Fast Photography: How to shoot Formula One Racing from the Grandstands

Posted By : Robert Norton/ 1622 0

Formula One race cars

Photographing fast moving racing cars is challenging. Capturing these four-wheeled missiles from your grandstand seat is even harder. This post will deconstruct the shooting process of a formula one practice session to give you the tips and techniques that will enable you to produce photos that will make people think you had a media pass for the race.

What makes a successful folio of F1 racing images? The key is maximizing the variety of your images. Time and again I see other photographers glued to their seats shooting hundreds of images of the cars. Boring! Hundreds of images showing the same piece of track, at same shutter speed, the same depth of field… only the cars change. The best, and the easiest, solution is to get out of your seat and move around the grandstand in order to change up your shooting angles. Another solution is to get into another grandstand for a practice session. Simply swap seats with a friend or another photographer; most people are only too happy to check out another vantage point for a session or two.

Fridays are freedom! Over the course of a three day Formula One race weekend attendance is generally sparse for the Friday F1 practice sessions. Less people means that you have the maximum opportunity to move around your grandstand and shoot the cars from multiple angles. On race day, Sunday, the stands are packed and movement is next to impossible. Success always begins with a plan. I plan to take about 80% of my shots on Friday and Saturday, and 20% on race day. Depending on my results from Friday and Saturday, and the photographic options available from my seat, I may not even bring my camera for the race on Sunday.

How do I know that this is the recipe for success? Over the years I have frequently seen accredited professional photographers shooting Friday sessions from the grandstands. If the pros are doing what I am doing then I know that I am onto something. Why are pro photographers up in the grandstands when they have a media pass that allows them to shoot at track level, and in the pits and garages? Simple; they are adding variety to their folio of work and striving to get the shot that their competitors aren’t getting.

Friday Practice Sessions (P1)

This year, my 34th year in succession attending this race, I returned to grandstand no.34, in the middle of the iconic hairpin corner of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. I had not sat here in over a decade and so it was time for a return visit. I decided on this stand mostly because of the introduction of the HALO safety device to this year’s cars. I knew from past experience that I would be able to shoot a bird’s eye view straight down onto the cars. In addition, I knew that this grandstand would provide me with multiple shooting angles for both the entry and the exit of the hairpin corner. Lastly, I knew that this is a low speed corner and also a favourite overtaking opportunity for the drivers.

pink Formula One car

For P1, I began shooting at the south side rail of the grandstand, a few rows down from the top row, in my quest for bird’s eye view images. Within the first dozen images I could see how the cars were tracking and how the fencing, and the shadows cast by it, was impacting my images. I realized that an adjustment was required and so I moved. The optimal shooting position was lower down towards the middle of the grandstand and it was from here that I got my best shots for this specific angle.

Red Bull race car

Towards the midpoint of the session the action dropped off and the track got quiet. The best time to change locations. I surveyed the hairpin and decided that my next target was to shoot the cars tight to the wall as they exited the corner. I wanted the colourful cars posed against the backdrop of the green Rolex advertising banners. To accomplish this I needed to move to the lowest rows of the grandstand to flatten the angle as much as possible. I liked what I was getting here and yet after 30 or so shots I knew it was time to change it up. By moving laterally across the stand to the north side the shooting angle shifted from head-on to more of a side profile. Upon review the images shot from this point were among my favourites from the race weekend. Solid proof that moving around and hunting for variety in your images is the key to a successful shoot.

A few moments later, while the session was stopped for a red flag on-track incident, my phone buzzed. It was a text from a buddy in Toronto who was watching the P1 session on TV. He had sent me a screen-grab from the telecast showing me, camera in hand, in the grandstand waiting for the session to resume. Ahh, the wonders of technology!

Last Words

A truly epic shooting day! I would have happily stayed for a P3 if there had been one. Back at the hotel I fired up the laptop and took a quick look at what I had shot. Really pleased with my results and feeling very fortunate to be able to roam about freely in grandstand no.34 for the Friday practice sessions.

I hope this post will encourage you to get out of your seat and get after it! Variety will not sit down in the seat next to you. Variety is out there waiting for you and so you need to move around and seek it. Think: Treasure Hunt! Great images are out there for those who will go out and create them!


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