Motor Sports Hints and Tips

Originally Published in 2004

I have been on a massive learning curve this weekend, I don’t do motor sports, that is I haven’t covered motorsports professionally since the 1980’s; until Sunday at the BTCC (British Touring Car Championship) at Thruxton. The learning curve started when I learnt that there was a 0700hrs on a Sunday Morning, I thought that one existed, however as I had never witnessed it, I was doubtful.

Secondly, I was reminded that motor sports is great fun to photograph, and that most of the Marshals are real characters, who are addicted to the smell of petrol and burning rubber.

Thirdly, I learnt that practice is essential to turn out good results, and that you have to learn fast if you are to get a nice set of pictures on your first attempt.

My brief was to get a nice set of pics to represent the days racing, essentially it means that I had three goes at it, plus some playing around with the Renault Clio races and the single seaters.

First order of the day was…………… well, a bacon butty and a cup of tea, I had got there early enough, so I had a chat with a couple of marshals to see were I was going to be allowed to shoot, I had already organised a press pass and tabard, so I was allowed anywhere track side, and decided that I would take up position watching the Chicane, in hindsight the Complex would have been a better bet for action pictures.

Having said that, the BTCC guys are much better drivers than the Clio’s, and tended to do much less damage to each other and the surrounding countryside.

I was surprised how high my hit rate was, out of about 500 frames shot during the day around 480 usable images, very few were soft, most of them were truly nailed. The only reason that some of them were less than acceptable in my mind was either down to poor backgrounds or foregrounds.

I don’t usually air my dirty laundry in public, but I will here. Further down the page is a couple of images that didn’t work, and I’ll give the reasons that I think they don’t work, your opinions may differ, that is the difficultly with photography, one man’s meat is another’s poison. However, if you have read any of the other articles here, you will know that I am always right.

One of the most important tips that I can give to ensuring that the images you will get will be sharp, if you are using Autofocus, is keep the camera awake as much as possible, and a few seconds before the cars come to the apex of the bend (or the stretch of track that you wish to photograph them on) point the lens at the kerbing and ensure that the lens is focused on that point, that means that when the car hits the point, the lens is already nearly focused, and when the car hits the point you shoot at, the lens doesn’t have to hunt backwards and forward before it locks on.

Depending upon what you want to do, set up for a specific shot each lap, either decide that you are going for freezing the action, or for a panning shot, ideally use two camera bodies and have the two set up differently.

Sods Law dictates though, that when you are set up to do some nice panning shots, that something will happen that will demand a high shutter speed. This happened once to me on Sunday, I was set up for some panning shots of the Porsches, when one driver had a huge moment and managed an “Arse-thru-the-scenery-backwards” experience, smashing the sump and dumping oil all over the place, fortunately (or unfortunately depending upon your viewpoint) all the other drivers managed to miss the resulting oil slick.

The picture on the right was shot using an EOS1D with 70-200, and a 1.4x Extender, at something like 1/100sec at F20, fortunately out of the 6 frames only one was truly unusable, fortunately when a car spins, only the front and rear of the car are moving at any real speed (and the wheels obviously) which is why the images were acceptable.

How not to do it– well I have a number of frames that I shot from the first race that illustrate how it shouldn’t be done, there is nothing technically wrong with the images, however aesthetically they are weak. This illustrates the point that I made earlier, that it is important that you learn from the images, and strive to improve them, improving them may be as simple as changing your viewpoint, if they are technically weak, then you need to analyse why, and use what you have learnt, to get better results next time.

The picture of the Seat is sharp, and correctly exposed, however the major problem is the distracting background, even shooting on a 400mm F2.8 wide open doesn’t through the background out of focus enough, the answer, change location so that you don’t have the distraction.

Even when panning the signs in the background will prove to be a distraction, there is little if anything that can be done short of a couple of hours work in Photoshop with the cloning tool.
The image on the right doesn’t work for one very obvious reason, it completely fails to have a fekking car in it. But hey! what
can you do?

The equipment that I used on the day included the following: a pair of Canon EOS1Ds mainly in AV mode, with the aperture wide open at 200ISO and the motor on high speed (8 frames) not that I shot at 8 frames a second, it means that the camera is almost instantly ready, if something develops.

These cars move quickly so machine gunning the camera and hoping, doesn’t work, at best you’ll end up with thousands of images over the course of the day, and none will be perfect.

So basically I learnt that the most important thing about motor racing is The BTCC boys are damned quick, the Clio drivers are completely loony-tunes, with complete and utter disregard for their health and safety, and the cost of spare parts. The accelerator is a binary switch, it is either on or off. They are as a result the best fun of the lot, I half expected to have the Keystone Cops arrive at any moment to effect arrests for driving with undue care and attention.

The Porsche drivers seem to be the same as they are on the road, fast, lairy, over paid and overweight I guess it is where the BTCC guys go when they have their mid life crisisisisises (it’s
a bit like the word banananananana I can start but I am never sure when to finish) And the Single seater’s, well it was a lot like watching paint dry, I mean Formula 1, No, I mean watching paint dry…………….or do I?

Lenswise I mainly used a 400mm F2.8L, and a 70-200mm F2.8L with a 1.4x extender. Had I also been covering the trophy presentations I would also have used a pair of 550EX flashguns and a Quantum Turbo.

I carried a trio of 512mb Ridata CF Cards, and shot in large jpeg mode, which gave around 200 images per card.

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