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So you want to be an F1 photographer? – Part 2 – Equipment and Techniques

So you want to be an F1 photographer? – Part 2 – Equipment and Techniques


There may be truth in the old saying ‘it’s the way you use your equipment rather than the equipment you use’ but for motor racing photography, tools that allow some creative input are still very much a necessity.

You will need a camera that has a viewfinder, has no (noticeable) shutter lag, is capable of manual settings for both shutter speed or aperture priority and has a lens or lenses capable of manual focusing ranging from wide angle to telephoto.

A digital SLR camera using interchangeable lenses can provide all of these features and comes reasonably priced in most manufacturers’ ‘hobby range’. Compact digitals are becoming more sophisticated and may tick some of the boxes – but you don’t see the professionals using them yet.

With an SLR (single lens reflex) camera the picture is composed through the viewfinder held directly to the eye. It displays exactly what will be captured through the lens so a moving subject (car) can be tracked and kept in the same spot throughout the shot. This is critical when shooting on slow shutter speeds. The same degree of control is not possible through an LCD screen held out in front of you. Direct viewfinders are also clearer than LCD screens.

Shutter lag is the delay between pressing the shutter button and the picture being taken. In action photography you want the image to be recorded exactly the moment you ‘click’.

For action photography, use the ‘creative zone’ of the camera’s mode dial to allow you to control the settings. The ‘basic zone’ e.g. the runner icon for action or the flower for close-ups allows you to select the type of shot but the settings are still made fully automatically by the camera and may be suitable for such subjects as landscapes or quick portraits. ‘Fully automatic’ may be set if no particular creative control is required, such as general views.

Shutter speed priority (TV on the mode dial) should be the preferred setting for action as it controls the type of shot – either fast to freeze the action or slow for lots of blur to indicate speed. The aperture setting (AV on mode dial) controls the amount of light and depth of field. This may be the preferred priority setting where, for example, you wish to expose for a dramatic sky or throw everything except the chosen subject out of focus. Either way, once you have made your setting the camera will adjust the other setting accordingly. With experience and for certain shots e.g. with a large light contrast, use ‘Manual’ and set both shutter speed and aperture to choice but initially shutter speed priority is  recommended.

If using the lens in autofocus mode, select ‘Tracking/AI Servo’ from the camera’s AF mode menu. This is the setting for sports photography and moving subjects as the camera will automatically adjust its focus as you track the subject. The other options are ‘one-shot’ (still subjects) and ‘AI Focus AF’ (unpredictable movement of subject).

Lens size is expressed in millimetres which although being a dimension (focal length) best describes magnification capabilities.  Prime lenses have a fixed focal length (magnification) and zoom lenses have a variable focal length (magnification). Zoom lenses are more versatile as one single lens can substitute for several prime lenses – less to carry about and with limited movement in spectator enclosures a zoom lens can give you variations on a scene from virtually the same spot.

Depending on the performance capability of the lens autofocus may not function efficiently for fast moving subjects and may ‘hunt’ if confused by prominent objects in the fore, middle and background. Rapid manual focusing is a skill that should be mastered and it also permits you to pick the exact point of focus to make the picture e.g. driver’s eyes or helmet.

The bigger the lens the more disadvantages that come with it. They are more expensive to maintain good image quality, need more light (which can be compensated for with digital cameras where you can change the ISO rating but may need faster film in a film camera), more critical to focus and just as the image is magnified so are the effects of ‘camera shake’ (unwanted movement of camera whilst taking the picture and the shutter is open).

Most camera kits come with a semi-wide angle zoom lens around 18mm – 55mm (digital) that is good for general views, scenes and close-ups be they cars or portraits. In addition to that you will need a long focus telephoto or zoom lens. For motor racing a telephoto/zoom needs to go to at least 200mm minimum and preferably 300mm. Bigger lenses are generally only available in the expensive ‘professional quality’ range.

A practical alternative to a large/expensive telephoto lens is to use a teleconverter which is a small attachment of about 5cms length which fits between the camera body and lens increasing the magnification.  A x2 will double the focal length (magnification) and upgrade a 300mm lens to a 600mm.

