How to get good photos at the Nurburgring


Or how I learned to worry less about the camera, and more about the image...

Having had a couple of trips now to the Ring, as well as being a huge geek when it comes to both cameras and angles at the Ring, I thought I'd put a few words together about how to get good shots at the Ring

Obviously a lot of these tips are just as valid on any race track, but the variety of corners and proximity to the track through up additional benefits and problems at the Ring.

There are three things to consider:

  1. Shooting spot
  2. How to keep the car in focus
  3. A sense of movement

(and camera considerations...)

Shooting Spot

The Ring has a great variety of spots to shoot from. Some well known (Adenaur-Forst or Brunnchen), while others less so. When picking your spot you need to consider what type of shot you're trying to get. You may want a tight cropped panning shot of the car, or you may want a wide angle shot of the car with scenery in the background.

It's also worth keeping in mind the light. The most important thing in photography. The Ring is a tricky bugger as it has tree cover in places, tall hills, and deep shadows. You can buy a sunrise/sunset calculator for around £10-£15 pounds which will tell you in where the sun will rise and set, and you can use a map to work out the path of the sun during the day. It sounds complicated, but if you're not a local or hugely experienced, it can be great to know which corners will be front or back lit at different times of day.

Tree cover is also a sod. Standing on the outside of Bergwerk, cars will approach in the sunlight, then be in deep shadow until they near the exit when they go back into the sun. This limits how you can set the camera to cope with the change in exposure as what may be right in the dark shadows won't work on the entry and apex. Also in shadow you lose that bright sparkle you get in the sun, and your photos may come out somewhat murky. Compare that to shooting from the end of Hatzenback where you have consistent light all the way through the series of corners, which gives more flexibility in the way you can shoot, and the cars look better.

Images at a constant exposure, no processing applied

Lack of tree cover on the track making exposure easier

Why is light important? Bright sun really makes paint sparkle and gives your images life and saturation far, far more than any tweaking in Photoshop can.

On the subject of the sun, folk talk about the golden hour as the sun is rising or setting. Set the alarm, or hang around at the end of the day, and you'll get wonderful, warm light coming from an angle, giving great contrast and colours on the cars. You'll need to pick your spot carefully, but my God you'll get some great shots!

When scouting for spots, your height relative to the car is in important factor, and an easy one to demonstrate. A lot of shots you see in magazines are taken from a low angle with light showing through under the car. If you can achieve something similar on the track (the crest at Hone Acht is good for this!), then it will give your shot additional impact. It's not cruicial of course, but it's a good rule of thumb.

In a few places you will be looking down on the cars (the exit of Wehrseifen looking up the track). This is a difficult place to get a useful shot, especially if the sun is behind the car so the side nearest you (especially the wheels) is in shadow. Don't discount these points, but there are better!

Not exactly a flattering angle...

However it can work to give a different perspective on an otherwise familiar shot.

Finally composition. This is basic photography, but sometimes overlooked. If you want a tight, side-on panning shot of a car then composition is limited. You may want to tilt the camera slightly one way or the other to give an extra dimension, but otherwise it's side on, with enough room to spare in case you don't quite get the car bang on in the middle of frame.

On a side note, be careful if you're trying to use any sort of image stabilisation and you're tilting the camera while panning. Canon have a two stage system to try and making panning easier, but this expects the camera to be used either in landscape or portrait, not an angle in between.

The Ring is quite photogenic in places, and can really lend itself to a wider angle. I've taken shots at both medium wide and wide angles. The cruicial consideration is getting the car in context on a medium wide shot (i.e. including more of the track in a shot of a car in the karussell because it's such a noticeable feature), and also the way the eye follows through an image (especially use of lead lines to guide the eye. In some points you are almost taking landscape photos and trying to get a car in shot.

A great lead line from the yellow dirt path at the top of the image to the 911 in the foreground

Again, the road from bottom left leads your eye through, including Ex-Muhle in the top of frame. The yellow Caterham gives from foreground interest, and stops it being simply a photo of a road

If you're planning a day behind the camera, get the big Ring map which shows the roads, walking and cycling trails. With a little planning you can walk quite a way round the track and hit quite a few different spots. Take care as once you're on the outside of the track, there are limited places to cross to the inside! Also keep an eye on the sun as discussed before. Other than that, go and explore. You'll come across some absolute gems!

