Motorsport Photography For Beginners – Part 1

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Standing trackside with exotic machinery passing by at ludicrous speeds, camera in hand sniping shots of your heroes as they display the skills that made them famous – Motorsport Photography, what’s not to love huh?

If you’ve visited any sort of racetrack you will surely have tried to take some pictures as Lewis Hamilton, Valentino Rossi or the like as they speed by. You probably tried with your camera/smart phone right? Unimpressed with your results – tiny blurred subjects, criss-crossed with chainlink fence – the following year you buy a better camera; probably something like a superzoom bridge camera? With a good zoom range you’re feeling confident you’ll get some cracking shots this time. But the fences still cause you problems and the camera doesn’t focus fast enough to follow the racers.

You experiment with pre-focusing on a section of track and then take the shot as your subject passes, you try panning with your subject. You start to end up with a handful of ok shots, but hundreds to throw away. At this point you’ll either lose interest or invest in a proper DSLR camera. Then you’ll find you have to invest even more than the camera cost in lenses if you want decent results…

Taken with Canon 550D, EF200mm F2.8 L lens on Kenko 2x Extender. ISO400 F7.1
Taken with Canon 550D, EF200mm F2.8 L lens on Kenko 2x Extender. ISO400 F7.1

Many have followed this, or a similar path, including myself. The above loosely describes my story. Starting out with my camera phone at MotoGP in Donington 2007. Ending up at the present day with a Canon DSLR and large aperture prime lens. With this series of articles I want to help budding Motorsport Photographers avoid the pitfalls of choosing the right equipment first time, while also showing you don’t have to invest quite as much money in the equipment, as some say you should, to get acceptable results. I am going to address Equipment, Techniques, Settings, Race Tracks and more in these ramblings. Strap-in, this could take some time…!

Camera/Smart Phones:
Ok, lets start with something everyone has. Today pretty much everyone carries around a decent camera in their pocket; your phone. While they do a great job of capturing selfies, snaps of your mates, the odd landscape and youtube vids, they are not particularly well suited to fast moving sports.

The reasons for this are that they have very small sensors that must be packaged into that slim phone body. This limits the amount of light they can gather – in simple terms, the bigger the sensor the more light will hit it. This in turn limits the shutter speed, as the shutter must stay open longer to gather enough light in order to expose the shot correctly.

Lenses are fixed, i.e. they don’t optically zoom, and generally give a fairly wide view to get all you friends in that Instagram shot. The aperture (size of the lenses ‘iris’) of these lenses has improved in recent years and this does help to allow more light into the camera lens than older models. However, you will generally find that, unless in bright sunlight, your camera will struggle to generate fast enough shutter speeds to freeze fast action. Also by their very nature smart phones will automate a lot of the operations to take a photo. Later on we will see it is a benefit to control this manually.

Superzoom/Bridge Cameras:
So, you got frustrated with trying to use your phone and stumped up for a superzoom/bridge camera. They look very attractive for sports as they possess huge zoom ranges, some have a viewfinder too, and are generally quite affordable. They look like the answer. But they’re not quite.

The reason why is similar to camera phones. Like compact digital cameras they have small sensors with the same issues as described above. And that large zoom range generally means that the aperture of the lens is variable, becoming smaller as you increase the zoom. This is bad because the more you zoom the less light is collected by the lens, just when you need that high shutter speed.

You will also discover that it is nearly impossible to track a fast moving subject you have zoomed in on using the rear screen. So you try that fancy electronic viewfinder, only to find that there is so much lag that you still can’t track your subject accurately. Even if you could you’d find that the autofocus system used in bridge cameras doesn’t lock-on quite as successfully as you’d expected.

Digital Single Lens Reflex (or DSLR) Cameras:
If you are serious about Motorsport Photography this is the only type of camera you should consider. It is also the most expensive type of camera and once you have bought it you then need to decide which lenses you need.

But the benefits a DSLR provides over those mentioned above are considerable. The biggest advantages for Motorsport are the optical viewfinder (no lag like an electronic one), fast phase detection Autofocus and the  ability to swap lenses to suit the shooting situation. Another often overlooked  advantage is that even the lower end DSLR ‘crop’ cameras have a much larger stamp-sized image sensor compared to the tiny ones found in compacts and bridge camera (‘full-frame’ DSLR cameras have a 35mm sensor that matches the old film standard). This allows you to shoot in darker surroundings because they collect more light. The quality and depth of field is also significantly improved.

