This year’s British Grand Prix was my first ever live Formula 1 race, and a chance to see how I could fare with some half-decent photographic equipment in my hands.
I was fairly happy with the photos I took, but in no way did they compare to proper professional photos. Still, it was a seriously fun experience, and I thought that I’d write a relatively basic guide to shooting F1 cars for enthusiasts.
Like I said, I’m only an amateur/enthusiast photographer, so don’t take this article as absolutely essential guide – there’s thousands of better motorsports photographers out there.
My personal favourite F1 photographers are Keith Sutton and Jamey Price. If you wanted a more complete F1 photography guide, take a look at their shots for inspiration.
It’s fairly basic, but also essential that you know your gear before heading off.
For newcomers or general amateurs, a basic point-and-shoot is all you’ll need or want. The most important thing is that it’s easy to understand and use, as well as having some decent shooting quality. My personal preference is the Canon Powershot G series, but they’re a bit pricey. A Panasonic Lumix DMC is good as well.
However, bear in mind that point-and-shoots will lack in quality, especially when zoomed in. If you’re looking for sharp images, then you should move on to DSLRs.
A low-end DSLR will set you back around €400+ for the body only, then you have to look for a suitable lens. If you want to spend less, take a look at a used Canon 450D or equivalent. Personally, I use a Nikon D3100, which is fine, but not particularly sharp.
The more important aspect is the lens you’ll be using. The general consensus is that your telephoto lens’ focal length should exceed 200mm at the very least. I used a Sigma 70-300mm (€150), and that was plenty to get close-ups while sitting in the stands.
Newcomers may be confused at to why some telephotos like mine only cost €150, while there are 70-200mm lenses on sale for over €1000. For advanced users, focal length isn’t the main issue – it’s low f-stops (aperture) and maximum sharpness. I’ll get into this technical aspect later.
Still, my main piece advice for amateurs and budding enthusiasts is the same – bring more memory cards and batteries than you can handle. You’ll want to take as many pictures as possible, and to have your camera run out of space/battery in the middle of the day isn’t something you want to experience.
Practice, practice, practice
I’ve been practicing photography for over 2 years now, and I still can’t exploit the full potential of a low-end DSLR. This is something you’ll want to minimize before heading to a race, as you need to know exacyly how your camera is going to perform.
The best move you can do is practice using your camera as much as possible, even if it’s a point-and-shoot. Having spent a lot of my time shooting badly-lit local gigs, I was caught out with the amount of light available at the race weekend, and it showed in my Friday photos.
Taking pictures of moving objects is a good way to get used to the camera. While doing this, it’s best to fiddle around with a few options on your camera’s manual mode setting, namely ISO, shutter speed and f-stop (aperture).
ISO is a dead acronym, formerly used to describe how sensitive a reel of photo film would be to light. The higher the ISO, the brighter the picture, but at the expense of “grainy” images. In bright daylight, grain isn’t as noticable, but if it rains or gets darker, you’ll notice fairly quickly how your images deteriorate. With digital cameras, ISO now refers to how sensitive the actual camera sensor (in the camera body) will be.
Shutter speed refers to how long the lens shutter stays open. If the light is good, you’ll be shooting F1 cars at 1/200th of a second and quicker. If your picture is too bright, increase shutter speed (eg, to 1/320th), and if it’s too dark, slow it down, to say 1/100th of a second.
The third factor is, to me, is the trickiest – the F-stop. The f-stop, or aperture, refers to how much light is taken in by the camera while the shutter is open. If you are running a high f-stop (eg. f/8), your images will have less light, but the focus is sharper, and more of the photo frame will be in focus. A lower f-stop (f/2.8) will allow for much brighter pictures, but it will be trickier to get the subject into focus.
Applying technical knowledge into photos
If you’re new to the photographic experience, you should probably skip this one – it’s best to master the basics first.
Utilising the shutter speed, f-stop and ISO of a camera will help you perfect a photograph – far better than the camera’s auto mode. However, in order to make your photos stand out from the crowd, you may want to get a little artistic.
If you’re used to your camera, and have a decent lens, you should be able to get a nice stable, sharp shot of an F1 car, disregarding composition of the picture. But, many of your shots will end up looking the same this way.
My favourite F1 photos are of the car in perfect focus, but the background blurred perfectly, to give the viewer a true experience of the sheer speed. Technically, this is quite difficult for beginners and sometimes intermediates, because you’ll have to apply technical knowledge of the camera in a different manner.
To blur your shots, select a much slower shutter speed (eg. 1/25th), and raise your f-stop accordingly to balance out the light. When taking the shot, you’ll have to pan the camera with the moving target, keeping the car in the exact same spot in the frame at all times. I struggle to master this technique, but if you can pull it off, it makes for a very nice shot indeed.
This section is much more broad, since all good photographers express their photos differently.
If you’re happy that you can get the light balance correct in a photo, and can make different types of shots using different techniques, then you can move on to composition.
However, how you line up your shot, and how you execute it, is completely up to you. Personally, I try to get as low as possible, to make the F1 car appear more important and intimidating, but this is nearly impossible from the middle of a grandstand.
Taking a general admission space at an F1 race is also another way to go, but then you’re restricted to a certain style of shot, so you’ll have to keep moving around to keep your shots interesting.
The high-end F1 photographers are the ones to look to for the best composition inspiration. Putting the F1 car out of focus, or at the edge of the shot, can make for some stunning pictures, but this is best left to the experts.
At the end of the day, composition is best learned with experience – learn the basics, shoot the types of pictures that you enjoy, and go from there.
- Don’t spend all of the weekend behind the camera – enjoy the view and the noise!
- Try to take pictures of the atmosphere as well, it makes it much more enjoyable looking back
- Try to review your photos in the evenings, and see what makes a good photo.
- Increased work brings rewards in photography. Try different things and see how your work improves
- Better gear does not equal better photos. If you don’t 100% know why you need the new Canon 1DX, you don’t need it.
I shot the 2012 British Grand Prix on a Nikon D3100, a 50mm and 70-300mm, and lots and lots of SD cards.
My half-decent shots from the weekend are available here.