Motorsport Photography Camera Settings Cheat Sheet
That said, the automatic settings that your camera applies never really work for motorsport photography. The cars move too fast. Even when using sports mode, if your camera has that option, it struggles to use the right settings to properly capture cars on track.
What I’ve done to help you get out of auto mode on your camera is to create this handy cheat sheet that will allow you to understand what settings you need to change and what situations you should use them to give you the best chance at progressing in your motorsport photography.
Please keep in mind this is a very oversimplified guide to help you get started. Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques and composition, then you can get more creative with the settings that you use. Always keep in mind that the more settings you control, the more creative control you have over the images you create, which creates more predictable photos.
Basic Camera Settings
To really simplify things, and make it as easy as possible, allowing you to focus on your technique and composition, I recommend that you use your camera in Shutter Priority mode.
On Canon cameras, this is the Tv (Time Value) mode. While Nikon and Sony cameras typically labelled this as S or S-mode for Shutter Priority Mode or Shutter Mode.
Using Shutter Priority mode will allow your camera to do the hard work of changing the aperture and ISO to balance the exposure while allowing you to control the most crucial creative element in capturing motorsport photos: the shutter speed.
So, what shutter speed should you use? Let’s take a look.
To Freeze The Action
1/2000th to 1/1000th – The appeal of the motorsport is the highspeed action. In order to freeze a moment, you need to use a very high shutter speed.
This shutter speed range will allow you to freeze the action. Use this setting at high-action moments, particularly race starts, when things are the least predictable. It’s also a good setting to use when photographing race cars when they are coming directly towards or away from you to ensure the sharpest possible photo.
To Create Motion Blur
1/160th – 1/80th – Showcasing speed and movement is an essential part of motorsport photography, and the best way to do that is motion blur/panning.
While there are a lot of variables to good panning photos, using a shutter speed in the range of 1/160th to 1/80th is ideal for not only getting the race car sharp in the photo but also creating enough motion blur in the background to showcase speed and movement.
As I said earlier, this is massively oversimplified, but if you just focus on these settings while you are learning the other aspects of motorsport photography, it’ll help speed up your learning. Then once you are more comfortable and confident with how your camera works, you can work on controlling more settings and getting even more creative with your photos.
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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