How-to Photograph Race cars

If you’re as passionate about motor sports as you are about photography, then Jamey Price‘s career as a professional race photographer probably sounds like a dream job. He’s photographed some of the biggest races in the world from spots most fans could only dream of going. But, that means long days lugging huge amounts of gear into dangerous areas. He shares with us what it’s like to be a pro, as well as a whole bunch of tips for getting started in motor sports photography.

What kind of racing background did you have before you got into photographing it?
I was like every other kid growing up in America. I had car posters on my walls. I would watch Formula 1 races on the weekends when I could find them on the old satellite. I’ve always love car racing. It was foreign and new and awesome. As I grew up I started going to them as a fan. Then, I got the opportunity to shoot a few of them and it turned into a really, really awesome profession.

Sebastian Vettel
25 year old triple world champion Sebastian Vettel from Germany sits in his Red Bull F1 car prior to Canadian Grand Prix practice in June 2013.
Nikon D3, 550mm, 1/500, f4 Jamey Price

You photograph a wide variety of races, from cars to motorcycles. Is there one kind of racing you particularly enjoy?
I joke about it, but if it pays I’ll shoot it. I love anything that goes fast. I love racing of all kinds. If somebody wants to send me to Australia to shoot some off road race, I’d happily go.

Valentino Rossi
9 times world champion Valentino Rossi proves he still has what it takes at Circuit of the Americas during Motogp practice in April 2013.
Nikon D3s, 500mm, 1/800, f8 Jamey Price

How much does your knowledge of racing come into play when you’re out shooting? Is it crucial to know a lot about racing to get good photos of it?
I don’t consciously think about it, but understanding how a car race develops. A Formula 1 races is much different than the 12 Hours of Sebring, which is much different than a Moto GP bike race, which is different from NASCAR. The more you know about it, the easier it is to work around.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads to the race track during practice for the Coca Cola 600 in May 2012.
Nikon D700, 19mm, 1/50, f18 Jamey Price

How long is a typical day at the races for you?
The races range from two or three hours up to 12 hours in some cases. Those longer races are so much fun. You get all times of day. A lot of races start at Noon or one in the afternoon and are over by three, which is the worst time of day to be shooting anything. Longer races might start at 9 AM and end at 9 or 10 at night.

Some 24-hour races start at 3 in the afternoon and go until the same time the next day. You get a full cycle of the sun. You get a sunrise, and nice afternoon light, but you also get to work at night, which presents its own opportunities and challenges.

Jenson Button
Jenson Button pushes his Mclaren Formula One car around the Canadian Grand Prix course during qualifying in June 2013.
Nikon D3, 112mm, 1/30, f10 Jamey Price

How did you get started? For a lot of folks, just getting access seems to be part of the trouble with getting into racing photography.
The biggest pet peeve I have is hearing people with no experience shooting race cars and they want a press credential to a Formula 1 race. You have to be realistic in your expectations. You have to be patient when following it.

When I started, I was going to lawnmower races in North Carolina and dirt track races in Kentucky. Look for stuff that gets no real press recognition and they will likely open their arms to anyone who wants to give it a serious try. Try a local newspaper, magazine, or blog. Small events like that often don’t even require a press credential and you can shoot almost anywhere because there’s no one else there doing it. They’re often happy to have someone there who knows what they’re doing.

Fernando Alonso
Double world Champion and Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso puts in the necessary miles during pre-season testing in Barcelona, Spain in February 2013.
Nikon D3s, 800mm, 1/800, f6.3 Jamey Price

How hard is it to get a Formula 1 credential?
Some pros get a “hard card”, which gives you a vest at every race without having to apply for credentials. You can show up and walk right in through the gate when you get there. To have a hard card, you have to have something like 285 printed pictures and be able to prove it. At the end of the year, they’ll ask you for a disc of your printed work. It has to have a certain number of published photos by you to qualify for the next season.