There are several main manufacturers making a vast range of confusingly named DSLR cameras. The main two players are Nikon and Canon, with cameras starting from around £300 right up to £5000 or so. Each have a vast range of lenses to choose from costing approx £70 up to a scarcely believable £10,000! Then there are third party lens manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron & Tokina to consider. As you can see it is not straight forward and this is before we get into the technical specifications.

Manufacturers:
As mentioned above; Canon & Nikon are the main players in sports photography. Sony, Pentax and a handful of others also make great cameras. I am not saying you should not give consideration to the alternative players, but choosing either Canon or Nikon has one massive advantage; they both have a huge range of quality lenses.

Like many things these days, there are those that will swear by Nikon or Canon depending on what choice they made personally. I will declare at this point that I went the Canon route and have been very happy with this choice. I only ended up with the Canon because the Nikon model I really wanted at the time was out of stock at the price I wanted to pay. I could easily have ended up on the other side of the fence and, I am sure, equally as happy. So these articles will be written from a Canon point of view, but much is applicable to any make of DSLR, so stick with it.

If you ask the question; “what DSLR camera should I get for Motorsport?” on a photography forum you will get a huge range of responses. Some based on the responders preference for their own purchases, through to pros or experienced amateurs giving extremely helpful advice. When trying to decide on your first purchase you end up having to figure out what it is you need, while not in possession of enough experience to make a considered decision. Many people will probably throw model names like 7D mark II, 5D mark III or 70D at you. You have no idea what these mean, how much they cost, which one is better for you than another and why.

Canon generally number their cameras with a four digit number for their entry level cameras such as the 1200D. The next tier up is a slightly more feature rich three digit consumer range such as the 750D. Two digit cameras designate their enthusiast level such as the 70D. Finally the pro range is designated by single digit models such as the 5D mark III or the range topping 1D.

A top tip many experienced photographers will give is that camera bodies do not generally hold their value well, whereas lenses do. It is better to invest in quality lenses than an expensive body and an average lens.

My Choices:
As mentioned earlier; when I was buying my camera 5 years ago I’d decided on trying to get the best deal on a decent consumer level DSLR. I wasn’t comfortable with spending the money required to get an enthusiast level camera. I had no idea at that point whether I would pursue photography or it would be a passing fad. As with any hobby, when starting out it’s difficult to know how much you should spend, as you don’t know what your future interest might be. Spend too little and you end up wasting money by buying things twice. Spend too much and lose interest later means trying to sell stuff that you may make a loss on.

When I bought my camera I had narrowed it down to a Sony SLT A35, a Nikon D3100 and a Canon 550D. The Sony had all this cool new technology with continuous autofocus and no moving mirror (using a clever prism instead). But due to a lack of lenses I eliminated it. The choice was down to Nikon & Canon. They were both very similar on specs and had good reviews. I went to purchase the Nikon from a particular outlet who were offering a competitive price, but were out of stock.

At this point I saw that Amazon had the Canon for well under its previous price and plumped for that along with a cheap nifty fifty lens. At the time the Canon 7D was considered the ideal camera for enthusiasts shooting sports. I couldn’t stretch to the price of a 7D, but was pleased that the 550D shared many trickle-down features including the sensor and new metering system. As I would learn later the differences were that the 7D had a superior multi-point autofocus system compared to the standard Canon 9-point AF system in the 550D. The 7D had a larger pentaprism viewfinder, larger body and hand grip, additional controls/interface and dual processors giving high-speed burst modes.

My 550D came with a standard 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 IS lens and I had also gone for the cheap Canon 50mm f1.8 nifty-fifty lens, recommended for narrow-depth-of-field super sharp image fun. Once I had the camera I used it constantly to learn the controls and what effect all the options had. From day one I made a conscious decision to never use any of the green-square or scene modes. I would use full manual, aperture or shutter priority modes. I wanted to learn to properly use the camera as quickly as possible.
My next lens would be a 55-250mm f4-5.6 IS Canon Zoom. This is an affordable plastic bodied lens that is ideal for most people wanting to zoom more than the standard 18-55mm lens will allow.

