How to take great pictures at F1 races: Part 1

Guest article

Jenson Button, McLaren, Monza, 2010

Jenson Button, McLaren, Monza, 2010

In the first part of a two-part series Jamey Price explains how to get started in F1 photography.

Photography is one of those rare endeavours that anyone can do, without an education or background in it, and be successful at it.

But some photography subjects are harder to tackle than others. A flower sitting in a pot provides a very different set of challenges to shooting a Formula One car blasting by you at 300kph.

Here are some basic motorsport photography principles to help you get the most when you head to the track with a camera.

Choose your weapon

This series of articles is aimed at Digital SLR cameras such as the Nikon D3000 or Canon 450D.

The point-and-shoot in your pocket is great for taking photos at a birthday party but it will not be able to take the quality of photos that will be demanded at a race. The cars are too fast and too far away for it to be able to handle the action found at a Grand Prix.

Now that you have the camera, let’s talk glass. Lenses are the best investment you can make in the camera-buying process. Though they don’t come cheap, a variety of focal lengths will better serve you in the long run.

For the beginner, I recommend a zoom lens of at least 200mm and preferably 300mm or longer.

Be warned, if you think you’ll be cradling one of those whopping lenses you might see Darren Heath or Mark Sutton carrying around a track, think again. The starting price for one of those is around £5,000.

So go to your local camera shop and talk to the sales representative and tell him where you’re going and what you’re doing, and I’m sure they will help point you in the right direction.

Know thy camera

Ferrari, Monza, 2010

Ferrari, Monza, 2010

Before we get into the complex details of motorsport photography, you need to become acquainted with your camera. And by acquainted, I mean intimately.

Trust me when I say that you need to know your camera, how it works and how it thinks long before you get to the track on Grand Prix weekend. If you’re anything like me, you want to not only make the most of the racing weekend, but also take stunning photos to share your memories with others.

The best way to get to know your camera is by taking photos with it. Take photos of anything and everything. The dog, the cat, the kids, passing cars.

I recommend the last option highly because it teaches you to follow a moving object. Think of it as a slow moving practice run to prepare you for a Formula One car.

My other piece of advice is to change the settings on the camera to manual and off any kind of automatic setting. Although we like to think our machines are intelligent, they are still no match for the human brain and understanding how the camera will read the light and the situation can only be done by turning its computer brain off and taking complete control of the process yourself.

There are three aspects to taking really great pictures, known as the “exposure triangle”. They determine the exposure and colour of the image.

Shooting at speed

First you have shutter speed. This is how long the shutter is open for when the camera takes the image.

The faster the shutter speed (e.g. 1/2000 of a second), the less light gets to the camera sensor. The longer the shutter is open (e.g. 1/25 of a second) the more light gets to the sensor.

Shutter speeds of around 1/2000 will freeze a drop of water in mid-air. This is what you want to use when you’re trying to make time stand still. As you can imagine, you will require high shutter speeds to freeze a Formula 1 car.

A slower shutter speed such as 1/25 will blur the image. This is what you want to use when you pan the cars as they fly past you. There is a technique to this so practice it long before you get to the circuit.

Getting the light right

Bruno Senna, Monza, 2010

Bruno Senna, Monza, 2010

The second corner of the exposure triangle is aperture, which is measured in a range between f1.2 and f22. Unlike shutter speed, which is controlled by the camera (all cameras can more or less do the same shutter speeds) aperture is controlled by the lens.

The camera tells the lens how wide to open up and how much light to let in. But lenses will all be rated to operate within a certain range. The lower the number, the more depth of field you will have in your images.

Aperture controls how much light enters the camera. The lower the number, the more light gets to the sensor, and the higher the number, the less light. But again remember that buying a lens with a lower f-stop will be much more expensive.

The final piece of the puzzle is ISO. ISO used to be determined by a chemical that was put on rolls of film. Each roll of film was rated to a certain ISO. Now that photography is almost exclusively done with digital cameras, ISO is controlled by the camera and not the film or memory card.