Sebring American Le Mans race
A Viper runs wide showering the car with orange dirt during the 12 hours of Sebring American Le Mans race in Florida in March 2013.
Nikon D3, 500mm, 1/1250, f4 Jamey Price

Is it possible to shoot a big race without credentials?
One of the first races I went to with a camera was the Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix. The race was just south of Milan and I went by myself with my camera. I didn’t speak any Italian and had a three day general admission pass. I went there and I shot it like I was shooting it for a team or an editorial outlet. To this day I haven’t sold any of them, but I did find spots that no one else had seen. It’s a great opportunity.

Sebastian Loeb
Sebastian Loeb takes his Peugeot Pikes Peak Hill Climb car to the limit at almost 13,000ft above sea level during the 91st Pikes Peak Hill Climb in June 2013.
Nikon D4, 400mm, 1/2500, f3.5 Jamey Price

There’s a lot more to shoot at the races besides the cars, right?
A lot of times on Thursday or Friday during practice sessions, we won’t be down by the track. We’ll be up in the grandstands where the fans will be on race day. We’ll be doing really slow pans or wide shots with lots of color. You get different angles. You’re not screwed if you don’t have credentials. It’s not just about race cars on a race track. There’s so much going on at a race of any kind. Any race you want to bring a camera to is a good start.

Max Chilton
Max Chilton does a practice pitstop with the Marussia Formula One team in Barcelona Spain in February 2013.
Nikon D3s, 28mm, 1/15, f22 Jamey Price

Could you realistically go to a race with non-pro gear — like an all-in-one zoom lens — and get good stuff?
You would do fine. The only real time you would need a really fast lens is when you’re shooting down on the track and they’re coming straight at you. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter if you have a kit lens that’s an F/5.6 like I started with. If you’re shooting from a fan position, you’re going to want to be panning in some way. At that point, you don’t need F/2.8 because then you’re just freezing cars.

Jenson Button
Jenson Button makes a run late in the day during pre-season testing in Barcelona, Spain in February 2013.
Nikon D3s, 800mm, 1/25, f20 Jamey Price

The pan shot seems like a crucial part of your arsenal. Can you share a little of your technique?
It really helps to know car racing. I sit down and watch what’s going on in front of me in the area I’m in. I’ll look for things like colors and leading lines — things that are visually interesting. As you follow a car across a space, your eye pans for you. You can see what the picture looks like before you pick the camera up. Once you pick the camera up, it’s all about having a good solid place to stand and swinging the camera across smoothly as you follow the car. Balance is really important.

Audi prototype
An Audi prototype during the 12 hours of Sebring morning warmup in March 2013.
Nikon D3s, 700mm, 1/40, f14 Jamey Price

What kind of shutter speed are you looking at for a pan shot?
It depends on how fast the cars are moving and it also depends on the light. If it’s really harsh noon sun and I can’t get a polarizer on my 14-24mm lens, then you’re limited in how slow you can actually go. It makes a huge difference. A car moving at 215 mph, you can shoot at 1/100th and it’ll look like everything else does at 1/30th.

It’s really challenging and it takes practice. I’ll have good days and bad days. Sometimes I can nail stuff sharp down 1/5th or 1/10th of a second. Other days, I’m having trouble with 1/60th.

It can also depend on the track. Some tracks are really bumpy and you’re not going to get anything. The car is bouncing as it goes over the bumps, so even if your pan is perfect, it’s still going to look blurry.

Brakes glowing bright red on a prototype
Brakes glowing bright red on a prototype during the waning hours of the 12 hours of Sebring in March 2013.
Nikon D3s, 116mm, 1/50, f4 Jamey Price

Is it a challenge to get those slow shutter speeds in bright sun?
I have a polarizer and ND filters. If you want to shoot under 1/50th on a bright sunny day, you need a filter on it.

If you’re shooting at 1/20th, you’re at F/22 if not smaller than that. I have a 400mm lens and I’ll often put a teleconverter on it. You can pan with those, so I’ve gotten some really interesting stuff that was shot at F/45. At that point, you have a whole new set of problems. You have to have a spotlessly clean sensor or it looks like someone sneezed on it.

