10 Things a Motorsports Photographer Couldn't Live Without

10 Things a Motorsports Photographer Couldn't Live Without

This week I spoke with professional motorsports photographer Drew Gibson to find out what 10 things he couldn't live without in his camera bag. With clients such as Aston Martin and Top Gear, Drew certainly knows his way around motorsports photography.Drew Gibson has been a professional motorsports photographer for the past ten years, and has worked on a variety of different motorsports events both commercially, and for editorials, but he specializes in automotive and endurance racing images. Some of his clients include: Aston Martin, Ford, Bentley, Goodwood, Evo Magazine, Top Gear, The Guardian, Hackett, Porsche, Mazda, Nissan, McLaren, and Williams. So he's certainly got the authority to speak about motorsports photography. Keep reading below to find out 10 things he couldn't live without.

1. A Camera Body Fit for a Pro

Drew uses two Canon EOS-1D X MKIIs. Carrying two bodies means he doesn't have to change lenses and can react faster when working in locations where the scene he's working with can change quickly, for example, in a pit garage, or on the grid.

Having two bodies also gives me a back up should one fail, which in the harsh environments of motorsports, can happen from time to time. They really are great cameras, I don't take dozens of frames of each car, but the burst rate is great for firing a few frames at critical moments.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

Drew uses two Canon EOS-1D X Mark II's to capture his shots without having to change lenses, and if one body dies, he has another as a backup. Image by Drew Gibson | www.drew-gibson.co.uk

Drew points out that the image files maintain a good level of quality at high ISO settings, which is important for him as an endurance racing photographer, as many of the races he covers run through the night. He also uses Domke camera straps, and Hoodman eye cups on the cameras because he finds they're better than Canon's standard items.

Camera strap and viewfinder hood

Drew uses Domke camera straps, and Hoodman eye cups on the cameras because he finds them better than Canon's standard items. Image by Drew Gibson | www.drew-gibson.co.uk

2. The Best Wide Angle Lenses for Automotive Photography

There's only two wide angle lenses that Drew carries in his kitbag, the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM and the Canon CN-E14mm T3.1 L F cine lens. But he can't pick between them for his "best wide angle" lens.

I wouldn't say I have a favorite, they are both excellent in different circumstances but I really enjoy using the 14mm. It's so sharp across the whole width of the lens, and gives a lovely contrast in images. 

Canon CN-E14mm T3.1 L F cine lens

Drew's favorite wide angle lens for motorsports is the Canon CN-E14mm T3.1 L F cine lens. Image by Drew Gibson | www.drew-gibson.co.uk

3. The Reason Why a Prime Mid Lens Is Perfect

With so many to choose from, it's surprising that Drew doesn't mention a mid-zoom lens here, something like the 24-70mm range is pretty standard for most other photographers here. But he points out that it's about the quality of the image that matters.

My favorite mid lens is my Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. It's probably my favorite lens in my kit bag. This lens is incredibly versatile, it gives a great reportage feel to pictures, especially when shooting away from the track action. It's easy to get carried away with the great depth of field the f/1.2 aperture allows, but I use the lens more to allow me to work with negative space, and really place a subject in it's surroundings.

EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens

Drew shoots candid moments in his 1D-X Mark II with an EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. Image by Alastair Staley | www.alastairstaley.com

Drew also mentions that because the lens is also physically quite small, and less intimidating than longer telephoto lenses, he's more inconspicuous around drivers, and team members so stands a better chance of capturing candid moments.

4. The Ideal Telephoto Lens for Circuit Shooting

Until last year Drew used the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM, but then swapped to Canon's new Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM which is smaller, lighter and therefore more portable to shoot with than the 600mm. This decreased size gives Drew more options when it comes to shooting with extenders, too.

I must say it's a phenomenal lens, great with converters, and gives me a huge amount of flexibility for focal length. Effectively, I now carry a 400mm, 570mm, and 800mm. Also, because the lens holds up so well even in difficult shooting scenarios such as hot hazy weather, I have these options available to me almost all the time.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM

Drew ditched the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM,to shoot on the newer and lighter Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM. Image by Drew Gibson | www.drew-gibson.co.uk

5. The Only Filter Drew Couldn't Live Without

Drew uses polarizing filters for most of his pictures, and so the drop in filter in the back of the 400mm is very important to him. Most of the cars he shoots have windscreens, as opposed to Formula cars such as those that race in F1 that do not, so the polarizer is a great way to combat ugly, and unwanted reflections.

