5 Essential Tips for Better Formula One Photography
This article is intended for readers looking to pick some basic tips in motor racing photography. The techniques shared, while relevant to most Formula One racing around the world, are skewed towards Singapore Grand Prix, which is unique as it is held at night. As such, there will not be silhouetted, sunrise or sunset-based photographs as the entire race track is evenly illuminated by 1600 strategically positioned lighting projectors.
Tip #1 – Know and Use the Right Gears
The first point, other than understanding the exposure triangle, is using the right gears. Formula One photography is one sports that current Smartphone or compact camera technology is still not up to the mark.
A decent DSLR camera paired with quality lenses is the best way to enjoying a fruitful outing at the track. A mid-range camera with superb auto-focus capabilities like the Canon EOS80D or EOS7Dmk2 paired with longer focal length zoom lenses like EF100-400mm L Lens would be a great choice. Of course, full-frame models like the 1DXii, 5DmkIV or EOS R would be ideal should the budget allows. Getting conversant with the camera and lens controls is a must as you don’t want to be panicking trying to figure out how to change the settings during a race.
Tip #2 – Get Your Panning Right
Panning is the technique of using a slow shutter speed to impart motion to a still photo while keeping a part of the image sharp. This practice is indispensable in action and motorsport photography. It is a crucial skill as otherwise, the speeding cars will be captured as blurred subjects through too slow a shutter speed or handshake or conversely, looked like it’s stationary on the track through too high a shutter speed. My personal “sweet spot” for achieving a fine balance between background streaking and subject sharpness is between 1/60-1/100s. That is keeping in mind which sector the circuit the cars are in.
A car coming in fast on a straight lane would require 1/100s while those just roaring out of the paddock after a pit-stop would do well with 1/30s-1/60s. The challenge is, you have to find your personal ‘equilibrium’. For creative pictures where colour, light and lines ‘merged” you can try 1/15 range and below. On the other hand, shutter speed above 1/800s will render spinning tyres in ‘frozen’ state.
The trick to successful panning is to adopt a steady stance, elbow closed to your body, feet shoulder-width apart and follow the car with a smooth swinging motion, pivoting at the hip. It takes a lot of practice (and lots of spoilt shots) before getting more sharp photos than misfocused ones. For open wheel cars, the trick is to aim at the driver’s helmet, making sure its sharp. With closed cockpit cars, the side of the car or front of the car (with advertisements and logos) is crucial for ‘keepers’ (pictures you can use).
As tripod legs will hinder or may obstruct other spectators in the crowded area and simply takes up too much space, it is usually disallowed by most track circuit management. A monopod, in this case, would be a valuable accessory to improve panning result as well as sharper pictures apart from mitigating the weight of your gears.
Tip #3 – Study the Circuit and Pick your Track
All tracks are unique in their design and this can impact how the pictures turn out. Some areas are much easier to frame great pictures at while others are simply not ideal for photography.
The Pit Straight lane at the Singapore Marina Bay Circuit, shot from the Club Suite, Apex Lounge. Great section to watch cars attempting to overtake each other but not a suitable location for great eye-level angles.
The key obstacle to great picture opportunity is the race track fencing and the fence pillars. Any position which gives you a higher elevation and away from barriers will make your life easier. Unless you have media accreditation pass that gives you unfettered access, then a long lens (ideally between 300mm-600mm) with a fast aperture (F2-F4) would be recommended to “melt” away the fence, using the lens shallow depth of field. The trick is to position yourself as close as possible to the fence and shoot through the openings. Do be advised though, that the fence wires may be reflected on bokeh balls.
Other than studying the track circuit map, read online F1 blogs for information or talk to fellow photographers before the race commencement to catch up on information on alternative photo spots. You will be surprised how helpful fellow shutterbugs are in sharing useful tips and may even forge new friendships with like-minded people.
Position at the turns where drivers have to slow down give the best opportunity to capture that close-up composition with relatively lower ISO, for cleaner shots.
Tip #4 – Understand the Concept of Shutter Speed
Most photographers know the safest way to get a sharp picture is to use the fast possible shutter speed. But high shutter speed itself may not work well at times. That is where understanding the cause and effect of shutter speed is vital.
By shooting at 1/100s, F4, ISO400. I was able to capture the sparks in longer flowing form compared to the picture below, which was shot at 1/400, F4, ISO1600, where the sparks are rendered in short sparks. Depending on the effect you desired, a thorough awareness of shutter speed and its effect is important.
Tip #5 – Use Fringe Events to Practice
Fringe racing events are usually arranged within Formula One race schedules. Like in Singapore GP, Ferrari Challenge Asia Pacific and Porsche Carrera Cup Asia are regular events on the circuit. These supporting races are perfect to warm up your shooting and panning practise before the actual F1 race, apart from adding fun and variety to the photo portfolio.
Ferrari 488 GTB roaring along the track. Shot at 1/320, F4, ISO1600.
A Porsche 911 GT3 (Type 991) tearing up the track at 1/50s, F13, ISO100.
Duelling Porsches at 1/60, F8, ISo100.
A good way to learn is to find some inspiration from the many motorsport photographers on social media. My favourite F1 photographers have to be Darren Heath and Peter J Fox. But don’t fall into the trap of copying other photographers’ style. Hone your skill with continuous practice. The F1 race might only be an annual event, but there many other sporting events throughout the year to finetune and cultivate that creative edge. Please feel free to have look at my other photo techniques page for further reference.
Footnote: All pictures used in this article are copyrighted and all rights reserved. The material and content on the site are for personal and non-commercial usage only