EF-S 55-250mm f4-5.6 IS STM

Unknown to me at the time though, it is not recommended by the forums as an ideal lens for fast sport due to its narrow aperture and slower autofocus motor than the premium L lenses. I was oblivious to this and spent time with the camera and new zoom using seagulls at a local reservoir as target practice to learn the lens and improve my tracking skills. I was pleased with some of the results.

Taken with Canon 550D, EF-S 55-250mm Zoom Lens; ISO400, F5.6
Taken with Canon 550D, EF-S 55-250mm Zoom Lens; ISO400, F5.6

And this is not to say you can’t use it for sports. I started by shooting my first motorsport event with it – MotoGP at Silverstone – lets not start off easily eh! I was immediately enthused with how many ‘in-focus’ shots I was getting. The phase detection autofocus (the AF system used by the optical viewfinder, not the live view rear screen) was fast, very fast, compared to what I was used to.

I had also read on forums that it is an advantage to use what is known as back-button-focus. If you have one of Canons consumer level bodies, not equipped with the AF-on button of more expensive bodies, then the AE lock button can be reconfigured to initiate autofocus. This was a great benefit, you can use the back button to start AF tracking of the subject in servo mode and then click the shutter when you wish to make an exposure or start metering with a half press. Once you have separated the focus from the shutter button and seen the benefits you may never go back!

My panning practice from using my previous bridge camera also came in handy. In gloomy conditions and with limited experience of my camera in this new shooting environment, the smallish minimum aperture of my new lens at maximum zoom was giving me some issues with controlling shutter speeds. I experimented with both aperture and shutter priority modes and started to get a feel for the camera and the results i would get with particular settings. What I should have done is begin to experiments with increasing the ISO setting at this point – but coming from an inferior camera I had been conditioned to leave this set to ISO100 for best quality.

Still, doing a bit of chimping I could see I was getting better results. Not what I would expect now, but I had keepers such as this:

Rossi on the 2012 Ducati: One of my favourite shots from my first time shooting MotoGP with the 550D and EF-S 55-250mm Zoom
Rossi on the 2012 Ducati: One of my favourite shots from my first time shooting MotoGP with the 550D and EF-S 55-250mm Zoom

And so it went; I resolved to attend as many races as I could to gain experience with the camera, the tracks, the techniques and compositions. And my results improved overtime. No longer did I have to spray-and-pray every time a car went past – I could track and pan through the viewfinder and squeeze the shutter when I saw what I wanted. Instead of coming back from the track with thousands of shots with a few decent keepers, I would come back with mostly what I wanted. Depending on the shot you are trying to achieve you will still get junk, in trying to set the shot up or experiment with the exposure. But your hit rate will improve dramatically through practice and learning.

Shot with the EF-S 55-250mm Zoom last year, having four years more experience!
Shot with the EF-S 55-250mm Zoom last year, having four years more experience!

After a year I purchased a wide aperture telephoto lens; the Canon 200mm F2.8 II L. This lens is not the latest or greatest, it doesn’t have image stabilisation, it is a fixed focal length prime lens, it has very fast AF and a focus limiter. That is why I love it. Through that first year at the tracks I saw many people using Canon’s large white L lenses whether the 70-200mm F2.8 , 100-400mm or the massive primes. These are all big heavy lenses – a necessity to get the wider aperture or focal length.

I can’t even remember how I first came across the 200mm F2.8 but it seemed to be my ideal lens. It is the longest focal length L lens canon makes that isn’t white, it’s black so its stealthy. It’s also quite compact without the hood fitted and not stupidly heavy – I shoot hand held with it 99% of the time. But the kicker is this; mounted on a crop camera it is the equivalent of a 320mm F2.8 lens, I purchased it on an Amazon warehouse deal for £470. If you wanted a 300mm F2.8 lens for full frame camera it would cost more like £3k!

