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Old 03-08-2007, 12:39   #1
DaveG
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Track Photography

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is how to take better track photographs. I'm always happy to try and help, but don't claim to be a photography expert and what I do has been learnt from trial and error over a few years, but I thought I'd combine some of the PMs and emails I've written into some sort of guide that will hopefully be useful. There are some very good photographers in the MLR and if anyone has any further advice, please feel free to chip in.

First of all, some basics......

Equipment
What makes taking pictures of cars on track difficult is the speed they move at, the limited time you have to take a picture and the distance they are away from you. These problems limit the amount of cameras that are suited to the job. Small, pocket cameras tend to have a very short zooms and are slow to react when asked to take the photograph meaning that often a car is distant in the picture or not in the picture at all. Plus cameras like this don't always give you the manual control you need and use poorer quality lenses and sensors that compromise the picture quality.

SLR cameras with a good lens are the ideal solution to the problems of track photography, but they can be very expensive. 'Prosumer' level cameras with fairly large, but fixed lenses fill the gap between compact cameras and SLR's and many of these can cope with most of the demands of track photography at a more modest cost.

My experience largely stems from Canon SLR cameras so this guide will focus on them, but a lot of this is general information.

There is now a great deal of SLR camera choice with camera bodies starting at reasonable prices and rising into the realms of the professional photographer only.

Every SLR camera shares a number of essential features such as almost no delay when taking a picture, a selection of manual modes and the ability to use different lenses, but there are features that can vary with some SLRís. These are the main issues to consider when looking for an SLR:
  • Auto focus modes. For track work you need an auto focus mode that can be set to track an object as it moves rather than just set an initial focus.
  • Metering. All SLRís have inbuilt light metering they use when determining various settings when you take a photo even in most of the manual modes. There are usually a number of metering modes to choose from. For car photography you normally need to use centre weighted or even spot metering so make sure these are supported.
  • Fast continuous shooting. Many track photos are taken using continuous shooting, where you hold the shutter release button and the camera takes as many pictures as it can one after the other as quickly as it can. The faster and higher amount of pictures the cameras will take the better. This can vary a lot between the cheapest and most expensive SLRís.
What many people fail to realise is it is the lens that is actually more important than the camera. The first thing to look for in a track lens is a long focal length. Most lenses are zoom lenses, meaning you can zoom in and out on a subject rather than having just a fixed focal length, which is what you need for track photography. All lenses are measured in millimetres and zoom lenses have two measurements, for example 70-200mm. In this case the 70 refers to the minimum zoom and 200 refers to the maximum zoom. For track use I would recommend a zoom lens with a maximum zoom of at least 200-300mm although ideally you probably need several lenses to cover all eventualities.

The second thing to look for in a lens is optical as well as overall quality. A lens with high optical quality will produce sharper and better looking pictures than one with poorer optical quality. A higher quality lens will also tend to have better and fast auto focusing facilities and some will even have image stabilisation facilities which Iíve found work very well.

Unfortunately, high quality lenses with large zooms cost £££ís, usually around £1,000 upwards. However, good results can still be obtained with lenses costing from £100 upwards and makes such as Sigma and Tamron often offer better value for money than the camera manufacturers own lenses, but the general rule of thumb is the more money you spend the better the results will be.

The third thing to consider in a lens is its speed or maximum aperture. I wonít dwell too much on this as the fastest lenses are definitely the tool of professionals, sometimes costing into the tens of thousands of pounds. The speed of more reasonably priced zoom lenses doesnít change that much, but generally look for a lens with as low an f-number as possible. The f-number is usually quoted in the lens model number as something like f/4.5-5.6. In the case because this is a zoom lens, the f-number is quoted as between 4.5 and 5.6 with 4.5 at the shortest zoom and 5.6 at the maximum zoom.

Once youíve got a suitable camera and lens, there are some other pieces of equipment that can also help improve your pictures:

Tripod or Monopod. Essential pieces of kit for making sure images are as sharp as possible. They are also useful for holding heavy SLRís and lenses if youíre taking pictures from the same spot for a while as SLRís do get heavy if youíre hand holding. Try and get a substantial tripod or monopod as itís a worthwhile investment.

Battery holder and grip. I find that adding a battery holder/grip under the camera vastly improves the stability of the camera in your hands which in turn leads to much sharper pictures.

Lens hood. A plastic hood fitted to the front of the lens to help stop nasty sun flares spoiling your picture.

Camera and lens rain cover. We live in the UK, will get used a lot.

Composition
The key to any good photograph is its composition and itís something that constantly needs to be thought about. Even if youíve got the best camera and lens in the world, youíre never going to take the best picture if you donít consider what you want happening in the picture unless you are very lucky.

First of all begin by deciding on the type of picture you want to take be it a head on super sharp picture, a dramatic cornering picture, a dynamic side on panning picture or even something more artistic.