The lower the ISO number (e.g. ISO 200) means very little additional light is being fed to the sensor. Conversely, ISO 2000 will make things significantly brighter. But there is a trade-off: the higher the ISO number, the more noisy the image is.

Imagine film grain, but for digital cameras. It can be distracting and severely reduce the quality of your photo, so go with the highest ISO you can find that doesn’t produce excessive amounts of noise.

Increasing the ISO will help you in low light conditions. Races like Korea, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and perhaps even Australia with its late start time may require some ISO-tweaking.

As well as afternoon races where the light is starting to fade, cloudy and rainy days are darker in general as well. Cranking up the ISO a little bit will help you get more light to the image and make an underexposed situation brighter.

Practice makes perfect

Renault, Monza, 2010

Renault, Monza, 2010

Now that you hopefully have a grasp on the exposure triangle, take your camera out and shoot. Like I said, anything and everything will help you learn.

Shoot in manual mode. Shoot moving objects. Shoot stationary objects. The last thing you want to do is be learning how your camera works when you’re sitting in the grandstand at Monaco with cars screaming by, having to read your manual because you don’t understand why the images are too dark or too bright.

The next part of this series will cover the finer details of motorsport photography to help you get the most out of your race photos.

Got any of your own tips for taking great pictures at F1 races? Share them in the comments.

Jamey’s equipment for the above photographs included a Nikon D700 full frame professional camera body with 70-200mm f2.8 vibration reduction telephoto lens, 14-24mm f2.8 wide angle lens and 2x teleconverter. The pictures were taken without FIA credentials.

Jamey Price is a professional freelance sports photojournalist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. His work has appeared in F1 Racing Magazine, The Racing Post and many sporting websites. More of Jamey’s work can be seen at www.jameypricephoto.com

This is a guest article by Jamey Price. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.

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Images © Jamey Price

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78 comments on How to take great pictures at F1 races: Part 1

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  1. geo132 (@geo132) said on 23rd April 2011, 8:31

    Thanks a lot Jamey, loved the details about shutter speed,aperture and ISO. I’ve always tried to learn what they mean, but I think only now I’ll really remember them thanks to your simple explanation!
    Looking forward to the second part..

    • Fixy (@fixy) said on 23rd April 2011, 10:33

      Me too! A friend of mine told me how to blur the photos but I did not understand. Now it’s all clear!

    • Andy W (@andy-w) said on 23rd April 2011, 11:31

      Have to agree, great article.

      • frood said on 23rd April 2011, 14:54

        agreed but this part – “The lower the number, the more depth of field you will have in your images.” – is completely wrong. it’s the other way around: the higher the f-number (ie. the smaller the aperture) the greater the depth of field.

        • I know that…..But I was writing for the casual user who knows nothing about aperture or photography. Simple is better. But you are correct. I should have explained that better.

      • Douglas62500 said on 23rd April 2011, 17:27

        That’s why pictures from the Singapore GP has a bit more noise than others, as they require high ISO settings to compensate for the high shutter speeds in the dim, night environment.

    • William Wilgus said on 23rd April 2011, 14:49

      Shutter speed does not control how much light the sensor gets; it controls how long it gets it.

      Lower number f-stops do not increase depth-of-field, higher number f-stops do that.

      ISO settings control how much the received light is amplified. To put it another way, ISO controls how sensitive the sensor is to light.

      • Lemon (@lemon) said on 23rd April 2011, 18:41

        Stop trying to be a smart ass, what he said made perfect sense! and by lower number f-stops, What he meant to say was the lower the number the more shallow the depth of field. It just came out wrong.

        • William Wilgus said on 26th April 2011, 14:49

          I posted the comment to help others, not to be smart. For example, the faster the shutter, the less blur in the photo. His f-stop info was clearly backwards—as he later posted a comment on. By the way:

          “No swearing, insults, advertising or racial, sexual or similar discrimination allowed.”

      • See what I wrote at the bottom, but I know the differences and how aperture works. I was writing for the average user. Not the seasoned pro. Most people dont understand that the lens even has an aperture at all much less what it does. Im trying to simply things for everyone….

