Motorsport Photography For Beginners – Part 2: Cameras & Lenses

Tracksider logo 600x200In part one we looked at the different types of camera and why a DSLR is the best choice for fast action/motorsport. I also spoke about how ended up with my kit.

This time around we’re going to have a closer look at the different options we have with lenses and cameras in the Canon range.  Even though we are only talking about one manufacturer the options can still be overwhelming. So the best place to start is to ask yourself; what do I hope to achieve?

Early on I grew frustrated with the limitations of my camera phone and bridge camera. I wanted to achieve the types of pictures you saw in magazines, I wanted to be able to take pictures that I thought were good enough to hang in my house. If your aim is simply to document an occasional visit to a racetrack, then a superzoom/bridge camera, or hiring of a consumer DSLR camera and decent lens, would be the answer.

However, if you want to embrace motorsport photography as a hobby then carefully investing in your own equipment is ideal.
When starting out it is difficult to know if you will stick with a hobby and continue to have passion for it. It’s similar for sports you play – do you invest what is sometimes a scary amount of money upfront for good equipment? Or do you start off with more basic kit and see how you get on? We’ve all done this, you either end up with expensive kit gathering dust, or buy cheap stuff that breaks, or doesn’t perform properly – which you then have to replace.

If you are starting from scratch with no experience of shooting trackside it is very difficult to decide on what equipment you will need. You have no frame of reference to base your decisions upon. But it helps to ask yourself a few questions and look at other peoples work (both amateur & pro) to help you decide what sort of images you like and hope to emulate. This will then help you to make better decisions.

For instance; if you like narrow depth-of-field highly detailed shots that can fill the frame you will more than likely need a long focal length large aperture lens. This will be expensive and heavy, which will limit you getting around the track. But if you like the idea of setting up at one or two corners for the day on a mono pod or tripod then this route maybe for you.

WEC Toyota TS040 Hybrid shot with Canon 550D and 200mm F2.8 L Lens at F2.8, 1/2000
WEC Toyota TS040 Hybrid shot with Canon 550D and 200mm F2.8 L Lens at F2.8, 1/2000
F1 Martini Brabham BT44 shot with Canon 550D and 200mm F2.8 L lens at F2.8, 1/4000
F1 Martini Brabham BT44 shot with Canon 550D and 200mm F2.8 L lens at F2.8, 1/4000

If, however, you like panning shots with a sharp subject and motion blurred background, then your equipment requirements are much more affordable and lightweight. A good quality zoom lens will be preferable and will be lighter, allowing you to move around the track easily. Image stabilised lenses maybe a consideration but are no substitute for constantly practicing your own tracking and panning skills.

Porsche Carrera Cup shot with Canon 550D and EF-S55-250mm Zoom Lens at F13, 1/15
Porsche Carrera Cup shot with Canon 550D and EF-S55-250mm Zoom Lens at F13, 1/15

Many, like myself, will find that they fall somewhere between these two examples. This leaves us in something of a quandary, because we need lenses that lend themselves to both types of shooting, which means there has to be an element of compromise. Next time you are at a track watch how the Pro’s shoot. They will typically carry their big super telephoto prime lens over their shoulder on a mono pod with one camera body attached. Their second camera will typically be on a shoulder strap attached to something like a 70-200mm zoom for flexibility and closer action. Be aware that this is a lot of weight to constantly handle all day. You will see many pro’s use scooters to get around the perimeter of the track quickly – time is money for them.

Many Pro’s will be looking to get sharp shots of all the racers, it is their priority to get high quality usable shots that will get them paid. Amateurs like ourselves, although the other side of the fence, have the luxury of shooting for our own enjoyment, at our own pace, allowing us to experiment and be creative with our shots.

Pro’s may not have time to allow themselves to indulge in this approach. They may have a brief from their client requiring a particular shot of the start, a selection from a particular iconic corner, pitstops, finish line and podium celebrations. This can mean carefully planning where to be and for how long, limiting the time available to get creative. Of course there are many talented Pro’s out there with amazingly well honed skills and styles;

Darren Heath shooting F1 is one such example.

I’m also a fan of a CormacGP, a young photographer shooting MotoGP.

