It’s all in the wrist or how to shoot car races successfully

I think we photographers at times get caught up in the latest hardware or widget that promises to make us the hot shot photographer we want to be. And we then forget about some very basic skill sets that we knew at one time and should probably remember more often.

I had the chance to see the NASCAR AAA 500 out in Fontana this weekend in one of the private suites on the infield. Amazing view of the race, the cars, the sound and the action. I got very lucky to be there and to get to take tours of the pits and the garages so I made the most of it by bringing along my D300, 17-55 F2.8 and my “big gun, the 70-200 F2.8 VR. For the garage stuff, the 17-55 was cool but it was hopeless out matched trying to shoot the cars zooming by at 180 MPH. The 70-200 was my top gun for most of this effort and I got to experiment some since I had time on my hands watching cars go in circles for a few hours.

The track wakes up

Even at 1/2000 shutter, you could not get a clear shot of the cars while holding everything still. You had to, guess!!! you had to PAN the camera and pan it FAST. One of the most basic skills that I used to shoot these shots has me finding out that people are astounded that it works. I did have to make sure I was not going to clock my neighbors on the left side with the lens as I swung it around in an arc very fast. That 70-200 VR F2.8 is a solid and heavy lens, it would really do some damage to hit someone up side the head with it.

Number 33

What makes a good NASCAR or any racing car picture? In a word, motion! at 1/1250 shutter, everything was crisp and you could read the letters on the tires with a good smooth pan. But the car did not show any motion so it looked like a model placed on the track. At 1/800, you had crisp with the letters on the tires blurred. By the time I got to 1/250, it was sweet.. blurred track, blurred fans and blurred lettering but with a good pan, the car would be crisp. Now I had the money shots.

Close Quarters

Next tip was to shoot full manual and in RAW. Why? because the lighting changed CONSTANTLY and to get the fastest focusing and consistent shots, the camera needed to be locked down. RAW because of the random lighting, many times in post, I had to bring up or down about 1/2 stop to get the exposure right on the money. RAW let me do that and to really dial in the colors without fear of trashing the image like you would in a JPEG.

Next tip? Easy.. prefocus the camera and then let it fine tune it on the pan. This gets the fastest automatic focus you can get.. plus having it in continuos focus mode. If the camera has to waste time moving the focus from the middle of the range to the extreme end, you will miss the cars every time.

On fast subjects like these cars, dont forget to LEAD the subject, just shooting a gun. And shoot rapidly, I did 3 FPS which was plenty.. the guy behind me was shooting at 8FPS but then he also had the big assed 500MM and was probably getting paid to be there.

Still using Holley carbs

Dont forget that it’s a story and not just cars. Shoot the pits because that can be VERY exciting. I also shot quite a bit in the garages getting very interesting detail shots of the templates being used, car testing, cars on stands, mechanics working etc. All of this can really keep a persons interest as they go through your pictures.
Army's driver Ryan Newman and interviewer

Walk around, change locations to get different angles, 300 images from the same place will look BORING in short order.

Ready to roll

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This entry was posted in equipment, event photography, Hardware, lenses, photography, technique and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Manuels World July 27, 2010 at 7:19 am #

    Cool picture!

  2. Laura @ Lax Car service August 11, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    Great Pics, I Would love to do this for a living, I am working on all aspects of photography at the moment but sport and car racing is my passion!


    • Mike Sweeney August 12, 2010 at 6:50 am #

      Racing pics are a “hobby” within the biz of shooting weddings, portraits and such. It’s a tough nut to crack to make money at but I’m working on it 🙂 I plan to start hitting more car events this year and put more of a real effort into it. Watch for a new post on shooting art while shooting cars.

  3. Scrap Car February 15, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    some good information, never have managed to catch all the action when shooting any kind of race.

  4. Limo June 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    I really want to watch a live race. I wish i could ever get the chance.

  5. Vanessa August 15, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Thank you for writing on this topic, I appreciate it. Many people do not realize how hard this task is, and that it does require much needed skills. I think in order to work in this profession it is important to have a love for photography as well as cars.

    Auto Repair Benicia

  6. autorent August 23, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    Is there any racing car that is for rent? I really want to rent a sports car. I just hope that those sport cars are not so expensive to rent.

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