

Ayrton Senna at Detroit GP 1987. Taken with a Tokina 80-200mm zoom and Kodak Kodachrome 200 film.

One saying often heard about motorsports photography is think about the three Ps, Pre-focus, Pan, and Pray. I would also add another P for Practice! If you really have a strong desire to learn how to predictably capture quality images of fast moving cars on course there is no substitute for practice. When shooting at a new course for the first time many experienced motorsports photographers will shoot test rolls the first day out on a race weekend, and have the film processed at a one-hour type lab for evaluation and self-critique prior to the next day's shoot. There is really no substitute for getting out there and practicing. Hook up with your local car club or racers and shoot their events to help gain valuable experience. Don't feel bad or discouraged when you only get a few good 'keepers' in the beginning. Keep practicing and your keep/toss ratio will improve.

Motorsports photography - a complete guide

Michael Andretti at Toronto 1991. Taken with a Tamron SP 60-300mm zoom.

Pre-focus is an age-old technique for racing (and other sports) photographers. You maybe thinking that an autofocus camera will negate this requirement but that is simply not the case. Watch the way others around you are shooting and you'll notice that many are often manually focusing despite their use of high end AF gear. This is not to say that AF won't help, because it will. But, AF is a tool that is best mastered after learning the basic techniques without it. (For the same reasons that autoexposure is best used after learning the basics of manual exposure settings using a light meter.)

Motorsports photography - a complete guide

Audi R8 at Laguna Seca 2000. Taken with a Zuiko 350mm f/2.8 at f/4.

The key to pre-focus is timing the shutter release point. For panned shots I will choose a suitable location with a reasonably pleasing background (often you don't get much choice there and are at the whims of the track). Next, I focus on an area of the course that is in the area of the portion of the car I want in focus as it passes by. I select a background object at this location for a shutter release reference point, and pan and shoot away. (More on panning later .) For straight-on shots this gets a bit trickier, especially with really long lenses that have virtually no depth-of-field. In these cases it really all boils down to timing. Again, pre-focus on the location where you want the car to be in focus. Release the shutter as the car comes into view ever so slightly before the car arrives at the proper focus point. With practice this becomes easier to accomplish. The key is to predict exactly when the car is in focus so that the shutter opens at exactly that time. AF may help more in straight-on shots than panned shots, but again, by mastering the manual-focus techniques first you will be that much ahead of the game when you add the high tech tools.
 Motorsports photography - a complete guide
Audi S4 at Laguna Seca 2000. Taken with Tamron SP 80-200mm f/2.8 LD zoom and a shutter speed of between 1/125sec and 1/250sec.
Panning is the accepted practice for side view shots. You want the background and wheels blurred enough to give a sense of motion and draw interest to the car/driver and away from the background. There is a tradeoff between blurred backgrounds and loss of subject detail. It's never easy to judge this delicate balance. One must take into consideration the distance from the car, the speed of the car, the focal length of the lens (distance again really) to establish a reasonable shutter speed range for the desired result. Also, you can really push into slow shutter speeds for interesting effects at the expense of a high keep/toss ratio. It all really depends on what results you hope to accomplish.

Shutter speed ranges for panned shots can be as low as 1/15sec and as high as 1/250sec or even 1/500sec. I generally try to keep my shutter speeds in the range of 1/125-1/250sec depending on how fast the car is. I will take a few at slower speeds in hopes of getting some really pleasing artistic blurring effects, but will be sure to get everything I have to get at higher speeds just to be confident I have good results.

Motorsports photography - a complete guide

Porsche CART car at Miami 1987. Taken with a Tokina 80-200mm zoom.

Panning technique begins with your feet spread slightly into a stable shooting platform. Large heavy lenses can be panned with a monopod. Pick up the car through the viewfinder as far up the course as possible. Holding the camera/lens with stability into your upper body is key. Elbows in, triangulate your arms with one hand out on the lens as a front guiding hand and the other comfortably gripping the body and shutter release.

Practice several passes following the cars through your panning zone without shooting anything until you feel comfortable and smooth. When you feel that you are tracking the cars smoothly, start squeezing the shutter release at your reference point you determined in the background at your in pre-focus point. Be sure to follow through smoothly after releasing the shutter all the way like a good golf swing. With practice you will reach a reasonable confidence level for predictable results. While learning it's best to not get the car too tight in the frame, rather crop later on. As your technique and confidence builds you can go tighter, but cutting the ends of the cars off is a risk you run if you get too tight.

Motorsports photography - a complete guide

BMW V12LMR at Laguna Seca 2000. Taken with a Zuiko 350mm f/2.8 at f/4
This was a very tricky location as cars come into view from behind the hill beyond the bridge. There's very little time to react and release the shutter when the car reaches the pre-focus point. AF can help in situations like this but not always.

Exposure and film selection is pretty much the same in motorsports photography as for any type of outdoor photography. Special attention needs to be paid to light or dark colored cars, shadows on track, and other things that may present tricky situations. Film selection also depends on what you plan to do with your images and how you like to view and store them. I shoot Fujichrome Professional Provia F 100 almost exclusively. I like the color characteristics and the ultra-fine grain. Slides are still generally regarded as the ideal medium for print publication. For Web use or for photographic enlargements negative film is certainly a viable option and I see a fair number of people shooting it as well. Film selection is more or less a personal preference so I will not dwell on this topic.

Equipment selection is a whole other can of worms. The key is to select equipment you can be comfortable using and have a high degree of trust in. While I am an advocate of traveling light and using a minimal setup I find that lately I am lugging around a fairly heavy photographer's backpack full of gear. For many years I would only carry a body or two (always keeping a backup nearby such as in my car), a 24 or 28mm wide-angle and a 60-300mm zoom. As my desire to improve results was ongoing and I finally started to feel as though my equipment was limiting my results I started to upgrade to the kit I presently use.  Some suggestions include a fast f/2.8 zoom in the 80-200mm range a fast 300mm, f/2.8 if possible, and matching tele-converters is a great combination. Wide-angles as wide as 17mm or 18mm and good strong flash are also good to have along. The camera should have some kind of motordrive or auto-winder to aid in shooting. I tend to only use sequence mode for race starts but it's nice to not have to think about advancing film.

Motorsports photography - a complete guide

ProTruck at Laguna Seca 2001. Taken with a Zuiko 350mm f/2.8 with Zuiko 1.4X Extender to make a 490mm telephoto.

The key is to get out, have fun, and don't get discouraged. Try to see and visualize the split second you're trying to capture in order to predict and react in time to capture that moment on film. With the three Ps combined with practice you can get some pleasing results. Now go out there to your local track and shoot some film!

About the author

Mike Veglia began learning photography as a teenager in the early 1970s on the Monterey (California USA) peninsula. He presently lives and works out of nearby Santa Cruz, California. Mike was primarily self-taught but along the way he set up labs at three different schools he attended and assisted in teaching classes. Mike also had a passion for motorsports so his photography and racing were a natural to merge together, which they did over time.
Mike seen here in action shooting at Laguna Seca in 2000. Picture by Bob Brandle. 


Motorsports photography - a complete guide

By the mid-1980s I was starting to get results that pleased even me (I am by far my own worst critic) and began entering local photography contests with my racing work in the Professional Photojournalism category and won many awards in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1999 I founded my web-based racing photography business called Motor Sport Visions Photography ( and am striving to shoot as much as I possibly can and keep trying to find ways to improve my results. Racing photography is flush with some great photographers who's work humbles me. I hope that sharing my work will return something to the sport that I love. If I actually make money at this someday I will consider it to be a bonus.'


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