I’m not a professional motorsport photographer (not the best way to start a guide, is it?!), I’m barely even an enthusiastic amateur anymore due to my wedding photography business and a 2 year old taking up most of my time. However, I have got experience on my side and my rather sporadic motorsport work these days still seems to be really well received. Amateur motorsport photography was where it all started for me 15 years ago and for a good 10 years or so I was attending upwards of 20 events per year. These days I have to be a little more selective, I’m lucky to get to 2 or 3 events…just enough to illustrate this guide with recent examples.
It’s also worth saying straight away that every single photo you see here has been taken from a public position; I have no special access so it’s through or over fences and limited elbow room for me. What you see here is perfectly achievable by anyone with a bog standard ticket to a motorsport event and some Fuji gear.
Fuji X was never taken seriously as a sports system until the X-T1 arrived (and for many, not even then) but it has slowly been growing a following. Fundamentally there is no reason why you can’t shoot motorsport with any Fuji X kit (or indeed any system, it wasn’t that long ago that all sport was shot with manual focus), but on a practical level and considering basic expectations these days, it’s best to consider one of the following options…
- X-T1/X-T10 - The X-T1 and X-T10 essentially share the same internals, image quality is identical but you’re giving up some external controls, weather sealing and a bigger viewfinder by choosing the X-T10 over the X-T1. The X-T10 is a perfectly usable sports camera (as you can see from many of the samples here) but some may find it a little small for the bigger telephoto lenses and it won’t take the same abuse as an X-T1.
Both are very good cameras perfectly capable of excellent motorsport photography with a competent operator. Viewfinder blackout is at the manageable end of the scale, AF is very solid and if you like to mash the shutter they both fire away at a decent rate.
- X-T2/X-T20 - Like the X-T1/X-T10 relationship, the X-T20 is the smaller sibling of the X-T2 but will give you exactly the same output from the new 24mp sensor. The X-T2 gains a joystick and dual card slots this time around, but also the option of the Booster Grip which I’ve found to really useful for motorsport photography
Both cameras are faster and more powerful than their predecessors and effectively on a par with a decent DSLR.
Any of the above 4 are perfectly capable cameras that are unlikely to limit the average enthusiastic motorsport shooter in any way.
- A quick note about the XE/X-Pro Range
I’m not covering these cameras in great detail simply because the ergonomics are questionable for a long lens, however they balance pretty well with the 50-230mm and 55-200mm. That’s not to say they’re not capable (they are, particularly the X-E2S and X-Pro2), just not ideal if you’re looking to buy with motorsport in mind. If you already have one of them though, go for it.
It’s difficult to go wrong here. Fuji make excellent glass so just pick whatever suits your budget and jump in. A longer affordable lens would be nice (such as a 70-300) but the 4 existing lenses are all so good it's hard to complain.
- Fuji 50-230mm
It would be easy to be dismissive of the cheap plastic lens that gets bundled in with some camera kits. However, this one is a great little lens capable of excellent results. It’s a remarkably sharp little thing and for day to day photography the OIS is fantastic. If you’re starting out or on a tight budget I’d highly recommend it.
- Fuji 55-200mm
The mid-range option and a very solid choice if the ‘big two’ are out of reach. I started with this lens (it was the first tele option) and don’t have a bad word to say about it. It’s really well built and AF speed is excellent. A world away from the cheap 55-200s found in other systems.
- Fuji 50-140mm
Fuji’s equivalent to the workhorse 70-200 2.8s beloved by pros. Unsurprisingly Fuji nailed this one, it’s well built, super-fast and as sharp as you’d ever need.
- Fuji 100-400mm
The beast. You’d never call it light or compact but it’s not excessive either, I’ve used one on the diminutive X-T10 extensively with no issues. AF is seriously impressive, I wasn’t expecting it to be up to the standard of the 50-140mm 2.8 but it’s just about there.
I set up the X-T2 as follows, obviously as with all of this guide it is just a guide so feel free to try, tweak or completely ignore the following. Clearly there are many more settings than this, but if I haven’t mentioned them they are either left at default or entirely personal preference (i.e. JPEG/RAW etc). The vast majority of settings are relevant to all Fuji bodies, so I set up my X-T10 in the same way, the major difference being the AF-C custom settings found on the X-T2 but not on any other model.
