AutoMatters: Motorsports Photography


By Jan. R. Wagner

There are two main features of AutoMatters: the words and the original photography. Photographs add significantly to what can be communicated in a limited number of words.

Whenever possible I take my own photos instead of using photos provided for use by the media. That is not to suggest that there is necessarily anything wrong with supplied photos. To the contrary, they are often shot by very talented, experienced photographers with privileged access to the subject matter, but as an accredited member of the media I also get special access to shoot many of the events that I cover. My main reason for choosing not to use supplied photos is that they represent other photographers’ visions, not mine. You might see those very same photos in any number of other newspapers, magazines and online publications. As an AutoMatters reader, you deserve to have an exclusive experience.

Think of it this way. Instead of taking your camera on vacation and using it to document your travels, you could buy picture postcards and DVDs of the places you visit. The trouble is, those images would not precisely (or perhaps even remotely) represent your experiences and vacation memories. That is why people go to the effort and expense of shooting their own pictures.

Just as specific combinations of words and their underlying thoughts are unique to their author, so, too is the composition of pictures taken by a photographer – some more so than others, but unique nevertheless. Even if, as individual photographers covering an event, we are shooting from the same general area, we can and do see and shoot different things. That is due to what I refer to as ‘the photographer’s eye.’

As a professional photographer, my challenge – beyond having the equipment and the technical skills necessary to capture images, is to somehow end up with photographs that reflect my personal vision. That is what will make my photos stand out from those of other photographers, and why you will hopefully like them.

When shooting motorsports, it helps to have some understanding of the competition that will be taking place at the event. If, as I have, you’ve driven in competition, that will help you to further anticipate where the on-track excitement might happen. Study the track map, walk around the course before the event begins and plan where you’re going to shoot from and when. Watch the competitors go by during practice. See if there are places where they get close to each other, like in a tight turn at the end of a straightaway, or perhaps where there is a bump in the track. A close-up of the front of a car partially airborne as it is launched over a bump in the track can be dramatic. Try to anticipate these moments.

As an example, you might want to shoot the first lap of a race at the first turn, when all the competitors will be bunched up and on cold tires. Then move to some tricky turns and end your shoot near the finish line.

As you look through your camera’s eyepiece or at its monitor, practice following the competitors as they pass by your vantage points. Try to precisely match their speed as they pass by. You’ll want these side-to-side camera movements (called panning) to be smooth and fluid. If you are able to do this well, slow down your camera’s shutter speed to blur the background. The competitors whose speed you are matching will be in sharp focus. That visually suggests movement and draws the viewers’ attention to your subject. When you’re ready, gently squeeze the shutter button to minimize camera shake. If you have a camera that allows you to take high speed bursts of photos, that will increase your chances of capturing an image at the most dramatic moment possible, but you can capture a spectacular image with a single shot. It just takes practice. Of course the less lag time there is between when you press the shutter release button and when the camera takes the picture, the easier it will be for you to expose the shot at just the right time. More expensive cameras tend to have less shutter delay.

A big advantage of shooting digital is that you don’t pay per photo, like back in the days of film, so take lots of pictures and have fun.

Until next time, please write to me with your comments and suggestions at


Copyright © 2013 by Jan Wagner – #281