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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Motorsports Photography Techniques (1): Panning Techniques

2023-04-27
14
5.01 k

What camera techniques can you use to get cool shots of race cars as they zoom around the circuit? Motorsports photographer Hirohiko Okugawa shares some with us. Here in Part 1, we learn some secrets to improving our panning shots. (Reported by: Hirohiko Okugawa, EOS R7 Shooting Guide by Digital Camera Magazine)

EOS R7/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 45mm (72mm equivalent)/ Shutter-priority AE (f/4, 1/30 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

In this article:

 

1. The classic panning shot

The panning shot is one of the most exciting shots to capture in motorsports photography. It is also probably the first shot type that motorsports photography enthusiasts aim to take when they are at the circuit!


AF: Mainly 1-point AF. Subject detection depends on the scene

Vehicle detection on recent EOS R series cameras like the EOS R7 generally works so well that I can basically leave the focusing to the camera. However, if you are like me and like focusing with better precision, you may prefer to use 1-point AF and turn off subject detection for certain types of vehicles.

GT cars: 1-point AF, subject detection off
With GT cars and other similar closed vehicles, the AF frame tends to move and change shape when subject detection is turned on. This makes it hard to visually ensure that the focus is on a specific area, so I use 1-point AF and switch off subject detection.

Formula cars: Subject detection on
For formula cars, vehicle detection will detect the driver’s helmet and automatically align the AF frame to it. It’s where I would usually focus anyway, so in this case, subject detection helps a lot!


Pro tip: Find a specific part to concentrate on as you pan
Vehicle detection is so good at finding cars that it can be tempting to just pan the camera and shoot any car that happens to be there. But for the best chances at success, find something specific to look at, such as the driver’s helmet if you’re shooting formula cars.


Shutter speed: Practice until you can get good shots at 1/125 sec

The shots below were shot at various shutter speeds, all at a full-frame equivalent focal length of 168mm, and all from the same spot showing cars at the Second Corner of Suzuka Circuit, one of the most demanding motorsports circuits in the world.  Pay attention to how the shutter speed changes the appearance of elements other than the vehicle body, such as the tarmac, tyres, kerb, and spectators at the back.

While the focal length and other factors will affect the results, these examples show that around 1/125 seconds or slower increase your chances of a good panning shot. Take a test shot and then adjust your shutter speed accordingly.


1/500 sec

At 1/500 sec, the tarmac, tyres, kerb, and spectators have only slight motion blur. There is no sense of speed at all.


1/250 sec

At 1/250 sec, the wheel motion is visible, but the sense of speed is lacking in the background elements.


1/125 sec

At 1/125 sec, we start to get sufficient sense of motion in both the tyres and the background elements.


1/60 sec

At 1/60 sec, the sense of speed is even greater. There is so much motion blur that the spectators at the back are indistinctive.


Pro tip: The shortcut to panning proficiency is to take more shots
Practice your panning at every chance you get. You’ll become more familiar with how to move the camera appropriately, as well as the shutter speeds you need to achieve the intended effect. The more you practice, the faster you’ll improve!


How about continuous shooting?

Of course, a camera with a fast continuous shooting speed will help to improve your success rate. On cameras designed for professional action photography, such as the EOS R7, you can shoot as fast as 30 fps with the electronic shutter—twice the maximum 15 fps possible with the mechanical shutter. Assuming the same success rate, you could possibly achieve up to twice the number of successful shots!

However, the electronic shutter also comes with potential issues such as rolling shutter distortion, so be selective about the scenes you use it in. (This section has tips on avoiding obvious rolling shutter distortion.) Technology increases convenience, but building your own skills and techniques will help you to grow as a photographer.

Also see:
Shutter Modes & Continuous Shooting Modes: When to Use Which?

You might also want to try the RAW burst mode with pre-shooting enabled—this records moments up to 0.5 seconds before you release the shutter! Find out more in:
Camera FAQ: What are RAW Burst and Pre-shooting?

 

Composition: Keep it simple; consider framing with the intention to crop

Panning is a challenging technique to master. To increase your chances of success when you’re new, keep the composition and lens motion as simple as possible. Don’t think too much about the framing: just aim to get just the car sharp as you pan. It’s alright if you can’t keep the car perfectly in the centre of the frame, as long as there is ample allowance around the front or back for cropping.

Before cropping

After cropping

The image looks more impactful after cropping.

How much you can crop before image quality deteriorates depends on the minimum resolution required for your uses, as well as your camera’s maximum resolution. The 32.5-megapixel EOS R7 achieves 6940 x 4640-pixel images—much larger than 4K resolution.

Also see:
Putting Forth Your Best Work: Sports Photography Culling & Editing Tips


Pro tip: Simplify lens movement, too
If you are shooting the left corner, for example, it can be tempting to take two attempts at the shot which require panning in different directions: one as the car enters the corner (panning from left to right), and another as the car exits the corner (panning from right to left). That’s more complicated and increases your chances of failure. Instead, shoot just at the exit. It’s easier to get used to the motion.

 

2. Level up: The super slow shutter panning shot

EOS R7/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 45mm (72mm equivalent)/ Shutter-priority AE (f/13, 1/15 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

After you become more proficient with panning, challenge your skills by using an even slower shutter speed, such as 1/30 seconds or even 1/15 seconds. This creates amazing motion blur in the surroundings, so emphasise it by shooting wider so that they constitute more of the frame.


The main challenge: More motion blur, and a smaller sharp area

At shutter speeds as slow as 1/30 or 1/15 seconds, vehicle motion will result in more motion blurring in the front and back of the vehicle. In other words, a smaller part of the vehicle will appear sharp.

1/160 sec

1/15 sec

In the 1/15-second image above, only part of the door has no motion blur.


Best timing: During the inside phase of a cornering line

The motion-blur-free area is smallest when the vehicle is travelling straight, or at the outer line during cornering. For greater chances of success with a very slow shutter speed, aim for when the vehicle is at the inside of the cornering line.

The cornering line is the path the vehicle takes around a corner. While the actual trajectory depends on various factors, it usually involves starting from the outer line of the track, turning inwards to touch the inside of the track near the apex, and then exiting towards the outer line of the track.


Pro tip: Change the display performance to ‘Smooth’

Cameras like the EOS R7 offer a “Smooth” display setting, which has a display rate of up to 120 fps, providing a smoother preview during panning. The slower default setting can appear jerky when panning subjects that move very fast.


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Stay tuned for Part 2, where we learn more motorsports photography techniques and useful camera functions!

You may also be interested in:
7 Photographers Share: AF & Drive Settings I Switch Based on the Scene
5 Basic EOS R5/ EOS R6 Settings to Customise From the Start
7 Often Neglected Camera Settings that Ensure a Smoother Shoot

About the Author

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Hirohiko Okugawa

Okugawa’s photography journey started when, as a student, he wanted to photograph motorsports. His works have been selected for Canon Japan’s motorsports photography exhibitions for 3 consecutive years. He has also shot all F1 Japan Grand Prix races at the Suzuka and Fuji circuits since 1987, juggling his photography alongside his day job in public relations until he started his own PR company in 2006. He currently covers the motorsports-beat for the Car Watch news portal run by Impress Corporation.

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