How To Avoid Heat Haze in Motorsport Photography

by Dec 30, 2023

We’ve all been there… It’s the peak of summer, it’s a fantastic day (albeit hot and probably humid), the cars are lined up on the grid for the next race, you line up your shot for the start of the race and bam! Heat haze!

If you’re a stickler for getting clean, sharp photos like I am, heat haze can be the most frustrating thing you have to deal with as a motorsport photographer because it’s completely outside of your control. Well, mostly, but we’ll get into that shortly.

So what causes this blurry mess, and how can we work around it? Let’s take a look:

What Is Heat Haze?

I’ll try to explain this as simply as possible, but heat haze is a phenomenon where the heat from the ground warms the air right above it, making this air hotter than the rest of the air around it.

However, because light moves at different speeds through hot air and cool air, the different temperatures cause the light to bend or refract. This bending of light creates a sort of wavy, shimmering effect that you would have noticed in your photos.

Obviously, this is quite common on hot days at race tracks because the asphalt absorbs a lot of sunlight and heat over the course of the day. However, it’s also a common occurrence with sand and other materials common in the runoff areas around different race tracks.

When Is Heat Haze Most Common?

Heat haze is going to be most common in the summer, particularly on hot, clear, sunny days where there is little to no wind—with midday and early afternoons, being the absolutely worst time for heat haze. That said, the layout and location of some race tracks mean they are more susceptible to heat haze than others.

Another thing you will start to notice is that heat haze is usually worse when there isn’t any on-track action. Particularly in the lead-up to the race start when cars aren’t circulating. Not ideal because race start photos are usually quite important to capture. But once the race cars start moving, the air tends to circulate a bit more, and you’ve got a better chance of getting a clearer photo.

How Can You Avoid Heat Haze?

How Can You Avoid Heat Haze?

Get Closer

The further away you are from the action on track, the worse the heat haze can potentially be. On days when you know that it’s likely to be a problem, position yourself in places around the track where you can get closer (safely) to the action.

Get Some Elevation

A higher vantage point can reduce the impact of heat waves rising from the ground. By taking up an elevated position around the track, you can mitigate the effect that heat haze will have on your photos.

Shoot Earlier In The Day

If you know you have to get certain shots that are susceptible to being impacted by heat haze, try to get those shots earlier in the day before the heat hasn’t had a chance to build up in the asphalt yet.

Use A Polariser

While a polariser isn’t going to get rid of heat haze, using one can reduce the impact of heat haze by removing or at least reducing the reflections. If you want more detail about what a polariser is and how to use one, check out this post.

What Can You Do If You Do Have Heat Haze In Your Photos?

What Can You Do If You Do Have Heat Haze In Your Photos?

As with all editing, it’s much easier to get it right in camera and not have to edit it out after the fact. But that’s not always possible.

The good news for us motorsport photographers is that the tools within editing software like Adobe Lightroom and Topaz are getting very good at using AI to artificially sharpen photos.

While this won’t salvage all photos affected by heat haze, the sharpening can help salvage a photo that’s a little soft due to the effects of heat haze. That could just be the difference between a usable photo and the throw-away one.

That all said, in certain circumstances, you could use heat haze as a feature of the photo. Ultimately it comes down to your creative vision, but there are some instances where heat haze might enhance the overall image.

Wrap Up

Heat haze can be a real annoyance for motorsport photographers chasing crisp, clean photos of on-track action. But by understanding when it’s most likely to impact your photos and working within the limitations that heat haze presents you can ensure that you significantly mitigate the impact of it on your images.

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Rhys Vandersyde

Rhys Vandersyde

I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.

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