        • TommyC said on 24th April 2011, 4:17

          “Im trying to simplify things for everyone….”

          and you did a fantastic job. Great article jamey.

        • superstring (@superstring) said on 27th April 2011, 4:16

          Re: Aperture vs. Depth of Field

          Jamey, as a late comer to this discussion, I apologize for beating the proverbial “dead horse” but, with all due respect, I don’t see how providing incorrect information makes it “easier for the average user” etc. The fact is that the higher the aperture number, the greater the depth of field. (unless, of course, you’re talking about the reciprocal, ie. 1/16?) How is that more difficult to understand than the opposite?

          And I’m not trying to be a smart ass; I’m seriously interested to know your rationale.

          Otherwise, great article. Peace!

        • BasCB (@bascb) said on 27th April 2011, 20:42

          I think you did just that. Very interesting, even if I do not know all that much about photography besides the basics of capturing light and enjoying those fantastic pictures!

  2. butterdori (@butterdori) said on 23rd April 2011, 8:32

    For Nikon, the 55-200mm is cheap and decent for a starter kit

    • choiMatthew said on 23rd April 2011, 14:13

      it might not have the aperture required for the shots if it’s a cloudy/rainy race though

    • William Wilgus said on 23rd April 2011, 14:54

      Sigma makes a really good 50–500mm with two modes of optical stabilization—one of them is for panning. It’s fairly fast; the wide open f-stop varies from 4.5 to 6.3 depending upon focal length (zoom). It’s recent ‘street price’ in the US was about $1,600.

  3. Warwick (@warwick) said on 23rd April 2011, 8:58

    Great article.. already looking forward to part 2!

  4. Raceaddict said on 23rd April 2011, 9:02

    How to get great pictures of core action?? In all but the exceptional cases, you need FIA accreditation.

    Also at trackside a 300+ at, say, f2.8 is de rigueur.

    (Sorry to be a wet blanket, but it’s a tall hill to climb)

  5. Chris Lad said on 23rd April 2011, 9:28

    Using Vibration Reduction (VR) and Panning (continuously following a passing vehicle to get a shot) will frequently result in a blurred shot.

    The VR tries to compensate for the movement (obviously) and the resultant ‘chatter’ ruins your shot – so remember to turn it off.

    • LosD said on 23rd April 2011, 13:27

      Doesn’t really matter for any but the oldest IS/VR lenses (or maybe for some in-camera IS, but I never used those).

    • choiMatthew said on 23rd April 2011, 14:21

      or you can switch the VR mode from normal to active so that it would only compensate vertical vibrations

  6. raymondu999 said on 23rd April 2011, 9:34

    Great stuff. What focal length do you recommend for a race like Singapore?

  7. JeffJ said on 23rd April 2011, 9:52

    Great article. I want to upgrade from my elderly point and shoot and I’m finding all the technical stuff confusing. Jamey’s article is clearing things up nicely. Now I’ve got til Spa to buy a camera and get some practice in. Thanks.

  8. Harvs (@harvs) said on 23rd April 2011, 9:54

    The timing of this article is just perfect. My Girlfriend got me a Canon SX30is yesterday for my 21st and also tickets to the Singapore GP. You recomended the Canon 450D or Nikon D3000, how do these compare to the SX30? or is the SX30 no suited to F1 photography?

    Feedback would be priceless for me, if you can help me it would be much appreciated.

    • andrewf1 said on 23rd April 2011, 11:54

      First of all, i want to respectfuly say that you have a wonderful girlfriend!

      Second, like the article says, it’s not so much about the camera per se, but the lenses you attach to it. I can’t say i’m an expert – you have a good camera with great zoom for catching action from far away, can produce good depth of field as well and has a complete manual mode – but you can’t change the lenses you have with other lenses. This is important because it means you will only be able to do a limited variety of shots. How appropiate it is for F1 photography, i don’t know, because i haven’t shot f1 cars before. But that’s the main difference between the 2 models you mentioned and the model you have.