And I'm sure I don't need to mention this, but I'm going from bitter experience here. Take a map. Even if you know the track, when you're lost and in a forest you can't tell one bit from another unless you're at a *very* distinctive bit. Decent shoes, water, food, and something to keep the changeable weather off (both a rain coat and hat/sun block!)

And if you find yourself in a lumberjack's yard, you're both lost and near Hatzenbach. I never did find out if they have guns and/or big scary dogs.

Speaking of weather, don't go and hide when it's raining. Keep your gear dry, but once the rain stops two things happen; the track becomes almost reflective and you get this really strong sunlight which causes massive saturation and looks gorgeous.

How to Keep the Car in Focus

Unless you are using very expensive pro-level SLRs, camera autofocus systems can struggle with objects moving at high speed. This is important when planning a shot, as you need to think about how the car will be moving relative to you.

If you are taking photos of a car coming towards you at 120mph, then the camera will have change the focus at the same rate to try and keep the car sharp. Sounds easy, but not all cameras can achieve this. If you're standing on the outside of a corner though, the car may still be doing 120mph past you, but the actual speed towards and away from you will be much, much less. This will help the camera track the focus much more accurately.

You may still be unsatisfied though, so what can you do?

One option is to prefocus. Simply this means to take the camera out of auto focus, pick a spot on the track (an apex, end of a curb, anything) and then take a photo when the car reaches that point. This can work well, but will take some practise, and means you lack flexibility if cars are off-line, or something happens at another point on the track.

The criticial thing to remember here is that you're shooting a moving object, so you want to help as much as possible. This is where we talk about depth of field.

Depth of Field (or DoF) is a measure of how much is sharp in front and behind the subject of focus. If you've seen a photo where the background is blurred but the subject is sharp, that's shallow DoF. Conversely a photo which is sharp front to back has a big, or deep, DoF. When a car is moving a bigger DoF will help ensure that the car is in focus if the camera's AF system is struggling to get an exact focus lock. This will enhibit the ability to get the background out of focus (if required), and will also limit how high the shutter speed can go - but more of that in the next section.

Shallow depth of field, no Photoshop

A higher shutter speed will also help, but again, more of this in the next section.

A Sense of Movement

Great motorsport shots are celebrated for having a pin sharp car while everything else is flashing past all blurred. This will require panning.

Panning is simply moving the camera at the same speed as the subject so the subject is sharp and the background is blurred. To achieve this, find a point on the circuit (Brunnchen 2 for example) where you can track the car through the bend, get focus on the approach, then swing from the waist keeping your shoulders and arms still relative to the camera. Squeeze the shutter button at the point you want to take the photo, then follow through to the end of your arc of movement. The skill is all about being smooth and as closely matched to the speed of the car as possible.

To achieve the blur you need to run a low shutter speed. As a rule, the lower the speed, the more blur you'll achieve, but you will also get more shake. Once you've picked your spot, set your camera to shutter priority and select 1/250th of a second. Once you're happy with panning and you feel you're getting decent shots, drop down to 1/125th of a second and repeat. Go as low as you wish - 1/30th, 1/15th. You will find the lower you go, the less keepers you get.

1/500th second, slight motion blur on the wheels

1/125th second, wheels blurred, most body detail sharp

1/80th second, mostly sharp, lots of blur, one of *very* few good shots from that batch

1/20th second, lots and lots of blur, VERY lucky to get this!

1/10th of a second! Lots of blur, and straying far into creative territory. Be prepared to get a lot of duff shots.

1/10th second again, but much, more blurred... You never quite know what you'll get at these speeds.

You will notice that as the shutter speed comes down, the aperture goes up. As it does so the DoF gets bigger. Why would you want that? Arn't you trying to blur the background? Yes, but once the background has motion blur you won't be able to tell what is or isn't in focus anyway. This will also help the AF keep the subject sharp even if the focus wanders slightly.

Panning is fine where the car is moving across the frame, but what about if you can't see the wheels? Imagine a you are standing at either end of a drag strip and can only see the car from dead ahead or dead behind. Without the wheels to show motion, you're worth putting the shutter speed up high.

Why not keep it as 1/125th for everything? A car is always moving around, bumps on the track, roll into corners, etc... The faster the shutter speed the more you freeze the car. If you were using a slower speed and just happened to get the car as it went over a bump, the car would be blurred because the car (rather than the shooter) moved. When panning you are trading some of that sharpness for blur. Without the panning, there's no reason to take that trade off. A Car side on at 1/1000th of a second will looked parked, but head on you probably couldn't tell the difference between 1/1000th and 1/250th.

