How to Photograph Motorsports

How to Photograph Motorsports

by John Thawley

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The majority of my motorsports shooting is done traveling throughout North America with the American Le Mans Series. I want to be perfectly honest here, I enjoy car racing… though I am not a racing fanatic. I like what I do. I like it a lot. But I love photography. A lot.

I make this distinction because I often get emails asking how to get into motorsports photography where the writer will cite; “I love racing and I love photography… nothing would be better than combing my two passions… blah, blah, blah.” Being polite, I don’t delete the email, I answer it. But I have to tell you, that comment is about as ludicrous as stating, “I love blondes and I love brunettes… marrying both would be my dream….” No it wouldn’t. It would be your demise.

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What I’m saying is, pick one. Pick one and be prepared to bleed for it. Make no mistake, the racing community loves their fans. However, they don’t want them working on their team, in their garage or standing around drooling in pit lane. If you want to shoot motorsports as a pro, you’d better be a photographer first. And please don’t stop me at the track to discuss this point. It’s non-negotiable.

Another thing I’d like to get out of the way is the credential process and safety.


Safety is a must in motorsports. Your head needs to be on a swivel. Things are happening fast. And when they do happen, they’re not happening in any rational or predictable manner.

If you are a hard card credential holder and given access to go over pit wall during the race you need to be on high alert. You need a fire suit and you need all of your wits about you. Just as you learn to anticipate action on the track, you must also study and understand the pit stop. You need to know where to move, when to move and when to get out of there.

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A basic rule of thumb with pit stops in endurance sports car racing is to follow the tire changers. When they are changing outside tires, be on the outside… though keep in mind you now have your back to traffic. When the tire changers move to the inside, you move back to the wall. It would be ideal if you were at the rear of the car when it exits its pit box. It’s a choreographed dance and you need to make sure you’re not in the way.

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Additionally, if you are shooting in pit lane, it is a common courtesy stay out of a team’s pit area unless given permission. They are working and they don’t need your safety and whereabouts added to their job description.

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When shooting trackside, do not lean on safety walls. Do not put your equipment on the safety walls. Do not hang over the safety walls and do not step “just” in front of the safety walls. And always, always know in advance which way your going to vacate your spot in an emergency.

Finally, NEVER EVER cross a hot track… and understand that a yellow caution flag is still a hot track. You really should rule out ever stepping on the track for any reason unless you are in full view or being accompanied by an official. I can count on one hand the actual locations and reasons I might cross any of the tracks I regularly shoot. It’s just not done.

If you are granted a credential, be sure and attend the mandatory photo meetings and LISTEN. They are talking to YOU. The guys that have hard cards have heard it all before… yet they are there and they are listening. Things change at a race track and it’s important you know what’s going on. If you have questions, ask them. These meetings are necessary and those of us in the business respect each other enough to attend. – Don’t expect donuts.

Lastly, a credential is not a “photo pass.” It is a privilege extended to those in the media that have a job to do. Yes, it provides access to specific areas that are off-limits to fans and spectators… but first and foremost it allows us to do our job. And if you think for a minute that it’s all about getting the good shots, allow me to introduce you to a half dozen guys that will trade places with you and still shoot your lights out. They’re not “good” just because they have a credential. They have a credential (and the work) because they are good.

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Trust me, motorsports offers some of the best access and opportunity for amateur photographers. There are amazing shots to be had. But what most amateur photographers don’t realize is you have to move. We might cover the entire circuit two or three times throughout a given weekend… maybe more. You can’t just show up at the race and stand by the fence and complain that you don’t have the access of the pros. Most of the unique stuff we find is because we anticipate and move… and we move a lot.


2009 Year In Review – Images by John Thawley

It Ain’t Rocket Science

Ok, ok… it’s NOT rocket science. Now the grammar lesson is out of the way, let’s address the question motorsport shooters get asked most, “how’d you get that shot?”

First, and this is important, what I discuss throughout this article is purely MY philosophy and about what works for me. Other photographers may have a completely different take on it and may tell you I don’t have a clue. Maybe… maybe not. But after years of muddling my way through and literally hundreds of thousands of frames, I’ve come to a few conclusions about how and why shots happen.

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If you’re shooting sports or action photography, it’s the action that’s in control. You’re not controlling the action. For the most part, you’re purely a spectator. Pick up your camera, you’re a reporter. The photographers that are really good… well, they ‘OWN’ that camera and become fantastic story tellers.

YOU can’t control the event or events. Unlike the tree in the forest that falls with no sound if no one’s around to hear it, these events will happen… with you or without you recording it.

The biggest mistake you can make is to approach motorsports with over zealous “creative” objectives. What I mean by that is trying to implement design elements into your photos based on commercial ideals. I’m not saying these ideals can’t be accomplished, but you run the risk of ruining your outing and missing a lot of other great opportunities. Remember, this event is a life drama, a dance that is playing out in front of you. So, let it.

Let it happen

If you’ve worked on your basic skills and you’re in control of your gear, the task at hand is “seeing.” What I mean by that is, how are you going to tell this story to someone who wasn’t there?

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Most accomplished photographers “see” in photos. They’ve got an invisible viewfinder in front of their eye. It’s like the average person looks at a tree and sees a tree. The forest ranger sees a tree and thinks of a forest. The guy from the paper mill sees the tree AND the forest and thinks of nothing but paper. Well, a photographer needs to think and see in pictures.

So, as you move around, look at things framed up with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Crop. Move. Bend your knees. Find an angle that’s interesting. What’s in the foreground? What’s in the background or in each of the corners? Is this frame going to present our subject in a favorable and exciting setting? Will the point of view tell the viewer more about our story?

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Obviously, you need to think about the light and the time of the day you’re going to shoot, but you’ll also want to consider the lens focal length. Do you want to shoot tight or loose? Maybe you need to do both. What will the difference be if you move in and shoot with a short lens or move back and shoot with a long lens? Will the compression of long glass give a nicer look to the background? And, of course, what exposure settings will give you the best “creative” result. Do you want to freeze the action or show the action?