Canon EF200mm F2.8 L USM Prime Lens
Canon EF200mm F2.8 L USM Prime Lens

By now I had also bought a Chinese made battery grip for the camera – £40 instead of £100 for the Canon version. This extended shooting life so that the camera kept going all day with ease. It also vastly improved the handling of the camera and made it look like a mini 1D.

550D&Grip-web

I also purchased a Kenko DGX Pro 2x Extender. I had been after a 1.4x extender as I had read image quality would not be as compromised. But when I came to make the purchase the 2x was bizarrely cheaper than the 1.4x, so I gave it a whirl. Fitted to the 200mm prime it becomes a 400mm F5.6 lens, mount this combo to a crop camera and it acts as a 640mm F5.6 lens! And I can still handhold this combination – without IS!

Now I will not lie, use of the extender must be done carefully to keep good image quality. Stopping down the aperture to around F8 in combination with a higher ISO helps to improve contrast and resolution but keep shutter speed up. Autofocus is slowed slightly, but I am still able to track race vehicles successfully (the picture of the red Rebellion sports car at the top of the article was taken with this set-up). You just have to use and learn your equipment and help it out where it might struggle.

Kendo 2x Teleconvertor
Kendo 2x Teleconvertor

Going back to the 200mm F2.8 L prime; I love this lens, though you may not. The advantage a wide aperture lens has, in combination with a long focal length, is its ability to render fences out of focus, presenting less issues than a narrow aperture lens would have. The focus limiter allows you to set it so that it will focus from 1.5m or 3.5m to infinity. Set to 3.5m it will not focus on fences that are closer than that distance, which is a massive advantage over a consumer lens.

Because it’s relatively light and small its easy to carry around and therefore your whole kit is lighter. My style is not to set up on one corner at a track for the whole day. The guys you see with whole cases of kit and step-ladders, that’s not for me. I’m sure they get some mega images, but they will all look the same. I may use a mono-pod on occasion, but if I haven’t walked at least a full lap of the track I’m shooting, then I feel like I’ve missed something. I’d much rather have a light simple kit that enables me to get around easily and into positions that others might not have found.

For me this is another benefit of using a prime. Because you can’t zoom it forces you to think about where to stand, how to frame. You may miss some shots that you might have got with a zoom, but you will also create shots you never would have thought of. The wide aperture also allows you to generate higher shutter speeds when needed, or shoot in more overcast conditions. You also have the fun of really narrow depth of field to play with.

In combination with the extender, I have an affordable kit that can be carried in the hand, but gives focal lengths that would normally require thousands to buy, are heavy and must be used on a support.

You will see many pro’s trackside that will have their main long lens and camera on a mono pod. They will also carry a second camera body, typically with a 70-200mm or general purpose zoom attached, for closer action or paddock/pitlane shots.

I usually carry my main body with 200mm attached and a 40mm or 50mm prime in my bag along with 2x extender to stay light and mobile. Around a year ago I purchased a Canon Eos M with flash & 18-55mm kit lens. A well known high street catalogue chain were selling this for £200 for the kit, it was so stupidly cheap I couldn’t refuse – M’s used to sell for £700 when they first came out and have the same guts as my 550d in a compact body.

Now this camera is renowned for having crappy autofocus and as a result didn’t do great business for Canon. However my old bridge camera had died and I needed a new casual carry around camera. The M was perfect, it had the same sensor as my 550D and with a cheap adapter could be used with my other lenses. With a firmware update the AF is not so bad – it’s no worse than live view on the 550D. But its a compact, well built body with good features and a decent kit lens. I use this as my walk around camera now, but also keep it in the bag at the larger track events for paddock and atmospheric shots. There is no way you would want to shoot fast action with it, but for regular photography it is great for the price I paid.

Canon Eos M
Canon Eos M

So that’s how I arrived at my kit. Sure, if funds allowed I’d have made different choices, but this combo has proved to be perfectly capable of getting good results for a reasonable outlay.

And that’s my aim here. To try to assist you in identifying what you want to achieve and purchase the right kit to do so. While avoiding buying things you don’t need, might outgrow or overspending on features you will never use. We will then talk about settings and useful techniques to use when shooting motorsport.

Next time out we’ll discuss Canon cameras and lenses worth your consideration…

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