Nicky Hayden on his Ducati
Nicky Hayden on his Ducati during the Motogp race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin TX.
Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/125, f14 Jamey Price

Speaking of lenses, what is your typical race kit?
I bring everything that I own because I never know what I’m going to need, especially if I’ve never been to a certain track. The last thing that I want is to get there and realize I left something I needed at home, especially if I’m getting paid to do the job. I own a Think Tank Airport Security Version Two which fits most of my gear.

I have two bodies, a Nikon D3 and a D3s. As far as lenses go, I own a 400mm F/2.8, a 1.4x converter and a 2x converter. Both of those are pretty necessary. Instead of owning a 400mm, a 500mm, and an 800mm, I can just bring the one lens and the converters. It does more or less the same job.

Jenson Button and his Mclaren Formula One car
Jenson Button and his Mclaren Formula One car run during a wet afternoon during pre-season testing in Barcelona, Spain.
Nikon D3s, 550mm, 1/30, f10 Jamey Price

I also have a 70-200mm, a 28-70mm, a 14-24mm, and a 50mm F/1.4. It’s nothing too fancy. I carry all of it on me on a belt pack that also has a sensor blower, some extra batteries, a trash bag in case we get a rain storm and a box cutter for cutting through foliage or other stuff that might be in the way.

I sometimes carry a small can of spray paint to paint the catch fence itself. By nature they’re very light colored and reflect a lot. If you shoot through it during a harsh time of day, you can get a lot of glare from it. If you paint it black, it helps all of that and it doesn’t really damage the fence.

There are a few tracks where I’d love to have a machete with me.

Seasoned NASCAR driver Mark Martin
Seasoned NASCAR driver Mark Martin enjoyed a rare quiet moment in the garage prior to All Star Race practice in Charlotte.
Nikon D3, 140mm, 1/80, f2.8 Jamey PRice

Do you bring a monopod for that big lens?
I have a big sturdy monopod for the 400mm lens. You can hand hold it for a little while, but it gets really tiring. For instance, at the 12 Hours of Sebring, you’re probably out on the track for 11 of those 12 hours. You grab a sandwich and a water at lunch, but the rest of it you’re out on the track working. It’s excruciating to carry around a lens that weighs almost 10-pounds on its own.

BMW British Touring Car
A BMW British Touring Car throws mud and water during a very wet race at Rockingham in September 2012.
Nikon D3, 550mm, 1/640, f4 Jamey Price

You don’t always want to be panning, but should you try to freeze the car solid or do you try to keep a little motion?
You should always keep the wheels turning a little bit. Obviously there are exceptions, but it really depends on the car, the race, and the angle from which the car is coming at you. If the car is coming straight at you, you can use a higher shutter speed because you can’t see the wheels. If you turn it just a little bit, though, so you can see sidewall of the tire, there are logos that will give away what shutter speed you’re using. Anything below roughly 1/1000th and it will look frozen and sharp. If you can see the sidewall of the tire, it’s going to have a big white or yellow logo on it. You want to get some motion on that.

If you’re shooting sports car racing and there are no cars with open wheels, you can shoot all the way up to 1/8000th of a second if the cars are coming straight at you. You can’t see the tires. All you see is the chassis of the car.

British Touring Cars
British Touring Cars light up the late afternoon on a wet day at Rockingham speedway in September 2012.
Nikon D3, 550mm, 1/320, f4.5 Jamey Price

How about focusing? That seems like it would be one of the most challenging aspects of shooting objects moving that fast.
If a car is driving straight at you, it doesn’t appear to be going 200 miles per hour. It can look like it’s standing still. Then it will shoot by you with a roar. Most cameras don’t have much of a problem focusing on a car coming straight at you from a couple hundred yards down the track.

The challenge comes when the car is within 100 feet of you. Your perspective and the perception of movement changes. That’s when having really fast AF really helps a lot.

10 second exposure during Petit Le Mans
A 10 second exposure during Petit Le Mans near Atlanta GA in October 2012.
Nikon D3, 110mm, 10 seconds, f22 Jamey Price

Do you prefocus and just wait for the car to hit a spot?
I find it better to follow the car to that spot with the lens, even if you’re not shooting a panning shot. You can spot focus and then wait until the car gets there to fire some frames. I do that, but it’s not my go-to method. If you follow the car, you can generally keep it in focus better and you might even see something you wouldn’t see if you picked your spot ahead of time.