These are the elements you’re in control of and the things that will give you a distinctive edge in telling the story. Think these through at every location.

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You need to have your head on straight about your role in this process. Again, the action is going to happen. Your job is to position yourself and prepare yourself to capture it. The rest is luck. Yep… that’s right… LUCK. And even the best of the best will tell you that in the end, they were somewhere preparing to shoot something else, and suddenly something happened in front of them. Sure, they had their ducks in a row and were prepared to take advantage of the opportunity. But all of the preparation in the world means nothing if NOTHING happens. And believe me, there are lots of times when NOTHING happens.

Pay Attention To Video Coverage

Another lesson you can take is from television coverage. Watch video carefully. Television coverage gives an illusion that they are “following” the action. Sure, there is movement of the camera and panning involved, but for the most part, the action happens within the video camera’s frame. The director will switch to a camera that picks up the action. The action will move into frame, play itself out and then the camera might follow it a bit to segue into the director’s next shot. The point is, the camera man lets the action happen. Trust me, we’d be throwing up from nausea if they attempted to continually follow the action with the camera.

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This is what you want to do mentally. Let the action play out in front of you. Anticipate what’s going to happen and try to be in position. Be prepared, but give yourself the benefit of the doubt and have options. If your shooting and you’re working a corner, try to shoot that corner from several points of view. Shoot tight, loose, head-on, 3/4 pan coming into the apex, or even slightly going away.

Don’t get wrapped up in always shooting tight or full frame on the car. Remember, ultimately, your viewer will want to know where this is all taking place. So, while that new Audi Prototype looks cool and the look in the driver’s eyes is intense, where is this happening? Is this a race? Is it any track USA? Can I tell from your photo that it’s Long Beach, Road Atlanta or historic Sebring?

If you pay more attention to your composition, clean backgrounds, lens choice and lighting, the action will happen. The shots will come. Just relax. If you’re enjoying yourself, it will show up in your photos. It’s all happening around you. If you have command of the basics, you can take the time to observe your surroundings and think of ways to tell your story.

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Study the work of other photographers. Not so much the EXIF data, but the PICTURE. Look at the photo. Try to deconstruct what they actually saw and then how they “made” the actual picture you are seeing. Is the shot stronger because the point of view is lower? Is it a location that was so-so during the day, but fantastic in the morning? What is the light doing to other objects in the background or how is it affecting the colors? Only then will the EXIF mean anything.

It’s only when you understand the look of the image that the “settings” mean anything. Photographers always ask me, “what settings do you use.” And therein lies the rub. You don’t “use” settings. You apply them as needed to each and every scene and they’re different in each and every instance.

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So, the gist of this introduction was to bring you back to basics and have you understand that great photos come when you’re prepared to let them happen. Eric Clapton isn’t thinking about the next chord when he’s laying down a track… he’s letting it happen. He knows his technique inside and out. All he’s doing when he plays is massaging each note to blend with the pallet of the other notes surrounding it. It’s harmony and the guy is at one with it. That’s where you want to be… and that’s the beauty of action and sports photography. Know your role, then go out and let it happen.

Equipment

I’m always asked about equipment and what to buy. I wish there was a simple answer. Obviously, everyone’s situation is different, be it their needs, shooting objectives and of course, budget.

Before we get into the gut wrenching decisions and choices, let’s start with a moment of zen:

Repeat after me. “What stands between me and greatness, sits between my ears, not in my equipment bag.” Now say it again.

Rather than throw out pat answers suggesting one type or another, or favoring one brand over another, I try to guide people toward asking themselves the right questions and coming to a conclusion on their own.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of great cameras out there and certainly something to suit every application and pocket book. Sure, you could simply read all the reviews or even just break the bank and buy the latest and greatest. But, in this day and age, is that really necessary? I’d urge you to over-buy by a little bit, since that’s always better than underestimating your needs. But you don’t have to go whole hog and you shouldn’t blow the rent just to soothe your ego.

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If you’re a pro, an aspiring pro, or even a very serious hobbyist, then the answer is simple; buy the very best you can afford. Do your homework, balance the system for the type of shooting you intend to do, and put the emphasis on quality lenses. Bodies come and go, but the life of a lenses will easily span several generations of bodies. Now, that’s not to say just buy a sub-par body. But buy the best when it comes to glass. You won’t regret it.

Over the years, I’ve typically carried two or three bodies. I tend to stick to the Canon xxD series and change them out frequently. This year I added a 5D MK11 to the mix.

My switch from film to digital came with the Canon D30. Since then I have continually upgraded with each new model, always carrying two or three bodies. Trackside, I’ll have two bodies with lenses mounted and I rarely carry any equipment with me. I’ll make the choice of lenses ahead of a session based on where I’m going to shoot. For the most part, one body will have the Canon 500mm f/4 mounted up along with a monopod and the other will have a 70mm-200mm f/2.8 attached. I usually know in advance if I’m going to need a 16mm-35mm and I rarely take the 24mm-105mm trackside. Heading into pit lane or doing a paddock walk-around presents another set of choices. I’ll try to talk more about that later.

Lenses

As mentioned, most current model DSLRs today can do a good job. However, they can only capture the image that’s reported to the sensor. Regardless of how the sensor and software record that image and translate it to a file, the pure source is the image that comes through your lens.

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Also consider, lenses have a much longer shelf-life than bodies. Camera bodies come and go. At the consumer and even pro-sumer level, a new body comes to market every 12-18 months. And even the pro bodies seem to get a face lift every 24 months. Not so with lenses… especially at the high-end of the spectrum.

View a lens purchase as a long term investment. There’s an old saying in business and sales stating, “you can have it good, fast or cheap… pick two.” Nowhere does that quote ring more true than in the lens market. There are good lenses. There are fast lenses. And, there are cheap lenses. I have NEVER seen all three characteristics in a lens. I’ve seen it in lens reviews… but oddly, never in practice.