Converters used by the professionals (x2 and x1.4) are very expensive items of optical equipment but there are some fairly cheap versions available. The drawbacks of the larger lens are still there, the cheaper ones need extra light on the aperture setting – usually 2 f-stops (which can be compensated for by changing the ISO setting on a digital camera), camera shake will be exaggerated and they work in manual focus only with a critical point of focus which can be hard to pinpoint without practice. They are better used for the head-on shots where the relative movement of the subject is limited and you can use a pre-determined mark on the track to focus and press the shutter just before the car reaches that point.

The cheaper ones will not reproduce the same quality as the professional models but with a little practice and under the right conditions they are capable of superb results for a fraction of the cost and eliminate the need to use a monopod or carry a bulky lens around with you.

All modern circuits are now ringed with fencing and although there may be some places where you can shoot over the top they are just something you need to work around.

Basically there are three options – to incorporate the fence as part of the composition of the shot, to set the camera so it doesn’t see or at least minimises the impact of the fence, or admit defeat and move on.

The fence may be used as part of the shot where, for example, it is possible to capture its tunnel or channel effect, or it is right in front of you and you wish to portray the passion of the fans in front of, or against it as a car passes by in the background.

The distances between the camera and the fence and the fence and the subject are important. The camera needs to be as close to the fence as possible with the subject as far as possible. The closer the fence is to the subject the more in focus it will be.

For head on shots use the fastest shutter speed possible as this will have the effect of opening the aperture of the lens and reducing the depth of field.

For side on/pan shots use a slow shutter speed. Using a slow shutter speed is a skill that requires practice, but the slower it is the more dramatic can be the result. The idea is to follow the car so the background and foreground (including the fence) will appear as streaks or flashes of colour across the image. The car should appear relatively sharp, but not necessarily pin-sharp. It is the relative movement that is important. The fences vertical support posts will still appear so pre-select the spot where you are going to press the shutter in advance and then pan with the car as long as possible until it reaches that spot and then keep panning throughout and after you press the shutter.

If your lens has image stabilisation set it to the ‘horizontal/vertical stabilising mode’.

Slow shutter speeds can also be used to show speed and movement even if there is no fence such as where the car may be some distance away and small in the frame to make the effect of it speeding across the landscape.

If you can, find a spot where the cars are not going at full speed and you have them in sight for as long as possible making it easier to pick them up and follow them in the viewfinder. Take a series of shots from each location reducing the shutter speed every few shots so you can check and compare the results afterwards. Start off at 1/250 sec. which is relatively fast, then 1/125, 1/100, 1/80, 1/60, 1/30 and so on and even try some at very slow speeds such as 1/13 or your camera’s equivalent. Try taking some shots with your camera on ‘burst mode’ (rapid shooting) but give the camera time to write the images on the memory card before shooting again or switching off.

You may well find that once down to below 1/125 images start looking quite messy and blurred. They look out of focus but this is unlikely to be the problem. It will be camera shake and/or you moving the camera at a different speed than the car. Keep the car in the same spot in the viewfinder throughout and of course the slower the shutter speed the more pronounced will be any inadvertent movement or miss-timing. When you pan, swing the whole top half of your body – not just your head.

Check the images and compare the different shutter speeds. Look at the shape of the ‘streaks’ in the background, they will tell you what the camera was doing when the shutter was open. If they form wobbly lines this is general camera shake, if they go up at one end like ‘ticks’ then this was how you were moving the camera during the shot and so on. It is all down to practice. I have a reasonable success rate down to 1/30 sec. (without image stabilisation) with an increasingly higher ‘reject’ rate as the shutter speeds get slower, but at these very slow speeds the ones that work can look very dramatic.

For panning shots where you are quite close to the cars with no fence in between fill the frame and get the car as sharp as possible. Try to capture movement through spinning/blurred wheels or include something else in in the photograph for reference even if it just a kerb. Try a shutter speed of about 1/250 sec. or faster if you are at a fast section of track.

And finally, don’t forget ‘the rule of thirds’. Imagine two vertical and two horizontal lines equally spaced on the image – as if set up for a game of ‘noughts and crosses’. The main point of interest of the picture should be positioned where any two of the lines intersect.

And next month we take a tour of Silverstone highlighting the best spectator areas to photograph from in readiness for the British Grand Prix.