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From two wings to four wheels
written by James Goggin


I'll expect you are asking yourself why on earth has he started off this article about Motor Sports with a photograph of a Supermarine Spitfire ?!?! The reason is quite simple really, it was this photo that led me into the world of motor sports photography back in October 2001. I had posted this image in a photography forum (I was unaware of Fred's site at that time), and although a large number of people praised the image, the overall consensus was that the image did not portray the speed & power which the aircraft undoubtedly had. I therefore set out to practice new techniques so that I was prepared for this year's airshow season and motor sports was the obvious practice ground, little was I to know that I would become hooked.

It's all in the preparation

  1. Check the lay of the land.

    I like to have a plan of action when attending an event, this starts off with doing some research on the circuit. Most circuits have a website with a map of the circuit and usually you can make an educated guess which corners are going to be more productive than others. Look for viewing areas on the inside of bends, where you can usually get closer to the action. The outside of bends usually have large gravel pits and high safety fences restricting the chances of decent photographs.

    Make use of practice sessions and track days to try out different areas of the circuit, then if the crowds swell for the feature races restricting your movement, you will already have a good idea of where to locate for the shots you want. The practice sessions also give a good idea of where drivers like to overtake either by outbraking into a corner or along a straight.

  1. Check the lay of the land (2).
  2. Okay so you've found a prime spot, no fencing/tyre walls in the way, close to the action, and plenty of action on the track. Before starting to fill up your memory card with photos, check the scene again. What's the light like, are you facing the sun, where will it be later in the day (important if its likely you'll be unable to relocate later). Check the scene in the viewfinder, is there a distracting background or look for objects that could enhance a scene such as colourful kerbing.

  3. Wait for the action & fire away

Compose the shot, wait for the right time and take the shot. Keep reading for details on my experiences to date.

Equipment Needed

I currently use a Canon EOS D30 and am still amazed by the quality that this camera can produce. In an ideal world my list of gear would include lenses as extravagant as a 400mm or 600mm f2.8. However, my salary does not extend to such levels and I make do with a Sigma 70-200 f2.8 EX HSM with a Sigma EX 1.4x Teleconverter. Should you get the opportunity to get into the paddock or pits area then a smaller lense is always useful, and for this I use a Sigma 24-70 f2.8 EX DG. However, a long lense can still be useful to isolate subjects in the pit area.

I have used a 1gb IBM Microdrive since purchasing my D30, but have recently started using a SANDISK Ultra 512mb Compact Flash card, and I have to admit that there is a noticeable improvement in the write to disk time of this card. This is very useful when capturing fast incidents such as accidents, spins etc.

This was taken on my first motorsports photography outing, taken at a track day at my local circuit. EXIF Info: EOS D30, Sigma 70-200 @ 200, 1/750sec, f/3.5, Exp: TV, ISO: 200, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto.


Common techniques

When I first started out, I would rely on using the fastest shutter speed possible and the camera's AI Servo Auto Focus. Although initially pleased with the results, the large aperture blurs the background making the subject stand out, they still lacked that sense of speed. I still use this technique today but try to keep it to situations where the stance of the car/bike implies its speed or in head on situations. Look for corners where the bike is leant over, or cars with the suspension compressed on one corner or the driver's stance portraying its action. The fast shutter speed also freezes any background action that might imply the speed of the situation such as impacts with barriers, competitors etc. It is possible that by using a large aperture, only part of the subject will be in focus, and for this reason I try to aim at the driver's head.

Here are a couple of shots that I had taken that illustrate the use of fast shutter speeds

Another track day photo, I particularly like the rider's helmet's colour scheme and reflection of the kerb stones in the visor. EXIF data: D30, Sigma 70-200 @ 146mm, 1/800sec, f/4.0, Exp: TV, ISO: 200, AF: One Shot, WB: Cloudy


This was taken at a rally school and the student had coming together with a collection of cones. EXIF data: D30, Sigma 70-200 @ 200mm, 1/1000sec, f/3.5, Exp: TV, ISO: 200, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto.


Formula 3 action at Oulton Park. I spent the day trying different techniques and this photo really shows how using a fast shutter can make cars look stationary. EXIF data: D30, Sigma 70-200 @ 200mm, Sigma 1.4x T/C, 1/1250sec, f/4.5, Exp: TV, ISO: 200, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto.

