Movement is one of the hardest things to capture and convey in any still piece of art. In turn, it is one of the most rewarding when an artist can pull it off. Motorsports offer no shortage of motion for us to attempt to capture.
I thought it would be a good idea ahead of the 12th edition of Drift Indy’s No Star Bash to explain some of the basics of photographing drifting for anyone who might be looking to get into shooting. NSB is a long event that provides plenty of time to try things out.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best photographer in the world or even the best at most of our events, but I have had formal photography schooling and have spent thousands of hours behind the lens. I’ve helped teach photography to high schoolers as a college student, been photo editor at a newspaper and am the current Drift Indy staff photographer, so, in theory, I oughta have a little knowledge to share.
I won’t go ultra-deep into the history or science behind photography, but it is important to understand a little bit about how a camera functions in order to understand what makes a photo look the way it does. Cameras use light-sensitive materials or sensors to imprint images captured by exposing those materials or sensors to light. Our finger on the shutter release button of a camera triggers that exposure, recording whatever our camera is pointing at in that moment. The settings we adjust, the brightness or darkness of our setting and the movement of the subject and our own bodies all play into what the camera captures.
Shoutout to Nick Quigley for this pic of me from a few seasons ago!
I’ll start off with camera settings since they can be pretty intimidating to fool with. Taking your camera off one of the auto modes and onto manual or one of the priority modes will let you adjust your settings as you like.
The setting that usually makes the biggest difference in the feeling of motion in a photograph is the shutter speed. Shutter speed is usually shown in cameras in fractions of a second, unless you’re shooting long exposures that last longer than a second. That number is how long the shutter remains open, allowing light to reach the sensor and create an image. A shutter speed of 1/2 means the shutter remains open for half a second, while 1/4000 is one-four thousandth of a second. 1/4000 is a very high shutter speed and 1/2 is a very low shutter speed.
As it relates to shooting a moving object (like a drift car), the longer a shutter is open, the more movement it’s gonna capture. If you wanted to perfectly freeze a drift car in place in an image, you would want a high shutter speed. For reference, 1/640 or 1/800 is almost always going to be plenty fast to freeze a drift car. I’d wager most of us that shoot drifting regularly hang out down between 1/10 to 1/320 most of the time.
1/40 at f/5.6, ISO 200 and a 260mm focal length.
Now, you might be saying “why wouldn’t I want to perfectly freeze the motion of the car in my photo? Surely a perfectly sharp photo is best!” But consider this: in any motorsport, or in any race for that matter, where is all the excitement? That’s right! In the movement of the competitors. An image of a perfectly still race car hardly looks different whether the car is broken down in the pits or flat out on a straight.
Of course smoke, the track, other cars, etc. all play into an image as well, but the point is that the most exciting motorsport photography almost always involves the motion of the subject.
A lot of my time photographing drifting has been spent shooting at around 1/30. That shutter speed works great for me when I want to show the speed of the car by capturing a blurred background while still managing to preserve most of the sharpness of the car. I pick a spot where the car will be maintaining a steady enough speed and angle, set my feet, focus on the car early and then track it through the corner, making sure to follow it as steadily as possible with the lens while I shoot. Precisely matching the speed of the car with the rotation of the camera is what produces a sharp photo. The shutter opening for that thirtieth of a second will capture the movement that occurs during that window of time.
1/30 at f/16, ISO 100 and a 66mm focal length.
That kind of shooting is what we call “panning.” It’s perfect for long sweepers and spots like Kil-kare’s banks where cars maintain a mostly steady speed and transition smoothly. It’s a ton of fun to play around with, and produces images that something like an iphone struggles to. At longer events, a lot of us like to experiment with shutter speeds as slow as 1/5. It’s super tricky to snag one that slow where the car is still sharp, but it’s a fun challenge!
For anyone just getting into photography, I encourage you to switch your camera over to shutter priority mode and mess around with different shutter speeds. The camera will automatically balance the other settings to give you an image that isn’t too dark or too light.
The next setting I’d like to explain is aperture. The aperture controls how much light is allowed in when the shutter opens, but it also affects the focal depth of the photo. It sounds a little backwards, but the smaller the number in the aperture value, the more open the aperture is. Conversely, the larger the number, the smaller the opening. Aperture values are represented by “f-stops.” You’ll see f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 all the way up to f/32 and higher.
In the simplest of terms, low aperture values allow for higher shutter speeds and shorten the depth of field, meaning you end up with nicely blurred backgrounds while the subject is in focus. The iphone equivalent is portrait mode. High aperture values allow lower shutter speeds and lengthen the depth of field.
I’d argue it doesn’t have quite as much influence over the vibes of a drift photo as the shutter speed, but is rather a tool to use to achieve our desired shutter speed. In the middle of a cloudless day, an aperture value as high as f/32 might be necessary to get the shutter speed low enough to get a nice panning shot. Shooting behind a fence and want the fence out of focus while the car is nice and sharp? Probably oughta go for a lower value.
1/200 at f/5.6, ISO 100 and a 190mm focal length.
The last setting I regularly adjust is the ISO. In the days of film photography, different types of film were produced with different ISO ratings representing their sensitivity to light. A higher ISO means a higher sensitivity to light. In digital photography, we are able to adjust our sensor’s ISO to compensate for a lack of available light. When the sun sets at Kil-kare, I bump my ISO up from 100 all the way to 1000, depending on where I’m shooting from and what lights are on. Be warned, though; higher ISO settings result in grainy photos.
At the end of the day, it’s a balancing act. Any adjustment of one of those three settings will affect the light meter in our camera. It’s a sliding exposure scale that shows when a photo will have a good balance between the highlights and the shadows.
As a Nikon die-hard, it pains me to say this, but Canon has an excellent little tool that lets you experiment with those three settings here: https://canon.ca/CanonOutsideOfAuto/play
1/125 at f/7.1, ISO 400 and a 300mm focal length.
Perhaps equally important to our camera settings is the composition of a photo. There’s about a trillion options when it comes to composition, but it often just comes down to what feels right. There aren’t any hard and fast rules when it comes to composition, but I’d encourage you to experiment with placing the subject of the photo in different spots than dead center every time. Try out tilting the camera and shooting both vertically and horizontally. Zoom in tight, take a few steps back, watch for reflections. The options are pretty endless.
1/160 at f/5.6, ISO 100 and a 262mm focal length.
Drifting is probably the motorsport that allows for the most self expression, which is a huge part of what makes it so much fun to photograph. I encourage anyone interested in getting into motorsports photography to go grab a cheap, used DSLR and a few lenses and get out to some grassroots events.
Strong fundamentals, creativity and plenty of practice go the distance, even if we don't have the latest and greatest equipment. I hope this article proves useful, and I look forward to seeing everybody this weekend at No Star Bash!