And Scott Jones at PhotoGP who also shoots MotoGP for

Motomatters.com

You will note that I seem to be talking mostly about lenses. Despite doing lots of research before buying my gear, it isn’t until you dip your toe into the water that you start to understand what is important. Your lens choices are more important than the camera body in general. But as an amateur it takes some time shooting with different lenses to get a feel for different focal lengths and which ones are useful to you.

As previously mentioned; lenses are also a better investment. Camera bodies are like computers, they lose their value as replacements come out promising exciting new features. Lenses have a much longer shelf life and hold their value well. They will also have a far larger impact on the ‘look’ of your work than you might realise. Sure you might pine after a 1D X but, like the big white prime lenses, it is a large, heavy, expensive professional camera.

As I talked about earlier; I still shoot with a 550D which has been superseded several times over in Canons’ range. Would I like a more capable body with 19 or even 64-point AF? Sure, but I don’t want to waste money on an incremental upgrade, I want bang for buck. The 550D only has Canons’ old 9-point Autofocus System (AF), but teamed with my 200mm F2.8 lens this unlocks further sensitivity in the central cross-type point. But even using the outer focus points I’ve never really got frustrated with the AF.

You will find people commenting that more focussing points are better and you should get the latest and greatest, but for a standard consumer DSLR the AF system does remarkably well. I could shoot the same images with a 100D, my 550D or a current 70D or 7D mk ii. With the newer cameras I might see a slight increase in hit rate, but this is as much down to improving technique as it is the AF tech. A great photographer with an average camera will still produce amazing images. A novice with the best camera in the world will still produce snapshots. Furthering your skill is more important than the gear. BTW; I am not for a minute suggesting that I am a great photographer – that’s for you to decide!

Back on topic; there are typically reasons why AF struggles to lock on in certain situations. Sometimes its a dull day, the car/bike is lacking contrast or you’re shooting through a fence. The thing with motorsport is; in general, the subject is moving down the track on the racing line. So, unless they’re having an accident, it’s moving on a relatively predictable path. With practice this allows you to choose your focus point in the viewfinder and, while tracking the subject, place it like a crosshair on the vehicle – activating the AF servo mode with the aforementioned back-button method. Over time you can then learn to use different focus points to influence your final composition in the viewfinder.

Activating the AF on your subject early and independently of the exposure gives the camera every opportunity to track and calculate the focus. Developing your panning skills and choosing a suitable shutter speed will have as big an impact on the sharpness of your shots. Then developing your panning skills still further to be able to track smoothly and compose at the same time will begin to pay off.

Having alluded to it earlier; it is worth making clear that modern DSLR cameras are typically equipped with two different types of autofocus as standard. When you look through the optical viewfinder it uses what is known as a phase detection system that reacts very quickly – this relies on a separate autofocus sensor to the imaging sensor that takes the picture. Light coming into the camera from the lens is split by mirrors to send the image to the viewfinder and AF sensor, which receives a pair of images that it compares to attain focus. When you click the shutter the mirror moves out of the way and exposes the imaging sensor so that the picture can be taken.

In live-view mode the internal mirror is moved out of the way entirely and the imaging sensor is exposed and active all the time. This image is relayed to the rear LCD screen and autofocus is carried out using contrast detection. This is slower than phase detection but is incredibly accurate. You are also able to choose where the focus point is within most of the image as the focussing is performed on the imaging sensor. We will discuss autofocus further in future articles.

When it comes to selecting a good camera body Canon has recently made this much easier for us. My 550D camera body, along with the original 7D, were the first APS-C Crop Sensor Canon cameras to be equipped with their new 18mp sensor. This was one of the reasons I went for the 550D. Through the years all of Canon’s crop sensor camera’s have persevered with this sensor, while Nikon and others have upped the megapixel count.

A few years ago Canon brought out the 70D to replace the ageing 60D. This, at last, had a new 21mp sensor with clever live view autofocus. This was followed up with the long awaited 7D mk II. Last year Canon did consumer buyers everywhere a big favour; they released the 750D & 760D. Basically both the same camera – the 760D simply has an addition shoulder mounted LCD display, rear control wheel, lockable mode dial and live view focussing ability. Out of the two I would suggest the 760D for its additional features and will refer to this model only from now on.

