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Photography tips for shooting NASCAR & other motorsports

| July 4, 2013 | Reply
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A crew member says a few last words to No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet driver Jeff Gordon right before the drivers start their engines for the 1998 Goody's Headache Powder 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. (© 1998 Billy Suratt)

A No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet crew member says a few last words to driver Jeff Gordon right before the start of the 1998 Goody’s Headache Powder 500 NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now called the Sprint Cup Series) race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. Photographing this scene with a wide angle lens rather than a telephoto helps convey a sense of place and adds some drama to the photo. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule in full swing and the Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts returning to Kentucky Speedway, I thought I’d put together some photography tips for shooting NASCAR and other motorsports. I’ll also share a few racing photography insights from some other professional sports photographers around the country.

Covering NASCAR and other motorsports is a little different from most sports photography because there’s a legitimate element of danger involved. While getting run over by a football running back being forced out of bounds by a 250-pound linebacker may ruin your day, getting run over by a race car will likely end your life.

Think Safety First, Even In Photography

Engine builder David Vaseleniuck uses a stopwatch to clock Ron Hornaday Jr.'s NAPA Brakes Chevrolet during the 1998 Kroger 225 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Louisville Motor Speedway. Vaseleniuck's engine building skills helped Hornaday achieve six pole positions, seven wins and the 1998 Craftsman Truck Series points championship. (Copyright 1998 Billy Suratt)

Drivers get most of the credit for wins and losses, but auto racing is a team sport. Here, engine builder David Vaseleniuck uses a stopwatch to clock Ron Hornaday Jr. making a lap in his No. 16 NAPA Brakes Chevrolet during a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at the old Louisville Motor Speedway (which was demolished in 2002, two years after Kentucky Speedway opened in Gallatin County). Vaseleniuck’s engine-building prowess helped Hornaday notch six pole positions, seven wins and the 1998 Craftsman Truck Series points championship. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

“Don’t ever, ever, ever turn your back on the cars,” says veteran photojournalist and sports photographer Ken Hawkins, based in Portland, Ore. “Don’t ever be lulled into the rhythm of the race — stay alert and listen to race radio if at all possible.”

Hawkins also cautions track photographers to wear earplugs or radio-equipped headphones similar to those worn by pit crew members. “Hearing loss is cumulative,” Hawkins points out, “my hearing is shot on the high end and I have severe tinnitus from races, bomb blasts, jet noise, et cetera.”

Lexington Herald-Leader staff photographer Mark Cornelison, who shoots a lot of sports for his own newspaper as well as major sporting events like the Super Bowl for McClatchy-Tribune’s photo service, seconds Hawkins’ recommendation on hearing protection. Cornelison also adds another practical safety tip that’s easy to overlook: wear long pants.

“It’s easy to think about the heat and not think about that,” Cornelison said regarding NASCAR’s longstanding dress code requiring shirts with sleeves, long pants and closed-toe shoes be worn in all pit and garage areas.

NASCAR eased its dress code restrictions in 2010 to allow fans buying pit passes to wear shorts in the pit area before the start of a race, but photographers expecting “hot pit” access during a race should always wear long pants.

Tennis shoes are common footwear, but I personally prefer boots — steel toes, in particular. (Actress, political activist, former racecar driver’s wife and 2014 Kentucky Senate race non-candidate Ashley Judd prefers high heels, but that’s a different story.)

Consider Racing Headsets

If you photograph a lot of NASCAR races, it’s a good idea to invest in a radio headset because it provides hearing protection in addition to letting you listen to drivers communicating with their crews. Most any police scanner can monitor the UHF business band frequencies used at tracks, plus you can monitor broadcast feeds from television and radio networks carrying the race.

Racing Radios and Racecom of Virginia are two popular sources for racing headsets, but I haven’t had any experience with either of them. I usually just wear shooting earmuffs, which also come in handy for photographing concerts while standing in front of very loud speakers.

If you’d rather not invest in a racing headset, wearing radio-connected earbuds underneath a pair of shooting earmuffs can achieve a similar effect. This combination also offers a lot of flexibility because there are times when you might want to listen to the radio but won’t necessarily need hearing protection, such as before the start of a race.

Use The Right Lens

Apex MediaWire contract photographer Mark Lent in Birmingham, Ala., echoes Hawkins’ sentiments on being alert and ready at all times, but points out being ready also includes proper lensing. A veteran Talladega Superspeedway photographer, Lent prefers a 300 mm telephoto for time trials but may switch to a 200 mm short telephoto or even a 20 mm wide angle on race day. “It depends on what you’re doing,” he explains.

A 300 mm telephoto will serve you well at any track, but a 70-200 mm f/2.8 zoom lens can quickly turn into your best friend — especially when shooting in the pits, which I tend to find more interesting than most of the race action. While a 300 mm or longer telephoto is a necessity if you’re shooting from overhead (high atop the press box, for example), if you’re shooting from an elevated spot in the infield then a 70-200 mm zoom gives you a lot more flexibility in framing.

