Formula 1 - Not only is it the pinnacle of motorsport, but with the recent resurgence in popularity from the Netflix series Drive To Survive, it...
How To Photograph Formula 1
Now, no matter if you’ve photographed motorsport before or it’s your first time, I have an abundance of tips that will help you get some awesome shots at the next Formula 1 Grand Prix you attend.
That said, most of these tips also apply to all other forms of open-wheel motorsport. From Formula 2 and Formula 3 that, you might also see running at Formula 1 events through to development series like Formula 4 and Formula Ford. In fact, the only open-wheel series that some of these tips might not apply to is IndyCar, where the aero screen makes it more like photographing prototype sportscars.
If it is your first time taking photos at a motorsport event, there are a few basics you’ll need to understand before you get there (and read the rest of this post). I would start with my getting started in motorsport photography guide but also read these posts about speed and motion (panning), shooting through catch fences and how to adjust your autofocus for high-speed action.
Now with all of that out of the way, let’s dig into all of my best tips on how to photograph Formula 1 – or any other open-wheel motorsport category, for that matter.
Formula 1 Is Fast, But Not How You Might Expect
You’ve seen Formula 1 cars on TV, you know they are fast. If you’ve photographed motorsport before, you should have some idea of what it’s like to capture images of cars coming at you at high-speed.
But it’s not the outright speed you need to account for when photographing F1 cars on track. It’s how quickly they stop and change direction that will catch you out. The braking efficiency and aerodynamic effect of Formula 1 cars mean (more so than any other category of motorsport you might photograph) that you need to understand where the cars are going be and what they are going to do before they get there to capture nice sharp images.
If you are photographing F1 cars as they are braking on the approach to a slow corner, typically where the best grandstand seats are, they will reduce speed very quickly. That can make it very hard to get smooth panning photos, and it also pushes the limits of your autofocus system in your camera to be able to adjust to make sure your photos are properly in focus, especially photographing cars head-on.
The same also applies when photographing Formula 1 cars as they go through corners. They change direction very quickly and hold much more speed through corners than other categories. So instead of trying to follow the car through the corner, at least initially, watch a couple of cars go through the corner so you can predict where they are generally going to be (try to line up the apex of the corner is easiest) and use that to compose your photo and pre-focus to be able to ensure you get the best possible photo. Especially when shooting through catch fences.
Once you’re more confident in predicting how the F1 cars are moving through the corner, you can try something a little more advanced, like panning with them.
Bring The Longest Lens You Can
Bring the longest lens you can, even if you have media accreditation to shoot Formula 1 (which you can find out more about here); the safety measures of most race tracks will mean you are far away from the actual circuit.
Now there is one big caveat to this. If you are a spectator on a regular admission ticket, some venues won’t allow you to bring in a big professional lens that requires a monopod.
Even if you’ve been to the same track before for another event and been allowed to bring your big lenses in, the rules will most likely be different during a Formula 1 event. The extra security and shear volume of people means different rules will apply, and it will be worth checking before you head out to the circuit.
That said, some of the “less professional” lenses are still very good with excellent reach. Canon, Nikon and Sony all offer lenses that you will be able to shoot the on-track action from the stands without spending tens of thousands of dollars or having to carry a big professional lens around that security might not allow you to bring into the venue. Check out this post for my lens recommendations for motorsport photography.
Focus On The Helmet
If Netflix has taught us anything, the Formula 1 drivers are the stars of the show. And one of the unique aspects of open-wheel motorsport, of which Formula 1 is the premier category, is the ability to see the driver’s helmet.
So, if you are photographing Formula 1, you need to bring focus to the driver’s helmets. There are a couple of different ways to do this, depending on how and where you are shooting from, but the goal is always the same.
For more static photos, when shooting with a high shutter speed, this can be achieved with good focus and a shallow depth of field. That can be hard when a car is approaching you at 300+kph, but at slower corners where you are closer to the action, it’s worth trying so you can get those awesome F1 photos.
