Which Lenses Do You Need For Motorsport Photography

by Mar 1, 2023

When you get started in motorsport photography, it can be easy to believe that you need a couple of cameras and several lenses. Because that’s what the pros have, right?

Sure, those of us who have made a career out of motorsport photography have built up quite a full camera bag with a variety of equipment, but you certainly don’t need that when you start out.

So let’s break down which lenses you really do need for motorsport photography, and when you should buy them.

Purchasing Your First High-Quality Lens

When you initially bought your camera, you no doubt ended up with a basic kit lens (or two). This is all you need when you are starting out and learning the basics of motorsport photography. However, as you start to hone your skills and master the art form, then it’s time to start looking to make some upgrades.

As you purchase high-quality lenses, keep in mind that they will long outlive the camera bodies that you purchase. Modern camera technology, particularly mirrorless cameras at the present moment, is evolving rapidly. As such, you are going to want to replace and update them quite regularly. However, lenses, on the other hand, only get updated every several years, and the updates, when they do arrive, aren’t usually so significant that you need to purchase a new lens each time it’s updated.

For me, I hang onto my lenses for a long time. Up until I made the switch to RF glass, I had lenses that were over 15 years old. But my camera bodies were (and still are) always the most current versions available (or at least the generation prior).

I budget in that I’ll have to replace my camera bodies roughly every three years. But lenses I’ll use until I have no choice but to replace them.

When you purchase your lenses, keep this in mind. Yes, they are very expensive, but you are going to use them for a long time. Much longer than the camera bodies you attach them to.

The 70-200mm

A staple of the motorsport photographer kit bag, the 70-200mm f2.8 is the very first lens you should look to purchase as you start to take your photography more seriously.

For motorsport photographers in particular, this is an important focal range allowing you to get quality on-track shots at most venues. While the wide aperture will allow you the flexibility to capture cool portraits, even in a dimly lit garage.

Given its wide popularity, every camera and lens manufacturer offers a version of the 70-200(or a crop equivalent in the case of brands like Fuji).

My best advice is to purchase the most recent, highest-quality version you can afford at the time. Ideally brand new, but given how good these lenses are, a recent second-hand version will be just as good and save you a little bit of money.

The best lenses from each manufacturer have a letter designation in their name to identify the top-tier glass.

For Canon, that is L in the product name, while the top lenses also feature a red ring around the lens. Nikon’s Nikkor S lenses are its best offering. As for Sony, their best lenses carry the G Master (GM) designation, identifiable by the red G logo instead of the regular black one.

Just keep in mind that the lenses from third-party brands like Sigma and Tamron are also very good and often cheaper than their camera manufacturer alternatives. However, as you start to build your kit and become more professional as a motorsport photographer, you should look to join your camera manufacturer’s professional services program (CPS for Canon, NPS for Nikon and Sony Imaging Pro for Sony something I’ll address more thoroughly in an upcoming post), these third-party lenses don’t count to your membership qualification and cannot be serviced by these professional service companies.

A Long Lens

Which Lenses Do You Need For Motorsport Photography - Long Lens

Now that you’ve added the 70-200 to your camera bag and maximised your creativity with it, it’s time to consider your next lens purchase.

While the 70-200 is a very good and versatile lens, in terms of sports photography, its reach is quite limited, especially in motorsports. Adding a longer lens to your kit bag will really open up a lot more photo options for you, particularly at newer race tracks with much longer run-off areas. 

However, while picking up the 70-200 is very clear cut, every manufacturer offers one. The options for a longer lens are a little more diverse. 

Sure, I could simply tell you to go out and purchase one of those big 400mm or 600mm prime lenses that you often see around race tracks. But in reality, some of the newer smaller mirrorless zoom options are optically just as good (in most cases) as the big prime lenses, while being much more versatile and cheaper.

In fact, with most professionals making the switch to newer mirrorless bodies and lighter gear, spotting those big prime lenses has become increasingly rare.

Spending $10,000 to $20,000 on a big prime lens is a huge investment. And one that is harder and harder to justify as the smaller zoom lenses with good reach continue to improve, especially the current offerings. That said, there is still a trade-off, though.

Given how narrow the aperture range is on these zoom lenses, especially at full extension, there are some limitations you need to consider if you plan on shooting at night or on a heavily overcast/rainy day. To keep your shutter speed up during those high-action moments of the race, you are going to have to push your ISO hard. This is where the bigger prime lenses still justify their existence and expense.

Now, in order to keep this information up to date with the most up-to-date developments in lens technology, I’ve broken down my lens recommendations for the three biggest manufacturers that you’ll most likely see at your local race track into their own posts. You can check those specific recommendations here – Canon, Nikon and Sony.

Just keep in mind when looking for lenses with a long reach that while the bigger prime lenses do have their benefits, if you pay attention to what the professionals are using as they upgrade their gear. You’ll see less and less of them around race tracks, especially for series that predominantly race during the day.