- Aperture: A (Auto)
- IS: Off
Not much to cover here except to say that if your lens has IS (all the telephoto lenses do), switch it off. This can be done on the lens if it has a switch, or in the camera menu (IS Mode). Panning and IS aren’t really compatible as the whole idea of IS is to try and combat camera movement.
- ISO: L (100)
- Metering: Multi
- Focus Mode: C (Continuous / AF-C)
- Aperture: Auto
- Shutter Speed: Variable (generally anywhere between 1/15 and 1/200)
I’m not a machine gunner so opt for the CL Drive Mode (set at 3fps) on the X-T2, obviously this can be adjusted to suit your style. ISO is generally left as low as possible when I’m panning, 1/60 etc in bright sunshine means I’m not normally requiring anything else. In most circumstances I let the camera figure out Aperture and just concentrate on the shutter speed. Metering is simply personal preference and occasionally adjusted to suit.
Aside from shutter speed there are very few things I adjust on the fly once I’m set up for motorsport so I just leave the Fn buttons as per my preferred day to day settings. On the X-T2 one button is assigned to AF-C Custom Settings as I occasionally need to adjust those.
- AF Mode: Single Point
- AF-C Custom Setting: 1, General
- Release/Focus Priority (AF-C): Release
- Shutter Type: Mechanical
- S Mode: Off
I’ve been a single point AF shooter since day one, clever tracking options are improving all the time but I’ve not found them necessary for large contrasty subjects like cars. The 3x3 zone AF mode on the X-T2 does seem to work well enough so feel free to try it out, you may prefer it if you’re not used to smoothly tracking objects in the frame as it does a great job of keeping locked on to subjects.
Mechanical Shutter (rather than Electronic Shutter) is really important unless you want distorted images, and choose the ‘Release’ AF-C Priority option otherwise you may be frustrated by your camera refusing to allow you to shoot at a critical moment (it doesn’t always confirm focus lock when panning).
That’s it, nothing particularly technical or clever, just a few tweaks to optimise performance and minimise frustration.
AF-C Custom Settings (X-T2)
Specific to the X-T2 are custom AF-C settings that are designed to tweak the AF system dependent on what you’re shooting. I’ll admit I was fairly dismissive of the concept at first as I’ve never felt the need to delve into complex AF options before, but they really do work.
- Set 1 Multi Purpose
This is the default setting and works perfectly well for general panning and head-on shots. If you’re ever in any doubt just leave it on this setting
- Set 2 Ignore Objects and Continue to Track Subject
This is pretty clever, basically once you’ve locked on to a subject it will do its best to ignore everything else. I did my best to trick the system by tracking and shooting a fast moving car through a large crowd of people and was amazed at how well it held up.
- Set 4 Suddenly Appearing Subject
At the Festival of Speed there are a number of locations where vehicles suddenly appear from behind walls or from obscured areas, something I rarely come across at big wide open circuits. Quickly locking and shooting subjects in these situations is pretty tough for operator and equipment. This setting tweaks the AF system to lock on as quickly as possible. Compared to the Ignore Objects setting it’s hard to gauge how effective this is over and above the basic default setting, but I had no trouble gaining quick locks on cars and bikes suddenly appearing at speed, so it appears to be doing the job.
1. Ensure you’re comfortable and well balanced with steady footing. Ideally you want your feet spread comfortably apart with your body facing the point at which you want to capture the photo
2. Firmly hold the camera with your right hand, for anything other than the smallest of lenses I highly recommend gripping the lens rather than the camera with your left hand
3. Track the car through the viewfinder at the earliest possible opportunity
4. Hold the shutter release down half-way to initiate focus
5. Continue to smoothly track the car with the button half-pressed, the camera will continue to refocus
6. Fully press the shutter release at the point where you want to capture the car
7. Continue to track the car in a smooth movement
The most important thing is to ‘follow through’, there should be no pause or abrupt end once you have taken the shot, continue to pan smoothly and you are more likely to get the shot. If you have a viewfinder I highly recommend using it over the LCD, it’s inherently more stable and smooth to pan with the camera pressed against your eye rather than at arm’s length through the LCD.