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Here’s a cold hard fact: You do not want a cheap lens. You do not want a “kit” lens. If you are serious about photography as a career or even a serious hobby, you have to make your lens purchases serious too.

What You Are Paying For

When you buy better glass, you are paying for quality of optics, construction, mechanical performance and investment. You might be asking, why investment? Well, good glass holds its value and therefore has a good resale value. Since there are lenses better suited for specific types of photography, you never know when you might want to swap out a lens to suit your interest or needs.

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A top of the line Canon “L” Series lens will typically retain 75%-85% of its original price on the secondary market. Even if it’s been replaced by an updated model, you might still see a 50%-65% resale value. Not so with lower priced lenses and non OEM name brands.

Buy fast lenses. When we talk about fast, we’re addressing two things, the aperture performance in low-light settings and the lenses ability to autofocus quickly. You always want to buy lenses with good low-light performance. Of course, that comes at a price. And, the longer the focal length of the lens, the more of a challenge that becomes.

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Quick autofocus is a priority for a sports shooter or for capturing anything with action. So keep that in mind when you are formulating your plan.

Low light needs can be assessed individually but I’ll warn you, we all think we aren’t going to need it. Trust me, you will. A lens that is fast and good in low light will always come in handy. And when you are shooting wide open apertures, you’ve got shallow depth of field to work with to enhance your compositions. Try to fit the faster lens into your budget.

For shooting sports action, you’re going to want a medium telephoto. And, since you’ll want to compose your shots on the fly with limited ability to move, a zoom is perfect for the job. Two of the most popular zooms out there are Canon’s 70mm-200mm f/2.8 and Nikon’s 70mm-200mm f/2.8 – These are both excellent performing lenses for their speed, sharpness and color clarity. I’d highly recommend either of these lenses.

Beyond the 200mm range, you’re headed into the stratosphere price-wise. Long, fast glass requires big fat dollars. But you can hedge your bets with prime lenses like the Canon /f3.5 300mm or f/5.6 400mm. They are tack sharp, though you might be a bit challenged in low light.

DO NOT try to find a zoom that will take you from 28mm-300mm.. or anything that claims to be all in one. The wider the range of zoom, the more elements it will need. The more glass(elements) you shoot through, the slower the lens will get and the SOFTER the image will be. It’s just math folks. I don’t care what the salesman or the brochure says, they haven’t reinvented physics.

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For the motorsports shooter, the 500mm is his or her “normal” lens. Seriously, you don’t leave home without it. And it’s not because we like everything tight and filling up the frame. A long lens will allow you to create incredibly unique compositions. The 500mm will travel down pit lane, over hill and dale and yes… even through the woods.

To summarize, you probably need four lenses… 16mm-35mm, 24mm-105mm, 70mm-200mm and a 500mm. There are other options, of course… but those are the top four in my bag.

Don’t become an equipment junkie. Remember, it’s all about making pictures, NOT collecting equipment. I said it before and it’s worth repeating, “what stands between me and photographic greatness lies between my ears, NOT in my camera bag.” So, follow the equipment advice and then go to work on improving your picture taking. You should only upgrade when you find that your equipment is not keeping up with you. And again, review the benefits. Will these benefits improve your photos? That’s the benchmark.

Thinking Outside the Hole

Traveling with the ALMS, one week we’re in St. Petersburg on a temporary circuit and two weeks later we’re in Long Beach on yet another temporary street circuit. Both have very limited shooting access, and what little access you do have can be very challenging to get to. Trust me, it’s easy to talk yourself into shooter’s block shooting temporary circuits.

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But wait, maybe limited access is a good thing. Maybe you can turn it around. Here’s an idea. Ignore the limited access. That’s right, ignore it. When I say ignore the access, I’m speaking specifically about the photo holes. You know, those predetermined locations where the track promoter graciously, albeit begrudgingly, takes a pair of tin snips and opens up the fence. For the most part, the photo holes are located in the same place each and every year… though sometimes they do seem to disappear. I’m not sure how that works. I mean seriously, how does a hole disappear? Oh well, I digress.

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Back to the predetermined photo holes or, as indicated on the track map, the photo locations. Let’s just think about this for a minute. If the photo holes are predetermined and printed on a map, what do you suppose is going to happen? Isn’t EVERYONE going to shoot through them? Of course they are. They’re on the map. You numbly go to the organizer’s mandatory photo meeting. You get the map and you use it locate the holes.

Now I know about now you’re saying to yourself, “OK, Thawley. Been there done that. What’s your point?”

I’ll tell you my point. If the holes are predetermined, doesn’t it also make sense that your allowing your shot selection to be predetermined? Hey, I’m sure you’re a great shooter and you’ve got all the trick gear and lenses, and I’m sure you’re going to walk away from that photo hole with a couple of different looks that are absolutely “spot-on.” But will they be any different than what any other photographer got by shooting through that same hole? I didn’t ask if they’d be better. I asked if they’d be different.

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With the mental block of shooting St. Pete and Long Beach back-to-back, I made a decision. THINK OUTSIDE THE HOLE. I realized that if I made a conscious effort to work at avoiding the photo holes, I’d have a much better chance of coming away with fresh views and images of the event.

Of course, there are specific locations where the shot is good, especially if it’s a tight car shot you’re after. But given my goal of improving my view and reportage of the overall event, “Thinking Outside the Hole” seemed like a good plan. Would it be successful? I didn’t know for sure. But I did know if I went to these races and helped populate the predetermined photo holes like everyone else, I’d come home with exactly what I shot last year.

Now before you set about and begin avoiding all the photo holes, make sure you’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I don’t want to imply that the photo holes are bad and that you shouldn’t shoot through them. Quite the contrary. If you’ve prepared a general idea of your shot list for the weekend, there are going to be a few “must-have” shots. If you’re shooting for specific clients, they too will have requests. But I think my logic is good and with a little planning in advance, I think you’ll find you’ve been overlooking a lot.