While the reach of a short telephoto may sometimes be frustrating, it’s not nearly as frustrating as missing a key photo because you were too close to the action with your super telephoto. Both can be major problems, though, which is why most racing photographers rely primarily on big glass but keep a second body at the ready with a 70-200 attached so they can quickly switch over if necessary.

For the best of both worlds, you might also consider adding a 1.4x teleconverter to your 70-200. While once only feasible for daytime races, the amazing high-ISO performance of many modern digital SLRs now makes shooting at f/4 with a teleconverter a viable technique at all but the darkest nighttime races.

Concentrate On People, Not Machines

Dale Earnhardt sits in his car waiting for the start of the 1998 Goody's Headache Powder 500 NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. (Copyright 1998 Billy Suratt, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Hall of Fame NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt was tragically killed racing in the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt was one of the most popular NASCAR drivers of all time and arguably the most photographed of his generation. While good stock photos of Earnhardt are abundant, no more can ever be created. This photo has been licensed numerous times through the years by a variety of clients, including the ESPN cable network. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

While most of the emphasis during races is on the colorful machines going around the track in circles at breakneck speed, it’s the people driving those machines and working behind the scenes to keep them running who represent the most compelling aspect of race coverage.

Photographing mechanics, owners, crew chiefs, fans, drivers and even drivers’ spouses and families puts a human face on the event that no picture of a racecar can ever achieve. It’s this human aspect of race photography on which I prefer to focus.

If you’re a freelance photographer who relies on ongoing sales of your work to earn a living, make sure you get headshots of key people involved in the races. (Unless you’re somebody I compete with, in which case you can just skip this section.)

Racing industry newsmakers such as owners, crew chiefs and drivers will all be involved in many sports news stories long after any given race is over and forgotten. NASCAR drivers in particular enjoy celebrity status akin to that of any other professional athlete in a major American sport, so obtaining good driver headshots is crucial for success in marketing NASCAR stock photography.

The best time to photograph drivers is before the start of a race while they’re going over last-minute details with their crews and getting strapped into the cars.

There will be opportunities for photographing drivers after a race as well, especially the winner, but keep in mind they’ll be sweaty and haggard-looking at that point. In fact, NASCAR drivers sweat so much they often lose five to 10 pounds during a race.

You’ll need to work quickly to obtain all the driver headshots you need before the start of a race; with 43 drivers competing in most NASCAR races, forget about even trying to get headshots of them all. Instead, try to identify five to 10 of the most important drivers in each race and concentrate on making good pictures of them.

Identifying these “most important” drivers is subjective and beyond the scope of this tutorial, but do keep in mind the most important may not necessarily be the most popular or the most famous.

Also keep in mind the most popular and most famous are also usually the most photographed, so moving away from the pack can be very beneficial when it comes to marketing stock photos later.

Pick Your Spot Wisely

Mark Martin passing Jeff Gordon at a NASCAR race.

Picking an elevated shooting position in the middle of the infield allows you to photograph the entire track, a good technique for when you’re the only photographer covering a race for your news organization. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

A lot of sports photography revolves around field sports (football, soccer, baseball, softball, lacrosse, rugby, etc.), but photographing NASCAR and other motorsports requires a slightly different mindset.

While football teams spend all their time traipsing back and forth up and down the field during a game, race car drivers spend all their time going around in circles (literally) during a race. As such, it’s important to decide what sorts of photos to go for and pick your primary shooting position accordingly.

If you’re the lone photographer covering a major race for your news organization, consider trying to find an elevated shooting position in the center of the infield. From this vantage point, you should be able to cover the entire track because you’ll be equidistant from every car at all times. This isn’t always possible, though, because infield structures may obscure part of your track view — it varies from track to track.

I tend to think of NASCAR photography as being similar to landscape photography because it contains a lot of static elements: the track, the grandstands, track signage, pit row, etc. The cars (or trucks) are always moving, but you can compose photographs around some of these static elements and wait for the cars to come into the frame.

If you’re part of a team of photographers all covering the same race, one photographer can be assigned to shoot from the center of the infield — to make sure key race action is covered — while other photographers roam the track looking for more visually interesting compositions and making photos needed to illustrate specific stories. Effective delegation of shooting assignments is important for team coverage in news and sports photography, but that’s a concept beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Embrace Creativity

A Caterpillar team member rushes down pit row with a can of gas. Panning the camera combined with a slow shutter speed and rear curtain flash sync helps convey movement and a sense of urgency. (Copyright 1998 Billy Suratt)

A NASCAR crewman runs down pit row pulling a can of fuel behind him. Panning the camera combined with a slow shutter speed and rear curtain flash sync helps this photo convey movement and a sense of urgency. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

Pictures of isolated racecars going around in circles can be valuable stock photos for a freelance photographer, but they can also be pretty boring. Try incorporating some static elements into the frame to give your race photos a stronger sense of place and help make them more interesting: a sign identifying the track, for instance, or people watching the race action from the infield.

One thing I really enjoy about race photography is having lots of time to experiment with different shooting positions and techniques because the races are so long.