When panning, you want to focus on following the driver’s helmet with a smooth action to ensure that is the part of the resulting photo that is sharp. Particularly important when taking panning photos when you aren’t directly side on to the car. The resulting blur will bring greater emphasis to the driver’s helmet and, subsequently, the driver.
Once you get good at getting the shot, try slower and slower shutter speeds for a more dramatic effect and much more dynamic photos.
Use High-Speed Burst And Auto Focus Modes
Given the high-speed, action-packed nature of Formula 1, you want to lean on all the tools you have at your disposal to get those amazing photos. High-speed burst and servo-autofocus are two of those tools built into almost all digital cameras.
High-speed burst mode will give you the maximum chance of capturing those high-action moments Formula 1 is famous for. Sure, you’ll end up with a lot of extra photos if you sit on the shutter button too long, and buffering is a genuine possibility. But when something dramatic happens out on track in front of you, you will want to make sure you capture it.
As for AI-Servo, it allows your camera’s autofocus system to adjust while capturing photos as the car gets closer to you, especially when photographing Formula 1 cars at high-speed. It won’t guarantee that every photo is sharp, back to my previous point about how quickly F1 cars can change their speed, but it will give you the best chance to capture the maximum amount of sharp photos.
Move Around The Track
Sure, you might have grandstand tickets with some of the best seats in the house, but how can you be sure if you don’t check out the rest of the track?
Take some time to wander around the circuit and see what other vantage points are on offer and what photos you can capture from them. If you have your heart set on watching all the F1 action from your grandstand seat (which I understand, those tickets are expensive), walk around during some of the support categories instead.
If you have a general admission ticket, you’ll be more inclined to try and see the Formula 1 action from a number of different vantage points. But just remember, the crowds are going to flock to the fences right before the F1 sessions start, so make sure you pick out the spots that you really want to get shots from and grab your position for the start of the session.
Formula 1 sessions are long, with an hour for each practice, so you have plenty of time to try a couple of different vantage points. Just be mindful of making your way through the rest of the crowd. Typically, Fridays are the least busy days (at least in terms of crowds) at Grand Prix.
Shoot and Review
Depending on where you are in the world, you might only get one chance to attend a Grand Prix per year. It would be a shame to get to the end of the weekend and not have any photos you are happy with.
The more you photograph motorsport, the more you get a good feel for the shots you are capturing in the moment without having to constantly review the back of the camera. But if it’s your first time photographing Formula 1, or even if you don’t photograph Formula 1 very often, the screen on the back of the camera can be a useful tool to ensure you are getting the photos you want.
Making sure your panning shots are sharp, ensuring the helmet is in focus, adjusting to the speed at which Formula 1 cars change direction. You can easily do this at the end of the Formula 1 on-track sessions on the back of the camera. The good thing about F1 events is that there is a lot of downtime between sessions, giving you ample time to look through your photos and make sure you are getting the shots you want.
That said, don’t just rely on the back of the camera. Get your photos onto your computer as well to ensure your pans are sharp where you want them to be and that your focus is pinned. At the very least, at the end of each day when you get back home (or to your hotel). That way, you can learn and make any adjustments before the next day of track action.
Don’t Forget The Off-Track Functions
As I said before, the drivers and, to a slightly lesser extent, the team principles are the stars of the Formula 1 show.
Your photos of the race weekend wouldn’t be complete without getting some shots of them off-track as well. Luckily, Formula 1 organisers do a really good job of making sure the fans get a chance to see their favourite drivers in person with scheduled driver arrivals and a number of autograph public interview sessions throughout the race weekend.
Make sure you check the schedule for these and use them as an opportunity to get candid photos of the drivers talking on stage, signing autographs and interacting with fans.
However, if you are there as a spectator yourself, don’t get too caught up in taking photos that you forget to get your favourite driver’s autograph as well.
Have fun with it. Photographing Formula 1 is a challenge especially if you don’t photograph motorsport all the time. But a rewarding challenge when you capture some awesome photos of some of the best drivers and fastest cars in the world.
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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