You will note that I am talking exclusively about APS-C or crop sensor cameras here. Canon, like Nikon, also has a range of very nice full frame cameras such as the 6D and the 5D range, of which there are several flavours. These are known as full frame, as their sensors are the same size as a frame of the old 35mm film standard. Whilst crop cameras have a sensor that is around the size of a postage stamp.

If we were to imagine the postage stamp laid on top of the film frame the resulting image from the APS-C camera would appear zoomed-in relative to the full frame camera. This is why APS-C cameras are know as ‘crop’ because they give the effect of taking a picture and cropping slightly into the centre. This is useful for us because with motorsport we generally need all of the focal length we can get. With Canon crop cameras they give the effect of multiplying the focal length of a lens by 1.6x (Nikon is 1.5x). Hence a 50mm lens mounted to a full frame camera will truly be 50mm. While on a Canon APS-C it will act like an 80mm lens (50mm x1.6). Similarly a wide 18mm lens on crop would be 29mm and a 400mm lens would act like a 640mm focal length.

Full frame cameras are highly desired by photographers because they are better at gathering light due to the larger sensor, allowing lower ISO settings and a nice clean image. They also give lovely narrow depth-of-field with large aperture lenses. AF performance is critical with such shallow focus, but with crop cameras the depth-of-field effect is slightly reduced because we have cropped into the image (or 1.6x the aperture of your lens). It is still dramatic in comparison with super-zooms or camera-phones.

While the above explanation is somewhat simplistic it goes some way to explaining why superzoom cameras are able to have such giant zoom ranges; because their sensors are tiny – between 5 – 9mm wide (Canon APS-C crop is 22.2mm wide, full-frame is 35mm). The size of the lens relative to the sensor is also scaled down. Conversely, the bigger your sensor, the bigger and heavier the lenses required. For example a medium format camera such as a Phase One or Hasselblad will have a sensor around 54mm wide with accompanying lenses that are huge and very expensive – not useful for carrying around the track, but they create wonderfully detailed landscape, fashion and architectural pictures.

Getting back to the 760D, its big draw is that it has a new 24mp sensor and the same phase detect 19-point AF system as the old 7D. This sensor was the highest resolving that Canon offered until the 5DS (R) full frame model was released. I am hugely impressed with the whole feature set of the 760D, for a consumer camera it offers a great deal. A little poking around on the web will find it at a decent price too.

The only features I would like it to have is the AF micro focussing adjustment, to tailor your lenses to the camera body, and a pentaprism viewfinder. These are enthusiast level features though, so I won’t hold my breath. But the 70D’s replacement may end up being my perfect camera. In fact the 80D has, at the time of writing, just been officially announced and features a 24.2mp sensor, 45point AF system and 60fps HD video.

As part of Canons’ entry level camera range the 760D is not as ruggedly built or equipped with any weather sealing like some of the more expensive cameras. Having said that I have not had any issues (touch wood) over the many years of using my 550D in all sorts of weather conditions. I wouldn’t leave it exposed on a tripod in heavy rain, but it has been used hand held in rainstorms on many occasion – I just cover it or shelter it under my jacket between shots.

If you are certain that you will persevere with your photography then it may be worth your while looking at the 70D/80D or 7D mk ii. With the arrival of the 760D the 70D is a tougher sell – but it has some weather sealing, a larger bright pentaprism viewfinder and AF micro adjustment. It is a slightly bigger body heavier body, which may or may not suit, depending on the size of your hands. As its replacement, the 80D, has just been announced – this means 70D will be discounted soon…

The 7D mk ii is Canons’ premier crop sensor camera and priced accordingly. It is equipped with 64-point AF system & 10fps continuous shooting. Interestingly both use a 20.2mp sensor which the cheaper 760D surpasses with its 24.2mp chip, the 80D will have a 24.2mp also – told you the choices wouldn’t be easy!

All three are at very different price points and you aren’t going to make a mistake with any of the them. You may want to start with the cheapest body and invest in lenses. Your first camera body can always become your backup body if you wish to buy a better one in the future.