Rebellion prototype
A Rebellion prototype during warmup for Petit Le Mans in Atlanta GA in October 2012.
Nikon D3, 800mm, 1/1000, f13 Jamey Price

How about focus tracking? Does that come in handy for you?
I don’t have it on 3D tracking usually. Especially with the cameras that are a little older, it’ll jump around a little. The other problem is that if it’s an open-cockpit series where you can see the driver, you want to get their helmet in focus, you don’t want the front of the car to be in focus. If you can see the helmet, that’s the important thing. You’re basically trying to focus on a moving object within a fast-moving object. I can do that better than the camera can.

I do back-button focusing, so I have my thumb on the AF-on button rather than the shutter. I’ll just keep following it with my eye and keeping the focus point on the driver’s helmet or slightly in front of it.

Pre-race festivities for Petit Le Mans
Pre-race festivities for Petit Le Mans in October 2012.
Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/2500, f2.8 Jamey Price

Do the giant sponsor banners pose a challenge for you on the race tracks?
That’s my biggest complaint about what racetracks have become. I understand it, but it’s messy and ugly. What I’ve come to learn doing this is that the best tool you have on you is your legs. If you don’t like the spot you’re in, move three paces or move a mile if you have to. Find something with a clean background. Trees and sky work really well.

Sometimes you can use those sponsor banners to get a sense of place. Some tracks have really distinctive banners. There’s a track in Florida during the Sebring 12-hours that has a big “Florida” banner going over the track. If you’re just doing tight 500mm shots on each car as they go by, then every track starts to look the same. You have to get a mix of everything, including sponsor bannering.

It can actually look good if you use it in a pan. Some of the Honda banners are actually great because they’re really punchy and red. If you get the right car going by it, it can be really cool. You have to work with what you got. You can also make one location look a lot different depending on your camera settings. A shot taken at 1/2000th of a second doesn’t look anything like a picture taken at 1/10th, even if you’re in the same spot.

Brad Kaselowski during the Coca Cola 600
Brad Kaselowski during the Coca Cola 600 in May 2012.
Nikon D3, 400mm, 1/60, f11 Jamey Price

Your access probably helps you shoot around stuff like that, but it probably brings about a whole new set of challenges, right?
It’s really dangerous to shoot one of those races. That’s something a lot of people leave out of their minds. It’s really fun to go watch a race. You’re generally very safe in the grandstands. The organizers usually aren’t going to put you in a compromising position where a car can hit you. When you’re media, all of that goes out the window. When you’re media, you are responsible for yourself in very dangerous spots. A car crash at 180-mph is not a car crash. It’s more like a small plane crash. Things explode, sending shrapnel and carbon fiber everywhere. Tires come off. It is exceptionally dangerous stuff.

Fans silhouetted at the half way
Fans silhouetted at the half way mark during the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte during May 2012.
Nikon D3, 400mm, 1/6400, f2.8 Jamey Price

What about shooting in the pits?
Working in a pit lane is essentially like trying to work in the middle of a highway. Generally pit lane speeds are 60-mph. It’s like standing out on your local road where cars are going 45-mpg. It’s faster than that. Cars are inches away from you. It’s a really dangerous place and the more press there are, the more dangerous it becomes.

prototype at sunset
A prototype at sunset during Petit Le Mans in Atlanta GA in October 2012.
Nikon D3, 400mm, 1/3200, f5 Jamey Price

Are there some mistakes you see beginners making that they could probably avoid?
There are some people that don’t like shooting the back of a race car, but I really do. Some of them are just stunning. That’s where all of the money and all of the design work goes into the car.

If you have a car that’s moving parallel to the front of your lens, that’s where you separate the amateurs and the guys who really know what they’re doing. You can take a really benign shot and make it interesting, but freezing the car from the side so it just looks like it’s parked on the racetrack, that’s amateurish. It gets even worse if the background is messy.

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