Head-on / Rear Shots
This one’s simple to explain, just choose shutter priority mode and select the fastest shutter speed you can, you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/400; depending on light conditions this may require increasing ISO. Fire away, no panning or any particular technique is needed, the shutter speed will be more than fast enough to freeze the car.
A few general tips to consider, these aren’t rules by any stretch of the imagination, but they may help initially…
1. Get Down Low
Whilst it isn’t always easy, a shot from a low angle is generally recommended over a shot where the car roof is visible.
2. Use Space
Leaving more space in front of the car than behind will generally give you a more appealing composition.
3. Avoid Cluttered Backgrounds
The aim of a motorsport photograph is often to capture a particular vehicle, as a general rule anything to take your eye away from that is not good for the final image. Try to avoid shooting from positions where marshals (in their hi-viz gear) or unsightly scenery are visible in the background. If that’s not possible, blur it out by panning at a relatively slow shutter speed.
4. Try a Monopod
Some photographers find that monopods make motorsport photography more difficult, however they do significantly stabilize your lens which is important for both panning and standard shots. When panning it removes nearly all vertical movement, this is one of the major factors in ensuring a nice sharp panning shot.
5. Be Prepared
Expect the unexpected, and know how to adjust your camera quickly to capture moments that may require completely different to those that you are using. The X-T2 has a lock on the shutter speed dial, I always leave this unlocked so I can quickly adjust it to suit different situations.
6. Go Wide
It's easy to fall into a trap of thinking you need to shoot as close as possible, always looking for extra reach. Sometimes it's nice to look at the bigger picture and go wide. If you have a wide angle lens, use it, you may be pleasantly surprised by the results.
7. Go Mad
The most important advice I can offer is to go a bit mad, particularly once you are reasonably competent with the basics of motorsport photography. Whilst it is good to get some ‘record’ shots saved, I find that my best images actually come after I’ve got a few standard safe shots and then decide to experiment and do something a bit silly, in many ways this helps you to develop as you are pushing your abilities to the limit.
Exploring Shutter Speeds
Aside from focal length the most important tool you have at your disposal when shooting motorsport is shutter speed. A quick and simple change to that one setting can completely transform the image you capture. It also plays a huge part in how difficult motorsport shooting can be. Before I go into depth the one thing I will stress is that practice and experimentation are absolutely everything, there are no short cuts when it comes to motorsport photography and crucially in this day and age – no easy way to replicate good in-camera technique when you get home and start playing around with Photoshop.
The basic side-on pan is the best way to demonstrate shutter speed, so I popped out and shot a bunch of Alfas all moving at roughly the same speed from the exact same spot…
- A shutter speed of 1/320 is about as fast as you can realistically shoot cars moving at 60mph whilst still showing some signs of movement. It doesn’t look terribly dynamic, but it’s obvious the car is moving and it is very easy to achieve.
- At 1/200 you start to get some nice background blur and can see a reasonable amount of movement in the wheels of the car. This is quite a nice sweet spot as it’s still relatively easy to get sharp shots at this shutter speed but you get a nice sense of movement.
- Once below 1/200 you start really sense the speed of the subject. Wheels will be completely blurred and the background features will begin to merge into one.
- Below 1/100 you are starting to get into challenging territory, good technique is required to consistently achieve sharp shots from this point onwards. Note how the wheels are completely blurred and the vehicle really stands out from the blurred background.
- Once you reach 1/50 things start to get pretty tough. Scroll back up to the 1/320 shot to appreciate just how little detail in the background there now is.
- At 1/30 life starts getting really difficult. You can see that although some of the car is quite sharp, other parts are very blurred. This is unavoidable once you reach these kinds of shutter speeds unless you can capture the car absolutely parallel to you.
- Here is another example of the loss of focus I was describing in the 1/30 image. At 1/60 with a car heading away from you at an angle only a very small area of the car will be sharp. I personally work on the basis that I only keep these kind of shots if a recognisable part of the car is still nice and sharp, that would normally be the front end as with the example above.
Most of the cars photographed in this section were travelling just below 100mph. For cars travelling much slower you would need to start at a slower speed than 1/320 to see much evidence of movement, conversely if you were shooting cars travelling at 200mph you would see plenty of movement at 1/320 and by the time you reached 1/30 you would probably be thinking about giving up!