Lenses:

Ok. Lets get down to business. Much like wildlife photography, Motorsport requires long focal length lenses. This generally breaks down into two choices; big, expensive, heavy, large-aperture prime (fixed length) lenses -or- lighter, sometimes cheaper, variable aperture zoom lenses. When we talk about ‘variable aperture’ this means the lens at its wide zoom setting will have access to its largest aperture (i.e. let in more light). When fully zoomed-in they typically end up with an F5.6 aperture, which reduces the amount of light, but helps to keep the lens a realistic size and weight. The bigger the aperture of your lens the larger and heavier the front element of your lens has to be to let in all that extra light.

Canon makes excellent lenses of both types. But lets’ start with primes:

You will recognise their ‘great white’ prime lenses from sporting events the world over, but they are eye-wateringly expensive. For the amateur there are only really three Canon L Prime lenses to consider until your lottery ticket comes up. The first is the 200mm F2.8 L II USM, which I own. The second is the 300mm F4 L IS USM and the third is the 400mm F5.6 L USM.

All three of these prime lenses have been in the Canon line-up for many years without being updated. But they are still worthy of consideration. All three are capable of sharp shots, but each has advantages and disadvantages:

Canon EF 200mm F2.8 L II USM: As I have talked about before, I chose this lens because of its large aperture, small size, fast Ultrasonic AF with focus limiter, relatively light weight and stealthy black finish – i.e. I can use it away from the racetrack and not get weird looks. It is a well built simple lens (less to go wrong) with metal barrel, it works acceptably well with extenders, can be handheld all day, fits in a rucksack still on the camera and can be bought for the price of a decent consumer zoom lens, around £500. Oh yeah, and it has wonderful bokeh when shot wide open. It weighs 765g and comes with detachable lens hood and felt lens bag. Equivalent to a 320mm focal length on a crop camera.
It’s disadvantages are that it can’t zoom – so if your subject is too close, or too far away YOU have to move – it has no image stabilisation, it doesn’t look as cool as a huge white lens and images taken while using an extender will inevitable lose some sharpness and contrast (but can be improved with post processing).

Classic Touring Cars shot with Canon 550D and 200mm F2.8 L lens at F3.2 1/1250
Classic Touring Cars shot with Canon 550D and 200mm F2.8 L lens at F3.2 1/1250
Shot with Canon 550D and 200mm F2.8 L lens at F11, 1/125
2013 Lotus Renault F1 Car shot with Canon 550D and 200mm F2.8 L lens at F11, 1/125

Canon EF 300mm F4 L IS USM: Looking like a scaled down great white lens, it is solidly built and equipped with its own sliding lens hood and tripod foot. It has Canons’ original 1st gen image stabilisation system, which although not as effective as the latest lenses, should still deliver around 2-stops lower shutter speed. AF is fast with USM motor and limiting switch. The lens is known for its sharpness and weighs 1190g.

It’s disadvantages are that it can’t zoom, so you need to use those feet. The F4 aperture keeps it a more compact size and affordable, but will mean less flexibility in gloomy conditions. However, the ISO sensitivities of modern cameras go along way to mitigating this. It can be found for purchase at around the £800 mark but its bigger size may mean you need to think a little more about how you carry it. It is still of a hand-holdable size and the IS is there to help too. Equivalent to a 480mm focal length on a crop camera.

Canon EF 400mm F5.6 L USM: Similar in looks to the 300mm F4, it too has a convenient built-in lens hood and tripod foot. Equivalent to a 640mm focal length on a crop camera, it weighs 1250g but has no IS system. Along with the narrower F5.6 aperture, that limits shutter speeds, makes it marginal for people of a lighter build to handhold the lens for extended lengths of time. It can be found for around £900, offers a huge focal length for the price and will deliver satisfying sharp images if it is being held steady and with sufficient shutter speed during exposure.

