Motor racing is a potentially dangerous sport that has the competitors and viewers on the edge of their seats. This sport can encompass racing with “stock” cars, motorcycles, Formula 1 cars and so on. It goes without saying that speed is important for the photographer too, especially one who has to work hard to capture the perfect shots.
The key to show motion in motor racing is to choose a slower shutter speed that will capture the pace, but also the details. Depending on the amount of light available either take an center-weighted meter reading or set the camera to Tv or S (shutter-priority) and select a shutter speed of 1/250s, and place your camera on a tripod for your photos. With drag racing, it's worth focusing on the car as it prepares for the race so it is central in your lens then taking your photo the moment it launches.
Use the Panning Technique
Panning successfully will give a sharp object but blurred background to suggest motion. Motor racing is an ideal sport in which to use this technique. Pre-focus the lens on an area where the racer will pass by. Choose a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second to begin with and follow the subject in a smooth horizontal motion while pressing the shutter button. With motorcycle racing, each racer should be easy to focus on with a telephoto zoom lens.
Select the Right Location
Freezing action may seem daunting if you are photographing an extremely fast sport like Formula 1 racing. Choosing a shutter speed of 1/1000s will give you sharp images. More important however, is thinking about the composition. Turn the mode dial to TV or S (Shutter Priority) mode and set the shutter speed to between 1/500th-1/1000th of a second. Then pre-focus your lens on the area where you think the car will arrive or turn corners; or follow one to try and capture the image centrally.
Use a Wide-Angle Lens
Big racing events often draw large crowds and these race fans are great to capture. With an event like IndyCar, there are many cars on the starting line - a good image to capture is when the race begins. Using a wide-angle lens of 28mm or less should do the job for you. Place your camera on something solid such as a monopod or a chair and shoot using a small aperture f/11-f/32 to keep the whole picture sharp.
Zoom in on the Action
Use your zoom to try to get images of race cars lined up before the start. Areas where the pit crews work may offer some exciting photo opportunities during pit stops. The more powerful your lens, the closer you can get and the more detail you can pick up. Since it is unlikely that you can pick out individual people like you can with other sports, focus on movement and action. Zoom as closely as you can – a 600mm telephoto zoom lens is ideal but may require some additional support.
Shooting in Low-light
If you are shooting in low-light conditions, you can normally pick up motion by using a shutter speed of around 1/250s. Turn the mode dial to M (Manual) mode and set the lens to its widest aperture. Low light means that you’ll probably decrease your shutter speed to increase your EV (Exposure Value), which increases the potential for blur; this can be good if you are strategic in using this technique to enhance the apparent speed of the object. You can also try using delayed flash (high speed sync flash with front or read curtain sync) which gives interesting light trails. If you don’t want to use flash, increase the ISO until you get a sharp, well exposed image.
If you want to freeze action then you will want to use a fast shutter speed of around 1/500s or 1/1000s, since auto racing is incredibly fast! As the day wears on and gets darker and your camera won’t allow you to choose these high shutter speeds, you will want to increase the ISO to 800 or more. If you want to capture some creative motion, choose a shutter speed of 1/30s to create trails and pan with the speeding car (this takes some practice, but it works incredibly well and gives you a cool effect). You’ll want to have the aperture set at around f/4 to ensure that you capture the fast-moving subject in focus regardless if you’re panning or shooting stationary with the fast shutter speed.
Panning looks great with motor racing sports, so consider using a tripod or monopod. But this isn’t needed, if you can hold the camera relatively steady and effectively pan with the zooming car. If space is not available, a beanbag and a secure seat, wall or box can provide a stable rest. Since you will most likely be using a long lens, you will need extra support when panning. A fast telephoto zoom lens of around 300mm – 600m and of f/4 or quicker is very useful. A camera with a fast frame rate ensures that you can capture the action by holding down the shutter button to capture blocks of photos (for later review and selection).
Motor racing’s various categories and classes are all fun sports to watch and are full of split-second excitement. The photographer’s objective is to compose and create images that capture the sense of action with a mixture of photographs. Use different settings and techniques to grab photos that stop the action cold, or photos that highlight the moment prior to the start flag. Try panning photos that freeze the car, but still give a sense of the car’s velocity with exciting motion blur. Being nimble and ready for action is important, but so is being patient and waiting for a car to do its next lap. Practice panning with different shutter speeds until the image is just right. With enough practice, the images you take from this sport are bound to be a creative and dynamic set.