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Motorsports and Air Show Photography Things to Consider!

Planning on attending a car show or an air show then ensure you have considered what you take and how you shoot before you go. This Guest column from George Johnson explores his insights on this area of photography. (Article content and photos copyright to George Johnson)

Introduction This article is based on my own experiences with photography of aviation shows and motorsport events, and such is intended as ‘food for thought’ and a discussion of suggested approaches - not as a definitive guide.

  • I hope you enjoy it,

  • It asks some questions?

  • Gives a few answers!

Type of camera?

For DSLRs, because of the ‘crop factor’ with APS (or DX) cameras, the focal length of the lens that you are using can typically be multiplied by 1.5. This can be beneficial for sports, wildlife and longer range photography, as a 200mm lens becomes in effect a 300mm lens, and this is a reason why cameras with smaller sensors are sometimes recommended for this style of photography. All is not lost if you have a full frame (sometimes called FX) camera, as typically these can be set to simulate DX mode and use a smaller section of the larger sensor in return for the 1.5 focal length multiplier.

My recommendation for a FX camera would be to leave the camera in FX mode, and use post editing software (Lightroom, Photoshop, Affinity, etc.) to crop in on the vehicle(s). Given that many FX cameras have a high pixel count sensor, this can give good results without excessive pixelation.

Of course it’s not essential to have a DSLR camera for motorsport or air show photography, and whist mirrorless removable lens cameras offer a lighter alternative to DSLRs, there are lower cost fixed lens alternatives available that you may wish to consider, including a bridge camera or a high performance phone camera with built-in telephoto option (e.g. Apple iPhone 11 Pro).

Choice of lens

To some extent, the choice of lens will be dictated by how far you are from the action, with increased ‘camera-to-action’ distance requiring increased magnification. Clearly, the further the action is from the camera, the more magnification will be needed, and as organisers of these events continuously strive to ensure spectator safety, people are now being placed increasingly further from the action, necessitating longer focal length lenses. The next question is whether to choose a long distance prime lens (one focal length only), a telephoto zoom lens (offering a range of focal lengths) or a shorter distance lens with a teleconverter - there are pros and cons to each selection, however my recommendation for the sake of brevity would be a telephoto zoom lens (typically up to at least 200mm, with higher focal lengths giving further benefits).

If you require further reach than you lens offers then you can use a teleconverter which typically offer magnification of 1.4, 1.7, .2.0 however as you increase you lose and F stop each time (ensure that the lens and the teleconverter are compatible before you purchase one.

There are other factors to take into account here, including budget (as the increased glass to achieve the required magnification comes at a greater cost) and weight/size (longer focal length lenses can typically be quite heavy and unwieldy).

One attribute that is worth the cost is vibration reduction (VR) as this will have a significant impact on your ability to capture sharp images and as such is well worth the cost.

A question you should ask is how often you are going to use the lens? (rarely or frequently) and this may help with deciding how much to budget, and help to determine what lens performance you actually need, and whether to select a lens from your camera manufacturer or from a third party (e.g. Tamron, Sigma, Samyang, Tokina).

Lenses with larger apertures (e.g. f2.8), metal construction, water resistance, sophisticated anti-reflection coatings and/or made by the camera manufacturer tend to be more expensive, whilst the converse usually applies with third party cheaper lenses. There are some interesting technologies emerging, such as Nikon’s use of plastic Fresnel lenses in their 300mm and 500mm fixed focal length lenses makes the lenses significantly shorter and lighter. To date though, incorporation of Fresnel elements in zoom lenses is not yet widely available, however if and when they are, this will be a significant advance.

Tripod or not?

If the weight of the camera/lens combination is high, some assistance may be desirable (to alleviate arm ache!), and a tripod or monopod will certainly help. If shooting fast-moving action though, and ‘panning’ of the vehicle is desirable, use of a monopod may be better, however if you are seated in a grand stand, and the action is happening in a narrow area (e.g. focused on a narrow piece of the track or sky), a tripod may be more ideal. Always be considerate of others though, and placement of the tripod or monopod should not interfere with anyone else’s enjoyment of the event. Also, a reminder that most cameras benefit from turning off any vibration reduction/optical stabilisation when mounted on a tripod/monopod (to avoid stabilisation induced blur). An interesting tripod to consider is a " three legged thing" as thes can be used as a tripod or as a monopod are very well constructed come with a ball head and you get two for the price of one.

Camera settings

Many DSLRs have a number of auto-focusing modes, and for fast moving action, use of continuous AF is recommended to allow continual tracking of the action. The number of autofocus points will also be down to preference, however use of fast shutter speeds is recommended to ensure the subject remains ‘sharp’. If the shutter speed is too fast, then the action can look unnatural (e.g. ‘frozen’ propeller blades on aircraft or spokes on car wheels), making the aircraft or car look ‘stationary’. Experimentation is recommended, as this will depend on many variables such as vehicle speed and distance of the action from the camera.

Likewise, aperture selection will (to some extent) be down to preference as well as lens performance, as letting more light in (e.g. f2.8 - 4) will usually result in pin point focus of whatever is being focused on, however the surrounding area will seem less sharp. An advantage of a shallow depth of field however is increased ‘bokeh’, and it may be possible to get some interesting effects (e.g. blurred background foliage, sky or lighting).

To achieve optimum speed and aperture settings, I recommend that you use the ‘M’ (manual) setting on your camera, as this gives you full control over the above settings. If the ambient lighting is changing rapidly (e.g. change of weather or background of object being photographed changes frequently), you may want to try and set ‘auto ISO’ (to compensate somewhat), however you should be aware of the limitations of the sensor in your camera, and set the maximum allowable ISO to a setting below that which gives overly grainy and noisy pictures. If you struggle with ‘M’, then by all means try aperture or shutter priority settings to see which gives you the crispest pictures, however it’s recommended that you really try and avoid (for all photography!) fully auto, as you have no control over how your photos are take - the worst of all worlds!

Post processing

Trying to keep this brief, my recommendation would be to try and keep any post production editing (e.g. in Lightroom or Photoshop) as minimal as possible (e.g. chromatic lens correction, cloning out of ‘interfering’ artefacts (e.g. birds or litter), histogram tweaking, etc. One adjustment that can add significantly is use of the ‘clarity’ control, with pleasing and enhancing effects possible. My one remaining recommendation would be not to overdo any correction, as this can end up making the photo seem false, unrealistic and dreadful to look at!

Any other considerations?

With the unpredictable British weather, it's worth considering a waterproof camera bag, whilst keeping a cheap disposable 'shower cap' in your pocket will allow you to quickly protect your camera in the event of a sudden downpour of rain.

As with other photo shoots, I'd also recommend that you carry additional batteries and memory cards.

Consideration should be given to the type of camera strap that works best for you, with some preferring either an 'over the neck' style strap (as supplied as standard with most cameras), a more tailored over the shoulder strap (e.g. BlackRapid sports strap) or a simple wrist strap. Whichever strap you choose should be supportive of the weight of the camera/lens, whilst also allowing you to rapidly raise the camera to get the shot you want.

Finally, have fun with your photography and don't be afraid to experiment or break 'the rules'!

Many thanks to George Johnson author of this article

Some Additions to Your Camera Bag You May Want to Consider

Black Rapid Sports Strap

Black rapid Wrist Strap

Think Tank Hydrophobia 70-200 Camera Rain Cover

Think Tank Hydrophobia 70-200 Camera Rain Cover

Digital Polarising Filter

Three Legged Thing


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