As with our earlier discussions about camera bodies; all three of these lenses are quality items that will deliver cracking images in combination with good technique. However, because they don’t zoom they are a compromise. If you buy the wrong focal length for your shooting requirements they could be an expensive mistake. For instance I shoot a lot at Brands Hatch and Silverstone. You can get very close to the action at Brands, but at Silverstone you are miles away and generally need as much focal length as possible. I get round this by using the bare 200mm lens at Brands and a 2x extender at Silverstone. But I am still stuck with a 200mm (320mm equivalent on crop) or 400mm focal length with the extender (640mm equivalent on crop). Sometimes 400mm is too much at Brands and using the extender gives me the flexibility to choose with a little bit of compromise in image quality. I also have to change lenses/extender trackside – which some people do not like doing.

Ok. That’s the pro’s and con’s of the reasonably affordable Prime options. Lets now look at the Zoom Lens options. Unlike the primes, there are cheap consumer level zooms that could be considered if you are on a very tight budget, but they have much bigger compromises than the more pro level ‘L’ Zooms.

Consumer Zooms:

EF-S 55-250mm F4 – 5.6 IS STM Zoom: This is a consumer or kit level zoom that is very affordable at around £150. It is probably the first port of call for anyone who bought their first Canon DSLR and was disappointed with the zoom range of the 18-55mm lens they got with the camera. I have an earlier version that doesn’t have the quieter STM focussing motor for video. And I have to say for general photography as a very light (375g) compact zoom that gives you an effective 88-400mm focal length and decent IS system it does a good job. I started out using this lens for motorsport, for panning shots it works pretty well. Note: EF-S means it can only be used on crop cameras, EF lenses can be used on crop & full frame bodies.

Taken with Canon 550D and EF-S 55-250mm Zoom Lens at F5.6, 1/250
Taken with Canon EOS M, EF-M to EF-S adapter and EF-S 55-250mm Zoom Lens at F5.6, 1/250
Shot with the EF-S 55-250mm Zoom last year, having four years more experience!
Shot with the Canon 550D and EF-S 55-250mm Zoom Lens at F8, 1/250

But the focus motor is not quite quick enough in fast action scenarios and narrow variable aperture and lack of focus limiting switch means it will struggle with fences – either focussing on them or not blurring them out enough in images. If you want to take your motorsport photography seriously from the get-go I would skip this. But if you are on a budget or want a light zoom for general photography it is a great little solution.

EF 70-300mm F4 – 5.6 IS USM Zoom: A long time staple of the Canon range and, although old, still worth consideration. It has an older IS system, but fast USM AF. As an EF lens if will mount to crop & full frame cameras and offers a 112 – 480mm focal range on crop. It weighs 630g and is available at around £300.

L Series Zooms:

The key differences between consumer lenses and the professional L range are better build quality, wider apertures, more advanced IS systems, faster AF, equipped with a limiter switch – handy to stop the lens focussing on fences. Let’s have a look;

EF 70-200mm F4 L USM (& IS version) Zoom: Canons professional range of zooms starts with the F4 constant aperture version of their 70-200mm Zoom. As with all L level lenses the build is solid with the famous (off) white finish and equipped with fast USM AF. In exchange for the smaller F4 aperture you are rewarded with a lighter weight and lower price than the F2.8 version. The F4 version weighs around 705g and costs in the region of £500. The IS version features an older implementation and weighs 760g, priced around £800. Giving a focal length on crop of 112-320mm, both lenses are renowned as being sharp and a great place to start with L lenses due to their lightness and affordable price (especially the non IS version). Both play well with Canons’ 1.4x extender, but due to the slower aperture the 2x extender may cause slower autofocus. If you need more reach than 200mm look at other options. The lenses have been in Canons’ catalogue for sometime but are still a very shrewd choice, particularly the non IS as an affordable gateway to L lens quality.

EF 70-200mm F2.8 L USM (& mk II IS version) Zoom: Delivering the same focal range as the F4 version, the F2.8 lens and in particular the newest mk II IS model is one of Canons’ absolute bestsellers and many a Pros’ workhorse lens. Delivering extremely sharp images, the Mk II IS version benefits from the latest tech and lens coatings, while the older non IS version does without. The older non IS model weighs 1310g and costs around the £900 mark. The Mk II IS lens weighs 1490g and costs around £1400. As you can see the F2.8 lenses are approx twice the weight and twice the cost of the F4 version. Both 1.4x & 2x extenders can be used due to the wide aperture, but contrast and ultimate resolution will be slightly reduced with the 2x. If you are set on a F2.8 constant aperture lens I would discount the non IS version and go for the Mk II IS. This is a much newer lens with the latest tech and will be easier to sell on than the older model. Be sure you can handle the weight and price.