Auto Pilot Off

So, now we’ve got our brain off auto-pilot, what are we looking for? If we’re looking for something different, we’re going to have to look differently. Not straight ahead or just side-to-side. You need to look up. You need to look down. Find lower vantage points. And by all means, look for higher vantage points. I mean really high vantage points. One suggestion Regis Lefebure threw out was to simply climb the grandstands. The point is DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Spend some time doing recognizance work.

Believe me, it doesn’t take much effort to make things start happening for you. And, if you really wrap your head around the concept and the logic behind it, you’ll soon see that it applies to all kinds of photography.

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In 2008, as Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course’s track photographer, I had the opportunity to shoot a few events were the infield wasn’t as crowded as the Indy Racing League and American Le Mans Series events. You have no idea how your view of the track changes. My friend, Chris Clark, and I found ourselves standing in the middle of the infield with our 500mm lenses coming up with all kinds of fresh looks. That opportunity changed our entire point of view shooting future events at the same track.

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At the St. Petersburg Grand Prix I found myself up in the top of the grandstand reviewing a shot where the cars head from the city streets back to toward the airport. It’s a so-so shot and I’ve shot it before. Suddenly the sky opened up and it began to pour. I moved to front center of the grand stand since it was covered for hospitality use later in the week. Suddenly, there it was. A nice loose shot that took in a good portion of the front stretch with lots room to track the car for a slow pan. In addition, the rain had given things a lot of nice contrast and the dark sky helped brighten up the lights on jumbo-tron. This became one of my favorite shots of the weekend.

Again at St. Pete, instead of fumbling around trackside with the short morning warmup, I decided to go to pit lane and take advantage of the morning light and the bustle of pit lane. I also chose to go carrying only a Leica Digilux 2 which carries only a 28-90 f/2 zoom. With the session red flagged, it fell right into my hands and provide some very nice background and atmosphere images.

At Long Beach, I’ve never been happy with the start shot. I’m fortunate enough to receive a reserved spot on the turn-one shooting stand, but the shot leaves a lot to be desired. The cars are too spread out by time they get to you and there’s not much else to shoot once you’re up there. Considering I felt I had nothing to lose, I set out to find something else.

I had been walking about earlier in the day and noticed that the Hyatt Regency where we were staying had a railing encompassing the roof. I figured what the heck? I knew I would get some great shots up there. I might not get the start shot, but I was sure there’d be some cool looks and I wasn’t going to get much of a start shot anyway.

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I got permission (and a security escort) to shoot from the roof. I took three bodies mounted up with a 12-24mm, a 70-200mm and my 500mm. I don’t mind telling you though, I goofed. I think I could have swapped out the 500mm for my 24-105mm and picked up a few more looks.

The 12-24 was perfect for wide arial views. And, there were several clean shots as I moved around the roof perimeter looking toward the water. The 70-200 was good shooting some of the cars a bit tighter, but where I missed was not having something in between the 24mm and the 70mm. One provided too much car and pavement and the other was too much scenery. Oh well, next time.

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I made three other shots that I particularly liked in Long Beach. The first was simply shooting the track surface by placing my camera directly on the ground. This was using a Leica Digilux 2 set at 28mm, angled slightly upward. The other was a going away shot using my 500mm taken through an open in the K-wall. Other photographers were shooting the same location, but I moved about 15 to the left and got more of a slice along the track edge. It wasn’t the most used line, but it was a great look.

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My very last shot of the weekend appeared as I was crossing the pedestrian bridge that goes across Ocean Drive. I saw a line of spectators that were back lit as they overlooked Pine Street and viewed the far end of the track. I thought it was a nice representation of the event and the crowds Long Beach attracts. There are also several “landmark features” silhouetted in the shot.

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The Pan Shot… Taking Control

Let’s start this section with a disclaimer; There are many ways to skin this cat. While there are technical theories and logic to be applied, opinions, styles and technique will vary. What is written here is my take on the situation based on my personal experience and philosophies. So, use at your own risk.

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It seems any discussion of motorsports photography will ultimately make its way back to the pan shot. While it might be a “staple” shot in a shooter’s repertoire, it can also find its way of becoming a crown jewel in your portfolio.

In reality, or at least to my mind, the pan shot is almost a genre unto itself. There are so many variations and “looks.” In fact, the panning motion creeps in to many types of shots. It’s simply a means of keeping energy and putting movement into your photos. It maybe a short quick pan tracking a tire changer or following a car coming off a corner almost directly toward you. It is for that reason, it’s a required skill if you plan on calling yourself a “motorsports shooter.”

Again, what I’m going to share is what works for me. Others may argue some of the points, but I think I’ve broken it down in a manner that will take some of the mystery out of the technique and give you a basis to build your skills.

Let’s start with the fact that there are no basic camera “settings.” I see this question all the time on internet Forums, as if you can just dial in the settings and it will all work out. Like any shot, the settings can cover the spectrum depending on what you want from the shot. Your ability to adapt to each situation is what will separate the good shooter from the average shooter.

And that brings up another myth. Panning is NOT necessarily about the speed of the car. It is the motion of the camera. So, the trick is controlling that motion to create the effect and get the results you want.

The swing’s the thing

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Panning is about YOUR swing. It is no different than a good golf swing, tennis swing or any other activity where you “swing.” It is all about developing a consistent swing. Sure, a golfer may swing a little harder or softer from one shot to the next, but for the most part he’s choosing a club that fits his swing in order to accomplish the distance and shot he needs. The clubs are the tools that extend and generate the required results from his swing.

You need to do the same thing. Find a comfort zone. Swinging too fast will produce a jerky erratic movement. To slow will produce a wobbly shaky movement. You want a nice smooth movement. A rhythm and follow through. And not necessarily across an entire 180 degree arc. Your swing motion should be smooth, steady and most of all, comfortable.

So, how do you keep up with the car’s speed while controlling your swing?

