How To Photograph Motorcycle Racing
No matter if it’s the top tier of the sport, MotoGP, or something a little more local, even the most experienced motorsport photographer will need to make slight adjustments in how they photograph to ensure that they capture the best possible photos of motorcycle racing.
So let’s have a look at how motorcycle racing is different from other forms of motorsport and how you need to adapt to capture amazing photos of the bikes on track each and every time.
Unlike cars, where the driver is mostly (if not entirely) hidden away within the vehicle. With bike racing, the rider is very much visible and another dynamic element to include in your photos.
In order to maximise the performance of their bikes, riders move their body weight around, and that’s a major element you need to include in your photos to tell the complete story of motorcycle racing.
No matter if they a tucked in to achieve maximum speed down the straight, sitting up to maximise the bike braking performance or leaning to either side to be as fast as possible through the corners, how a rider is positioned on the bike contributes significantly to the story that the photo is telling. Even more so than any additional compositional techniques you might be using.
With this in mind, you need to keep a close eye on how a rider is positioned on their bike. If they are on a slow lap, not pushing nearly as hard as normal, it will be evident in your photos.
Also, look out for the rider’s head movement. Where a rider is looking will also help tell the story of the race, especially in photos of two or more bikes duking it out for position.
While cars do slide around on the circuit, their pitch and yaw angles don’t typically change, at least dramatically enough to showcase in photos. Whereas in bike racing, the lean angle of the bike (and rider) can be an extremely useful tool in showcasing the speed of the bike.
Typically in motorsport photos, we want to try and hide the wheels when we are photographing high shutter speed photos because it makes it look like the car (or any other vehicle) is simply parked on the track. But in motorcycle racing, firstly, it’s very hard to hide the wheels due to the nature bikes anyway, but you can use the lean angle to help convey speed. A viewer of a photo subconsciously understands the bike needs to be going fast in order to defy gravity and not just simply fall over.
However, the lean angle also has some drawbacks. When capturing panning shots of motorbikes on track, you need to account for this extra movement, especially through corners. The vertical movement of the rider as they approach and exit a corner will affect the likelihood of getting a sharp panning photo.
When taking panning photos during motorcycle racing, look out for the section of the corner where they are holding the lean. Typically the apex of the corner is not only where they will have their knee (and/or elbow) closest to the ground, but they are also at their most stable through the lean. If you pay attention, you’ll be able to hear it in the rider’s throttle application when the lean is at its most stable, and so is the rider’s throttle use. As the rider starts to wind in more throttle, they’ll also start to straighten up the bike.
Once you get into a rhythm at a particular corner, it’ll become much easier to nail your panning photos. Look out for long constant radius corners to give yourself the best chance of getting a good panning photo with the rider’s knee (or elbow) down.
Sure, changing your shooting angle with cars will give you more dynamic photos, especially if you can get below the car for a cool perspective. But this becomes even more essential in motorcycle racing.
Motorbikes are much smaller subjects, to begin with. However, when we go back to my previous point about lean angles, through corners, when riders get their knee (or better yet, their elbow) down, they are also very, very low to the ground. So if you are taking all of your photos of bikes from above, the perspective will actually make the bikes and riders look even smaller.
Combine this with the fact that riders are typically looking through the corner on the low side of the bike; shooting from above also creates a disconnect with the rider looking away.
To balance this out and bring greater emphasis to not only the bike but also more connection with the rider for the viewer of the photo, you really need to get as low as possible. Shooting up from below the bike on the track where possible.
Obviously, this isn’t practical in all instances. But when it is, it’ll make a significant impact on the photos you capture during a motorcycle race.
Crashes Are Much More Dramatic
Like it or not, in motorsport photography, the crash photos are the ones that are going to get the most attention. This is even more the case in motorcycle racing, where crashes are even more dramatic.
Unlike car racing, where you (at least the majority of the time) only have one or two things to track in the case of a crash. In motorcycle racing, you’ll almost always have at least two, the bike and the rider.
Add in the fact that once a bike and rider dig into the grass or gravel trap, they will most like spin and roll, there is always a lot going on in a motorcycle racing crash to capture.
My best advice is to follow the bike when shooting a crash. In most instances, the rider will have an element of control once they are on the ground. But the bike is the most likely to bounce and flip and contribute to a more dramatic photo.
That said, don’t forget about the rider; they are a compelling part of the storytelling – especially the emotional response after a crash.
I would strongly recommend configuring the “Oh Shit” button on your camera if you can, as crashes in bikes are often extremely unpredictable.
No matter how seasoned of a motorsport photographer you might be, photographing bikes will add a unique and interesting challenge to your trackside experience. That said, motorcycle racing is also where you are most likely to capture some of your most dynamic and exciting motorsport photos.
Just give yourself a little bit of time to adjust to the nuances of photographing motorcycle racing and you’ll end up with some amazing shots to expand your portfolio.
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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