Sports Photography…Nascar Style!

Sports…generally, the majority of folks can identify with some aspect of sports. It’s in our human nature to be competitive.  As the great Ricky Bobby said “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” (one of my favorite movies by the way!).  After major sporting events, we look to sport-related publications such as Sports Illustrated or ESPN to bring us back to that defining moment of the game through pictures and video.  In the realm of photography, photographers see those pictures and quietly say to ourselves, “Wow, that’s an amazing shot…how did they capture that?”  Last weekend, my goal at Texas Motor Speedway was to learn, through application, what it takes to capture that illusive ‘cover’ shot.  Thus, this post is divided into two sections: a few reflections on general sport photography tips and then my experience applying those tips to my Nascar trip.  If you just want to see the pictures, click here or scroll to the bottom. Otherwise tighten your seat belts – here we go!

Photography Tips

Knowledge – Your biggest ally in sports photography is knowledge of the game.  Knowing where the action is going to take place is the key to success. It doesn’t matter if it’s bowling, baseball, football, swimming, racing, rugby or gymnastics; you have to know your sport and the athletes themselves.  Granted, the action of some sports is easier to track than others, but in the end, you still have to do some homework.  You need to know the players too, and track their tendencies and strengths.  Beyond that, well, then one just must be patient.  Wait for the right moment and hope you’re at the right spot at the right time…which is a good segway to my second tip.

Equipment/Money – Most of the time you’re not going to be allowed in the middle of the action, so you’re going to need to be able to zoom in to get close.  Furthermore, you’ll also need a “fast” lens since many sports are indoor with less than optimal lighting.  What does this mean ?  An empty wallet if you go out and buy everything!  Fear not though, you don’t have to sell your firstborn. Instead,  just go rent a lens from you local camera shop!  A spare camera with a spare lens wouldn’t hurt either!  Why the extra camera?  If you’re changing lenses, you may miss “the shot”, while the guy next to you got it!

Composition – When framing your subject, give them somewhere to go – it just looks better and allows our brain to actually envision where the subject is moving.  For instance, check out the pictures below.  Click on the image to enlarge for better viewing.

Subject has room to run. This is good!

Subject has room to run. This is good!

Subject has no where to go! Not good!

Subject has no where to go! Not good!

Camera Settings – Sports photography is all about shutter speed!  You need to be able to “freeze” the action, or in some cases purposefully blur portions of your image by panning (more on that later).  Set your camera on shutter priority, set a shutter speed of 1/640th (or higher) and let your camera do the rest.  More than likely you’ll need to raise the ISO setting in order to get the shutter speed required (depending on the lighting).  Be careful when raising the ISO, as the higher the ISO setting the noisier the image will be.  Here is where a “fast” lens comes in handy.  The larger aperture allows you to keep the ISO lower.  Be mindful that a large aperture makes for a shallow depth of field.  In most instances this is desirable since you don’t want your viewer to be distracted by the background.  If you want to show motion you need to pan (move) with your subject. When panning, you generally want a shutter speed of 1/30th.  Truthfully though, you really just have to play with your settings and adjust it until you have the look you are going for.  Remember to follow through with your pan!  Continuous shooting mode is a must (switch to JPEG vs RAW to save buffer space)!  Hold the shutter button down and go for it.

The aforementioned tips are what I had learned and read prior to the race.  Now, I”ll take the time to share with you how I applied those tips to this particular event (every event is different): the NRA 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway.

My Experience

NRA_500-118Growing up around racing, and even racing myself, gave me a pretty decent perspective on knowing what was happening on the track.  Still, I did have to study the track a little bit, just like any driver would do.  I knew where passing was most likely to occur and I also knew where most accidents would likely happen. Luckily for me a good friend of mine got us pit passes through Richard Childress Racing.  I would be in the middle of the action before, during and after the race!  The race was going to be at night,  so I knew I would need a bigger, faster lens!  Purchasing was not an option with a baby girl on the way, so I decided to rent the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II.  I also debated about renting a 1.4x teleconverter, but I didn’t want to lose the stop of light that accompanied the teleconverter.

Pre-race images were relatively straight forward – its like taking any other photo of a stationary subject.  Many racing fans only see the race from the grandstands or TV, so I tried to focus on telling the whole story instead of just the race.  You’ll see those images presently.

Shutter speed of 1/1000th.

Shutter speed of 1/320th.

The race began and so did my learning curve.  I started out in Av (Apeture Priority) to focus on the flagman to capture the green flag.  As you can see by the image on the left the this shutter speed (determined by the camera) wasn’t nearly fast enough to freeze the cars; and they weren’t even full speed yet!  I quickly switched to Tv (Shutter Priority) with 1/640th (just as I read) shutter speed and soon realized this wasn’t fast enough either.  Apparently, the books I read didn’t account for 200 mph plus speeding cars!  I bumped the ISO to 400 (the proper exposure was already reading f/2.8) and shutter speed to 1/1000th.  These setting seemed to work nicely…until darkness fell upon the track.

Richard Childress

Richard Childress

As the race progressed, I moved atop Clint Boyers hauler to get a better view.  Here I played with auto-focus (AF) modes, focus points and panning.  I typically use One Shot AF mode,  so I can focus on my subject and then re-compose the image.  However, for moving subjects I switched to AI-Servo AF mode.  This allows the AF mechanism to detect a moving subject and remain focused on it while it moves through your frame or you move with your subject (panning).  It works great, but can be frustrating.  With such a shallow depth of field your subject (lightning fast cars) quickly become out of focus.  After 20 minutes of playing I realize I was standing on the hauler adjacent to Richard Childress himself!  Talk about a photo opportunity presenting itself!

As darkness fell I needed to bump the ISO to 800 and then even to 1600.  ISO 1600 gave me a much better exposure, but I decided to stay with ISO 800 and take the under exposed image because my camera produces a very noisy image with ISO’s higher than 800.  With each lap, I became more aware of my surroundings and honed in on my best window of opportunity (least amount of distractions).  Unfortunately, the race was rather uneventful and had few caution flags for accidents, so I didn’t get that “accident” shot I was hoping for, but I did use a lot of disk space trying to capture all 43 cars.

In order to beat the traffic, my friend wanted to leave a dozen laps before the checkered flag flew so I didn’t get the smokey burnout shot I was hoping for either.  That was it.  I left both satisfied and wanting more…I left wanting to have that magic blue photo vest that would allow me to roam as I feel fit and position myself for that cover shot!  Next time. : )

Thanks for taking a lap around the Nascar School of Photography track with me! Hope you enjoyed reading about my sports photography learning curve. Feel free to contact me with questions or just want to talk racing!  Click the image below for a slideshow of images from the day.


Click on image for a slideshow of photos from the day.