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Help me use my DSLR to shoot auto races
July 29, 2012 9:15 AM   Subscribe

I am a rank beginner at photography. Last night I took my DSLR to an auto race and most of my pictures turned out blurry or under/overexposed or otherwise sucky. Occasionally I got lucky. What am I most likely doing wrong, and how can I get better at shooting cars in motion? I'd appreciate your tips or links to online tutorials.

The camera is a Canon EOS Rebel XS. I only have an 18 -55 mm image stabilizer lens at the moment (that came with the camera) and only the built-in flash. I have a tripod but given the height of the fence and barriers it would have been useless.

I experimented with different modes and shutter speeds and stuff but frankly I was overwhelmed with all the options on the camera. Still shots looked awesome but once anything moved it got frustrating. I'd love to be able to take a shot where the car is in focus but the background is blurred, like this.

This was mr. desjardins' first race, so I'd like to get some better pictures next week.
posted by desjardins to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Get a tripod. Get a brighter lens. Seriously, the equipment people use for shooting things like sports and birds makes all the difference and is incredibly expensive. People tell you that you don't need an expensive camera to take good photos. This is true for certain types of photos. It is not true for sports and wildlife photography - for those you need expensive equipment.

To take shots where the car's in focus and the background is blurred, turn your image stabilization to vertical only, mount your camera on a tripod, set shutter priority mode at a speed just slow enough to get the background to blur, and turn the camera to follow the car as it goes by on*every lap* until you get a good one.

Even great photographers take more bad photos than good ones.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:25 AM on July 29, 2012

There is a section in Understanding Exposure where the author, Bryan Peterson, talks specifically about this type of photo: a moving object in-focus with a blurred background. I believe he uses a bicyclist to illustrate the effect.

It's also a great book generally for a beginning photographer. Basic concepts, simple terms, plain English, and really well chosen example photos to illustrate the concepts he's talking about (as opposed to just pretty photography). It has helped me immensely.
posted by cribcage at 9:33 AM on July 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

For motion you want a fast shutter and a wide-open aperture -- the former to prevent blur and the latter to let the light in. If your camera has a shutter-priority mode, try that. Increment the shutter speeds up until you find one that is fast enough for the cars, and let the camera operate the aperture so that enough light gets in.

You can set this all yourself via manual mode when you find a particular combination that works, but for experimenting and learning, it's perfectly all right to concentrate on one aspect (like reducing blur) at a time.

(NB: this is what I do when I am shooting photos of hockey players; the lighting there is different, and my camera is not nearly as good as yours, but one fast-moving object is enough like another, I'd figure, for the theory to work.)

I'd also suggest practicing on similar fast-moving objects - cars, planes, trains, Superman, whatever you have nearby - until you get the hang of it.

As for panning/tracking shots, tylerkaraszewski has it. You're going to get more wrong than right. It's okay, tracking is not easy.

This is the good thing about digital: you can burn as many frames as you need to learn something without that crushing feeling of wasting all the film.
posted by cmyk at 9:36 AM on July 29, 2012

Blur: Shutter speed was too slow.
Fix: Up the ISO (you were at 400... ) or shoot with more light (or if your subject isn't moving, use a tripod).
With the race photos, I don't think there was enough light to freeze the action, even if you had a better lens. Maybe if you cranked the ISO to the max. A higher ISO allows for faster shutter speeds but adds grain.

Under-exposed: The flash fired and the cars were too far away.

Over-exposed: Probably just not paying close enough attention to your exposure meter, since you were shooting in manual mode. This video explains more (and even though it's not a Rebel XS, it will be similar).

To get the panning shots to work, it takes practice. Pick a point across the track from you. Then follow the car with your camera. When the car gets close to your point, click the shutter, and follow along as best you can. You won't be able to see the car once you click the shutter. Shutter speeds vary depending on how much you are zoomed in and how far away the car is, but you can try 1/15 sec or so as a starting point.
posted by starman at 9:38 AM on July 29, 2012

If your'e a rank beginner, here are some quick and easy tips:

On your DSLR, if you are shooting with a Canon, set it to Tv. This is the Shutter Priority setting. You want your shutter speed to be faster than 1/500th of a second to freeze the motion of the race cars.

On shutter priority, your camera will adjust exposure for you, but in order for you to get decent lighting throughout the scene, especially when shooting really fast cars, you may as well set your exposure to overall/matrix metering. Your other options are spot metering and center-weighted, you don't want to use these if you're following cars and recomposing during your shot (e.g. your camera may adjust for the sky if you're aiming at it while trying to capture a car on the lower third of your shot, or vice versa--you'll under/over-exposed images.

