Motor Cycle Racing Photography / by Justin Fritts

So originally I was going to do a piece just on going out to the track and show photos and talk a little bit about it.  But one thing I've learned on this fancy internet thing is that people looking at photography stuff seem to much prefer learning about technique and how they can do something themselves.  So with that said I recalibrated my head and instead decided to talk about the actual doing of the photos and show off a little of what I did, although to be honest, I'm definitely no pro at this and really just did it for fun and had to learn as I went along.  I'd assume a lot of what I learned would apply to racecar photography too.

So, first things first.  My buddy and I went out to the High Plains Raceway and worked the the MRA here in Colorado and got some media passes.  It wasn't too hard to do, lots of paperwork, waivers, agreements, and all that jazz to go through (including who you're insured by, ouch!).  If you are interested I'd suggest starting there, contact your local raceways and clubs that race and see what ones will allow you to get a pass, without one getting the really fun photos will be a lot harder.

Second, be safe, seriously and follow all the rules of the track.  You don't want to end up getting hurt or getting someone else hurt or having your day cut short by getting kicked out.

This guy laid it down easy, with speed it really could hurt

Now, I'm going to break this blog post here, otherwise it may fill my whole homepage, click on through for more!

Alright, so now the fun.  Equipment.  I took out my 5Dm2 and my 40D, loaded my bag up with my 24-70L and my 70-200 2.8 IS L and a 1.4x teleconvertor.  If you don't have a long lens with good fast focusing, go rent one, a place here in Denver (Camren) will rent you a 70-200 2.8 IS L mk I for $40 for the whole weekend if you rent it on a Friday or go big with a 400mm or 500mm for a few bucks more, although I'm not sure you really need it.  Having something that focuses fast and accurate will be important, you might have trouble with that 70-300.  The lens is the important part here, I think any camera on the market today will do just fine (can't confirm this).  If you have micro-focus adjustments available on your camera go ahead and try to get the lens as sharp as possible, especially if it is a rental.

Now the important part, find an angle.  I can tell you from my experience, the corners are the place to be, especially the inside of the turn.  You know why, the bikes slow way down in the corners, its hard enough to get a good photo when you're going as slow as they are in the corners, also they lean hard into the turns.  So, why is it so hard to get a good photo, lets go into the specifics.

Inside of the turn, the slow lean!

First, focus.  I set my camera to the center focus point.  This is because that is usually the most accurate point and probably the easiest point to try to keep the motorcycle in and also because you'll be wanting to use AI Servo mode, don't forget, these bikes are moving.  AI Servo mode will track that center dot's movement, you can add point expansion on some cameras but I didn't, the bikes movement is pretty predictable.  Plan on doing some cropping later, some shots may be shifted in the frame but you may want to crop some down a little, I know I did.

Depending on what you're looking for photographing motorcycle races could be hard or easy.  Shutter speed is the reason for this.  Assuming you have a fast focusing lens and enough light you can really freeze the motion, take for example this shot taken at 1/1250s.

Fast shutter, tack sharp focus, motion frozen

Now, I'm not going to say it looks bad because some people may like the look of it but compare it to this:

Leaning into the corner

Now you can see the difference, the motion blur of the background and the spinning of the wheels!  I prefer the second, it really gives the feeling of speed to the shot instead of the frozen motion of the first shot.  But let me tell you, getting that second shot is a pain.  The problem is you have to actually move the camera at the same speed as the bike.  Now how far away the bike is will determine how much blur you get, the closer the bike the more it moves, the more it moves the faster your shutter can be, if you're close 1/250 can give you some good results, further away, plan on 1/100-150.  That means you have to move the camera in the same direction the bike is moving at the same speed it is moving.  Plan on 2/3 of your photos being throwaways.

My buddy and I took two different approaches.  I used a monopod letting it keep my vertical motion to a minimum.  When the first few bikes would go by I would track them in the center of the frame without taking a photo, just pushing the shutter halfway and letting it focus.  Once you get the motion of the bikes down start shooting.  (Oh yeah, IS on, IS Mode 2 preferable as you are panning, and put the focus limiter on to further ranges, might increase you focus rate a little that way.)  For me, I found actually turning my hips helped a lot, keep the monopod placed and twist your hips around it like a little dance.  My buddy went without the monopod and twisted his shoulders, I say to each his own, try it all out and see what gives you the steadiest motion, and thanks to the digital age you can review the photos and see if you are turning to slow or fast or bouncing up and down.

I started first shooting at 1/200s.  I also used burst mode on my camera, 3 fps not 6 fps that the 40D can deliver.  The 3 fps allows you to see in between shots long enough to adjust your movement.  1/200 gives you a little room for play on keeping steady.  1/100 will probably give you the most blur but getting a truly sharp photo at 1/100-125 is very hard.  Once I started to feel like 1/200 was working well I started to dial it down some, 1/160, 1/125, etc.

What do I consider a sharp photo, I probably keep myself at a little bit too high of a standard, this was one of my better ones.  But I like to read the dials and see the faces.

Faces and stickers

Once you feel comfortable in the corners try moving around some, I tried some other angles, outside of the corner, straight aways (these are tough and the bikes are going fast enough that even 1/200 or 1/250 gets you motion blur) and even tried some remote shooting with my 40D on a very low angle (manual focus).

I welcome any comments or questions, there's a lot of information and I'm not sure I've captured it all and coherently.  Thank you.


Outside corner

Little bit of a wheelie

Remote camera capturing from down low

Even a miss of a shot can look good