Auto RacingEventsHow ToMedia EventPhotographySports

2012 Grand Prix of Baltimore – How to Photograph Race Cars

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he second-most-popular spectator sport in America is auto racing and has become the most overall attended sporting event next to horse-racing.  It is also one of the most rewarding sports to photograph. It’s outdoors, the cars are colorful and the action is fast.  And yes, it can be a tad loud!

However, this type of photography comes with some unique challenges.  The purpose of this article is to provide guidance on to how overcome some of the most common challenges and provide suggestions as how to take stunning photos of racing events.

I should mention that this article was written for the ‘prosumer’ photographer and not the casual point-and-shoot spectator.  I have also provided a few tips for those not lucky enough to have ‘privileged access’ to special spots along the track that are reserved for ‘professional’ photographers.  You may find that you may be able get results that are pretty close to the pros.

[box_light]The Grand Prix of Baltimore[/box_light]

Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore where cars reach 180mph
(c) John Soulé for IMPress

The Grand Prix of Baltimore is a major motor-sports racing event that ran through the streets of the Baltimore, Maryland during the Labor Day weekend of 2012. The twelve turn course extended for two miles through the normally busy downtown streets and around the scenic Inner Harbor.  This, the second annual event for Baltimore, featured the IZOD IndyCar Series and the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron.  This article is based on my attendance of that event as a spectator.

[box_light]Multiple Subjects[/box_light]

Dario Franchitti #10
(c) John Soulé for IMPress


As a photographer, be sure to look around.  At any race there are several interesting subjects to consider  other than just the race cars.  Also consider taking pictures of the racing crew and the fans themselves.

You can get some most interesting shots of fans cheering on their favorite driver.

Often the drivers themselves will make appearances for the Press and the public.  If you know the time of their appearance, try to get there early so you get close (remember to take a flash) for some nice “PR” shots.

And, position yourself near the Paddock for shots of the teams taking their cars out to the track.  (Some venues charge an additional fee for access.)

And as with the Baltimore Grand Prix – there is also the city itself as a backdrop to consider.



Grand Prix of Baltimore at the Inner Harbor
(c) John Soulé for IMPress



Any quality camera that can fire at least 2 frames per second should work for this type of photography.  (I would, however, not consider using a ‘point-and-shoot’ camera by any means for high end work.)


For optimal quality, and depending on your proximity to the track, you will need a zoom that can extend to at least 200mm.  A lens with a fast auto focus and wide aperture is a must.  I use a Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8 VRII and often couple it with a 1.4X teleconverter for additional reach.The combination becomes a 280mm f/4 high quality lens.  If I couple this with my Nikon D800, I can capture very high-resolution images at 36 megapixels and crop with little loss of quality.  If I couple this lens with Nikon D7000, I now have a 420mm f/4 lens and can capture high-resolution images at 16 megapixels.  I find this combination much easier to transport than my 400mm lens in a crowded location.


If I can carry a tripod or monopod, then I would.  However, this may not always be possible.  Lenses that offer Vibration Reduction / Image Stabilization controls can be help reduce camera shake to a great degree.  Attempting to handhold a zoomed lens at 200+mm can be subject to camera shake. If possible, I try to find something (ie post, fence, etc.) to prop up against for stability.  If I am in a grandstand, I try to seat on the end, near the outside guardrail and use that as my support.


Finding the right location is critical.
(c) John Soulé, IMPress

If you are shooting a course such as the Baltimore Grand Prix, look for a dramatic turn to gain your position. Also find a straightaway where there’s a lot of passing. I would not try to cover the whole track – it’s better to get a few good shots from a couple of locations than just average ones from everywhere.

Light is an important consideration.  If given the opportunity, have the sun to your back so the cars are nicely lit.  A cloudy day is often better than a bright sunny day to reduce the reflected glare from the sun on the car’s shinny surface.

When scouting locations, be aware of anything in the frame that does not add to your photo.  Some items may be difficult to remove in post processing.

Oval tracks are a cinch: you can usually see half the track from one location. Above all, go where the cars appear to be battling it out in wheel-to-wheel combat.  And, if your event takes you through a town or city, capture a shot of two that includes the background.

Tip:  Get a layout of the track and scope out the best locations ahead of time.  Some tracks offer a day or two of practice – often at a greatly reduced cost from race day.  The crowds will not be there and you may find some great locations that otherwise may not be accessible.  The cars are the same – it is just not the race.