EF 70-300mm F4 – 5.6 L IS USM Zoom: Not to be confused with the cheaper consumer lens already discussed. This is a modern L lens with pristine white barrel, modern IS system and fast USM AF delivering crisp images in a flexible compact package. Unlike the 70-200mm lenses, the 70-300mm extends when zoomed and has a variable aperture, delivering a focal length on crop of 112-480mm. When retracted it has a very compact dumpy profile, which makes for easy storage and handling. Weighing 1050g and costing around £900, it has given me cause to consider adding it to my bag on many occasions – the lack of a focus limiter is frustrating however. The variable aperture is a compromise and it doesn’t play well with extenders. This is balanced out by a useful zoom range, compact handling, L series image quality and decent price.

EF 100-400mm F4.5 – 5.6 L IS USM Mk II Zoom: The newest of Canons’ zooms, featuring the latest IS & lens coating tech, now with new conventional twisting zoom action. The original push-pull zoom version of this lens was one of the most common lenses among amateur motorsport photographers, with good reason. Delivering a focal length on crop of 160 – 640mm, this allows for a great deal of flexibility without having to change lenses trackside.

The older version is still worth consideration, as it is available at a more affordable price, particularly used. However, the new lens is superior in every way, super sharp with excellent IS and with the ability to close focus at 1m, it can act as a stand-in macro lens. At 1570g its heavier than all of the above and costs around £1600 (the older version weighs 1380g & can be found for around £1000). In time the price will come down and the variable aperture is a slight compromise. But F5.6 at a native 400mm without having to use extenders is still a great advantage – if the aperture was constant the lens would be much bigger and heavier. As a one-lens-does-everything solution it is worth serious consideration, if you can live with the weight and price.

Pro Level Primes and Zooms:

From this point on in the Canon range the L lenses are very much pro grade expensive heavy specialist lenses. Here’s a quick run down to give you a feel for the range;

Primes:
EF 200mm F2 L IS USM, weight 2520g, approx price £4500
EF 300mm F2.8 L IS USM Mk II, weight 2350g, approx price £5000
EF 400mm F2.8 L IS USM Mk II, weight 3850g, approx price £7500
EF 500mm F4 L IS USM Mk II, weight 3190g, approx price £7000
EF 600mm F4 L IS USM Mk II, weight 3920g, approx price £9000
EF 800mm F5.6 L IS USM, weight 4500g, approx price £10,000

Zoom:
EF 200-400mm F4 L IS USM with integral 1.4x extender, weight 3620g, approx price £9000

As you can see the prices quickly become very serious indeed. You need to be a well-heeled amateur, or a pro that relies on the income from the pictures the lens generates, to be in the market for these lenses.

As much as we might crave to own one of these monsters, moving around the track carrying substantial weight can quickly take the shine off of your fun day out. It makes much more sense to hire a lens of this calibre if you know that you are looking for a particular image at a particular event.

So there we are, a potted tour through Canon’s range of telephoto lenses that should be considered for those starting out in Motorsport Photography.

As I’ve repeatedly mentioned; I went for the EF 200mm F2.8 L prime lenses combined with a Kenko 2x Extender. This solution was affordable and provides a simple high quality lens with large aperture giving two useful focal lengths. The downsides are a slight reduction in resolution & contrast when using the extender and the fact that you must zoom with your feet. I don’t miss IS as I find the less you can give the camera to calculate the quicker it responds.

Porsche 919 shot with Canon 550D, 200mm F2.8 L lens on Kenko 2x Extender at F7.1, 1/2000
Porsche 919 shot with Canon 550D, 200mm F2.8 L lens on Kenko 2x Extender at F7.1, 1/2000

The other standouts, if you’re sure you want to skip the consumer lenses, are the following:

EF 70-200mm F4 L Zoom, for its affordability, sharp images, light weight and zoom flexibility. But think seriously about whether you need more reach than 200mm, it won’t work well with a 2x extender, as the aperture doubles to a dark F8.
EF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS Mk II Zoom, one of Canons’ best lenses, heavier and more expensive than the F4, but the larger aperture gives greater flexibility in using extenders if focal range is too short.
EF 100-400mm F4-5.6 IS Mk II Zoom, a great upgrade to the older version, probably the best all-round solution if you can live with the price and weight.

