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

  1. Peter said on 23rd April 2011, 13:45

    A great article, could raise the expectations too high for a novice. Without a F1 media pass there is no chance of getting anything other than a very avergaege shot. You will have to cope with crowds in front of you, chain link fencing,poles, rain, and worst of all, distance.Just leave the camera at home, enjoy the race and look at photo’s in the motoring press.

    • Patrickl (@patrickl) said on 23rd April 2011, 17:27

      Yeah, the biggest problem in F1 photography is to get a view to the cars without a lot of stuff in the frame.

      I find the best days for photography tend to be the fridays. Not that incredibly busy yet and it’s usually easier to go on several different spots to find a good place to take pictures.

    • TommyC said on 24th April 2011, 4:15

      “Without a F1 media pass there is no chance of getting anything other than a very avergaege shot”

      Not true, i got some pretty dang good ones this year and last, you’ve just got to know where to go. It’s just so much more satisfying to have taken pro-like photos yourself.

    • Yep, that’s not true – Jamey has tweeted:

      hey @f1fanatic_co_uk readers…it seems to have been lost in translation but the article I wrote used pics taken w/o creds. Just a GA pass!

  2. Beeker (@beeker) said on 23rd April 2011, 14:34

    Thanks for the tips. I will practice on my Canon.

  3. William Wilgus said on 23rd April 2011, 15:00

    One important thing about shutters not mentioned in this article. Most cameras have what’s called a ‘leading curtain’. That’s desirable for most types of phtography except sports: it causes any motion blur to lead the subject. What you want is a camera that can be set to have a ‘trailing curtain’; it places any motion blur behind the subject.

    • Patrickl (@patrickl) said on 23rd April 2011, 17:29

      Why would you use flash photography on an F1 car?

      • William Wilgus said on 26th April 2011, 14:42

        You want a leading curtain for flash photography. That’s why most cameras are set up that way and with those cameras that give you the option, the default is leading.

        • X1/9Dave said on 26th April 2011, 17:03

          Sorry to be a numpty but what is the leading/trailing curtain I have a Canon G11 do you think this camera would have this setting
          Thanks
          Dave

  4. Patrickl (@patrickl) said on 23rd April 2011, 18:21

    About the shutter speeds, I like to use a shutter speed that’s about the same as the focal length. For instance around 1/200s for 200mm. That way panning is usable with still longer lenses.

    Go with a longer exposure for more blur or shorter if you keep getting blurry cars. Or just practice a bit longer till you get it right :)

    • Alex Bkk (@alex-bkk) said on 24th April 2011, 4:42

      I gave that formula a try Patrickl, it seems like a pretty good starting point.

      I’ve got a pretty steady hand so I can usually go for a longer than normal exposure sometimes as low as 1/20 with my 35mm and still keep the subject sharp. I don’t really have a longer lens to try that with. I’d been debating with myself over whether or not to bite the bullet and shell out the cash for a 80-200 f2.8.

      But I guess that I can go buy it now feelingfully justified that I’m doing it to test your formula. :)

  5. ISO is very important, since higher ISO allows for faster shutter speeds. Here the most important factor is the physical size of the sensor in your camera. Most compacts have such a small sensor that you just can’t get a decent ISO out of it, which hurts not just when shooting F1′s, but also for instance when you shoot that proverbial birthday party or your kid’s school play. In fact, SLR’s have two advantages, one is their interchangeable optics and the other is a sensor that is several times larger than the ones in a compact. (Just a side note, it is no longer true that SLR’s lens are automatically better, today a decent compact might have lens that is optically better than a typical kit lens for SLR.)

    This brings another factor into play, the MP count. If you have two cameras with sensors of the same size, one is 10MP and the other 16MP, then all else being the same (software, lens) the 10MP camera will have markedly superior performance under less than perfect conditions. In short, always shoot for the lowest pixel count you consider suitable. If you do not want to make wall-sized posters, 8-10MP might be enough, anything more and you will pay for it with quality of your picture.

    Therefore it can make sense to buy not the latest but a bit older model of a line you are thinking about, as often the only real difference is the pixel count, while optics and software stays the same.

    By the way, this advice applies to all cameras including credit-card sized compacts, not just fancy SLR’s for shooting F1.

  6. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 23rd April 2011, 19:09

    The majority of the above information won’t apply to me due to my rather unsophisticated £70 Samsung from Argos, however I at least know what I should be playing around with to make the most of a bad situation, cheers!

    • Alex Bkk (@alex-bkk) said on 24th April 2011, 2:06

      Andrew, as long as it’s an interesting shot it doesn’t really matter. Look for a dejected Ferrari fan, Bernie blowing his top in the paddock, a nervous pit crew member, a track marshal sweating in the summer heat, skid marks on the track or anything that really gets your attention.

      There is a lot more going on at a GP than cars running around the track.