Once decided, consider the other factors that will enhance the picture such as where to stand to capture the most lean in a corner or where cars are likely to lift a wheel or kick up a loose surface.

Itís also worth considering what is in the background. A nice back drop can make all the difference and some tracks are much better than others in this respect. Tracks like Cadwell Park, Oulton Park and Spa in Belgium are all well known for the picturesque photographs taken there.

One popular technique to improve the composition of a picture to make it look a bit more dramatic and stand out from how a normal picture would look is to lean the camera slightly one way or the other. Itís not an effect everyone likes, but as long as itís not used too much (easy to do) with too much angle it can enhance a picture. Itís worth experimenting with all the same.

Once youíve decided on the picture to take, just concentrate on that one shot. Donít worry about trying to capture a car at various points as it moves through a corner and onto a straight for example. Youíll find you will not do any of your pictures justice that way. Concentrate on one shot at a time and when you feel youíve taken enough pictures of cars with that shot, then move on to next and consider the composition of that one.
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Old 03-08-2007, 12:40   #2
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Techniques
Once youíve decided on the type of picture you want to take, the next question is how to actually take it. There are a number of camera settings and techniques that can be used to produce a variety of shots.

Below are some typical types of pictures and the techniques used to achieve each one.

Super Sharp



There are 3 key points to getting a sharp picture (besides the equipment) and that is shutter speed, camera shake and focusing.

Any movement in the camera is called shake and the more movement when the picture is taken the more blur there will be in the final image. There are several things that can be done to reduce or remove shake, most of which is pretty basic, but often overlooked and can make a huge difference:
  • Keep the camera as still as possible. Ideally use a tripod or monopod, but failing that brace the camera against your body and keep yourself as well balanced and still as possible, or even lean against something solid when you take the picture. Support the lens in the middle with your left hand especially if itís a long lens or at full zoom.
  • Image stabilisation. Some lenses (and cameras now) have inbuilt image stabilisation and this generally works very well.
  • Take several continuous shots. If you use the continuous shooting mode and take several shots one after the other youíll often find the initial shot is the least sharp because itís affected by your hand movement as you press and release the shutter release button.
  • Use a remote shutter release. If youíre really bothered about camera shake, put the camera on a tripod and donít touch it at all. A wired or wireless remote shutter release button can be fitted to most cameras to allow you to take the picture without having to touch the camera at all.

To reduce the effects of camera shake and minimise the effect car movement has on the sharpness of the picture use as high a shutter speed as possible, preferably over 500th of a second. This could be done using the automatic sports mode on most cameras, but venturing into the manual modes will give you most control.

The set the shutter speed, the best manual mode to use is called shutter priority (referred to as Tv on Canon cameras). This is actually a semi-manual mode as various other settings are still decided on by the camera, but with track photography you donít often have time to worry about all the manual settings you can use.

Set the shutter speed to as high a value as you can, I try and use 500 and over. Sometimes you canít do this if itís a cloudy day because you will under expose the picture (most cameras warn you of this by flashing the aperture number in the viewfinder if you half press the shutter release button). If this is the case you can either reduce the shutter speed or increase the ISO setting. The maximum ISO setting depends on your camera and the quality of pictures it can take at higher ISO settings, but generally I try not to go over 400 and keep it at 100 or 200 if at all possible.

Taking pictures at a high shutter speed can have a couple of downsides. The first and most obvious is you get no movement in the car, i.e. wheels will be stationery and the car can look like itís parked on track. For this reason, I find high shutter speed shots best work head on. The other reason is the depth of field may not be what you want, but letís not get too involved in that for now.

And finally, the third factor that can affect sharpness is focusing. The speed a car is approaching will make life easier or more difficult for most auto focus systems and itís a fact that some cameras and lenses auto focus better than others and some lenses are sharper at particular focal lengths. Itís something to experiment with, but try different auto focus modes and focal lengths and see what looks sharpest as well as looking for spots on track where cars are at their slowest to take a sharper picture. Donít overlook manual focusing too. Manually focusing the camera on the edge of a track and then taking the picture when the car reaches that point can work very well.

One thing Iíve noticed with auto focusing is some cars always take sharper pictures than others. Cars with lots of decals or a high contrast with the background give the auto focusing system stronger edges to detect and work with.

Dynamic Picture



You normally want to make ĺ or side shot of a car more dynamic by showing some movement in the wheels. This is just the same technique as the sharp picture, but with a lower shutter speed. More attention needs to be given to the composition of the shot as this can added greatly to the dynamics.

I find a shutter speed of 200th of a second a good place to start, but it really depends on the speed of the car. Try taking a couple of test shots, keeping the camera as still as possible and use the screen on the camera to review the pictures. Zoom into the licence plate to make sure itís sharp and zoom into the wheels to make sure youíve got the right amount of movement. If the licence plate is too blurred increase the shutter speed or hold the camera steadier, if the wheels are too still reduce the shutter speed and try again. If the car is too blurred and the wheels arenít blurred enough the car is probably moving too slow so try a different place on the track.

