When it comes to shooting sports, the natural impulse is to freeze the action. This is certainly the best approach for situations when you can see the expression of the athlete or capture their body in an unusual or dramatic pose, but freezing the action can deliver an emotionless result in other situations, particularly with motorsports. Unless the vehicle has momentarily leapt off the ground or is dramatically banking as it corners, it may look strangely static in a photo, especially with a race car that essentially looks the same on the ground whether parked or driving at 200mph.
Rather than freezing the action, you really want to get across the feeling of speed.
One of the most popular techniques to achieve this is with a sharp subject against a blurred background—not blurred through a shallow depth of field, but through sheer motion. The trick is to pan the camera as the vehicle goes past and take the photo while you’re panning. If the shutter speed is slow enough, you’ll blur the background with the panning action while, crucially, keeping the subject sufficiently still in the frame for it to be sharp. Meanwhile, the slower shutter will also allow the wheels to blur, again lending the impression of speed and motion to your final result.
The perfect shutter speed depends on a number of factors, including subject distance and focal length, not to mention how accurately you can maintain the subject’s position in the frame during the exposure. Slower shutters will deliver greater blurring, but also a greater risk of the subject moving and blurring, too. The trick is to refine your panning technique and experiment with different shutter speeds.
Try using Shutter Priority with Auto ISO and start relatively fast at around 1/500 to ensure you have some shots that will definitely be sharp, then gradually slow it down. In this particular case, the slowest possible shutter speed was 1/125 with a focal length equivalent to 255mm. If you’re closer with a shorter lens, you should be able to manage much slower speeds.
Professional sports photographers always try to capture poses with at least ‘one and a half eyes’ visible; when it comes to cars, think of this as being able to see at least some of the second headlamp. This means timing your bursts to capture the vehicle while it’s still at least slightly face on. You might find that the impact of your photo is reduced when viewed from the side, and even more from the rear. As for the panning technique, just practice and practice, taking as many shots as possible to maximise your chances. Some pros also suggest panning with your waist rather than your arms for a smoother result.
- Fujifilm X-Pro2
- Fujinon XF 100–400mm ƒ/4.5–5.6
- 190mm (255mm equivalent)
- 1/125 second
- 0 EV
- ISO 200
In Camera is Gordon Laing’s guide to making the most out of your digital camera, and never feeling as if technology has left you behind. In Camera will teach you the skills to push your camera to the limit and capture the perfect shot, under all conditions, with no post-processing required.