There’s something about the smell of petrol and oil, the roaring of engines and the thrills and spills of motor racing. Accurately capturing a day at the races is no easy feat and unless you are fortunate enough to be gifted a press photographer’s pass or a marshal’s pass or something like that it is likely you are going to be set back a fair distance from the track behind the safety of tyre walls, wire fences and the like. Whilst these obstructions may be ideal to keep the spectator’s safe they do hamper the photographer. These locations do not offer the opportunity to get the best images, however it is perfectly possible to get some decent images with the right sports photographic equipment. A camera that has the ability to fire off numerous shots in quick succession before having to stop and buffer, such as the Canon EOS7D, is preferable for motor sport photography the most important piece of equipment has to be the lens.
Being set so far away from the action means a long telephoto or zoom lens is going to be needed for those frame filling shots. Ideally, the lens should have a focal length of at least 300mm however there may be some circuits and some situations when a 200mm lens will suffice although these are few and far between in reality. Most keen motor sports photographers will use longer lenses. There are arguments that fixed prime lenses provide superior image quality over zooms, however the difference when using a modern day zoom is so slight that only the pickiest of photographers are likely to be concerned. Canon’s longest zoom is the 100mm – 400mm f/4.5 – 5.6L IS USM therefore if you want a longer focal length than this and want to stick with a Canon made lens and not require extenders, you are going to have to use a fixed prime lens, which is not as versatile a zoom lens. There are third party zoom lenses available with a longer reach, such as the Sigma 100mm – 500mm. Whilst this does have some additional reach the image quality is not as good as that of the Canon, therefore the photographer needs to decide whether the reach or the image quality is most important.
The Canon EF70mm - 200mm F4L IS USM is not a long reaching lens, although there are some circuits where the 200mm end can be used to get some frame filling and action packed motorsports images, especially if loaded up with a 1.4x Canon converter.
When shooting at various circuits it is highly probable that it is possible to get closer to the action at different parts of the circuit, therefore a range of fixed prime lenses or a zoom lens is going to be needed. If the photographer is going to remain in one location and shoot all day long then, arguably, only one fixed prime lens is needed although the shots are going to be very similar. Because of the range of focal lengths a zoom lens is far more versatile than a fixed prime lens. For example, the Canon EF 100mm – 400mm f/4.5 – 5.6L IS USM can be used at the 400mm long end for frame filling shots, at the 100mm wide end to get some perspective or anywhere in between. To achieve the same effects with prime lenses the photographer is going to have to carry a range of different fixed length primes and have to keep changing between them which can lead to other problems such as missed shots and a dirty sensor because of issues with dust. A dirty sensor will obviously require careful cleaning to ensure future images are of the highest quality.
If you want to increase the range of a zoom lens it may be possible to use a 1.4x or 2.0x converter. If a Canon EF 100mm – 400mm /4.5 – 5.6L IS USM will turn in to a 140mm – 560mm or a 200mm – 800mm using 1.4x and 2x extenders respectively. This is quite attractive, however it should be noted that the speed of the lens will decrease by one stop with a 1.4x converter and two stops with a 2x converter. It should also be noted that when using converters the image quality will degrade and the auto focus feature may not work, therefore the photographer will have to revert to manual focus. As with everything there is a trade off and compromises will have to be made so these issues need to be considered before going out and buying an expensive converter.
Ideally motorsport lenses need to be fast, i.e. have a wide maximum aperture. This allows the photographer to keep the shutter speeds high, which freezes motion and eliminates blurry images caused by camera shake, without having to bump up the ISO too high which leads to noisy and grainy images. If the photographer is not overly bothered about freezing the racing vehicles and prefers to produce images that convey motion through a sharp subject and an intentionally blurry background then a really fast lens is not necessary. By adopting the panning technique it is possible to take images conveying motion using slower shutter speeds. There is no doubt that, with a bit of practice, it is possible to get some great images by panning however a fast lens it still preferable over slower lenses since it allows the photographer to not only use the panning technique but also freeze the action when required.
Image stabilisation is technology that allows the photographer to take sharp handheld shots at slower shutter speed than if using a lens of the same focal length and in the same conditions without image stabilisation technology. Good motorsports lenses have image stabilisation technology which increasses the number of keeper shots, even in low light conditions. Image stabilisation technology increases both the price and the weight of the lens, therefore this needs to be borne in mind when making the decision to buy a specific lens.
Long fast professional grade lenses are very expensive and can cost thousands of pounds and when a whole range of fixed prime lenses are to be used the costs will escalate even more. Whilst professional photographers will see them as an investment and a tool to get the job done and make a living it is an expense that many amateur photographers simply cannot justify. The only real option for the amateur in these circumstances is to buy a shorter length zoom and add a converter, although this is still quite an investment. Before spending the hard earned cash it is well worth doing some research and hiring some lenses in the first instance before committing to buy.
Another consideration in buying a motorsport lens is weight. Long telephoto lenses are heavy and the photographer will be carrying them around all day. Some lenses are heavier than others so this needs to be borne in mind. For example the Canon EF 100mm – 400mm f/4.5 – 5.6L IS USM weighs in at nearly 1.4kg where as the Sigma 100mm – 500mm weighs in at a hefty 1.8kg. Whilst 400g may not sound that much after a few hours of use it becomes very noticeable. In order to use these hefty lenses all day motorsports photographers use monopods as opposed to tripods.
This photograph was taken during a club bike championship round at Snetterton. The lens used was the Canon EF70mm - 200mm F4L IS USM lens with a 1.4X converter loaded on to a Canon EOS450D. This image shows that it is possible to get close to the action without having to buy a big lens, although there are not too many places where this is possible. The image stabilisation feature helped to keep the shutter speeds high in the poor light conditions, although I did need to use ISO 800.
There is a lot to consider when buying a motor sport lens, and because of the expense involved most of it comes down to money. For those with deep pockets where funds are not available the best option is to go for a zoom lens, such as the Canon EF100mm – 400mm f/4.5 – 5.6L IS USM for the versatility and range of shots. This should then be supported by a range of longer fixed prime lenses, such as a 500mm, 600mm and 800mm, to keep maximum image quality. For those who do not have access to these funds the best option is to have the Canon EF 100mm – 400mm f/4.5 – 5.6L IS USM lens and an extender.