Even if there is plenty of daylight out, set your ISO speed to 640 or 800 so you can get those fast shutter speeds without having to underexpose your images.

Lastly, you want your aperture to be relatively wide. Setting it at f/4.0 should be a fine compromise for depth of field and openness for light when you're shooting at those distances trying to capture cars.
posted by consilience at 9:58 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

For motion you want a fast shutter and a wide-open aperture.

That's if you want to stop motion, as in capturing an owl pouncing on a mouse. If you do that with race cars, it looks like they are parked on the track. Instead, you want to take advantage of slow shutter speed and blur, to make the cars look like they are moving fast. You want to "pan" your camera with the cars, as starman says. Imagine you're taking a video, and follow a car with the camera, clicking the shutter at intervals. You'll waste a lot of shots, but you'll get some awesome ones.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:05 AM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'll add one thing to the good advice above: the built-in flash is useless for this kind of shot; the subjects are too far away. Even my massive Nikon Speedlight would be useless. Keep the flash closed and use the available light.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:03 AM on July 29, 2012

Panning shots just take practice. A fair amount of that is luck and trial and error to figure out what sort of speed you should pan with. Try to maintain a horizontal level as you do it, if you aren't exactly following the angle of the car (which is traveling on the ground, thus, horizontal), you don't stand a chance.

In situtations like this, where you are in the same place with the same consistent lighting, I would find the preferred exposure in manual mode and leave it. The light is not going to change rapidly, as the sun sets adjust to let more light in.

You are a photographer. What you do, essentially, is collect light. A well-exposed photo has the right amount of light, too little and it's underexposed. You have three ways to control the amount of light you collect: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. All are related.

Here is a decent explanation of the relationship between the three factors. When photographing fast-moving objects, you will want to prioritize shutter speed. The reason that sports photogs have such giant expensive lenses is because they can shoot at f/2.8. Your entry level lens probably only gets down to f/5.6. Thus, the only way to decrease the shutter speed required to collect the right amount of light once you get all the way down to f/5.6 is to crank up the ISO. Doubling ISO = half shutter speed. You will get more noise the higher you go, but that's the price you pay for speed.

Staying wide open (smaller f-stop = larger aperture) will reduce your depth of field, which in this situation is fine.

Your flash is totally useless at that distance because of the inverse square law. Your flash power diminishes by a fourth as distance doubles. If you leave the flash on, you waste time and battery power, and more importantly the flash's sync speed sets a floor on your shutter speed. Leave it off and concentrate on available light.

Good luck! Once I finally understood the ISO-aperture-shutter speed relationship, I was comfortable enough to shoot manual and estimate exposures using mental math, the scales will become second nature to you. This is a lifesaver in fast-moving situations. After that, you've fallen into the photography rabbit hole and you will never be able to stop.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 11:36 AM on July 29, 2012

Looking at your exif data, it seems that most pictures were taken with the lens zoomed all the way in (telephoto) at 55mm and occasionally 41mm. Unfortunately, on that lens this constrains the widest aperture to f/5.6 which is what you were using for most shots, so it wouldn't have really mattered what exposure program or settings you used. The camera was as wide open as it was going to get, which just wasn't letting in enough to capture a sharp shot. You could try pulling back to a wider shot to get down to f/3.5, and then cropping the image later.

That's really the downside of a kit zoom lens. A nice 50mm prime lens can get down to f/1.4 which is four stops, or 2^4 = 16 times more light. All things being equal, making the aperture four stops wider means you can adjust the shutter speed four steps faster, from 1/60 to 1/1000. Now, maybe 1/1000 would be overkill, so you don't necessarily need to go down to f/1.4, but it illustrates why kit lenses are suboptimal and why people love primes. When you talk about expensive lenses that professional sports photographers use, they cost an arm and a leg because they're so fast. Take for example the f/2.8 300mm IS II USM which costs around 7 grand -- it's not costly because of the long focal length, it's expensive because of the fact that you can shoot at f/2.8 at such an insane focal length.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:55 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Take a photography course. A lot of local professional photographers and/or camera stores put on photography workshops. An evening or two with someone who knows what they are doing will pay dividends. It will be the best money you ever spend on a camera!

