It’s six years since we first saw @JameyPrice’s amazing Formula One photographs on F1 Fanatic. He’s been shooting races around the world since, and now he shares ten of his top tips for creating incredible motor sport photography.
When I was a young F1 fan I would flip through the pages of F1 magazines and gaze in the wonder at the beauty of Formula One through the stunning photographs from tracks all over the world.
I would flip from page to page and stare at the raw power of the cars, the color and blur of some of the more artistic photos, and the portraits which revealed a driver’s character more than their talent.
Photography is how I came to fall in love with Formula One and car racing in general. Photographing race cars, including F1 cars, is now how I make a living. And many of the people who took those photos I now call colleagues – even friends.
This article is not an blueprint for becoming a professional motorsport photographer. There is no set path to follow or system which works every time. Myself and each of my colleagues that cover motorsport for a living arrived here in very different ways. What does work is making unique photos that show your passion for the sport in all its beauty.
One thing I love about photography, and motorsport photography in particular, is that no matter what, if you give 20 different people the same camera and lens options, and walk us all to one place, you’re going to get 20 very different photographs. No artist is the same. No one shoots a scene the same way. The framing will be different. The shutter speed, the aperture, the details or highlights will all be different.
So whether you’re seeking how to become a professional motor racing photography or simply want to get the best snaps from your next race visit, here are my top tips for creating photographs you’ll be proud of.
1. Know your camera
If you walked me into a pitch black room, handed me my Nikon camera with a lens on it, and told me to change a setting without being able to see what I’m doing, I would be able to very easily.
The lesson is, don’t buy a camera, take it out of the box, put it straight in your suitcase and take it to the races without having one minute of actual hands on time using it.
My cameras and lenses are an extension of my body. I know them inside and out. When I look at a scene with my eyes, I immediately know what settings to be in (generally) for what type of photo I want to make.
Spend some time outside practising with the camera and lens options you’ll have. That way, when you get to the races, you wont be fumbling around trying to figure out how to change the shutter speed, ISO or aperture.
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2. Understand the exposure ‘triangle’
Speaking of shutter speed, aperture and ISO, know what those three things are and what they do. The basic version is that they are the three corners of the exposure ‘triangle’. Change any one of those three things and it will affect some aspect of your photo’s exposure.
Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open for. To ‘freeze’ a fast moving object, you want a higher shutter speed, to show the motion and speed of the car, you want a slower shutter speed.
To get some interesting bokeh (the unfocused area of your image), or let more (or less) light into the censor, change the aperture.
Finally, changing the ISO lets you work in darker spaces or environments. More ISO, more light. Less ISO, less light. There are hundreds of thousands of articles online about these terms and how best to understand them.
3. Perfect your panning
Panning is the art of using a slow shutter speed to blur a photo while keeping a part of the image sharp. This practice is most often used by motorsport photographers. After all, it is a racing car, right? It’s not meant to look like it’s parked on the track.
There is a rule of thumb I try and stick to. If you can see the sidewall of the tyre and what brand it is, you need to show some movement, which means slowing down the shutter speed. You start to see some movement in the tyres at 1/800. That seems to be where a racing car’s tyres at full speed start to “move” in the photo.
As you lower the shutter speed, the background starts to blur even more. The trick to panning is to have a steady balance, plant your feet shoulder width apart, and follow the car with a smooth swing. It takes a lot of practice to get the feel of it and to start getting more sharp photos than blurry out of focus ones.
With open wheel cars the goal is to have the helmet sharp. With closed cockpit cars, the side of the car or front of the car are key. The rear wing being sharp isn’t really useful as an image, and I would rarely if ever send one to a client with only the rear wing sharp.
If you’re shooting bikes it gets more challenging because of how much the rider moves around on the bike. But aim to get the rider sharp.
A lot of things will effect a pan shot’s sharpness. Anything from a stiff breeze blowing your lens around while you’re panning, to big kerbs or a bumpy track that vibrate the race car itself as it bounces around, to an unstable shooting position. All of these can effect the photo’s sharpness.