Tip: In most city races, tall fencing will obstruct views of the track.  Find a long stretch of the course. Seek high ground but try to find a spot where the top of the fence is at the bottom of the frame in your viewfinder.  This should give you more of a head on shot where you can include the driver.  This will add more impact rather than being at the highest point and looking down at the top of the driver’s helmet. Shoot with the car as close to you as possible, but high enough above the fence so as to not include the fence in the image.  


There are really two techniques when it comes to capturing a race car – freeze the action or track the action using a panning technique.

Freezing the Action

Stop motion – 150mph shot at 1/500sec
(c) John Soulé for IMPress

The first technique is to freeze the action by using a fast shutter speed. This may be fine for some sports but it is not always the best choice for race cars. If you “freeze” a speeding car or motorcycle so that it looks like it’s standing still, that’s exactly the way it will look – like it’s standing still.   However, if cars are coming straight at you, you will have little choice but to freeze the action.  This really becomes more of what the photographer hopes to capture.


Panning Motion – 180mph at 1/125sec
(c) John Soulé, IMPress

Panning is an art form in itself.  You will want to capture, in focus, the speeding car(s) while blurring the background.  The trick is to use a shutter speed that is not too quick that it freezes the background as well.  The actual shutter speed will vary with the speed of  the car.  Start with 1/125-second and experiment with even slower shutter speeds until you have this down.  Remember that blurring implies speed.  (If you want to get creative, you can use post processing software to create a motion blur on the background as well.)

Tip:  Track the car in your viewfinder for a few seconds before you actually press the shutter button. Follow the car in your viewfinder by swiveling the camera to keep it in view. As the car zooms by, press the shutter button and keep following the car in the viewfinder for a few more seconds. (Using a tripod with a floating head works best.)


When it comes to focusing on a moving subject, there are a couple of proven techniques.  One method is to set your camera to continuous Auto Focus and burst drive. As soon as your subject comes into view, focus on its grille and follow it with the camera. Keep shooting until it has passed. Another method is to turn off the Auto Focus, manually focus on a particular spot, and wait until a car zooms into frame. This works well in corners, where cars “slow down” to negotiate the turn.

I generally set my Auto Focus to ‘Continuous Mode’.   For most cameras there are several continuous focus modes to select from.  If an object is moving towards you, Nikon has a neat 3D focusing capability that will track an object as it moves perpendicular to the focal plane of the camera.  If an object is moving parallel to the focal plane, use one of the multi-point focus modes.  I find using 9 points works for predictable linear movement.

[box_light]The Exposure[/box_light]

Each exposure relies on three settings – Shutter Speed, Aperture opening and ISO.  The following is for the photographer that is comfortable taking their camera off of  ‘Automatic”.

[box_light]Shutter Speed[/box_light]

When holding a long zoom lens, remember that the minimum shutter speed is based on the reciprocal of focal length of the lens.  That is, minimum shutter speed = 1/(focal length)sec.  This would dictate that you will need to set a shutter speed to be at least 1/200sec when you are handholding a 200mm lens. However, depending on the effect you want, this may not be nearly fast enough to stop the action.  To freeze action, start off with a shutter speed of 1/400 second – this will minimize most camera shake while capturing some blurred wheel spin. If you have rock-steady hands (or use a mono pod) you may be able to shoot slower.

Having VR (Nikon) or IS (Canon) on will help reduce the results of camera shake.  And, the more you zoom out, the more camera shake becomes a problem.  Additionally, with race cars traveling at speeds well in excess of 150mph, you will have to decide on whether to stop the motion (everything frozen) or use a panning motion to blur the background.  You should decide this well in advance of the approaching car(s).


Setting the aperture to control the depth of field is less important than shutter speed, but it still is important.  For most shots,  I found that f/8 is a safe bet.  And for most lenses, it is the ‘sweet spot’ for their sharpness.

