Which Lenses Do You Need For Motorsport Photography
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. I’ve got lenses in my kit that are 15 years old. But my camera bodies are the most current versions available (at the moment).
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. That’s usually due to damage either from a mishap during travel or at the track.
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.
A staple of the motorsport photographers kit bag, the 70-200mm f2.8 is the very first lens you should look to purchase as your 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 aperture will allow you the flexibility to capture portraits, even in a dimly lit garage.
Given its wide popularity, every camera and lens manufacturer offers a version of this lens (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. While Sony’s best lenses have the G Master designation, identifiable by the red G logo instead of the regular black one.
Just keep in mind that while the lenses from third-party brands like Sigma and Tamron are very good, and often cheaper than their camera manufacturer alternatives, as you start to build your kit and become more professional as a photographer, you will look to join your camera manufacturers professional services program (CPS for Canon, NPS for Nikon and Sony Imaging Pro for Sony something we’ll address more thoroughly in an upcoming post). These third-party lenses cannot be serviced by these professional service companies.
A 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 many more photo options for you.
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 a 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 options are just as good (in most cases) as the big prime lenses, and much, much cheaper.
If you are just starting out spending $10,000 to $20,000 on a big lens is a huge investment. And one that is harder and harder to justify as the smaller lenses continue to improve, especially the current offerings. So let’s have a look at those. To keep this information up to date with the most up-to-date developments in lens technology, I’ll focus on the mirrorless options from the three biggest manufacturers that you’ll most likely see at your local race track, Canon, Nikon and Sony.
Canon’s RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM is a very good versatile lens. With the extra 100mm reach over its EF predecessor, it actually gives you quite a lot of photo options at even the most sparse race tracks. For the price and flexibility, you will actually see that a lot of the professionals that use Canon gear, and have made the switch to mirrorless, using this lens in preference to the prime options.
That said, there is a trade off though. Given how narrow the aperture range is, especially at full extension, this lens along with all of the options from the other manufacturers I’m about to mention, does have limitations 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 justify their existence and expense.
Nikon’s offering is very similar, the NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR. Having used this lens briefly, it’s near identical to the Canon offering, albeit 100mm shorter. Obviously, you are going to use the lens that matches your camera body, but if you are reading this prior to making an investment in your camera gear, the lenses aren’t going the be the deciding factor.
Sony on the other hand actually has two options. The FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS is pretty much the same as the Canon and Nikon offerings. Where Sony differentiates itself is the FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS offers even more reach. While I haven’t personally used the Sony lenses, the feedback I have received from the pros that do use them has been 100-400 is consistently sharper of the two and focuses more quickly, but you might find that the tracks that you visit most often necessitate having the longer reach.
All of these options provide an image quality that is not noticeably dissimilar to their larger lens counterparts, all while being significantly cheaper and much easier to carry around.
Obviously, the bigger prime lenses do have their benefits, but 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
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 the limitations of the kit lens that came with your camera.
The good and bad news is every single camera manufacturer has a bunch of options for you to purchase to achieve this. 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 for you.
I personally use Canon’s 24-105mm f4 as my “general lens”. For me, this gives me a small but versatile lens for portraits, and studio shoots as well as something easily portable should I choose to take some photos while travelling etc. It 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.
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 (just in case you skipped the first part, that’s the L range for Canon, S series for Nikon and G Master range for Sony) 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.
A 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, purchase a wide lens.
While the three lenses you’ll already own at this point should give you most of the range you need. Adding one last, wider lens, will give you the full kit you need to work as a professional motorsport photographer.
In this instance, a wide lens is anything 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). At this point in your photography, you will be well investing in one particular brand so just purchase the one relevant for your camera.
But why do you need a wide lens in motorsport photography? While on track action is often far away, there are other elements to the sport that are very close to the camera. Getting shots of the driver in the car is one very good example, of where you can only get the shot if you use a wide lens. It’s especially important if your working with a team who needs you to cover a ride day event for them.
Street circuits are another good example where having a wide lens in your kit bag will open up even more options for you. The tight confines of most concrete-lined street tracks often limit the angles you can get when shooting with longer lenses. However, a wide lens up against the catch fencing can create some dynamic photos, especially if you need to get the shots at arm’s reach.
If you want to mix things up, you may want to purchase a fisheye lens instead of a more traditional wide lens, but at this point, 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.
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. Instead, I would strongly recommend that you take gradual steps as you start to hit the limitations of the equipment that you do have.
By purchasing your lenses gradually, it will allow you to make informed decisions when making your 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.
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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