And it gets more noticeable the slower you go with the shutter speed. Things start to get crazy with colour, light and lines when you dip into the 1/15 range and below.
4. Use the light
I love shooting back-lit. I have always found race cars to be beautiful works of art. When you’re facing into the sun, the world takes on a different feel. I love a good silhouette, or highlighting the lines and curves on these amazing machines.
It doesn’t always have to be a photo that is tight on the car either. A looser photo that shows just a sliver of the track or a car can be dramatic.
A friend of mine jokingly dubbed F1 the ‘high noon racing series’. Sadly, he’s not wrong. Most races happen in the middle of the day, when the sun is harshest.
But occasionally, there are F1 races that happen at twilight, or have an early or later session during the day. Take advantage of those sessions. There are many apps that allow you to see the pattern of the sun and where it will be at certain times of day.
If you think photographers are going out there blindly and finding nice light by chance, you’re wrong. We do our homework. Be it through apps like Suncalc, experience shooting at the circuit, and even using video games like Project Cars. You would be amazed how accurate modern video games are. I can tell you from personal experience that the pattern of the sun at Le Mans is identical to real life as it is in the game.
Most of the time F1 isn’t the series to cover if you want amazing golden light. But if you do want to chase nice light, find your way to one of the many endurance races that happen around the world. Getting a full day/night cycle of the sun is incredible to see during a race and something I very much enjoy photographing.
5. Don’t get hung up on not having a pass
If you’re a professional photographer, going to a race without credentials access the track might be a frustrating thing. You see the track-side professionals shooting cars down next to the barriers, or walking around the paddock within an arm’s length to your favourites. I get it. Every fan wants to be there.
But you can either be jealous or make the most of what you have and and do something different to what the professionals are doing. Races are amazing places to tell stories. The fans, the atmosphere, the action, the light, the track itself. Some of the best racing photos I’ve ever seen have more to do with the atmosphere and fans than the racing itself.
Invest in, or rent a prime lens – a 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm – and do something unique with it. If you’re hellbent on getting an amazing photo of Vettel coming around a corner, then do something different with it. Use a slow shutter speed and pan the car, use the light to your advantage, or find things to pan through!
What you may not have noticed is that the professional credentialed photographers are probably up in the stands with you. We’re up there too shooting something different and looking for unique angles.
I’ve seen some amazing images, and taken a few myself, from areas that are accessible to any of the fans with any kind of ticket. Don’t let your lack of a credential be the reason you simply give up.
6. Be selective
If being a motorsport photographer is your dream, and you come home from a race and decide to email your favorite photographer for a critique of a few of your images, don’t send 300 photos from the same corner with the same shutter speed. Believe me, we will stop looking pretty quickly.
Show something we wouldn’t be used to seeing. Show us a selection of your best. This industry is not impossible to break into, but it is saturated with eager photographers and most are making the same mistakes.
My best advice for aspiring professionals is to get a proper website, make social media handles that are all part of your brand, take yourself seriously, and you will be taken seriously. Photos of your cat or a coffee cup, on your photography page will not help your cause.
7. Pick your track
Not all tracks are created equal when it comes to photography. Some are much easier to make pretty pictures at.
I won’t comment on which ones downright suck because, sadly, there are quite a few on the F1 calendar. However, some of the better ones I’ve personally been to on the Formula One circuit for fan photography opportunities are Spain, Monaco, Montreal, Monza and Singapore.
Anything where you have elevation and fewer, lower barriers will make your life easier. I understand F1 is the ‘pinnacle’ of racing, and that there is no substitute for your amazing photo of your personal hero, but if becoming a better motorsport photographer is your goal, and any photo of a race car makes your heart happy, then look farther down the motorsport ladder.
I live in America where we have access to some incredible tracks here that are nearly as easy for fans to make photos as it is for the credentialed photographers. Some of my favourite American tracks that are great for photo opportunities are Daytona (Florida), Sebring (Florida), Mid Ohio (Ohio), Watkins Glen (New York State), Laguna Seca (California), Road Atlanta (Georgia), Virginia International Raceway (North Carolina) and Mosport (Canada) Any of those tracks would be top of my list to visit if you’re keen on motorsport photography.
