How To Photograph Motorsport At Night

by Oct 9, 2021

Whether it’s a 24-hour endurance race or the novelty of sprint events under lights, photographing motorsport at night presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

Most motorsport photographers rave about shooting at night due to the results being generally more spectacular compared to during day running, plus it is a somewhat rare occurrence to shoot in these conditions.

Shutter Speed

As you’ll be aware, photography is a balancing act between shutter speed, ISO and aperture, however when the light starts to fade the margin becomes finer.

Often in motorsport we’re working with some fairly wide apertures to begin with, so you really have two options to play with: ISO and shutter speed.

ISO is obviously the easy option, and to be fair you can push modern camera ISO’s pretty high without a noticeable effect on the final image. At least from the customer’s perspective, but we photographers tend to nit-pick over every little detail!

However, if you can master the art of playing with your shutter speed instead, the results are far more impactful.

Panning is the most obvious example of this.

If you mastered panning during the day, doing this at night gives you the opportunity to push to increasingly slower shutter speeds to create better results.

Backgrounds are important when shooting at night. Do you have stadium-style lights or cars going in the opposite direction that could create a unique effect?

How about light trails?

While I don’t normally advocate bringing a tripod to a racetrack for photography, but the ability to set up a camera on one and capture a long exposure shot at night is a definite exception to this rule.

Look for things that aren’t visible in daylight

Glowing brake discs, exhaust flames, sparks, these all happen at night and are rarely visible during the day. Night racing presents a fantastic opportunity to capture these elements of motorsport.

Capturing glowing brakes is pretty straightforward; find a section of the circuit featuring hard braking, then wait a couple of laps to let the discs heat up and shoot away.

One thing to keep in mind when shooting this type of image is the different characteristics of each type of different race car.

In the instance of an open-wheeler, there is largely a lower glow as braking isn’t as heavy, but for GTs and touring cars, it’s another story. The ‘tin tops’ provide plenty of opportunities to achieve this type of shot, especially after racing hard.

Exhaust flames are a different challenge as not only does it depend on the type of car and how it is tuned, but flames aren’t as regular so it’s something you need to keep a close eye out for.

That said, just as it is with capturing glowing discs it is imperative to be in the right position. These include where a driver rapidly downshifts, which is generally under heavy braking or when a driver has to lift off the throttle for a moment, particularly in long radius corners.

Dedicating a bit of time shooting in this area is advised before downloading your shots and inspecting these back at the media centre. (The smaller flames can be missed on the screens on the back of your camera).

Sparks are another spectacular feature of night racing, however varies across circuits and categories. Lower cars, bumpy track surfaces, kerbs and undulations are factors to search for when aiming to shoot these effects.

Be aware of pockets of light

Look out for and play with the little pockets of light that are offered around the circuit.

The opportunity to use this effect depends on the circuit’s lighting, which could be a temporary setup or stadium specification.

Remember the appeal of night racing is the absence of light, but the pools of light and reflections can create many unique effects.

Just keep in mind the settings used under the lights will be dramatically different to the sections that aren’t as well lit.

While I strongly recommend that manual settings are used when shooting at night keep checking your exposure as you move to different sections of the circuit during a night race.

Then once you’ve mastered playing with the stationary light around the circuit, try playing with the little pockets of light created by the cars themselves, especially headlights.

Look out for additional lights and reflective liveries.

Motorsport features a creative array of teams, drivers and personnel, who find a way to bring more attention to sponsors. Well, the supporters do pay the bills!

With this in mind, items to look out for include reflective liveries and the use of LED lights make for spectacular photo opportunities.

LED lights will be pretty obvious, but the reflective details might be a bit more difficult to identify.

In my experience, teams use the same reflective wrap as utilised on street signs to draw attention to certain parts of the livery, in particular sponsor logos. The only way to really spot it out on track is by using your flash.

Just be mindful you are never going to be able to properly expose a photo of a race car on track at 200km/h with just a pocket flash unit, but a small pop of the flash is just enough to illuminate any reflective sections of the livery a car might have.

Once you know which cars have one, pair the flash pop with some panning and you might just come up with some creative effects.

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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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