Don't beat yourself up too much, panning shots are extremely difficult to get just right even for advanced shooters.
posted by Beacon Inbound at 11:58 AM on July 29, 2012

(And I just realized I used the term "wide" both in reference to focal length and aperture which is really confusing. I was trying to avoid saying "the largest aperture" which might be confusing because it implies lower f-numbers.)
posted by Rhomboid at 11:59 AM on July 29, 2012

I'm surprised at some of the suggestions here around using Shutter priority here (Tv). I would:

1) turn off the flash
2) Shoot in Aperture Priority mode (Av on canon) with the widest aperture setting possible for your lens (lowest # - probably 5.6)
3) Shoot at the highest reasonable iso - maybe 400 or 800 for your camera
4) Shoot raw so you can adjust the exposure in post (and potentially apply aggressive noise reduction)
5) Practice panning with the cars

Setting a fast shutter speed (1/500) with this kind of lighting and lens will just get you an underexposed image since the setting for the aperture will always be wide open (those setting would be great if you had the light, but from your images you don't). Using Av with the above settings you would at least have a shot a getting a correctly exposed picture with a slower shutter speed (1/200 or even 1/50 w/ panning).

A faster lens is really what you need to do this right - on a budget I would look at a 50 mm or 100 mm prime...
posted by NoDef at 12:19 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

A lot of great advice here already. Once you've got the right exposure settings, I'd suggest:

- Use burst mode while panning, preferably with the camera on a tripod. After a 2 second pan and 20 photos, immediately delete the 19 duds - its cleaning as you go. You don't want to dig through 200 photos for the 20 good ones later. Digital allows for brute-force in a way that you can't do with film, might as well embrace it.
posted by tempythethird at 1:26 PM on July 29, 2012

Lots of good advice here that I would also have given.

Like a good golf swing, the secret of a good panning shot is follow-through. The big mistake that many novice panners make is to treat the shutter button like a trigger, and stop moving when it trips. What happens there is you anticipate the shutter release, and interrupt the smooth pan right at the critical instant. Good technique would have you gently increase the pressure in the shutter button, so it's actual release comes as a surprise to you, and continue to smoothly follow the action after the shutter releases for a half-second or so.

Remember, you don't have to pan to show speed. Depending on the speed of the racecars, there might be other solutions. You can get away with using a fast shutter speed and a small aperture on a sunny day at Indianapolis, where the cars are doing 200+ going past you, but in your situation, you will be a little more limited. Night races, slower traffic, all work against you. You can get it, but you'll have to work harder for it with your equipment.
posted by pjern at 2:15 PM on July 29, 2012

A monopod would be useful for getting tracking shots from the stands.
posted by benbenson at 4:32 AM on July 30, 2012

I was thinking about this question after I responded yesterday. I am 144 days into a 365 project right now, so I decided to try this technique for today's photo.

I set my camera to shutter-priority mode, adjusted the ISO to 100 because it was a very bright day, and set my shutter speed to 1/15 as Starman suggested above. Those are the only adjustments I made on the camera. I stood on the side of the road for about five minutes and snapped twenty or thirty different cars passing by. I didn't have a tripod with me, but I did my best to hold the camera steady and follow-through. This was the best result.

It's not spectacular, but I think it illustrates that there's some good advice in this thread to get you started. So thanks for asking, and thanks for the answers, and good luck to all!
posted by cribcage at 3:14 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I sifted through all my photoblog bookmarks to find this one for you, so I hope you like it.

The Bastard's Book of Photography is a free, online, visual explanation of all the settings on your camera and how they affect the look of the photograph. Each image on the site has all the ISO/Shutter/Aperture/Flash/etc info on it, so you know.

It's also very pretty.
posted by cmchap at 1:49 PM on July 31, 2012

My photos last night were much improved thanks to y'all. Best answer goes to NoDef because of the lighting of this photo taken in Av mode, 1/25, f/4.5, ISO 1600. Unfortunately, I didn't try this until the end of the night. The lighting's terrible, but I did get some degree of panning going on. (Don't pay any attention to subject matter or composition, I was just trying to get the lighting and focus right. This photo with a shallow depth of field was an accident, but it would look cool with different subject matter/composition.)
posted by desjardins at 8:58 AM on August 12, 2012

The Av mode photo came out nicely... ! With the panning I would just suggest trying it when the car is more perpendicular to you, and if they are turning out too dark, slow down the shutter or move the ISO to a higher number.
posted by starman at 6:05 AM on August 17, 2012

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