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 (or easy) 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 Minis all moving at roughly the same speed from the exact same spot…

Shutter Speed: 1/320

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.

Shutter Speed: 1/200

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.

Shutter Speed: 1/125

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.

Shutter Speed: 1/80

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 wheel spokes are completely blurred and the vehicle really stands out from the blurred background.

Shutter Speed: 1/50

Once you reach 1/50 things start to get pretty tough (this particular shot isn’t as sharp as I would have liked). Scroll back up to the 1/320 shot to appreciate just how little detail in the background there now is.

Shutter Speed: 1/30

At 1/30 life starts getting really difficult. I’ve intentionally taken this shot just before the car is parallel to me, you can see that although the front end is sharp the rear end is quite blurred. This is unavoidable once you reach these kinds of shutter speeds.

Shutter Speed: 1/15

Here is an extreme example of the loss of focus I was describing in the 1/30 image. At 1/15 with a car heading towards 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 feature were travelling 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.

The key thing to note is that moving to Micro 4/3s has made no difference to me (once a days worth of teething troubles were ironed out), I’m now back to shooting at the same keeper rate I was achieving with my Nikon D90 and 70-200 2.8 VR. The biggest difficulty for me has not been AF speed, but combating wind. The D90 kit was heavy so would stay fairly stable during challenging conditions, the G3 and 100-300 weighs hardly anything in comparison so is easily affected by gusts of wind. A monopod can easily eliminate this problem, but I prefer to shoot handheld so have just quickly learned to hold the camera/lens even firmer to reduce the influence of the weather. Happy shooting!

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