      • andrewf1 said on 23rd April 2011, 12:08

        I just checked and it says:
        Lens: • 24- 840mm equiv
        • 35x Optical zoom
        • F2.7 – F5.8

        I believe your focal length range is good, the aperture number doesn’t go high-up, but i don’t think you’ll be needing high aperture numbers. A fast shutter speed almost always comes with a low aperture number (which means more light gets into the camera), otherwise your image will be very dark. For a first experience, i think your camera is good :)

    • choiMatthew (@choimatthew) said on 23rd April 2011, 14:25

      gratz for getting the camera =]

      but just like what he said, the lens is quite important, and it’s especially important in singapore where it is going to be a night race. Yes it is going to be lit, but still not as well-lit as the day-races. Try testing the ISO capabilities of the camera and see what you can accept, then probably set the camera to A or M mode when taking photos. With f/5.8 at the tele end, it is unlikely that you would get crisp shots, so probably panning is the way to go

      • Harvs (@harvs) said on 24th April 2011, 3:54

        Thanks andrewf1 and choiMatthew, il give it a try under streetlight tonight, there is so much ive learnt just from playing around on the manual mode so far, big step up from the Nikon L15 i got for 60bucks! Jamey Price, thank you, this is great stuff!

        oh and andrewf1 my girl says thanks! now ive got 2 months to try think of something to get her for her bday, gonna b a hard few months!

        Thankyou for your feedback again!

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 27th April 2011, 20:44

      Best wishes for your birthday then, and again for the wonderfull girlfriend.

      Enjoy that race and I hope you manage some fine pictures as well Harvs!

  9. James Scantlebury said on 23rd April 2011, 10:11

    Once again, the timing of this article is perfect. Going to Silverstone in July!
    I have a question about the choice of camera however, Do you have any recommendations or tips for using a bridge camera?
    I have a Fujifilm S2950 with 18x lens.

    Thanks!

    • x19dave said on 27th April 2011, 21:12

      James
      Have you done the GP at silverstone before, i you have not get grandstand seats went last year with GA tickets very hard to get a good view
      Dave

  10. Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 23rd April 2011, 10:17

    Interesting stuff! It’s probably not that relevant to me because I don’t own a DSLR, but my camera does have adjustable shutter speed and aperture, so maybe it can still be of some use

    • bosyber said on 24th April 2011, 16:11

      Same for me. I learned all this stuff years ago in a physics practical course (not sure why, but it was one of the most entertaining!) at university, but haven’t really practised it much. Very nice read, great stuff for the easter holiday while I try slow-roasting some beef :)

  11. Flabbergash said on 23rd April 2011, 10:33

    Fab post. Can’t wait to try it out at Silverstone!

  12. JPedroCQF1 (@joao-pedro-cq) said on 23rd April 2011, 11:14

    Fantastic article! Although I don’t have really money to buy a camera like the ones refered but still I found it very interesting!

  13. robk23 (@robk23) said on 23rd April 2011, 11:18

    I consider going to club meetings at a few circuits as a warm up as the cars are slower than F1 but still moving fairly quickly.

  14. Eggry (@eggry) said on 23rd April 2011, 11:27

    Very thanks!

  15. OlPeculier said on 23rd April 2011, 11:48

    Just to point out there are places that will do equipment hire, as pointed out anything less than a 300 isn’t goint to get you close enough. The downside is by their very nature they are heavy, and cumbersome (I almost knocked somebody out with a Canon 600 F4 once…) and best taken as carry on rather than in the hold if you are flying.

    I’d also recommend practicing on your metering, I was taught “off the grass and + 2/3rds of a stop” but depends on your gear and environment.

    And when you are home, study the EXIF data for the images that worked, and those that didn’t to get an idea of what part of the triangle you miscalculated

    • choiMatthew (@choimatthew) said on 23rd April 2011, 14:28

      I was quite surprised when I saw what gears he was using. It’s just a FX camera with a 140-400/5.6 (with 2x teleconverter) In that sense, either he has really good seats for the event that could get very close to the action, or that he has a backup DX camera to do some of the longer shoots?

      • I do have a backup, but didnt at the races. I was just carrying them around with me and switching lenses. Needed a good sensor cleaning when I got home hahaha

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