How To Photograph Speed And Motion
As someone who is just starting out in motorsport photography, your first and foremost goal is to learn to capture speed. That is an art in and of itself: it’s not just shooting techniques and shutter speeds, it’s also angles, the ability to read the race, and a good understanding of how racing cars look in still images.
When beginning in photography, lots of people find that capturing still objects is very different to capturing moving things. It’s much more than taking a good photo of a car on the track: you need to showcase the motion which conveys the feel of speed in your image. At the end of the day, that’s what motorsport is all about: speed and action.
So how do motorsport photographers capture speed in still images?
The technique that will help you the most is panning.
Here is how.
What Is Panning?
Panning is a photography technique for capturing speed and motion in a photo.
In essence, panning is the act of following a subject – in this case, a race car – with your camera in order to capture it in motion.
Using a slow shutter speed whilst moving your camera along with the race car will create a distinct effect in the photo: the car will appear nice and sharp in the image whilst the background will be blurred. This has a double effect: the car is the main focus, and the blurred background creates an impression that it’s moving at high speed.
Don’t worry if you don’t get it right at first; nailing the panning technique down takes practice and experience, and you’ll get there eventually. Below, you’ll find several different examples of panning shots – use them for inspiration on how to get creative with the technique and develop your own unique style as you go along.
How Do I Pan?
Panning can be done in multiple ways. In essence, you need to twist your body to move your camera at the same speed and in the same arc as the car that you are trying to photograph.
A good pan starts with your feet. Stand with your feet shoulder-wide to give yourself a good, solid, and stable platform to act as your pivot point – you don’t want to be tripping over yourself mid-pan.
Then, hand-hold your camera as solidly and stably as you possibly can with your camera up against your eye or face, elbows tucked in close to your chest.
Once you’ve got a steady platform, twist with your hips and legs to rotate as the car goes past you. Rotating with your legs and moving your whole body will allow for your movement to be smooth and stable; you don’t want to shake the camera or disrupt the steady, even movement of panning to make sure your photo is sharp.
Alternatively, you can use a monopod (particularly while using a larger lens) as your pivot point, and you adjust your movement accordingly. The key is to follow the racing car as smoothly as you can to get that perfectly sharp image of the car and the blurry background behind it.
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 to introduce the element of motion into the shot which can be used to create more blurry, artistic images.
The 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.
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.
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. This is because during actual races, you’re more likely to be in a situation where there are high-action moments, and I typically tend to stick to faster shutter speeds during races, especially the opening stages.
During practice and qualifying, the cars tend to be more spaced out on the track, and that’s a great time to take your more artistic panning shots.
How Do I Improve My Panning?
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.
There’s no hard and fast rule that will whip your skills into shape overnight: take as many photos as you can, experiment with shutter speeds, and keep practicing until you get a feel for it.
And it doesn’t just apply to beginner photographers: professionals are constantly working on improving their skills, too. You’ll often find me shooting mountain biking events 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 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.
Patience, Patience, Patience
Here’s the thing that no one wants to tell you: not all of your panning shots are going to work, and you shouldn’t kick yourself over it.
As you go along, you’ll probably find that a very low percentage of your photos is even worth keeping. Don’t fret, even the best motorsport photographers in the world don’t get all of their panning shots nice and sharp – myself included.
Be patient with yourself and keep at it: the more you work and practice, the better you’ll become, and if you don’t give up, you’ll soon start noticing progress in your photos.
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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.