Honourable mention goes to the EF 70-300mm L IS Zoom, it is compact with good focal range and is almost half the price of the 100-400mm. If I had the money I’d go for the 100-400mm without question. As I don’t, the 70-300mm keeps catching my eye as a one lens solution (but for the lack of a focus limiter), for the days I don’t want to shoot the 200mm prime. Hmmm, must. not. click. BUY!

Standard range Zooms and Primes for consideration:

So, we’ve covered the lenses that will make those tiny subjects on the other side of the fence at Silverstone a useable size in your viewfinder. But what about if you find yourself closer to the action, or have access to the pits & paddock, or even your kids?

Chances are you got an EF-S 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 plastic kit lens with your camera body. Many will sneer at these lenses being the lowest of the low. But they are perfectly capable of producing sharp images and their low cost means you can use them without fear of damaging an expensive investment. They weigh nothing, generally have IS and the more recent versions have a quiet, smooth STM focus motor. Being useful as a general photography walk around lens they are perfectly usable in pits, grid or paddock. Their downsides are variable aperture and slower than USM focussing, but this is not always a huge problem, especially when using the wide end. As an EF-S lens they can only be used on a crop camera.

Shot with Canon 550D and EF-S 18-55mm Is lens at F8, 5secs
Shot with Canon 550D and EF-S 18-55mm Is lens at F8, 5secs exposure on tripod

If you are fairly certain you will stick with a crop camera and its benefit of 1.6x further reach than full frame, then replacing your kit lens generally means going for the EF-S 15-85mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM or the EF-S 17-55 F2.8 IS USM. Both are well built and capable of delivering sharp L lens rivalling images. Your choice is dependant on whether you want a more flexible focal range or a fast constant aperture. Again, you won’t make a bad decision with either of these.

I regret not buying the 15-85mm (£550) when I had the chance. Instead I purchased a Tokina 11-16mm F2.8 ultra wide zoom to sit under the focal range of my kit lens. It is an excellent high quality lens and useful for interior & architectural photography. However, it has minimal use in motorsport applications and I tend to shoot it at the 15-16mm end of the focal range to minimise distortion. It is mostly used indoors with off-camera flash, so the fast aperture is not as much of an advantage as you might think. If I had gone for the Canon 15-85mm I would still have had a very wide option, but also the ability to zoom to 85mm coupled with fast AF and IS. This would give great flexibility in pit/grid/paddock situations as well as a great general walk around lens. Indeed teamed with a 70-300mm L or 100-400mm L super telephoto zoom lens you have a two lens kit that covers 15-300/400mm. Job done.

The 17-55mm F2.8 IS lens (£550) is renowned as a quality bit of kit. Marginally wider than the kit lens, its main feature is the constant F2.8 aperture. At the 55mm end this allows for nice portraiture shots with diffuse backgrounds. At the wide end combined with the IS system, the option of indoor photography without flash. It is marginally heavier than the 15-85mm due to that wide constant aperture.

The drawback with these two lenses is that if you want to move to full frame in the future they are not compatible with the EF mount. Many people with crop cameras consider the EF 17-40mm F4 L USM lens (£500) as it can be used with full frame cameras if they upgrade.

However, this focal range on full frame is more of an ultra wide, you would still have to purchase some sort of general zoom lens, like the 24-105mm F4 L to cover the normal focal lengths. The two EF-S lenses also give you more features for your money. Besides, if you are switching to full frame for motorsport, your biggest problem will be how to get as much reach on a telephoto lens as possible, as cheaply as possible. Losing money on your wide zoom will be the least of your worries!

There are several quality L zoom lenses covering general use focal lengths for full frame. I am not going to cover them here because they are expensive. For Motorsport use you are better off, in my opinion, investing your money in your super telephoto lens solution initially.