Not to mention IMSA sports car racing provides some of the best action in the world. So don’t just chase F1 cars. There is lots of great racing all over the world at tracks that will be a lot less frustrating to work at.
8. Walk around
On an average day at an F1 race I walk anything up to 20 kilometres. At a sports car race, it’s even more because the days are longer. At Le Mans it was well over twice that during the course of the 24 hours.
Racing tracks are enormous and you can often cover both the inside and the outside of the course. Your family may hate you for dragging them around, but putting in the miles will probably make for more interesting photos.
And if nothing else, you’ll see amazing parts of the track and areas where the cars are behaving differently. But the worst thing you could do, is sit in the grandstand, all day for three days straight with the same camera and lens. When I visited Monza in 2010, I saw every single inch of the track. Anywhere I could go with a general admission ticket, I went. Moral of the story: put those legs to good use.
9. Use proper kit
Invest in quality lenses and equipment. Cameras are simply visual computers. And like all computers, they don’t last nearly as long as you would hope they would. There is always something bigger, better and faster.
You can spend seven grand on a camera that will last two years, or spend that much on a lens that will last you a lifetime. Lenses are much more mechanical than they are electronic. I’ve personally had pretty much the same set of lenses for five years, but been through that many cameras in the same amount of time.
You will notice the biggest quality difference in your photos from quality lenses. I once had a man argue with me when he took a look at my enormous 500mm lens, looked down at his and said, “mine is a 500! How come it doesn’t look like yours?” I briefly explained about the f4 aperture, the glass, vibration reduction and all the other pieces that make my 500 one of the most expensive, but my most frequently used lens. He took it like I was personally insulting his lens.
In addition to glass, memory cards you can count on are a good investment too. There’s nothing like having your photos corrupted on a bad card when you pop them in the computer. I rely on Lexar CF and XQD memory cards to get me through the work day. They’re amazingly fast and reliable. As far as camera brands go, Nikon and Canon have the best range of glass in a variety of sizes. Fuji seems to be making their way back toward mainstream sports photography too.
Just remember, you cannot buy your way into making great photographs. I have personally seen photographers carrying the latest and greatest in cameras and lenses, but have no idea how to make a pretty photo. I also personally know photographers who could out-shoot anyone with a camera phone. It’s not all about the fancy equipment. Use what you have as best as you can.
10. Learn from the best
It’s not a good idea to try to copy another photographer’s style: it’s better to cultivate your own. But you can find some inspiration from the many motor sport photographers on social media.
Some regular F1 snappers I recommend following are James Moy, Laurent Charniaux, Vladimir Rys, Darren Heath, Glenn Dunbar, Drew Gibson, Clive Mason, Andy Hone, Sam Bloxham, Florent Gooden, Zak Mauger and Lars Baron. You can find all their Twitter accounts here:
More about Jamey
Jamey Price is an award winning motorsport photojournalist from Charlotte, North Carolina. His images have been published around the globe by Top Gear, Car & Driver, CycleWorld, Road & Track, RACER, MotorTrend, Autosport, F1 Racing, Motorsport Magazine, F1i and Blackbird Automotive Journal.
Jamey is proud to be a Lexar Elite Artist and a Tenba bags sponsored photographer, and has been listed by GQ Magazine’s 10 best car and racing Instagram accounts to follow. He continues to do freelance work for some of the most respected sports imagery wire services, and for commercial clients and racing teams around the world including Lamborghini, Ducati, Audi, Red Bull, Goodyear, Gatorade, Aston Martin Racing, Force India F1 Team, Renault F1 team, Manor Racing F1, Toyota Gazoo Racing and many others.
Though primarily sticking to the motor racing world, Jamey has covered a diverse range of sporting assignments from horse racing in England and the Kentucky Derby to the NFL, as well as NASCAR, NHRA, Indycar, MotoGP, the 24 hours of Le Mans, Formula One and a little of everything in between.
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