How To Photograph Top Fuel Drag Racing
With often only two cars (or bikes) on the drag strip at a time, races that last as little as three seconds and no corners. On paper, it might not sound like there are many opportunities to take creative photos. But the sheer explosive power of these vehicles makes for some of the most interesting and difficult motorsport photos you can capture.
Being trackside at a drag race is a visceral experience. Even if you’ve attended a number of other motorsport events in your life, nothing really prepares you for the sound and vibration you feel when the top-tier cars (and bikes) of drag racing launch themselves down the track.
So how do you photograph drag racing and get those amazing shots? Let’s go through everything you need to know.
Use A Slower Shutter Speed
You might think that given the highspeed nature of drag racing that you would also need to use a high shutter speed. But the thing is, when the cars (and bikes) are at maximum impact, launching off the line, they aren’t actually moving that fast. Yes, they build speed very rapidly, but the initial launch is where you will get your best shots.
So, if you use a high shutter speed, like 1/1000th or higher, you won’t actually capture the full impact of the launch. In particular, the full effect of the flames out of the exhaust or the wheel rotation.
I would suggest, initially, starting with a slower shutter speed, somewhere in the range of 1/160th to 1/250th, and treat it more like a panning shot to be able to comfortably be able to capture the action while still getting the power of the flames out of the exhaust. Then you can adjust slower or faster base on how you are feeling and the types of photos you want to create.
That said, you might want to have the Register/Recall Shooting Function button handy as well, just in case.
Use High-Speed Burst And Auto Focus Modes
With only a limited opportunity to get your shots, you are going to want to maximise each pass to ensure you get the best possible photo. So to give yourself the maximum chance, you will need to lean on your camera’s high-speed burst and servo-autofocus modes.
Unlike circuit racing, where with enough experience, you can start to predict when and where the action is going to play out, in drag racing, things happen very quickly in a short amount of space. And that inherently brings an element of unpredictability to the action.
For instance, in an effort to control the car, drag racers can be on and off the throttle in fractions of a second. That greatly impacts the effect of the flames out of the exhaust, if the car wheel stands (lifts the front wheels off the ground) and a number of other factors that you might want to include in your photos.
Shooting in high-speed burst mode (as quickly as your camera allows) will give you the best chance of capturing these nuances of drag racing. While AI-Servo will allow your camera to adjust as the car (or bike) gets closer to you, especially if you are shooting at night (which is common for drag racing) with a wide aperture.
Preempt The Action
Much like drivers (and riders) at the wheel of their drag cars (and bikes) have to preempt the lights, you need to preempt capturing the action.
Everything I’ve mentioned to this point has emphasised how fast things happen in drag racing, especially top fuel, so you need to keep in mind how your reaction time will affect the photos you are able to capture.
You may not realise this, but in drag racing, they don’t wait for the light to turn green before accelerating. In a sport that only lasts seconds, the human reaction time simply isn’t fast enough to be able to respond once the light has turned green, so they try to time the lights. To be fair, this probably happens in all forms of motorsport, but it’s in drag racing, where it will have the most impact on your photos.
What I do, is look over my camera at the tree (the series of lights used for the start of a drag race that kinda looks like a Christmas tree) and use the first yellow start light as my indicator to look down through the lens and start shooting. This all happens in fractions of a second, but it allows me to predict the start and capture the entire launch sequence.
Shoot The Burnout
Burnouts make for cool photos, generally, anyway. But in drag racing, they serve a very particular purpose. Laying down hot fresh rubber to aid in the launch on the official timed run.
Depending on the driver and the day, the burnout might turn out to be a more spectacular and more impactful photo than the actual race run. Especially given that in drag racing, they are pushing the engineering limits of the engine and the driveline so much so that they can and often do fail on the start line.
Photographing the burnout will give you a usable photo, especially in the lower classes of drag racing (Stock and Super).
Stand Further Away
Being close to drag cars, especially top fuelers, is something truly amazing to experience, as I emphasised in the introduction. However, different vantage points will offer you different photo options. And that’s a key component to capturing creative photos.
For safety reasons, where you can stand trackside is quite limited. And if you’ve seen a drag racing crash, you’ll understand why. But much like all other forms of motorsport, not every photo you capture needs to be taken from trackside.
Take advantage of the spectator areas, which are often elevated, to get a different perspective of the action. Maybe try some side-on panning shots or even stand behind the car (or bike) and the crew to get an even more interesting angle as it launches down the track.
Be Patient And Persistent
Unlike circuit racing, where you’ll get several attempts to get the shot in each race, with drag racing, you have one very short run to get the shot.
Factor in the speed and explosive nature of each launch; it can be really hard to get your timings right to get the shot you are hoping to achieve. So be patient with it; keep in mind that they will do a couple of runs each night, and keep trying to get the shot you are hoping for.
Take advantage of some of the other (often slower) classes to help you get your eye in to make sure that you can get the shot you really need when you need to get it.
Photographing drag racing presents an exciting challenge for any photographer. By understanding the sport, selecting optimal shooting locations, and mastering essential techniques like shutter speed, panning, and timing, you’ll be well-equipped to capture stunning images that convey the adrenaline-fueled excitement of this high-speed motorsport.
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.
Motorsport photography is quite unique, and so are the requirements of the camera gear you use to capture the action The high-speed nature of the...
One of the most visually striking photos you can capture in motorsport, especially when it comes to endurance racing at night, is light trails....
The art of motorsport photography is an intriguing blend of speed and precision. To be able to capture the essence of motorsport requires more than...