Keep in mind that depth of field refers to how much of the picture is in focus (front and back) from the focus point. You control depth of field by the aperture (lens opening) setting on your camera. A large opening, indicated by a low number (such as f/2.8), gives you a very shallow depth of field. This will give you a tight focus and nicely blur the background.  A small opening, indicated by a higher number of (such as f/8), will give you a deeper depth of field. Having a deep depth of field is critical in photographing fast moving objects, especially if they are moving toward you. Your lens can only focus so fast, and when these cars are moving as quick as they are, in that millisecond between when your camera focuses and the shutter fires, the car has moved. With a deeper depth of field, more of the background and foreground will remain in sharp focus. The advantage with this is that a longer part of the car’s path will remain in focus during the capture.  This is really important when shooting multiple cars in a passing event.  You will want as many of the cars in focus as possible.


ISO also plays an important factor.  For fast moving objects, and based on the technique desired for capture, the shutter speed is the first concern.  And, based on the desired effect of what is to be in focus, next follows choosing the aperture.  Many photographers do this by selecting ‘Shutter Priority’ and let the camera figure out the best aperture.

But this only works if the ISO is set to automatically figure out what setting to use to balance the shutter speed with the aperture.  The problem is that at high shutter speeds, coupled with small aperture openings, a lot of light is need to get a good exposure.  And, if you are dealing with early morning sun, a cloudy day, or shade, then there is not going to be a lot of light to start with.  The camera, to compensate for this, will increase the ISO.  Unless the ISO goes beyond the built-in noise reduction capabilities of the camera (cameras vary on this), this does not become a problem in 4×6 prints.  But, if we intend to crop the image to fill the frame as discussed above, and use the picture for display, noise can become a concern.  On a bright sunny day, I often find that I could shot at 1/500sec at f/8 with an ISO of 100.  This will give stellar enlargements without much noticeable noise.  The ISO was down to 100.  However, some of my shots were take on a completely shaded street at 1/500sec at f/8.  My ISO was up to 1600 at times.  Images shot with an ISO above 400 required adjusting the noise during RAW processing (or using a third-party ‘de-Noising’ product) to eliminate the negative effects.  Adjust noise by viewing your image at 400%.


Some rules always remain the same – for an effective impact, fill the frame.  This is where a long lens (or close shooting location) comes into play.  Most spectators are intentionally kept far away from the track for their safety – but this does not work well for the photographer who does not carry a lens of reasonable length as discussed above.  Many of those really up close shots that you will see by professionals are taken with a lens above 300mm and from the ground level.  As I stated earlier, this article was written for those who do not have pro equipment and cannot gain an unobstructed viewing access at ground level.  All racing shots shown in this article were taken from a grandstand seat.  (Remember – location, location, location.)

Some of the most challenging work can be post processing.  As I mentioned, crop the image to fill the screen but also be careful to not overdue your cropping which can make the noise stand out. This is were RAW comes into play and you can reduce the effects of noise  prior to processing or use a third-party software package.  A slight tilt to the image always adds a touch of impact.  There are no banked roads in Baltimore.  The streets were not meant to be track – so the pictures here were all post processed with an angled crop.  Increase the saturation a tad – the race car colors are often bright.  Increase the clarity to bring out the details and contrast.

[box_light]Other Considerations[/box_light]

After a series of shots, look at their histograms.  Any data showing on the right is overexposed.  Whites that are clipped, (overexposed), most likely cannot get recovered.  If you are set up at your shooting location in time, take a few practice shots to make adjustments as necessary.  Always get there early.  I would recommend arriving when the gates open and have a plan as to what you want to cover – just not to try to take on too much.

Most all professional shoot in RAW to gain the most control of the exposure.  By shooting RAW you can easily make up for a number of camera settings that should have been tweaked at the time for a better exposure.  You cannot fix focus (easily) and overexposed images are next to impossible to salvage, but everything else – from white balance, to exposure, to clarity, to color saturation can all be adjusted after the fact.

I hope these few tips may help you the next time you get to a car race.  They can be a lot of fun – and challenging.  But the end result can really be worth it.

Ryan Hunter-Reay #28
(c) John Soulé for IMPress



IMPress Archives Administrator
IMPress Archives is our articles written and published by past staff members. In accordance with our Terms and Conditions, IPA and IMPress will determine which of these articles will remain in our archives and which will be deleted when a staff member is no longer part of our team.
IMPress Archives Administrator
IMPress Archives is our articles written and published by past staff members. In accordance with our Terms and Conditions, IPA and IMPress will determine which of these articles will remain in our archives and which will be deleted when a staff member is no longer part of our team.
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