As I mentioned at the start, practice is everything and everyone will have a different comfort level, I learned by gradually reducing my shutter speed, once I was getting 4 out of 5 sharp at 1/320 consistently I would move down a notch to 1/250 and so on.
- What accessories do you recommend?
- Batteries – You’ll probably find you’re able to squeeze far more photos out of a single battery when shooting intensively for a day of motorsport than you would otherwise for day to day photography. That said, it’s still handy to have a spare or two. As a rough guide I comfortably get 1200+ photos out of a single battery in the X-T10, X-T1 and X-T2.
- Rain Cover – Even with a weather resistant body and lens I always feel much happier with a rain cover to hand, especially during the ‘Great British Summer’. Op/Tech produce disposable transparent sleeves that are only £5 for two, alternatively I use a Storm Jacket, which seems expensive at £40 but mine has lasted 9 years and still works perfectly.
- Monopod – This is a very personal choice. I used one for an event and hated it, but others swear by them.
As always if you’re spending a whole day outside in the Great British countryside (circuits are invariably in exposed locations), good shoes, layers, waterproof coat etc are all good to have.
- JPEG or RAW?
After several hundred thousand images and a fair bit of toing and froing in the early days, I found no practical benefit to shooting motorsport in RAW. It’s usually slower, both in terms of the shooting experience (buffer, image review etc) and the editing process due to the larger files; and it’s unlikely that you are going to be taking advantage of the extra flexibility RAW gives you anyway. As a bonus Fuji JPEG colours are generally really nice straight out of the camera, often better than I could have processed the RAW file anyway.
- Why do you recommend Single Shot?
I get asked this a lot. Say you were learning to shoot a gun and the teacher gave you an automatic rifle, you fire off 100 rounds and one hits the bullseye, the other 99 are way off, most aren’t even on the target. The teacher gives you a certificate saying you’re a competent marksman (you did hit the bullseye, after all). Would you say you’ve learned anything?
Panning in full banzai 14fps mode is no different. Slowing things down and concentrating on one shot will give you a good idea of what works and what doesn’t; it helps you learn from your mistakes (e.g. ‘should I be panning slower, or faster?’)
- Why should I switch off Image Stabilisation?
IS/VR systems are designed to compensate for movements you make whilst taking photos, but when we’re shooting motorsport we are intentionally moving to track cars, so the IS systems are then working against you. Some systems do allow you to set stabilisation on just the horizontal plane, which in theory may help with conventional panning, but in my experience it’s best just to switch it all off.
- Which circuit is best for photography?
To keep costs down it makes sense to visit your nearest circuit, particularly if you want to visit regularly. Silverstone and Rockingham are generally regarded as two of the most restrictive circuits to the public, but most other UK circuits have a decent number of angles available to spectators.
It’s also worth investigating events like hill climbing, motocross or rallying, all of which are far less restrictive and generally ‘fence free’ so you’re likely to find yourself much closer to the action.
- How can I get a media pass?
The clue is in the name of the pass. If you’re working for a media organisation you can apply for a pass for the event you’re covering (even with media credentials some events are more restrictive than others). The overall standard of your work does not necessarily have a significant bearing on this, opportunities are normally down to hard work, perseverance and getting to know the right people.
Hopefully my images (all taken from public positions) show what’s possible without needing special access.
- What events are best for practising motorsport photography?
Don’t expect to turn up at 10am on the Saturday of a GP weekend at Silverstone and find lots of places to take photos. However, Castle Combe on a chilly Saturday trackday in March? You’ll have the circuit to yourself. Fortunately here in the UK we have lots of venues and hundreds of events, many of them free. Look at the calendar for your local circuit, there are often car club days, sprints and smaller events which are cheap or free and rarely attract crowds.
Generally speaking, for bigger two day events the Saturday (Qualifying) day is much quieter (and cheaper). If you really want to photograph at popular International events (such as WEC or F1) go along on the Friday practice day, which again is cheaper and quieter.
- Can I find a list of all motorsport events in my area?
www.racedates.com list a huge number of events, however it’s always worth visiting circuit websites directly to confirm dates/times.
Find me on Instagram (@fuji_fun), Flickr (Harry_S) and Twitter (@charrison_photo)
All gear used has been personally paid for by myself. I have no affiliation with Fuji. I attend events as a regular member of the public and receive no special access or benefits, all photos were taken from publicly accessible areas.