  7. Jamey Price said on 23rd April 2011, 23:40

    Lads,

    First, I very well know about apertures. I wrote the article for the basic user in mind and not the seasoned shooter.

    Second, stop saying you can’t get nice images without credentials. I don’t think this was made clear but every photo used in this article is mine and was shot with a 3 day general admission pass at Monza last year. No credentails. So dont make excuses bc you dont have FIA permission to

  8. Jamey price said on 23rd April 2011, 23:50

    *have permission to shoot trackside.

    Lastly, again…my comments are aimed at the casual shooter. Shutter speed absolutely effects light to the sensor. What William Wilgus said and what j said are almost identical. The linger the shutter is open, the longer the light gets to the sensor, ie how much light is getting to the sensor. Again….the same thing said two different ways. I understand the details but I wasn’t writing for other pros!

    And again, to reiterate, every single photo on this article and from my website are with GA passes. I was not on track. It takes more creativity to shoot with a GA but it can be done. Ask Darren Heath, Andrew Hone, any of the F1 regulars.

    • TommyC said on 24th April 2011, 4:09

      Yep, particularly in Australia where there is minimal relief so there’s always a fence in the way. This is where a 500mm comes in handy.

    • TommyC said on 24th April 2011, 4:10

      yep. that’s for sure, especially in Australia where there’s minimal relief so there’s always a fence in the way. that’s when a 500mm come in handy

    • bosyber said on 24th April 2011, 16:18

      It might even be that the required creativity makes for better shots!

  9. LuvinF1 said on 24th April 2011, 0:12

    My wife gave me a Sony DSLR-A100 four years ago for Christmas with a 3.5-5.6/18-70 Sony Lens and a 4.5-5.6/75-300 Sony Lens. I haven’t felt the need to upgrade since then.

  10. Alex Bkk (@alex-bkk) said on 24th April 2011, 1:43

    Great advice Jamie and great shots as well!

    Shoot in manual mode.

    Best advice you can give to anyone and I wouldn’t worry too much about having or not having this or that gear. If you understand and how to use your gear you can get great shots.

    The last thing you want to do is be learning how your camera works

    I almost never and I mean never go out of the house without a camera. I drag a D90 with a 35mm f1.8 everywhere I go. Street Photography is my passion so I always have to be ready to shoot. There is just no time to think. If you have to think, you miss the shot and it’s gone forever. It has to be second nature.

  11. Gusto said on 24th April 2011, 2:43

    Focal lenghts and exit pupils are whats it all about, An f2 Schmidt-Cassegrain is the daddy of the skies, but if you want the best Carl Zeiss can offer for terrestial.

    http://www.engadget.com/2006/09/13/carl-zeiss-creates-over-five-foot-long-telephoto-lens/

  12. TommyC said on 24th April 2011, 4:06

    Spot on Jamey, that’s exactly what i did. I bought my camera (a canon 500D) in November 2009 almost soley for the Aussie GP 2010. I spent the first 2 months fiddling with absolutely everything in Manual using the stock canon lenses which came with the twin lens kit. In January i bought a sigma 150-500mm and practiced using that with birds and kangaroos and the like. For the last two GPs I’ve managed to find some really good spots for photos. The added bonus with such a large lens is that when you zoom in, the fence basically dilates so it’s hardly noticable in the photo. I find you’ll notice some regions of slightly poorer contrast but nothing a little lightroom won’t fix.

    And this article reminds me, Keith, can I upload some photos to share? I forgot how to do it….Sorry.

  13. freedo50 (@) said on 24th April 2011, 22:31

    I went to the Belgian GP last year, and can say that the light then was some of the most difficult I have tried to photograph anything in. The on the friday I was working at ISO1600 (and at points 3200) all day with the aperture at its widest (f5.6) on the 55-250 lens I had, and still had to keep the shutter speed at around 1/50th or 1/30th. Very difficult!

    And yet very satisfying; I got some great photos as the cars crested the hill out of Eau Rouge, and the garish colours really draw the eye against the drab greyness of Spa. Next time, somewhere brighter though!

  14. Joseph said on 25th April 2011, 5:00

    Looks for the tutorial like this for a long time,Thanks Jamey!

  15. X1/9Dave said on 25th April 2011, 8:34

    Jamey
    Great bit of information mate hopefully I will be able to use it to its full extent and improve my photographs, one question I am a very amateur photographer and did not want to spend loads of cash on a camera, I got what I though was the best for point and shoot but hoping to still get good photos at the GPs I brought a Conon G11 as when reading reviews it was down as very near to an SLR should I be able to get good results from this camera , I am also looking at getting a tele/zoom lens what would be best a fixed tele or variable zoom any pointers what to get/look for.
    I know you probably not used a Canon G11 but you might know people that have
    Many Thanks
    Dave

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