Panning Shot



This is the most difficult type of picture to take, but the effect can be very dynamic if done right. These take some practice and can be very hit and miss.

Again, use a slow shutter speed, around 120 to begin with, but you'll need to experiment as the speed of the car and distance to it affect the settings. What's important is to track the car as it moves past you in the viewfinder and follow it smoothly whilst holding the camera firm. I normally set the middle of the viewfinder on the B pillar and try and keep it there as I follow the car. As the car gets to the position I want to photograph it in hold down the shutter release using continuous shooting as it passes by you. What you are looking for is a blurred background, but the car as sharp as possible.

Using a very slow shutter speed of a 60th of a second or less can give a very dramatic and artistic effect. These are best done using minimal zoom or a short a lens.



Processing
Taking a photo is just the start of turning out a final picture. Thereís a lot more you can (and should) do to it once itís uploaded to a computer.

I use Photo Shop or Paint Shop Pro to process nearly all my pictures, even if just slightly.

There a couple of basic techniques you should consider applying to any picture:

Cropping



Cropping the picture can change a lifeless photo into something much more exciting. Cropping can simply be used to centralise an image or used to create different shape pictures rather than the normal picture ratio that better suit the layout of the picture.

Rotating
If you didnít manage to rotate the camera enough or too much when you took the picture, you can always do it later. The only thing to remember is if you want to keep the original ratio of the picture youíll need space around the car to rotate it and then crop it.

Resizing
If youíre planning to put your pictures on the web they will need to be resized. I find that resizing to 800 pixels wide is probably the biggest size you can comfortably use on most sites. Be warned that resizing to web sizes will mean the picture becomes softer and losses some sharpness (see below).

Sharpening



Most cameras mildly apply sharpening to the picture (unless taken in RAW format), but itís something you can apply more of later if you wish. This is particularly useful after resizing a picture for web use. Resizing a picture will make it softer, but a little bit of sharpening can remove that. I tend to use the unsharpen mask tool on every picture I upload to the web, but be very careful how much you use it. It only needs a small amount, if you use more the picture can look very false.

Brightness/Colours



Altering the brightness or colours can enhance a picture, particularly if the exposure isnít quite correct or the picture looks a little washed out. One thing worth remembering is it is better to slightly under expose and then brighten than to over expose and darken.

Heavy Editing



As well as using tools like Photo Shop to enhance and manipulate photos, they can also be used to turn a picture into something completely different depending on what you want to achieve.
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Old 03-08-2007, 13:18   #3
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Wow that's excellent
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Old 03-08-2007, 13:46   #4
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So what your telling me Dave, is that my pics will always be chit until I spend £1200 on a lens
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Old 03-08-2007, 13:52   #5
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Quote:
Originally posted by jetskidia
So what your telling me Dave, is that my pics will always be chit until I spend £1200 on a lens
Depends what you class as chit picture . You can still get very good pics with a much cheaper lens, but if you want pictures that have the glossy look of a professional photo you do need to spend some money unfortunately.
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Old 03-08-2007, 14:25   #6
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When I bought a more expensive lens the quality improved no end ........so dave is right
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Old 03-08-2007, 15:53   #7
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Super write up!! Thanks for the tips!
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Old 03-08-2007, 17:02   #8
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I was going to ask you about lenses at TOTB but you were rather busy this year! Question now answered
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Old 03-08-2007, 17:11   #9
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hmm very intersting read i will hunt you down at the next meet and pick your brains somemore
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Old 03-08-2007, 18:02   #10
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can we make this thread a sticky in the Picture and Video gallery section ?

excellent content

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Old 03-08-2007, 18:48   #11
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Dave well done mate.Can i give you a tip,sell your canon stuff and change to Nikon.Its like the difference between Evos and scoobys.
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Old 11-01-2010, 17:50   #12
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This is an excellent thread - well done Dave

Quote:
Originally Posted by Richysevo8 View Post
Dave well done mate.Can i give you a tip,sell your canon stuff and change to Nikon.Its like the difference between Evos and scoobys.
Yeah Nikon = Scooby lol (does it show I'm a canon girl?????)
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Old 14-08-2007, 15:14   #13
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excelent advices....i take pics here in panama, of all the racing events ....drag or circuit....thanx 4 helping...
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Old 14-08-2007, 15:53   #14
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Quote:
Originally posted by Richysevo8
Dave well done mate.Can i give you a tip,sell your canon stuff and change to Nikon.Its like the difference between Evos and scoobys.
LOL, I have to agree with this, Nikon rules! Unfortunately I was subjected to the dreaded NAS very quickly

Fantastic write up Dave, very informative even to us "seasoned" photographers.

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Old 17-08-2007, 09:56   #15
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Fantastic write up Dave, very informative even to us "seasoned" photographers.

Gary
Very much so,its the little details that make a big difference
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