The trick to get the sensation of speed is to pan the camera at the same speed as the subject. This will motion blur the background but keep the subject sharp. Easier said than done ! Be prepared to take a lot of shots, results are really hit and miss but the more you practice the more success you have. I liken my practicing to that of a golfer practicing their swing, as I have found my results have dramatically improved over the months and even during the day whilst on location.

I started off with a shutter speed of 1/400sec and gradually reduced the speed as I became more comfortable with my technique. I now tend to use a shutter speed of somewhere between, 1/60 and 1/160sec.

I have found the D30's AI Servo Auto Focus to be unreliable when panning, often going out of focus just when I was about to take the shot. I now manually focus on the spot where I plan to take the shot. I find it useful to note an object such as a change in tarmac texture, skid mark, or tyre wall as a point of reference, so that when I'm panning, and I see that point of reference enter the viewfinder, I can estimate better when the subject will enter the area I've focused on, and take the shot. If you take the shot when the subject is in the area you've focused on, it will be too late, and the subject will have passed.

Another motorcycle track day, I had not pre-focused for this shot, but instead used One Shot Auto Focus and kept pressing the shutter button to focus as the bike approached. EXIF data: D30, Sigma 70-200 @ 200mm, 1/320sec, f/5.0, ISO 100, AF: One Shot, WB: Cloudy


I love these classic racers, for this shot I had manually focused on the track and panned with the car. If you look at the rear of the car you may note that there is a line of cement dust on the track, and I used this as a reference point when panning. EXIF Data: D30, Sigma 70-200, Sigma 1.4x T/C, 1/100sec, f/11, Exp TV, ISO 100, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto


How I'd love to own one of these ! . EXIF Data: D30, Sigma 70-200, Sigma 1.4x T/C, 1/100sec, f/11, Exp TV, ISO 100, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto


Classic Formula Ford at the Gold Cup 2002. For this shot I used a path which runs alongside the circuit but high above the track, again I manually pre-focused and tracked the car as it approached. EXIF Data: D30, Sigma 70-200, Sigma 1.4x T/C, 1/125sec, f/11, Exp TV, ISO 100, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto


Try something else

If there's one thing I've quickly learnt about motor sports photography, its that there is a massive number of highly competent photographers out there. You only have to look at the samples in the forum on this site. I have therefore been trying different techniques to try and get my photos to stand out of the crowd. I'm enjoying this creative side, as I learn more about both the camera's and my own abilities. Feedback has so far been positive, and as my access is restricted (I have yet to get that elusive press pass !), I'm pleased with the results to date.

More F3 action. Having recently added the D30 battery grip, I found it was easier to angle the camera and concentrate on the driver. Panning was very comfortable using the additional shutter button on the battery grip. EXIF Data: D30, Sigma 70-200, Sigma 1.4x T/C, 1/160sec, f/10, Exp TV, ISO: 100, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto.


Classic Maserati @ Oulton Park. For this shot I used a slow shutter speed, used the camera's Auto Focus concentrating on the driver's head and did not pan as the car was coming towards me. EXIF Data: D30, Sigma 70-200, Sigma 1.4x T/C, 1/125sec, f/11, Exp TV, ISO 100, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto.


Classic Formula Ford @ Oulton Park. Another simple panning shot but I decided to concentrate on the driver's interesting paint job on his crash helmet plus the engine detail. EXIF Data: D30, Sigma 70-200, Sigma 1.4x T/C, 1/125sec, f/16, Exp TV, ISO 100, AF: Manual Focus, WB: Auto.


I hope you have found my experiences interesting & helpful, especially if you are new to motorsports photography. My aim is to give beginners confidence to get out there and experiment. All I can say is get out there and enjoy yourself, if you get stuck just ask in the forum, it works for me, as there's plenty of highly capable photographers just waiting to help.

So have my aviation images improved from 6+ months of motor sports photography, judge for yourself...

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt "No Guts, No Glory" at Flying Legends 2002, Duxford (UK).
EXIF Data: D30, Sigma 70-200, Sigma 1.4x T/C, 1/250sec, f/8.0, Exp TV, ISO 100, AF: AI Servo, WB: Auto.


Thanks for taking the time to read, I can be contacted at [email protected].

Kind Regards,

James Goggin