Affordable Primes:

As with telephoto zooms vs primes, zooms are more flexible, while primes generally give you a wider aperture. For Canon there are two very cheap primes that most photographers will suggest to those starting out. The first is the ‘nifty-fifty’ Canon EF 50mm F1.8 mk II, it’s cheap (£80) and weighs nothing. This has recently been replaced by the 50mm F1.8 STM. The new version is the same price, vastly better built with a new smooth, quiet STM AF motor to replace what must be one of the loudest AF motors ever created.

I have the earlier Mk II version and it is very plasticky, so it’s a no-brainer to go with the new version. The reason a nifty-fifty is often recommended is that for a cheap price you get a very sharp lens that has nice wide aperture, allowing the beginner to experiment with narrow depth-of-field and low light photography. On a crop camera the focal length is effectively 80mm which makes it a good lens for portraiture.

Shot with Canon 550D and 50mm F1.8 lens at F13, 1/80
Shot with Canon 550D and 50mm F1.8 lens at F13, 1/80

Because its small, light and sharp I often carry it at smaller tracks for a shorter alternative to my 200mm prime. In combination  with my 2x extender it gives a usable 100mm F3.5 lens, although the already slow AF does struggle and the manual focus ring on mine is rubbish.

The other cheap prime that is often recommended is the EF 40mm F2.8 STM Pancake Prime at £120. This is better built than my Mk II 50mm and equal to the new 50mm STM. It is light, sharp and has a very short barrel, so when mounted to your camera it isn’t much bigger than a body cap. I tend to keep mine in the front pocket of my camera bag at all times, as its so small. However, it is an odd 64mm focal length on a crop camera. Neither wide enough for general photography, nor long enough for portraiture. On full frame it is closer to a 35mm standard lens, so makes far more sense. I bought mine at a time where I wanted a more robust lens to carry around than my Mk II 50mm. Now that the 50mm has been upgraded to the STM version I would recommend that. It’s cheaper, with good build and the focal length and wider aperture are more useful.

Shot with Canon 550D and 40mm F2.8 STM lens at F4, 1/15 handheld
Shot with Canon 550D and 40mm F2.8 STM lens at F4, 1/15 handheld
WEC Grid Girls shot with Canon 550D and F2.8 40mm Pancake Lens at F4, 1/2000
WEC Grid Girls shot with Canon 550D and 40mm F2.8 STM Pancake Lens at F4, 1/2000

There is now a third option; Canon released the EF-S 24mm F2.8 STM (£130) recently. As an EF-S mount it will only work with crop cameras, but provides a 35mm standard lens option for crop camera users who want a compact pancake walk around prime.

Personally, if you have gone down the 15-85mm general zoom route teamed with a 70-300mm L, 100-400mm L, or a long prime, then I would pick up a 50mm F1.8 STM. It gives you a low light and portrait lens at a very agreeable price and is useful on both crop & full frame.

As with the zooms, there are several lovely L series prime lenses in Canons’ range. The same comments apply; for motorsport shooting you are better off investing most of your funds in your telephoto solution first.

Camera and Lens Conclusions:

So, we have covered a lot of ground here. In a long winded, roundabout way my conclusions are; for crop camera bodies in order of expense consider the Eos 760D, Eos 70D/80D and Eos 7D Mk II.

For lenses, as much as I love shooting with primes, zooms have reached a point where they are on par with primes for sharpness and image quality. And Canon hasn’t updated the cheaper L primes for years and years. With that in mind, combined with increased ISO sensitivities in the latest bodies, I would go for either the EF 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS USM if on a budget (but beware the lack of a focus limiter), or the ultimate EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L IS USM Mk II if funds allow.

If you are convinced you need a wide aperture then consider the EF 70-200mm F2.8 IS USM Mk II with extenders, but be aware that you will be swapping out extenders trackside.

For walk around lenses, on a crop camera, shooting in pits/grid/paddock, go for either EF-S 15-85mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM and toss in a cheap EF 50mm F1.8 STM prime, or go with the EF-S 17-55mm F2.8 IS USM and don’t bother with the 50mm.

I hope you find the above ramblings helpful. Next time we’ll talk about useful camera and lens settings.

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