Once you’ve developed a constant smooth comfortable swing, you then adjust your position and alter your lens (club?) choice. By making these adjustments, you make the speed of the object your photographing fit your swing. Get closer or move back. Choose a longer or shorter lens. Make the combination work so that you are in your COMFORT zone. In theory, if you are in your zone with a smooth swing and the right lens, at the right distance, I should be able to reach over your shoulder and adjust the camera’s shutter speed without affecting the shot… within reason, of course.

The further away the car is, the slower it appears to be traveling. Think about it. If a car came by just 12 inches from you doing 30 miles an hour, it would scare the living daylights out of you. But, the same car could go by at 120mph 300 feet away and look like it’s doing 55mph. You’d think nothing of it.

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So, by positioning yourself properly and choosing the right lens, you can track the car while pretty much having the same swing rate most of the time. Of course you’ll learn to adjust your swing speed up or down a bit as needed and as you improve your technique. But ultimately you’ll find a sweet spot where it just feels good… smooth and in control.

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Hold the lens under the barrel like a rifle. Tuck your elbows in. Breath. Pick up the car. Track it. Then squeeze off a few frames while you are tracking the car and follow through. It’s all about rhythm. Once you find it, you’ll get comfortable and start dragging that shutter slower and slower.

Don’t look for fixed settings. It’s different with every lens and every set of circumstances. Good panning is all about understanding the geometry. You can successfully pan with a 500mm lens at a higher shutter speed than you might with 100mm lens. Remember, it’s the movement of the camera. A little movement with a 500mm returns a lot of movement when you extend that movement all the way out to your subject.

So now, with the situation in our control, we can make creative choices that help tell the story we want to convey to our audience.

The Side Pan

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This is the standard pan shot and probably the best place to start honing your panning skills. It’s also the perfect shot to demonstrate what changes using different shutter speeds. Remember, your aperture setting is fairly inconsequential when panning. Other than stopping way down to handle the amount of light a really, really slow shutter allows, the aperture is not going to change much in the outcome of a pan shot.

Find a nice gentle corner where you can shoot from the inside of the turn. This is nearly the perfect scenario since your movement (which is an arc) has a better chance of syncing up with the cars movement (also an arc). If you’re on the outside of the turn, your panning arc will be directly opposing the cars arc, so choose the inside. All we want to do at this point is get some success under your belt and work on developing your swing.

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If you’re in a corner where the cars pass through at a good constant rate of speed, start with your shutter at 1/250th. Use a single sensor in your cameras focal point settings. Put that point right on the car’s side panel and follow… shoot… follow. Burst two or three frames. Take a look at the preview. Magnify it and see if any of the frames look sharp. Look at the seams on the body work or decal edges. Shoot some more and start dropping down the shutter. Don’t go crazy, but as the frames improve in sharpness see if you can get down to 1/100th or 1/80th.

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Now download those images and study them. Depending on how tight in the frame you have the car, the “corner-to-corner” sharpness should be pretty good at 1/250th. And, it will soften if you got down to 1/80th. Any lag in your swing and tracking of the car will be reflected in the softness of the image. It will be more exaggerated at 1/80 than at 1/250th. Put aside your best shot at 1/250th, assuming it’s sharp. Now practice until your arms are sore and see if you can make a 1/125th (or even 1/80th) shot as sharp as that 1/250th shot you put aside. That will show you your progress in improving your swing and your marksmanship. Believe me, it takes practice.

The 3/4 Pan

The 3/4 pan is a shot that’s somewhat more “stylized.” It’s a pan where the car is coming at you as opposed to coming past you. Keep in mind, in order for everything to be in focus, the subject would need to be traveling on a plane perfectly parallel to the lens face. In a pan where the car is coming at you at an angle, only part of the car will be parallel to the face of the lens at some point of your swing. Try to picture a point where the car is intersecting with an imaginary line that is parallel to the face of your lens. The intersection is where things will be most in focus. Creatively, that’s where you’ll want to make your shot. Most shooters go for the nose, or in open cockpit cars, the helmet.

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It’s also important to note, as the lens sees it, the front of the car is traveling across the lens face faster than the rear. That’s because (as mentioned above) the rear of the car is further away. So, we know only a specific portion of the car will be in focus. By really dragging the shutter, say 1/30 sec., we’ll really get a lot of blur but we’ll also give up a lot of “in focus” area. Ideally, if we manage to get the nose the sharpest point, we give our viewer the sense of a what a bullet this race car really is. The viewer has a visual sense of the speed and energy.

Keeper Rate

Forget that. If you’re looking for great shots, there is no such thing as keeper rate. Sure, you’re not going to be swinging for the fences when you first start out. Understandably, you’ll start at a higher shutter rate. But, seriously, who cares about how many you get? The only thing that matters is the shot that makes you go WOW. Get the shot. I’d rather have one mind blowing shot at 1/15th or 1/30th of a second than 100 nice pans at 1/125th. Unless it’s an historic moment in time, no one will ever remember the shots at 1/125th.

Obviously, if you need things for a client or something specific… sure, get the safe stuff done. But then, go swing for the fences… go nuts. We’ll talk more about keeper rate toward the end of the article.

Night Moves

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Because I shoot mostly endurance sports car racing, I’m always asked about shooting motorsports at night. Here, I’m going to put forth some personal philosophies and talk about how I approach some of the variables involved.

Again, I urge you not to take what I say as gospel. This is what works for me… and this is my personal take on the concept of shooting into the darkness. Many people do many different things and have a completely different take on what they feel looks good. So, please, as with all things I write and put forth as philosophies and ideas, keep in mind this is simply what works for me.

Let’s start with my personal thoughts about shooting in the dark. First, I shoot with the basic premise that I want my shots to look like they were shot WHEN they were shot. Second, I don’t want them to look like trick or special effects “lucky” shots. And, frankly, that’s what I see a lot of. Sure, some of it works, but I don’t think you can survive on a few lucky shots. I want a process that generates clean shots that I can replicate with a certain degree of consistency. I want to see the same style to my night shots as I you’d see in my day shots.

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To my mind, night time shots need to look like they were shot a night. If you’re going to flood the place with a flash unit, what the heck, just come back during the day when the corner is lit the way you want it. For me, I don’t like the look of the car… I don’t like the look of the wheels and I don’t like the look of the foreground. I just don’t like the look.