As a creative twist, why not do the anti-pan? Keep the tripod still, and have the cars blur past. At first it may look odd, or wrong, but slow the shutter speed enough and you'll show the motion of the cars through a corner (or corners). This works best as the sun fades, just look at the light trails from the 24 hour race.

Camera Considerations

The Ring is an odd place for photography because in most places you are exceptionally close to the track. It also had gradients and stunning backdrops. This makes it difficult to say conclusively how you should approach shooting.

If you're at a spot where you're close to the barrier (e.g. outside of Bergwerk) then at the closest point you may be around the 50mm mark to get a whole car in, but the entry/exit from the same spot will be 150mm-200mm. Somewhere like Brunnchen you can really push a long zoom to pick up cars early or late through the complex. What I would suggest is to pick a spot, work out the sort of shot you want, then do a series like that, then reframe and do another series... The outside of the Karussell has many options so really benefits from this approach, cars up the hill, cars tipping in, cars on the banking, tight shots, wide shots... It's important to have one style in mind, as zoom range and shutter speed for one type of shot may not work for another.

If you're shooting bikes, don't forget the target is smaller (especially head on!) so you'll need to zoom in more than for cars.

Unless you're used to shooting superwide, a 28-70mm and 70-200/300mm will be more than sufficient for the Ring. Don't get too hung up on maximum apertures, as you'll be stopping the lens down more often than not to get a lower shutter speed. The only time this won't hold true is if you're shooting early morning/evening as the light fades.

This is a Ring guide first and foremost. Most tracks, especially Grand Prix spec FIA tracks will have huge gravel traps and/or fencing. All you can do for cars on track is use as long a lens as you can get your hands on. Look at photogs on the outside of Copse at Silverstone and you'll see plenty of 300mm and 400mm lenses...

Camera mode... Some will use P, or A, or S, or sports mode, or Tv, or Av... here's the plain english version. More often than not I will use shutter priority mode. This means I dial in the shutter speed I want (say 1/125th of a second) and the camera will adjust the aperture to maintain this speed. The advantage of this is that as the light changes (clouds come over, sun moves, etc...) my panning shots will still be the same blur. The downside is that the camera can be fooled by headlights or reflections. Even light and dark cars if they're prominent enough in frame, can cause the camera to change the exposure.

The way round this is to use manual mode. If you're not used to this, don't worry. It's a little more work, but ultimately more consistent. You don't need a light meter either, as your camera has one built in. Here's how to expose easily in manual mode.

Point your camera at a bit of tarmac, preferrably medium grey in colour, and fill as much of the view finder as possible. Set the shutter speed to your preferred value, then set the aperture until the meter in your view finder is in the middle. A few test shots will show how close this is, you may need to nudge the aperture a click up or down to suit. Now you will get the same exposure irrespective of the colour of the car, if the headlights or on, or however much sky is in the shot. You will need to keep an eye on your exposure though, otherwise if (for example) clouds roll over head and everything goes darker, so will your shots. Also if you're in the habit of changing shutter speeds, you'll need to change your aperture to match, otherwise your shots will be incorrectly exposed. (Hint: shutter speeds and apertures are both measured in stops, and your camera controls will either be 1/2 or 1/3 of a stop. Usually the shutter and aperture control both change the value by the same increment per click, so if you go one click down on shutter speed, go one click up on aperture and the exposure should be the same!)

For completeness, aperture priority is where the camera will try to maintain the same aperture by adjusting the shutter speed. Not ideal for any sort of shot showing motion, but very handy for controlling DoF in static shots, or ones where you can't see car wheels.

As a rule I'd avoid any sort of 'creative' mode - you know the sort of thing, sports mode, landscape mode, candle, etc - as you lose control of what the camera is doing, and you can't adjust to suit the corner or lighting where you are.

Ultimately it comes down to practise. Smooth panning is practise, correct exposure is practise, and the best spots to shoot from is experience. The more you shoot, the more good shots you'll get. Also if the track shuts, take the opportunity to try different lenses, walk around a little to try other angles, or even look for other shots around you (track detail, other spectators...). Spend one day going around different spots and you will take an awful lot of photos, and get an awful lot of practise, more than you would at most trackdays/race meets!