Don’t be afraid to try panning with the action while using a relatively slow shutter speed, for instance, or framing a dramatic visual composition and then waiting a mind-numbingly long time for the cars to move through the frame in just the spot you envision (and let’s be honest: the spot you envision is upside down in midair, which will probably never happen).

Roam the infield looking for different angles, or go up high atop the press box for an overhead wide shot if your credential allows overhead access and it’s logistically feasible to get up there.

Some tracks have tunnels under them allowing you to pass between the infield and grandstands during a race, but many don’t. There’s nothing worse than finally finding The Perfect Shooting Spot but not being able to get there because it’s on the other side of a line of cars going 200 miles per hour. Always plan ahead.

Low-percentage shots are called low-percentage for a reason, but it’s a magical thing when vision, preparation, patience, persistence, skill, timing and luck all coincide.

Get There Early

One of the most important parts of your preparation for photographing any race is being familiar enough with the track to know what shooting positions are available and which one(s) you want. For major races, get to the racetrack at least four hours before the scheduled start time. If you’ve never been to the track before, consider going even earlier — earlier is always better.

David L. Williams speaks during a GOP primary gubernatorial debate on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at Bowling Green Junior High School in Bowling Green, Ky. Williams is state Senate president and one of the most influential Republicans in the state. (Apex MediaWire Photo by Billy Suratt)

“I sympathize with the angry people who didn’t get in; I was one of them,” said Kentucky state Senate President David Williams after the 2011 Quaker State 400 traffic debacle at Kentucky Speedway, which he called a national embarrassment. Although an extreme example, the 2011 Kentucky Speedway incident illustrates why you can never leave too early for a NASCAR race. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

Getting to the track early has another major benefit, too: beating traffic. NASCAR races in particular generate an insane amount of traffic, so the earlier you get to the track the less likely you’ll be caught up in a three-hour (or longer) traffic jam.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited East Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway and saw people walking to the track from parking spots located literally miles away. Bristol police have gotten traffic control down to a science since what was originally called Bristol International Speedway first opened in 1961, but not all tracks are run so well.

In 2011, thousands of ticket holders never even made it to Kentucky Speedway for its inaugural Sprint Cup Series race, the Quaker State 400. State Senate President and Republican gubernatorial hopeful David Williams was one of them.

It’s usually a 45-minute commute from the Kentucky capital to Sparta, but Williams said he left Frankfort about six hours before race time and never did make it. “I sympathize with the angry people who didn’t get in; I was one of them,” Williams said afterwards. The state senate president pledged the support of lawmakers in analyzing and helping improve traffic control around the track so “Kentucky isn’t again embarrassed nationally” on race days.

To be fair, the 2011 Kentucky Speedway debacle is an extreme example. Although the track opened in 2000, the 2011 Quaker State 400 was Kentucky Speedway’s first Sprint Cup Series race after a decade of hosting much smaller ARCA, IndyCar, NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races. Organizers thought they were prepared for the influx of extra traffic Sprint Cup Series races always bring, but they were wrong.

Fortunately, they learned from the experience and legislators followed through with much-needed improvements to the area’s transportation infrastructure. Widening an Interstate 71 exit ramp to three lanes, widening Kentucky Highway 35 from three lanes to seven as it approaches Kentucky Speedway and putting state police in charge of traffic management all made a big difference in 2012.

No. 19 Pennzoil Ford driver Tony Raines celebrates a Kroger 225 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series win on Saturday, Aug. 29, 1998 at Louisville Speedway in Louisville, Ky. Capturing post-race celebrations in the winner's circle is an important part of race photography. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

No. 19 Pennzoil Ford driver Tony Raines celebrates his Kroger 225 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series win on Saturday, Aug. 29, 1998 at Louisville Motor Speedway in Louisville, Ky. Capturing post-race celebrations in the winner’s circle is an important part of race photography, as is documenting the history of racetracks within the communities they serve. Louisville Motor Speedway operated from April 22, 1988 to Sept. 15, 2001, closing two years after the opening of the much larger Kentucky Speedway (located an hour northeast of Louisville in Sparta). (Photo by Billy Suratt)

Shooting NASCAR and other motorsports is a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. Although I don’t enjoy the sport of auto racing on a personal basis like many Southern photographers do, NASCAR races have actually been some of the most enjoyable sports photography assignments I’ve ever covered. The intensity and emotion present on race day are things you can’t fully appreciate when watching a race on television.

While this race photography tutorial has been geared — no pun intended — mostly toward photographing NASCAR races, the same tips and techniques can also be used for shooting races at even the smallest local dirt track.

As with any other type of sports photography, the most important components of race photography are staying safe, working hard and having fun. Concentrate on those factors and everything else will fall into place with experience.

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I'm a Mid-South photojournalist, Kentucky writer and digital media consultant (eNinja). Circle me on Google Plus at Plus.BillySuratt.com, follow me on Twitter at @surattb or Instagram at @BillySuratt, and connect with me on Facebook at FB.com/BillySuratt. You can follow my microblog at bits.billysuratt.com, check out my photography website at photography.billysuratt.com and I'm even listed in the Internet Movie Database. Available for assignments nationwide (assignment photography information available here).