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Fortunately, the latest digital cameras are producing excellent results using their high ISO settings. I’ve been using new Canons this season and at high ISO they produce extremely clean files… provided you DON’T underexpose. I will tell you right up front… you’re going to have fits in post processing if you try to inch your way along shooting slightly underexposed. You’ve got to bring it up and go for it. If you attempt to correct an underexposed high ISO file in post, it’s going to come undone on you. You’ve got to let the camera work.

High ISO setting is not going to completely carry you, though. You’re going to have to really drag the shutter once the sun is gone. If you start shooting at sundown, you’re going to find yourself chasing the exposure in non-stop fashion until you’re completely out of light.

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I’ll try to hang at 100 ISO as long as possible, using the slowest shutters I can get away with and opening up a stop every five minutes or so. Trust me, once the sun starts to set, it is flat out pandemonium. I figure I have about a one-hour window to get what I want. And knowing I only have a few opportunities a year to shoot after hours, I want to capitalize on every minute of it.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and find your own level of comfort. If you “must” use a flash, try dialing it down… it can do some fun things to the graphics on some cars… but for the most part I think you’ll find it just adds too much of a “shocked” look to the image and wreaks havoc with the wheels.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Sometimes, no matter how much planning you do, the shot you want doesn’t materialize. It’s just the nature of sports shooting. Getting that “perfect” shot often can rely on many things out of your control all coming together at the exactly the right time.

So, what can you do? You can be ready. You can put yourself in the right position and hope that you are there at the right time. And, lastly, hope you put it all together when the opportunity does present itself.

Well, I had one of those weekends. Right time. Right place. Wrong outcome.

I’m not an accident chaser or shooter by nature. It’s just not what I’m looking for. What I like more about sports and motorsports are the emotions… the energy, seeing people challenged, excited, frustrated and disappointed. So, I’m looking for more opportunities to get those emotions in my work.

Most photographers I know are sick of podium shots. They have the spontaneity of the “Mornin!” yelled at you by a ‘been up all night’ waitress at one of those roadside Waffle Houses at 0’dark early in the morning. Sooooooooo sincere.

“And our winners.. raise trophy, change hat, photo, raise trophy, change hat… confetti..” and so on. They’re awful.

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How come everyone is over there?

On one particular weekend an opportunity presented itself that could have made for a terrific post race celebration shot.

Mosport has a square “victory lane” where they bring the winning car or cars into the area and then hold the podium ceremony. There is catwalk about 20′ up that overlooks the whole thing. My plan was to be up on the catwalk 30 minutes ahead of the checkered flag and wait for the finish. I had mounted up a 12mm lens that gave me a perfect full frame of the anticipated scene below.

What should have happened goes like this; The winning car pulls into place and as the crowd and all the other photographers rush the car to catch the driver’s jubilation climbing out of the car to greet his team and the fans. My goal was to capture a terrific overhead shot of the entire scene. Beautiful. Or… it would have been.

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Seems somewhere along the way, someone forgot to inform the drivers of where they were supposed to pull into victory lane after they took the checkered flag. Instead, two of the class winners stopped somewhere down the front straight by the starter’s stand and the other two class winners decided to stop on the front straightaway perfectly aligned behind two rows of media photographers who were all looking the other way.

Great idea.. great planning… out of my hands. Oh well, you just have to keep trying.

Keeper Rate, Burst Shots and Other Expert Myths

“So, what’s your keeper rate?” I get this question a lot.

First… who cares? I mean seriously, all that matters are the shots you keep.

Wayne Gretzky said it best, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Second, photography is an art. It’s about composition, exposure and sure, to a certain degree, accuracy. But this notion that burst shooting is “spray and pray” is nonsense. Burst shooting is ESSENTIAL in action photography. That’s why it was created. Not just to increase your chances of getting a shot, but to create an opportunity of providing choices and choosing the best of a sequence of shots. In motorsports, if you are a panning an apex there is geometry involved. If I burst five frames and three are nice, I can choose the best… not simply accept the one I got.

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Motorsports is no different than stick and ball sports, a lot can happen in one second. When a football receiver is catching a ball, there will be moments where the ball is not yet in his hands, in his hands, or ideally, JUST touching his hands. Don’t kid yourself, even 8-10 frames per second isn’t fast enough to always get it right. The same goes for getting those great shots of the ball leaving the bat, or tennis racket… or a golf ball in flight with the golfer staring it down. Burst shooting not only increases the opportunity to get those shots, it allows us to get them better. It’s all about BETTER.

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My philosophy is, if you are not deleting, you are not trying hard enough.

Keeper is simply a frame of reference. Keepers are your personal benchmark for “ok.” They are simply what you accept as good solid shots. They are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Unless your goal is mediocrity.

I’ll easily log 5000 frames for a 2-3 day event. I will delete 2000-3000 of them.

Using Aperture, Apples Pro Photography application, the remaining images will be sorted and ranked. They will be stored in the event someone calls needing a specific shot. I’ve learned over the years, you can never second guess an ad agency and I really have no reason to delete the photos anyway. Local drive space is cheap.

After ranking and sorting my “keepers,” about 650 images that I feel represent my work and the quality I perceive as true to my brand, they are given a three-star rank. These are considered good solid inventory. They are all processed, captioned and keywords added.

Of that 650, about 150 will be promoted to a five-star rank and moved to my online archive at Photoshelter. Beyond that, maybe 10-20 of those will be tagged for consideration in my year-end portfolio. By year end, after shooting 50,000-60,000 images, about 150-200 will be reviewed and narrowed down to 80-100 for a my Year In Review.

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Each year, the degree of improvements become more difficult to reach. They also become more important in how you define your finished work. After all, the devil is in the details. This is no different than any endeavor where you want to perform at your best.

