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. Megasuryo Firdaus said on 26th April 2011, 13:16

    For the first timer, a 50mm lens is quite good, since you can get that flamboyant depth of field..

  2. X1/9Dave said on 26th April 2011, 16:59

    Thanks for your reply I am a very very amateur photographer and 50mm lens means nothing to me. is it a fixed tele lens and will it still let the cameras auto set up work or would it all have to be done manually.
    And what kind of X zoom will it give
    Many thanks
    Dave

    • TommyC said on 30th April 2011, 2:07

      50mm is basically what the eye sees, so pretty much no zoom at all, and fixed. However, you can get lenses like 18-55mm which will give you a wide angle shot and then zoom to 55mm (which again, isn’t much zoom at all). And auto mode will work with any lens but manual is always the preference if you want to get better shots.

  3. X1/9Dave said on 30th April 2011, 11:14

    Many thanks for your replys, i am going to this years singapore night GP am i best to fire a few photos off see what the auto on the camera does and then play around that area to get it better or are there some settings i should start with.
    Also should i use a polarized lens filter for shooting at night, i think with the flood lights on it is very bright, and should i use the fiter at night when there is no flood lighting
    For your information using a Canon G11
    Many thanks for helping a novice

  4. Scott said on 14th March 2012, 10:14

    Sorry to post in an old thread but I’ve recently had some interaction with the Australian Grand Prix people regarding photography at the Australian F1 GP. Their conditions of entry prohibit people bringing “lenses with a total focal strength of greater than 300mm” into the F1 race (rules -> http://bit.ly/yymvRG). It seems bloody stupid to me but they are suggesting if I take my 400mm lens (200mm + 2x teleconverter) I run the risk of not being allowed in.

    Any other races have these restrictions?

    As people have commented here, 500mm lenses in the crowd at the Australian GP have been seen. So it seems that you have a random chance of making it in with a long lens.

    I’m completely frustrated by this restriction. I was looking forward to firing off a few shots.

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