Photography Tips

Only in drag racing can you traipse around the pit area and watch the competitors in action working on their cars.

Drag racing is a highly visual sport; gleaming chrome and shiny colours frame engineering masterpieces that rocket flawlessly from zero to 300 mph quicker than you can read this sentence and can skitter our of control, blow up or catch fire even quicker.

Capturing the colour and glory on film requires patience, a steady hand, the right equipment, and a little luck.

The staff of National Dragster, who have been stopping high-powered cars in their tracks for four decades, offer the following tips.

  • They recommend a 35mm camera and a minimum of two lenses, a medium to long zoom (such as a 85-200mm) for on-track action and pit portraits and a wide angle (28-35mm) to cover a wider variety of pit action. Remember to bring spare batteries and enough film to get you through the day.
  • Fast film (at least 400 ISO), which lets you use the high shutter speeds necessary to stop the roaring beasts in action is what they suggest. This type of film may also be “pushed” (developed as if it were a higher ISO) up to 3,200 for capturing night racing.
  • Don’t shoot with your camera in the automatic-exposure mode. Bright flashes, either from an exploding engine or the sun’s glare will trick the camera into underexposing the photo. Pick the spot on the track that you’re going to shoot and take a master reading there. The pit area, with all of the trailer canopies, also is a tough place to achieve the right exposure. Don’t be tricked by light streaming in from one end of the compound.
  • In the pits and on the track, wait for the moment. Burning half a role of film just because your camera has a motor drive is not an efficient way the capture and image. The close pit access permits fans to capture even the facial expressions of drivers and crew members.
  • As you do when you watch the race, move around the stands and enjoy the different vantage points and the great photo opportunities that they offer.
  • And keep that trigger finger ready!

Here are some more tips from Motorsport Underground’s Drag Racing Photo Guide

Vantage Point

Some strategies to make it easier to get a clean shot are to move a little further down the track, just past where the photographers and other clutter are. Not only can you get less obstructions in the way, some of the most dramatic burnout shots are the pictures of a car nearing the end of it’s burnout with smoke filling the cockpit and rolling out from every opening in and under the car. Another method is to take the picture after the car has passed your position and cleared the photographers, giving you a shot of the car going away and trailing a wall of burnout smoke.

Some great shots can be had hanging on the fence at ground level. Some tracks whose spectator walkway is slightly elevated from track position, offer a clear view of the action. Take the time to check out your line of sights ahead of time, before the cars race, to see if your happy with that vantage point.

Setting up around mid-track usually means that you’ll have less obstructions between the subject matter and your camera. Also because you have the angle when your facing back towards the starting line, it’s easier to get a photo with both cars in the frame. Because the cars are moving pretty fast at this point, pleasing effects can be had by panning the cars as they go by. Cons include the fact that the cars are moving at a good rate here, you’ll have to work harder at keeping them in the frame. “keep the camera glued to your face.”

Top end shots are great, the rear tires on the fastest cars are grown and distorted, racers are side by side with inches separating them. If you can get access to the shut down area, shots of cars slowing with the chutes out can be appealing.

One of the most important considerations is where is the sun. For the best photos (unless your trying to silhouette your subject) it’s preferable to have the sun at your back, shining on your subject. If your at a major event where seating is limited you’ll want to plan so the sun works with you for most of the day. While it’s not impossible to shoot into the sun, better color and less chance of lens flare accompany the sun at your back.


Pan blurring is one of the most common compositional techniques for racing photos. This may not result in the sharpest of photos, but does give your pictures the sensation of speed. To do this you shoot with a slower shutter speed then you would normally use to stop the action, and follow the race cars as they go by, pressing the shutter as you swing your camera across to keep the car or cars centered in the view finder. How slow should you go on your shutter speed? Rule of thumb is 1/focal length of the lens should be pretty close to the minimum. So, if your shooting with a 200mm lens then 1/250 might be as slow as you want to go.

Let’s talk about body mechanics while on the subject of panning. The most important thing is to be comfortable, I have had good luck with the traditional method of holding the lens with my left hand, right hand on the camera body, elbows tucked in and up hard against my chest. I also like to keep my knees slightly bent to absorb any up and down motion from folks jumping, walking, or moving through the grandstands. Keep your eye square to the viewfinder and rotate from your waist to keep the cars centered in the viewfinder. Pick up the cars as soon as possible and follow through after the shutter has been released. Avoid pressing the shutter sharply as this tends to move the camera vertically and this movement will show in your photo, try to squeeze the shutter. If you do not have an auto focus camera, pre-focus on the spot where you intend to press the shutter. Keep in mind that a smaller aperture (larger f-stop number) will buy you more depth of field and a little more forgiveness on your focusing point.

If you prefer razor sharp images, then the use of a faster shutter speed is required, or taking your pictures as the cars are coming towards or away from you . Due to the angle of the cars to your position, as the cars are coming towards or away from you they are moving through your viewfinder slower then if your taking the photo as the vehicles pass your position. While panning with the cars is still required, your body will be rotating much slower at this point. Higher shutter speed requires larger apertures, so focus becomes more critical, you can buy some aperture back with faster film but keep in mind the grain quality and contrast characteristics of these films.

Nighttime photos can be the most frustrating, yet satisfying situations. We need to get enough light on the film for correct exposure. Most track lighting doesn’t offer enough light at the shutter speeds we need and apertures we have available. To me, there is no replacement for a good flash with a high enough Guide Number to reach the subject. You can shoot with faster film, but will have to live with the grain especially if the conditions tend to under expose the film. Shooting with auto focus at night can be tough too, you will probably have to turn the auto focus off and do it the old fashioned way. If you don’t have a flash, then you’ll probably have to pick a focus point under the brightest spot thrown out by the track lighting and take your picture there. In this situation, fast lenses are very helpful. No matter, you’ll probably have to break the 1/focal length rule for shutter speed. There may be some throw away shots, but some very pleasing results can be had also. Practice makes perfect.

Digital Photography

Depending on your camera, use the same techniques listed above. The only drawback to using a consumer version digital camera is shutter lag and slow frame rates. Most of the consumer grade digital cameras have a distinct lag between when the shutter is pressed and when the photo is actually taken. Taking good action shots with these types of cameras can take some serious getting used to. There is also the problem of the camera writing to whatever storage device your using, if the camera does not have a burst memory (most don’t) then the number of photos you can take in quick succession is severely limited.

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