How To Photograph Race Car Action And Crashes?

by May 12, 2021

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 speed, the thrill, and the action, and for the average spectator, it’s the crashes.

Capturing action is one of the hardest parts of motorsport photography. Getting those jaw-dropping shots of wheels in the air, admittedly, involves quite a significant amount of luck – but ultimately, it’s about being in the right place at the right time.

Honing your skills to make sure that you’re good and ready when the moment arises is important. However, there are a couple of other things that you can do to better prepare yourself; after all, you can make your own luck rather than hope for that perfect set of circumstances to simply land in your lap.

Here are some of my favourite tips and tricks if you want to be better at photographing race cars in action:

Knowing The Track

First things first: in motorsport photography, action does not necessarily mean crashes. To capture the thrill of the race, don’t just focus on the situations where things go wrong.

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

To make sure you’re prepared to hunt for these adrenaline-inducing images, it’s key to be familiar with the track. Knowing the racetrack will help you increase your chances of getting those perfectly timed action shots. Whether it’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.

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 approach 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

While practicing your art and perfecting your skills as much as you can and as frequently as you can is crucial, remember that the bulk of the action is during the race, not the practice or qualifying runs. During practice and qualifiers, racers’ main goal is to chase setup and lap time, and it’s very rare to see any action during these sessions. There are always exceptions, but during these pre-race runs, drivers are very aware and try to avoid action for the most part.

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.

This is why being able to read the race will help you capture those all-important action photos. Sharp corners, places creating bottlenecks, the start of the race when all the cars are bunched together are all excellent opportunities 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, so you’ll need to be aware of this. Finally, 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 (or this year Nikita Mazepin) throughout a race. Some drivers and categories are just more likely to create action, so keep an eye on them when you can.

If you’re just starting out, it may be more difficult to read the race and understand what drives action at first, so do your research: watch videos of races on the specific track you’re going to work on, shadow other photographers to figure out the best angles, and look at images from older races to single out the best spots and moments when you can capture the most action.

Go through the entry list to see who is racing, and who is the most likely to stir up trouble; in addition to capturing pure action, it’s also important to convey the story of the race in images where the two biggest rivals are going at it neck to neck, for example.

Using Fast Shutter Speed for Sharp Photos

You will never find a motorsport photographer using a slow shutter speed during the start of a race (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 although they may not be a pleasant experience for those involved, they’re an equal part of the race, and capturing a decent photo of this kind of occurrence is crucial.

Keep in mind, however, that 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 – but your goal is to show how fast the cars are going. Because of this, I personally find that, when using a fast shutter speed, it’s best to shoot the or 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.

In addition, 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. Once again, it all goes back to being well-prepared and reading the track and the race to spot those golden opportunities.

Learning Your Lessons

As long as there has been motorsport and cameras, there have always been stories of that missed shot.

Ask any motorsport photographer, 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. As they say, you either win, or you learn: instead of kicking yourself over it, simply 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.

Nobody 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.

Don’t dwell on what you’ve missed: regret and guilt are the most unproductive states of mind. Instead, learn your lessons, work hard, and prepare better for the next race to make sure you ace it.

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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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