Race Photography: Dom Miliano

Dom Miliano taught photography for seven years. His photographs have been published by AutoWeek, Cavallino, Excellence, Forza, Corvette and Bimmer Magazine, Porsche Panorama and in several automotive books.

Taking pictures at a racetrack is both the most rewarding category of automotive photography and its most challenging. It is also one of photography’s most multi-dimensional challenges; on track wheel-to-wheel competition, the color and buzz in the pit and paddock, headshots and environmental portraits of drivers and others players on the race team and let’s not forget, all of the interesting cars in the parking lot!

Shot from spectator area no press pass

I’ll start this multi-part article with the greatest of these challenges for anyone without a press pass – getting first-rate, sharp shots of race cars on the track. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it used to be. In my nearly 40 years doing race photography I have seen the obstacles to good (read close) picture taking grow and grow. Spectators and photographers have been pushed back further from the edge of the track and more and higher fences have been built due to the concerns for both fan and photographer safety. I respect the track owners making these changes because speeds have grown to the point where any high-speed shunt could result in a car or its parts flying into the crowd with serious consequences; As recently as this past Labor Day Weekend, my fellow trackside shooters and I had to scatter when several large pieces of a crashed vintage Alfa Romeo came flying our way.

High angle race start head on shotHappily, since the general advent of digital SLR cameras with their smaller-than-35-mm image capturing sensors, all telephoto lenses now have more reach than they did back in the day. That means if you have a “cropped sensor” camera, your 100mm lens from an old 35mm camera now has an effective magnification (depending on your camera manufacturer) of a 150 to 160mm lens on a digital SLR. I have a trusty, old 100-400mm lens on my Canon 7D that shoots like a 160-640mm. You can get darn close with a lens that long! By the way, with the 100-400, I usually use a monopod to steady my shots plus I use the lens’ “image stabilization” feature.

Don't have to picture whole car

And, yes, I know there are several pro digital cameras that have full frame sensors but because of the higher cost of these units, cropped sensor cameras represent the majority of what I see track side.

Most road courses I have visited like Watkins Glen, NJMSP, Lime Rock, Sebring, Daytona and Road America, you can usually walk the inside of the track and get close enough (with a moderately-long telephoto lens) to fill the frame with one or two cars racing wheel to wheel. When scouting your shooting location, you should make your selection based on both how close (and safely) you can get to the action and still follow the usual caveats about good light and an attractive background.

Years ago, when you could get closer to the edge of the track, the bread and butter pro lens was an 80mm to 200mm zoom. However, these days, I recommend you get a longer lens for race photography. Today, most manufacturers have a moderately priced, high quality 70-300MM lens. That should provide more than enough “reach” to pull in some sharp pictures at road course tracks. NASCAR and Indy Car ovals are a different story. With their triple digit speeds and flying parts and cars from all that bumping and banging, the fences are always too high and the distances from the action too great to take good pictures, regardless of the lens (unless you have a track-side pass and sometimes not even then).

Ferrari pan 1-100 sec low angle

The classic road course racetrack shot is a fast car passing by your position with the background blurred, wheels spinning and the car tack sharp. The panning techniques discussed in a prior article still hold for race photography except that the cars’ speeds will almost always be higher. That means you may have to bump up the shutter speeds a bit to get a greater number of “keepers”. I usually shoot in the 1/160sec range with occasional dips into slower speeds and (if I have had too much coffee or am using a really long lens) slightly higher speeds. But for sure, a shutter speed of 1/500sec or more will most certainly freeze the car in its tracks and make it look like it was parked.  Another important thing to remember is to set your autofocus camera so that it automatically follows the car as it moves through your shot. On a Nikon, that setting is “C” for continuous focus and on a Canon; the setting is “AI Servo”. I’m pretty sure all modern autofocus cameras offer the same “follow focus” feature so read your owner’s manual to be sure how to set yours. The final technical tidbit is to use your camera’s “motor drive”. I have cameras that shoot from 3 FPS (frames per second) to 8 FPS – I find this really helps with pan shots.

High shutter speed head on shot in corner

Another good shot is to position yourself so that the cars are coming directly at you. You can usually use a higher shutter speed for these shots because you will not be panning. Also, because the car is moving quickly toward you, a higher shutter speed will give you a better chance of freezing the action. If the car is in a corner, it will be heeled over, leaning in the turn. Even better, if there are multiple cars in the shot, the odds are good that one of them will be trying to make a pass – that really adds excitement to the shot.

Since digital images are just low cost electrons (not expensive film) shoot, shoot, shoot! I often come back from a race weekend with 4,000 to 6,000 images. Some are really good, some are embarrassingly bad but race photography lives by the “kiss a lot of frogs” philosophy so keep going until the checkered flag falls! You will most certainly get a few good ones.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment.  You can crouch down low or shoot from up high (easy at places like Watkins Glen’s “Boot” and Lime Rock’s “No Name” – difficult at a flat track like NJMSP). However, you can climb up on something tall – I did this at an F1 race, begging my way onto a huge trackside fire truck. That got me above the tall FIA fences and resulted in a really neat Ferrari shot that was published in Forza Magazine. The only cost was that I had to promise to mail the chief some pictures – which I most certainly did.

Shot from high angle

The next article in this series will give some tips about what to do in the paddock, pits and parking lot.