AutoMatters+: Photographing SCORE Off-Road Qualifying for the Baja 1000

Off-road truck racing is especially unpredictable. You’ll need to follow the action with your camera, try to predict when and where something photo-worthy might happen, and be ready to start shooting in high-speed burst mode.

When shooting trucks that are racing across your field of view, avoid the temptation to use a high shutter speed to freeze the action. That will make the trucks look like they are standing still, which is not visually very exciting. Instead, experiment with low shutter speeds as you move the camera (pan) with the racing trucks. If you are successful at matching the speed of your pans with the speed of the trucks as they pass by, they will be nicely in focus, while their wheels, tires and the background will be blurred. This conveys a sense of motion. The slower the shutter speed, the greater the background blur.

If, however, the trucks are moving towards or away from you, or if you see an accident happening, you cannot move the camera with the action. Instead, you’ll want to freeze the action with a higher shutter speed, so practice changing the settings on your camera quickly.

There will be dust and dirt flying, which can add visual excitement to your shots — or perhaps conceal what is happening on the track. In the rollover sequence that I captured, at first I could see the truck, but soon a massive cloud of dust completely covered it — until it landed on its tires and, without missing a beat, sped out of the dust cloud to complete its qualifying lap with a respectable time. Apdaly Lopez is an incredible driver.

At night races, it is extremely unlikely that there will be even and sufficient lighting over the entire track. There will be dark areas and light areas, so you should shoot in manual mode (shutter speed, aperture and ISO).

In an automatic mode, your exposures would be all over the place. If you point your camera in the direction of a light, the camera will try to expose for the light and make the rest of the frame too dark. If you point your camera into a dark area, it will try to make the frame look like it is in daylight, thus overexposing the shot.

Before the race begins, take test photos using your camera’s automatic mode to give you ballpark settings. Then enter those as the manual settings, adjusting as necessary. That is really quite easy to do.

To follow the action near and far, you will need a long zoom lens.

When shooting at night, the better your camera’s low light sensitivity, the more adjustability you will have. That’s one major reason why I shoot with big, heavy, professional DSLR camera bodies and large lenses that gather more light.

Shooting racing in Las Vegas at night really pushed the limits of my abilities and the capabilities of my aging camera bodies. Digital is not like film. Technology does not stand still. Successive camera models are significantly better than their predecessors.

My Nikon D3s is two generations old. The current model — Nikon’s D4s — has way better low-light sensitivity. Whereas I can get away with setting the ISO on my D3s as high as 6400 (versus only 3200 on the D3), and still end up with a photo that is not too grainy or objectionable, from my initial tests it looks like Nikon’s D4s can produce similar image quality at ISO 25,600 — and even higher.

About the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000

This year, when I was supposedly in Las Vegas to cover the annual SEMA Show, I spent more time covering race series (three) than I did on the SEMA Show floors. One of those events was qualifying at the off-road track of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the 2014 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race.

Off-road racer, former NASCAR driver/team owner and series promoter Robby Gordon was pretty much in a class by himself that night. He was way quicker than most of the other drivers, and easily earned the top qualifying spot in the SCORE Trophy Truck division.

The 1,275-mile race was run the following week, from Ensenada, Baja California, to La Paz, Baja California Sur. Rob MacCachren won in a SCORE Trophy Truck. Of the 237 starters, only 133 finished. For information, go to

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Copyright © 2014 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters+ #359