How to Shoot Through Catch Fences
That said, knowing a few handy tricks of the trade will allow you to work around the limitations of catch fences so that you can still create stunning high-quality photos.
What I’ve done to help you out is compile some of the best tips from my year’s trackside on how to shoot through catch fences. These will not only be helpful and useful for aspiring motorsport photographers but also could come in handy for wildlife photographers and other creatives who need to take photos through fences.
What is a catch fence?
Catch fences play an integral role in keeping motorsports fans safe while trackside. These fences take many different shapes around the world but are ultimately some sort of metal wire mesh fencing.
If you’ve ever been to a motorsport event, particularly one held at a temporary street circuit, you may recall seeing this wire mesh fencing surrounding the track; this is a catch fence. You will have seen it on the back of your tickets, there is an element of risk attached to attending any motorsport event. Something that motorsport photographers need to be constantly aware of.
The high-paced action of motorsport that makes it so entertaining is also what makes it dangerous. Things happen on track pretty quickly, and it can get pretty intense.
In order to reduce the risk of cars and large debris flying off the track and into the crowd, a catch fence is the perfect barrier as it provides maximum protection without hindering the view of the event for spectators.
Why is it important for photographers to learn how to shoot through a catch fence?
Learning how to shoot through a catch fence is a fantastic skill, not just for motorsport photo enthusiasts but for all kinds of photographers who focus on a range of specialities across multiple industries. Here’s why…
It’s a must-have skill for motorsport photographers
Due to the protective and extensive nature of catch fences, it’s often hard to find a way to shoot around them, short of finding a high vantage point or gaps in the fence. If motorsport photography is your passion, it’s important to master shooting through a mesh fence because you never know what kind of access you’ll have to the action.
Sure some tracks have dedicated photo positions, with gaps in the fencing. But if you rely solely on those, you’ll just end up with exactly the same photos as everyone else. Being able to shoot through catch fences is a great way to create a diverse range of imagery and showcase your versatility as a photographer.
Shooting through a catch fence to capture motorsport is a skill that can be transferred to a range of other scenarios. It promotes lens steadiness and attention to detail in general, but it also lends itself to other photography opportunities like wildlife photography through zoo enclosure fences.
My best tips for shooting through catch fences as a motorsport photographer
There are quite a few tips and tidbits that can help any aspiring motorsport photographer when it comes to photographing through catch fences. Here are a few of my go-to’s that I’ve picked up over the years,
Shade is your best friend
The reflection of sunlight on a metal fence will make it extremely difficult to hide the fence, even in the most expertly taken photos. If you can find a shady spot to capture your shots, it’ll make it so much easier to capture clear photos. Look for trees, grandstands, or anything else that might cast a big shadow to give you as much flexibility to shoot through the fence as possible.
If those aren’t available, get creative and make your own shade. A paper track schedule tucked into the fence, or even your hat can create a small pocket of shade enough to allow you to capture clear photos in the ideal action spot around the track.
Choose a wide aperture
Shooting with your lens as wide open as possible is going to be one of your best options when working with a catch fence. Utilising the shallow depth of field can help you blur catch fences to the point where they don’t appear in your photos.
Using a lens that can shoot at a wide aperture like f2.8 or even wider will make a huge difference, as will getting as close to the catch fence as safely possible. While you might not have one of these lenses in your camera bag just yet, they are a vital part of a motorsport photographer’s tool kit. Try starting with the 70-200mm f2.8, which is offered by all good camera and lens manufacturers.
A high shutter speed is best
Approach your catch fence photography with a high shutter speed. Around 1/2000th is a great place to start as it will help you freeze the action in place. This also has the flow-on effect of forcing your camera to open up the aperture as wide as possible if you are shooting in an automated mode like shutter priority as per my previous point.
That said, as with all photography rules, there is room to mess around with shutter speed though. I can attest to capturing some seriously cool slow shutter-speed panning shots that use the catch fence as a feature of the shot.
Set your focus in advance
Auto-focus systems tend to have a little difficulty when it comes to shooting through catch fences. The nature of autofocus systems is to snap to whatever happens to be in front of your focus point. Sometimes that happens to be the fence and not the car you are aiming to shoot. I would suggest choosing a spot on the track that you know your target car is going to be, painted kerbs (ripple strips) are a good option to set your focus before you start shooting. Switching to manual once you’ve got your spot will also help you from accidentally getting a great shot of the mesh fence while your action disappears into a blur in the background. This technique generally provides the best photos overall.
Get as close to the fence as possible
I briefly mentioned it before, but you need to be as close to the fence as safely possible. For photographers with media credentials this is a little easier, but even for those of you shooting from the spectator areas, the closer you are to the action without overstepping the barriers, the more you can use your shallow depth of field to remove the catch fence from your photos.
Look for gaps or high vantage points
Do you know what’s easier than shooting through catch fences? Shooting over them. Many tracks have high vantage points where you can use the elevation to take the catch fences out of the equation. On street circuits, it might be the roof of a building or a spot at the top of one of the grandstands. Other circuits may have hills or bridges that you can utilise to get your shots.
Hopefully, these tips will help improve your chances of catching the best shots at your next motorsport photography gig but feel free to explore and get creative with your own solutions to avoiding catch fences and simply capturing the action.
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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