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How do I photograph race car action and crashes?

by Oct 17, 2019

One of the most essential skills in motorsport photography is being able to photograph race cars in action.

After all, that’s what motorsport is all about, the action. Well at least for the average punter, it’s the crashes

Now, capturing action is one of the hardest parts of motorsport photography. Admittedly, there’s quite a significant amount of luck involved in getting those all-important shots, and ultimately it’s about being in the right place at the right time.

However, apart from honing your skills to make sure that you’re good and ready when the moment arises, there are a couple of other things that you can do to better prepare yourself, some of which can improve the likelihood that luck will strike you.

Knowing The Track

Being familiar with the track will certainly help you increase your chances of getting those ‘perfectly timed’ action shots. Whether that’s checking out some old race footage before turning up, or arriving early in order to get your bearings – the better you know the track, the better understanding you’ll have when it comes to looking for pinch points, and eyeing up sections of the track that are more likely to create action.

Now ‘action’ doesn’t necessarily mean a crash. Look for sections of the track where cars bounce over kerbs, run wide and flick up dust, run close to walls or run two (or more) wide in overtaking opportunities.

All of these can make for some seriously dramatic action shots that, not only create great images, but also tell the story of the race.

As a professional photographer, there’s no doubt that you’ll have practiced the technical aspects and know your way around your camera like no other – extend this to your shooting environment, and you’ll be more than ready to pounce when those one-in-a-million opportunities come about.

Reading The Race

It’s very rare that you’ll get a lot of action in practice and qualifying – there is some, but the main goal during these sessions is to chase setup and lap time.

Drivers are very aware and try to avoid action for the most part, although there are always exceptions. Races, on the other hand, are all about the action. It’s no longer about a single lap time, or getting a feel for the track; everyone out there has exactly the same goal – to beat the competition.

So being able to read the race will help you capture those all-important action photos. Obviously the start of the race when all the cars are bunched together is your first opportunity, as it’s going to be more likely that the cars are going to be putting passing moves on one another.

Pitstops and strategy will also see certain cars moving through the field as well, so you’ll need to be aware of this. Knowing the competitors is also a contributing factor; you wouldn’t find a Formula 1 photographer who didn’t have an eye trained on Pastor Maldonado throughout a race. Some drivers and categories are just more likely to create action, so keep an eye on them when you can.

Fast Shutter Speed = Sharp Photos

You won’t ever find a motorsport photographer using a slow shutter speed during the start of a race (well – at least not on purpose). This is because the start of a race is when there’s most likely to be a crash, or some other kind of noticeable action, and you’ll want the sharpest, crispest images if this is the case.

This might sound like a grim train-of-thought, but crashes and bashes are all part of the sport, and though they might not be a pleasant experience for those involved, they’re an equal part of the race as any other. So capturing a decent photo of this kind of occurrence is crucial.

Obviously you still want to show just how fast the cars are going, but with a fast shutter speed you freeze the action and if you don’t have that in mind it can simply look like cars are parked on the circuit. Because of this, I personally find that when using a fast shutter speed its best to shoot the car/cars directly head-on. This allows you to hide the lack of movement in the wheels and is the best way to achieve a balance between sharp photos and action.

That said, dust and tyre smoke indicate movement just as well as motion blur, so they can also be used to display the fast-paced action that’s going on as well.

Don’t Stress If You Miss It

As long as there has been motorsport and cameras, there have always been stories of that missed shot. Just ask any motorsport photographer that you meet, and they’ll have several stories of that one-in-a-lifetime action shot they just didn’t quite manage to get, and how it kept them awake at night for the following week.

The key, like any setback, is not to let it get to you – just have a think as to why you missed it, and what things you can do differently next time to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity like that again. And besides, no-one notices the shot you didn’t take; the most famous action shots of all time – whether that’s boxing matches, animals in the wild, or anything else – might have been a little better if they’d been captured a few seconds before or after, but no-one will ever know.

Rhys Vandersyde

Rhys Vandersyde

I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand.

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