Mastering Autofocus In Motorsport Photography

by Mar 18, 2023

In the fast-paced world of motorsport photography, autofocus can be both an extremely valuable tool and a significant annoyance, depending on how and when you use it.

Capturing the perfect shot of the action on track requires precise timing, but the autofocus technology in modern cameras can make this much easier.

Mastering autofocus in motorsport photography can take some practice and fine-tuning of your camera settings, but with a few tips and tricks, you to can quickly become an expert in capturing stunning sharp photos every time you are trackside.

So, let’s dig into the autofocus settings of your camera and make sure it’s optimised for motorsport photography.

Single Shot vs Continuous Autofocus

When you first get your camera, its autofocus system will most likely be configured in Single Shot mode by default (AF-S on Nikon cameras). While is the perfect way to use the autofocus system for stationary subjects, like portraits and landscapes. Photographing moving targets, as are predominant in motorsport, will require this setting to be adjusted to ensure sharp photos.

What you need to use when photographing motorsport is your camera’s continuous autofocus mode. Now, this goes by a variety of names depending on your camera manufacturer and model, so let’s run through the most common. On Canon cameras, continuous autofocus is referred to as AI-Servo or Servo. Nikon refers to this system as AF-C. While Sony simply refers to it as Continuous AF.

Now that you know what the setting is, let’s have a look at why you need to use it.

In single-shot mode, the camera focuses on your target point and stops. Whereas continuous autofocus continually adjusts based on what the focus points are targeted. Even while pressing the shutter button. In motorsport where the subject of your photos is often moving towards or away from you, often at high speeds, this is essential to ensure you get the most amount of sharp photos as possible.

Just keep in mind, that while continuous autofocus systems, particularly in the top-of-the-range sports cameras, are very good. They will still struggle to keep pace with cars (and bikes) moving at high speeds and rapidly changing directions. Especially in high-speed sections of the track. Make sure you also use autofocus in combination with a very high shutter speed to ensure as many sharp photos as possible.

Pro Tip: Typically continuous autofocus works quite well subjects are moving towards the camera. But I have found that occasionally (depending on the camera) that it will struggle more with subjects moving away from the camera. So just keep this in mind.

Single Focus Point vs Automatic Subject Tracking

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how autofocus on your camera works best for capturing motorsport photos. How do you control it? In all modern DSLR and Mirrorless cameras there are a variety of focus point options that you can use to select the subject of your photo.

These focus point options range from fully automatic modes (typically how your camera is configured when you purchase it), to specialised subject tracking and more controlled targeted single-point focus modes.

You will need to take your camera out of the fully automatic autofocus selection mode. Again, these settings are typically tailored to still subjects, usually landscapes, but some of them have been programmed to detect faces. But again, motorsport is a fast-paced environment and controlling what your camera is focusing on is the best way to ensure crisp sharp photos. So which mode do you choose? Single Focus Point or Automatic Subject Tracking?

Automatic subject tracking is a relatively new feature, having been introduced with the widespread adoption of mirrorless technology by all of the key camera manufacturers. While this feature started out being programmed to automatically pick up people, in recent years software has been advanced to also select animals and most importantly to us, cars and other vehicles.

Having tested out automatic subject tracking, particularly the mode that picks up on cars, on a few different cameras. I can confirm that these subject-tracking systems are actually very good at identifying and holding focus as your subject moves through the frame. It’s certainly a very handy feature, especially when shooting video on modern cameras. However, when it comes to motorsport photography, it does have some drawbacks.

Automatic subject tracking is exactly that, automatic. This can become a problem if you are photographing a group of cars or bikes. The camera will select whichever subject it determines should be in focus, typically the first one it sees. This can be a significant issue if the car (or bike) you need to photograph is immediately following or alongside.

My suggestion? While automatic subject tracking can be really good if there is only one car on track at any one time, I still continue to use single-point focus.

Single Point Autofocus allows you to really control what your camera is focusing on. You place your focus point in the frame where you are expecting to capture the car and then choose when the camera starts to focus by using the back button focus option (we’ll dig into that one more shortly).

Given the high-speed action-packed nature of motorsport, the more you control your camera, the more predictable the outcome will be. This is very important when there are so many aspects of motorsport that are unpredictable.

Also, once you are comfortable with controlling your camera while looking down the barrel, it is very easy to move a single focus point around the frame. This does take time and practice.

Pro Tip: The Canon R3 has a feature to allow you to use eye control to move your autofocus point around the frame. Not to be confused with the eye-tracking AF as part of the face detection autofocus mode. This eye control feature in theory would be a great way to make quick adjustments and make sure you get the right car in focus. However in practice, at least from my testing of the feature, it’s not as targeted or responsive as it needs to be to use in motorsport photography. That said, it is a relatively new feature, and with continued development, it could become a good option in the future.

Back Button Focus

I touched on it in the previous section, and I’ve actually already written an entirely dedicated post on this subject, but in essence back button focus is reconfiguring the buttons on your camera so that there is a separate button to trigger the autofocus system. Moving it away from the traditional setup of a “half press” of the shutter button.

This has a number of benefits in motorsport photography, but I’ve detailed of that in this post.

Fine Tuning Focus Tracking For Motorsport

Fine Tuning Focus Tracking For Motorsport

In addition to setting up your camera to ensure you are focusing on what you are actually planning to photograph, you can also fine-tune your autofocus settings the ensure that you maximise the number of sharp photos you capture.

On Canon cameras, there is a specialised AF (autofocus) section of the menu where you can hone in these settings. One I would make particular note of is the Servo AF settings section. This will allow you to fine-tune the tracking sensitivity and how the autofocus system reacts to rapid changes.

My best suggestion for the Servo AF settings on Canon cameras is Case 3 – “Instantly focus on subjects suddenly entering AF points”. This setting will help you ensure that you capture the action, especially if you need to quickly adjust to something happening on track.

Other camera manufacturers don’t have quite as many options to adjust their autofocus systems, but there are a couple of things to look into. On Nikon cameras, you can find similar autofocus fine-tuning adjustments in the custom settings menus. Specifically the Focus Tracking with Lock-On setting.

While on Sony cameras, in the AF menu, AF Tracking Sensitively is where you will need to look to make adjustments.

Conclusion

At the end of the day motorsport, particularly circuit racing can be wildly unpredictable at times. The more that you control that you have over how your camera autofocus system works, the more quickly you’ll be able to adjust to the action and the more predictable the results of your photos will be.

Mastering the autofocus of your camera system will take time and practice, but once you do, the quality and the consistency of your photos will be a step above everyone else trying to become a motorsport photographer.

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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