With all that information in mind, you can quite confidently purchase the smaller, more versatile, and ultimately cheaper “long lenses”, knowing that you most likely won’t have to upgrade it for some time (or at all).

A General Lens

Which Lenses Do You Need For Motorsport Photography - General Lens

Once you’ve added longer lenses to your camera bag, it’s time to look to upgrade the kit lens that came with your camera.

To this point, we’ve focused on improving your photos by opening up new shot options to you with your lens purchases. However, once you’ve reached this point of your motorsport photography journey, you will have started to experience and notice the limitations of the kit lens that came with your camera—particularly in image quality compared to your newer lenses.

The good and bad news is every single camera manufacturer has a bunch of options for you to purchase to improve your photos in this standard zoom range. The question is, which is the best option for you?

The easiest recommendation I could make is for you to purchase the 24-70mm f2.8 lens that your camera manufacturer offers. But that’s not always the right solution.

I personally use Canon’s 24-105mm f4 as my “general lens”. For me, this gives me a small but versatile lens that’s not just handy trackside, but I can also use it for portraits and studio shoots as well as something that is easily portable should I choose to take some photos while travelling, etc. This version of the 24-104 also has a 77mm filter size to match all of my other lenses (the 24-70mm f2.8 is larger at 82mm), which also saves me from purchasing even more polarisers than I already needed. These are all small details, but they are worth considering as you continue to build and upgrade your own camera kit.

So which general lens should you purchase? This is going to come down to your own personal preferences and what else you photograph outside of motorsport. My best advice is to purchase something that includes that 24-70mm range from your camera manufacturer’s top-tier lenses but address the limitations you experience.

The good news is, that once you get to this part of your motorsport photography journey, you’ll have some idea of your style and how you like to shoot, so you can focus on enhancing that with your lens selections. Be that prioritising aperture for low-light photography or depth of field, diversity of focal range if you need the flexibility to zoom or other ergonomic factors.

If you’d like to see my specific recommendations for each camera manufacturer, check out these posts – Canon, Nikon and Sony, but use your own best judgment to work out if these recommendations suit you.

A Wide Lens

Which Lenses Do You Need For Motorsport Photography - Wide Lens

At this point, you might think you’ve got all the lenses you need. But I’ve got one last suggestion for you, a wide lens.

While the three lenses you’ll already own at this point will cover the entire focal range you need trackside. Adding one last, wider lens, will give you the full kit you need to work creatively as a professional motorsport photographer.

Yes, 24mm is generally considered a wide angle; however, In this instance, I’m going to suggest that you go even wider than 24mm. The most common lens in this range is the 16-35mm, which, again, every camera manufacturer offers (or at least something very similar).

But why do you need a wide lens in motorsport photography? While on-track action is often far away, there are exceptions and other elements to the sport that are very close to the camera.

Street circuits are a great time to use wide-angle lenses. Often, the concrete barriers are right up against the track, allowing you some really creative angles with a wide-angle lens.

Also, getting shots of drivers in the car is another very good example of where using a wide lens will give you more flexibility to put the driver in context and show off more of the scene. And wide angle lenses are especially important if you’re working with a team that needs you to cover a ride day event for them.

That said, 16-35mm isn’t the only right answer. If you want to mix things up, you may want to purchase a much wider fisheye lens instead of something more traditional. At this point in your motorsport photography journey, you should have a really good idea of the styles of photos you like to take, and you’ll be able to make your own more informed decision.

Conclusion

These are the four main lenses you need to purchase as you look towards becoming a professional motorsport photographer. But I do want to emphasise that you do not need to purchase all this equipment all at once, especially if you are just starting out.

Instead, I would strongly recommend that you take gradual steps as you start to hit the limitations of the equipment that you do have.

Purchasing your lenses gradually will allow you to make informed decisions when making those purchases so that you can use them for a very long time. Maximising the return on your investment.

Just to reiterate the point I made at the start of this post, there is almost always a compelling reason to upgrade your camera bodies, but lenses you will hang onto for a very long time. So making well-informed decisions when buying them will save you a lot of money in the long run.

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.

2 Comments

  1. Chris M Garwood

    Hi Rhys,

    I’m looking to expand my lenses for motorsports. I’m heavy into the Nikon Z platform. I have a Z6ii, 24-70 2.8, 70-200 2.8, as well as a 14-30 F4. I’d like a longer lens. But the choice isn’t a clear one for me. Does new 180-600 5.6-6.3 non S, or the 100-400 4.5-5.6 S make more sense?

  2. Rhys Vandersyde

    I’m not as familiar with the new mirrorless Z mount lenses from Nikon as I am with other manufacturers, so I can’t say which is the better lens. That said, if portability is more important to you, I would suggest the 100-400. If reach is more important to you, then I would go with the 180-600. To determine if stabilisation is a requirement for you shoot a day with the stabilisation turned off on your other lenses and see what the results compare to a normal day.

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