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How do I photograph speed and motion?

by Oct 31, 2019

​Following on in my series on Motorsport Photography Tips, I thought it was time to put together my tips for capturing speed in motorsport.

Since releasing my last blog post about motorsport photography, I’ve had a few of people asking about my tips for capturing the speed of race cars.

Although many of you will find some of what I’m about to cover extremely obvious, please note that I’m trying to cater for photographers of all levels, including those just starting out. We were all new to it at some point, right?

Many people find that, particularly when starting out in photography, capturing still objects is very different to capturing moving things.

It’s all good taking a photo of a car on a track. But showcasing motion emphasises speed. And at the end of the day, that’s what motorsport is all about, is it?

So how do I, and many other photographers, manage to do it? Panning.

So What Is Panning?

Panning is the photography technique for capturing speed and motion in a photo.

To put it in layman’s terms, panning is the act of following a subject – in this case, the car – with your camera in order to capture it in motion.

By using a slow shutter speed (which I’ll explain that down below), whilst moving your camera along with the race car, it will create a distinct effect in the photo.

If this is done right, and don’t worry not even the best pro’s nail every single panning shot, the car will appear nice and sharp in the image, whilst the background will be blurred. This brings further emphasise to car that is the main focus – or subject – of the image as well as showcasing the element of speed and motion.

I’ve included a few different examples of panning shots throughout this blog post to showcase how you can get creative with the technique.

How Do I Pan?

Panning can be done in multiple ways, but in essence you need to twist moving your camera at the same speed and in the same arc as the car that your are trying to photograph.

A good pan starts with your feet. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart to give yourself a good solid stable platform to act as your pivot point.

Then, hand-hold your camera, as solidly and stably as you possibly can with your camera up against your eye/face, elbows tucked in close to your chest.

Once you’ve got steady platform twist with your hips/legs to rotate as the car goes past you. Rotating with your legs, moving your whole body, means your movement will be smooth and stable.

The goal is to limit any movement that isn’t directly following the car to make sure the resulting photo is sharp on the subject.

If you are using a monopod, particularly while using a larger lens, then that becomes your pivot point and you adjust your movement accordingly.

What is Shutter Speed?

In short, shutter speed refers to how quickly the camera’s shutter opens and closes in order to capture the frame.

A fast shutter speed (say 1/2000th) freezes everything in that fraction of a second to create sharp, crisp images, whilst leaving the shutter open for longer (say 1/50th) allows you introduce the element of motion into the shot which can be used to create more blurry, artistic images.

This slow shutter speed technique in motorsport gives the cars a sense of movement, which in turn showcases their speed. The slower the shutter speed, the more blur you get in the photo, and the faster the car looks. But at the same time, using a shutter speed that’s too slow can produce an image that’s not sharp enough, and just make a blurry mess. It’s a delicate balancing act at times, but when done well, the result can look fantastic.

How do I Improve My Panning?

Practice, practice, practice

Like most things in photography and video, getting a smooth panning action is all about practice; the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

You’ll often find me shooting some sort of mountain biking event or some other action sport before the motorsport season kicks off, just so I can get my eye back in.

It’s not because I’ve forgotten how to shoot, it’s just about greasing my gears, and getting my panning action nice and smooth again before the first race meeting of the year. Even though I’ve been doing it for years, it’s easy to get ‘rusty’ when I haven’t had to do it for a while.

It’s a slow burner

One of the key things to remember is not to put too much pressure on yourself. Not all of your panning shots are going to work.

You’ll probably find that a very low percentage of your photos are even worth keeping. But don’t fret, even the best motorsport photographers in the world don’t get all of their panning shots nice and sharp – myself included.

Just be patient with it, and you’ll find that more and more of your photos will start to look how you want them to.

Go side-on to start with

The easiest pans to get are when you are side on to the race car, particularly at constant radius corners.

There is a sweet spot with lens focal lengths, usually between 100mm to 200mm, where you’ll be able to get the entire car nice and sharp.

If you go wider, you introduce lens warp into your pans (which can be a desired effect, but you need to account for it).

If you go longer, the camera becomes more sensitive to movement, and you’re more likely to introduce camera shake into your pans. If this happens, you might want to consider picking up a monopod, just to keep things steadier.

Once you’ve mastered the side on pan, you can add some flair to your shots by panning with some unique angles.

You can also add more action and drama to your shots by panning at a section of the track where you can see cars going in two or more different directions.

The best time to get panning shots

I tend to focus on getting my panning shots during practice and qualifying.

During actual races you’re more likely to be in a situation where there are those high-action moments. So I tend to stick to faster shutter speeds during races, especially the opening stages.

So during practice and qualifying, when the cars tend to be more spaced out on the track, is a great time to take your more-artistic panning shots.

And just for those who think they need media accreditation to take great photos, most of the photos featured in this blog post have been could have been easily captured from general spectator areas.

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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