I look at the race cars and teams I shoot. When a team brings out a new race car they immediately begin shaving whole seconds of their lap times throughout early testing. The testing provides great strides in their improvement. As they dial things in, the increments of improvement become smaller…. in the next phases of development they begin chasing 1/10 of a second improvements. With each session, it becomes more and more difficult to shave time. By the time a team and new car are clicking and they’re fighting for a championship, they will be working endless hours and spending untold resources chasing down another 1/100th of a second. Those last 1/100th’s are the most difficult and most costly (both in dollars and human resource) to attain… but… THAT is what it takes to win!

Think about a golf tournament. 100 guys play for three or four days, over 72 holes. One player wins… yet after all those playing holes and all those strokes, how many times is the winning margin more than one stroke? The winner gets something like a million bucks and a Mercedes while the second place guy gets $100K and a Buick. And it was only for the difference of one stroke. But it’s a big difference in the end, isn’t it?

You’re goal in photography should be no different. It requires you leave nothing on the table and leave nothing to chance. It’s not just about marksmanship, it’s about creativity and pushing yourself. Sure you’ve got to technically “nail” the shot, but you’ve also got to create the shot and make it your own.

Getting Better by Staying Inspired

I written extensively about using small cameras as an exercise to help make you think differently. Having limited tools can force you in a new direction or at least a direction you might not have chosen had you been armed with a full arsenal of camera gear.

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Consider the gear used by some of the greatest photographers of our time and before our time compared to what we use today… well, there is no comparison. Let’s face it, with today’s equipment, if you’re having trouble getting a correct exposure and the subject in focus, you might want to consider a different career path. Today’s camera technology is off the charts and probably to the point of creating new charts.

Given that, the competition, professionally, as gotten greater and greater. The fact that “most” photographers can deliver a clear and in focus image increases the supply of available photography. You don’t need to be an economics major to understand supply and demand. Digital has had a chilling effect on the supply side.

Or has it? Well, short answer yes. If your knocking on doors peddling mediocre images at a mediocre price, you can bet you’re going to feel the pressure. And, chances are, you’re going to respond to that pressure by lowering your prices.

Bad idea. If your plan of competing is to simply sell more for less, you’re putting a timeline on your dismal future.

It is at this moment in time that you need to take stock in what you are doing and ask yourself, “what can I do?”

The answer is simple. Deliver a better product. Better images, better service… be better.

Anyone can ultimately beat your price. There are hundreds of photographers out there willing to take your client and deliver the goods for less money. So, if you think you’ll be the last man standing in a price war, you are dreaming.

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Anyone can beat my price. I can’t control that. But if they want to beat my quality, they’d better be prepared to work. If they think they can beat my service, they’d better be prepared to work some more. If they think they’re going to simply undercut me, they’d better get smart. Anyone can do something for less. Not everyone can do something better.

So, how do you get better? You work at it. You look around. You observe. You soak up everything you can and get brutally honest with yourself. And whatever your competitors are doing… do more.

I’ll save the business side of things for another time. But make sure you understand, the mindset is the same and is a constant. You have to be better than you were last year. If you stay the same.. if you do things the same… you’ve gone backwards… the field is catching up.

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So, how can you continue to improve your photography?

First and foremost, stop existing in a vacuum. Expand your vision by expanding your “experience quotient.” Look around. When you watch a movie, watch it frame by frame… or scene by scene. Cinematographers frame shots very much the same way photographers do. But what you can learn from them is how they move about… or how their subject moves about, within a frame or sequence of frames. As a motorsports shooter, I’ll sit through the Steve McQueen movie, Le Mans, with my jaw wide open. The shot selection in that movie is endless. Sadly, some are not available to me on a live track… but the ideas and inspiration is priceless.

Go to the book store. Sit with the books of famous photographers. Dissect what they are doing… what you like and what you don’t like. Look for common denominators in their style. And, look for common denominators of technique from one great photographer to another. There are consistent traits that make great photographs. Try to familiarize yourself with them and replicate them in your own shooting.

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I’m not one to spend time with technical books. Assuming you have your technical skills in order, turn to the likes of Jesse Alexander, Louis Klementaski, Nigel Snowdon and other great motorsports shooters. I like the older works since the importance is usually placed on content, light and composition. It’s fantastic stuff and if you can mentally put yourself into their shoes and try to deconstruct how they shot a particular image, it’s not hard to appreciate the difficulty of what they did.

I’ll also look beyond my own interest and discipline. Look at portrait photographers… or street photographers. And again, look at those who worked with minimal equipment. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams or earlier work of Annie Leibovitz.

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Of course there are lots of contemporary photographers you can learn from. But, I like to avoid those that are immersed in studio and technological wizardry. Not because I don’t like that sort of thing… I do, and I admire the talent. But I want to look at and learn from the simplicity of simply shooting a camera.

Lastly, I’ll look at my peers. I’ll always visit websites of Rick Dole, Regis Lefebure or John Brooks. Or I’ll watch for images created by other photographers I work with and along side of.

Get a small camera and keep it with you. Or put ONE simple lens on your current body and go out and shoot. Put aside the time. Go and shoot different things.

If you’re having trouble wandering aimlessly, check out some of the photography websites and forums. For instance, Fred Miranda (www.fredmiranda.com} hosts two “Assignments,” one weekly and one monthly. Each week (or month) they establish a theme. To be eligible to enter, you MUST shoot your image during the week/month of the assignment. This is a great way to broaden your horizons and advance your photography skills. What I have always liked about theme type assignments is they force you to think. You’ll be stunned at the quality of images and even more so when you see how people think outside the box and interpret the assignment. Remember, it’s not about winning… it’s about learning.

Challenge yourself to improve. Don’t settle. Don’t put limitations on yourself, EVER…. unless your goal is mediocrity.


John Thawley maintains an archive filled with trackside photography from SCCA SPEED World Challenge, American LeMans, Grand American Series, Trans-Am IRL, and Champ Car. In 2003, Thawley was the official photographer for the Trans-Am Series for the BFGoodrich Cup.

