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How To Take Photos of Fast Moving Cars Formula One and the Illusion of Speed

Speeding night city lights


Speed. It thrills when it’s loud, when it feels real, when it’s up close. Fast isn’t just about Formula One, it’s become the keyword for modern life. Faster internet connections, faster food, faster travel and faster friendships.

Formula One changes tyres in less than three seconds; Amazon loses sales with every tenth of a second’s wait.

No, this isn’t going to be a post about how we all need to stop and slow down (I like speed and I’d love a faster internet connection.) It’s going to be about Formula One and the illusion of speed.

Speeding at Formula One

How to Take Photos of Fast Moving Cars

The Illusion of Speed

Time may wait for no man but it does freeze for photography. As Sherry Ott explained, it’s easy enough to snap a crisp shot of a car on the tarmac as it hurtles past. Problem is, the photo gives no hint of the movement, the pace, the excitement, and the intensity of the real-life experience. Said car may as well be plonked in a supermarket car park.

There’s video* (which I played around with this year) but without a press pass, a helicopter and an incredibly good-looking presenter, that too, has limitations. I’m a huge fan of words (spilling many on my inside look at the Lotus Garage) but this time I wanted to better my efforts at photography.

Taking Photos at Formula One

The trick is simple, its execution messy. The idea is to swoop the lens of your camera along the track at the same rate as the car as you press the shutter. Crisp car + smudged background = the illusion of speed.

Last year I ratcheted up a good four or five hundred of these shots. And by good, I mean it as an expression of quantity not quality. Most had the car out of focus, many had no car at all.

This year, with totally unfounded optimism, I decided to do better.


Black and white speed at Formula One

Time may wait for no man but it does freeze for photography

Prowling around the stands in 30 plus heat and risking the kind of repetitive stress injury that comes from watching too much tennis, I had precisely 57 laps and 24 cars to get one good shot. Yet, crouching in the far corner of the stands as the scaffolding throbbed with the cheers of the crowd, I had a second epiphany about Formula One and the meaning of speed.

There’s a viewpoint here where the track snakes in front of Valencia’s dazzling Arts & Sciences building. It’s away from the spectators and only visible if you’re up to the kind of deranged acrobatics I was in my quest for a decent photo. Right here, beneath the melting Valencian sun, the Formula One secret became clear: the cars slow down.

There’s a hairpin bend so tight that even when fractions of seconds lose you millions, when tyre changes happen faster than Facebook status updates and when aggressive overtaking makes London’s cabbies look tame, there’s still a point, a moment, a corner where drivers hit the brakes and drive at a reasonable speed.

Speed, of course, cuts both ways. Slow as well as fast. Visible and invisible.

That corner also reminded me that the real success of Formula One doesn’t come from super-slick, second-splitting events. Its power and skill comes from the hours and days and weeks and months of training, rehearsing, developing and researching. Of practising, refining and reviewing. The work of many to put a spotlight on the few.

It’s just not that sexy to say so.

The real success of Formula One doesn’t come from super-slick, second-splitting events.

Back at my computer, I waited while another few hundred sets of pixels shuffled from my camera onto the screen. With my well-honed delete finger at the heady, I began scrolling through.

Another surprise. Over the course of a year, with many more hours at the viewfinder, something interesting had happened. My photos had improved.

How did this mysterious ability to predict F1 car trajectories come about?

I can’t say. Sometimes it just takes a while to get up to speed…


red bull at formula one toro rosso

Disclosure: The Land of Valencia invited me to the Valencia Grand Prix

14 Responses to How To Take Photos of Fast Moving Cars Formula One and the Illusion of Speed

  1. Jack July 11, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    Brilliant opening shot Abi – congratulations for nailing that fast and furious look.

    • Abi July 30, 2011 at 7:59 am #

      Cheers! It’s so much easier to do in the dark ;)

  2. Melvin July 12, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    Quite nice first pic… I would describe it awesome, if it had been a Red Bull car with the No 1 on it… Go Vettel Go! lol

    And your words/article is awesome, but that is no news to people who read your blog regularly. :)

    • Abi July 30, 2011 at 8:00 am #

      Ah…That second comment makes up for the Vettel enthusiasm ;)

  3. Arantxa July 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    As usual, I’m impressed.
    I guess, practice, perseverance and talent together seasoned with patience give us not only your fantastic pictures but also a great text to read that makes think, at least that is what happens to me with your posts.

    • Abi July 30, 2011 at 8:22 am #

      That’s so good to hear, Arantxa. Thank you so much.

  4. Bluegreen Kirk July 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    I really enjoy the photos and love photos of F1 and the cars. Its amazing how quickly they can make a pit stop. I guess over time with practice things tend to always get better. I look forward to your F! gallery. I was reading on Anil’s blog that they have a 3 seater F1 car so you can experience the feel.

    • Abi July 30, 2011 at 8:24 am #

      Yes – and everyone who went in the three-seater came out wide-eyed and thrilled! I’d love to try it one day. The gallery’s almost ready – plus a few videos that I’ll upload as soon as I have a faster internet connection ;)

  5. ayngelina September 28, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    I like motion in my photos, it gives them a sense of action and excitement that a high shutter speed tends to miss.

  6. Stephanie - The Travel Chica September 28, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    I have played around a little bit with capturing motion in my photos, but I’m not very good at it yet. I need to practice and do some more reading for tips.

  7. Nomadic Samuel September 29, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    Panning to get this kind of shot is definitely tricky. When shooting moving targets do you shoot in TV at a set shutter speed that isn’t too fast to freeze everything?

  8. Raymond @ Man On The Lam September 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    That first pic IS awesome — it almost looks like the car is going backwards. :)

  9. Emily @ Maiden Voyage October 3, 2011 at 5:30 am #

    Very cool! It seems almost impossible to catch a car moving that quickly in such a still moment. I’m not surprised that it takes a little time to get “up to speed” :) I’ve never seen one of these races in person, but they are about to start building a track here in Austin!

  10. Henry Williams October 13, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    some great photos