In addition to being a full-time motorsports photographer, John Thawley owns Creative Communications Group. Creative Communications Group is a company specializing in graphic design for print and electronic online applications. Unlike traditional graphic designers,Thawley has pursued the integration of online communications with traditional media as a seamless language.

Follow him on Twitter at @JThawley

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There are 20 comments for this article
  1. Richard P Walton at 5:41 pm

    Great stuff, thanks for sharing. some good information and lovely shots. I like how you talk about not having to have all the kit to be good. something i’ve stuck by for a while now. thanks Richy

  2. Mark Bolster at 8:23 pm

    I’m a pro photographer with 30 years of experience under my belt. I got interested in professional commercial photography through being a huge auto racing fan. Thought it would be a wonderful career to attend races all over the place on an expense acct. and photograph what I loved so much. After shoot a few road races at Watkins Glen I discovered a couple of things…1) If you are serious about getting great shots of racing, you never really SEE the race, except for the very tiny window of your viewfinder. This was very frustrating, as doing photography was taking away from my love of the sport. 2) Finding NEW and unique angles and shots is extremely difficult. When most races occur at mid day the lighting generally isn’t that interesting either. Photographing a 24 hour event would be the way to go and still something I’d like to try sometime. 3) Finally…shooting during the race weekend is DAMN HARD work. Lugging 600 and 300mm lenses around a road course that is almost 4 miles in 90 degree heat and high humidity IS NOT fun. Still, I greatly admire anyone who has the chops and can actually make a living doing this. Like all other forms of shooting it becomes more and more difficult to make good money doing what you love to do. I still enjoy going to the track, but let other people lug the cameras. Thanks for the great article John. It really tells it like it is and is one of the better articles I have seen on motorsports. Good luck in your career!

  3. Pam at 10:47 pm

    Wonderful post. It’s easy to see that you are passionate about what you are doing. You have some great images. Lot’s of what you have to say is good advise no matter what type of photography you are involved with. Thanks for the information. Funny comments on choosing between a blonde and a brunette. I’d choose neither and enjoy my life. Again, great pointers. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

  4. Matt at 1:29 pm

    Wow – excellent article. This is fantastic content and a lot more than a simple blog “post”. I’m a big fan of John’s work – what a treat to be inspired by both image and text!

  5. Jackie at 1:56 pm

    thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. i will be attending the 24 Hour at Daytona for the fist time next week and i will have a lot of reading to do before i get there! should make for an exciting event.

  6. SDK at 2:40 pm

    Some good advice and insights A lot of amateur photographers have an overly romantic view of professional photography; ultimately it’s work – good work – but work nontheless so it’s nice to read an article hit the right balance between motivation and the reality of the job.

  7. Andrew Stott at 2:21 pm

    Fantastic post, John. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and process! I don’t do motorsports photography myself, but this is the type of information that can help any photographer. Your focus on telling the stories, instead of the technical “details,” is truly inspirational! Thanks again!

  8. Judy at 11:54 pm

    Great article! I can sure use a lot of this information. I’m just getting started in MX Race shooting! Totally fun after yrs of portrait studio work. I mostly do landscapes now and I’ve noticed my MX shots are more landscapeish <<new word…lol Anyway This article helps me to think outside the box and it gives me some ideas for the next race! thanks for sharing your wisdom and talent! Judy

  9. Gary Laster at 8:38 am

    Great post. I have not had the privlege of shooting sports car racing..YET! My usual fare is dirt super late model racing. Dirt offers a whole world of challenges that pavement shoots do not have to contend with. the two biggest are crappy track lighting and DUST! Usually by the halfway point of the night I am shooing with available light only. Which goes back to problem #1. One track I shoot at alot has four different types of lighting. One spar in turn one has there different types and temperatures of lights. Talk about a post processing nightmare. Some of the best and most dangerous shooting I hav done in the past two seasons was at the USAC TORC events in Charlotte. I was shooting for USAC and was able to get within five feet of the track with no saftey barriers. I had to keep my head on a swivel and my feet in gear. This year, I had to book it three time in seven laps! My favorite position is in a tower at 311 Speedway in Madison, NC. The track is a 1/2 mile, 18 degree banked affair. The tower is only six feet off the racing surface behind a five foot high berm. The platform is 18 feet above the bottom groove. When the cars are qualifying they come into turn 1, set, and pick up the right front. The driver is looking right at me with the car jacked out to the right anywhere from 20-45 degrees. Makes for some awesome shots. I agree with the keeper rate comments. I will shoot 600 frame on a typical night and I am satisfied with 50 percent during the day and 10 percent at night. Try to think outside of the box for pit shots. Amateurs befriend the track photographer and please respect his business. I started out shooting for fun, now I am published in several magazines and am considered one of the best in our area for my discipline. I have gone out of my way to get the angles that other overlook. Talk to your track promoter and see if he/she will let you know when someone is renting the track fro practice. Call them and ask if you can come shoot in exchange for a couple free shots for their websight. Remeber, 5″ @ 72dpi is plenty, never give the high-res away for free.

    Stay safe,

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  13. Billy Suratt at 11:57 am

    Thanks for a great motorsports photography tutorial. The NASCAR assignments I’ve gotten over the years have been some of the most fun I’ve had in sports photography (and I ordinarily can’t stand racing, so that’s saying something).

  14. Bob Beacham at 12:54 pm

    Great article – I’ll be referring to this constantly! I’ve found that checking with the local race circuits to find out when owner’s clubs or car clubs are having a ‘track day’ is a really useful way of getting to experiment without the pressure of getting ‘the money shot’. The novice drivers are relatively slow and a little less challenging for the novice photographer. At the other end of the scale are the ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ – some being a little too enthusiastic which you can almost certainly rely on for some ‘action’ shots, albeit unintended on there part.
    Afterward the drivers are always excited to see what you’ve taken and I usually give the club a CD with everything on it which they publicize for me.

  15. Therese M. Lombardi at 3:21 pm

    This article is certainly inspiring. You’ve answered a multitude of questions, and I give you my thanks!!!

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