You can see it quite clearly in my photo from Le Mans 2015 above, the windscreen has gone a really nice dark black as opposed to having lots of white glare across it.

6. Could A Professional Motorsports Photographer Survive Without Editing Software?

A quick response from Drew echoed back immediately. "Of course!" He explains that if you took editing software away from everyone, and only shot to JPEG format, he knows that he could produce a better JPEG than most of his competitors, and give all of them a good run for their money!

I started out on film after all. Having said that I've grown with the times, and my photography is now a process, from capturing an image right through to delivering it to a client. So even when I'm taking a picture, I'm thinking about which parts of a shot it is important to preserve detail in, and which parts are easier to adjust later in post production.

Editing on location

Drew uses a laptop hood when editing on-location to reduce glare, and give him some privacy from prying eyes. Image by Jakob Ebrey | www.jakobebrey.com


That may be why Drew has an advantage over some of the agencies that use a wiretech to edit their pictures. He's aware of exactly how he envisions all his pictures as he was taking them, and how they should be treated in post-production, and doesn't think you can have the same control if you have someone else doing your editing. 

7. The Most Useful Cleaning Equipment That Lives in the Kit Bag

A stickler for dust spots, Drew simply packs an Eyelead "dabber" gel stick. He finds it okay for basic cleaning but hasn't found anything he's happy with for cleaning sensors. As a motorsport photographer he's often shooting stopped down at f/32 when using low shutter speeds, and this leads to a lot of dirt, and dust visible on his images.

I spend a lot of time removing dirt in Adobe Photoshop and I'm disappointed camera technology hasn't moved on in this area. I feel like sensors are no better at cleaning than ten years ago, and I spend a lot of time correcting it when I'd rather be taking pictures or going to bed. 

Eyelead sensor cleaning stick

The Eyelead sensor cleaning stick is used to lift dirt from the image sensor to prevent dirt spots from appearing in photos. Image by Drew Gibson | www.drew-gibson.co.uk

8. The Best Way to Plan a Motorsports Shoot

The most important thing Drew finds is learning the circuit he's going to be shooting at. This can be looking at onboard YouTube videos to get an idea of the circuit layout, looking at past pictures, and track maps to learn which direction the sun light is at certain times of day, or just speaking to colleagues about any areas they recommend.

Drew walks the circuit

Drew walks or cycles around a circuit at sunset to get a feel for the best corners to shoot from. Image by Jakob Ebrey | www.jakobebrey.com

When visiting a circuit I'll always try, and walk the track the day before any cars are in action, preferably at sunset as this can be a crucial time to get great pictures, and I don't have much time to react once it's happening. Occasionally, I'll take my bike to a track with me, as a photographer it's just as important to learn the access routes in, and out of corners as it is the shape of the circuit.

Circuit shooting corner

Drew studies the corners of the circuit he's shooting by heading out before the race to see where the light falls. Image by Drew Gibson | www.drew-gibson.co.uk

9. Extra Camera Accessories That Are Perfect For Automotive Shooting

Drew always shoots with his Manfrotto MMXPROC5 monopod with the 400mm lens attached, and uses a lap top hood for image editing for a couple of reasons. 

This reduces glare on my screen, and ensures I'm editing every picture in the same lighting conditions. It also prevents any rival photographers seeing a picture I might have got from a unique location! I also use Sigma lens caps, the Canon ones are a joke, and are so easy to lose.

Manfrotto monopod steadies the camera

A Manfrotto monopod helps Drew steady his camera when shooting on longer telephoto lenses such as the Canon 400mm. Image by Drew Gibson | www.drew-gibson.co.uk

10. Finally, an Often Overlooked Item for Shooting Race Cars

When carting kit around a race track, Drew needs to have access to everything he needs, instantly. That's why carrying everything around, packed up in a camera bag is not the best option, as he explains.

I guess my Domke pouches are pretty unusual. They allow me to carry all my lenses so I'm never without a bit of kit if a picture unexpectedly presents itself. They also allow me to be more balanced when taking pictures as opposed to carrying a camera bag. They probably look a bit ridiculous to outsiders but I couldn't work as efficiently without them.

Domke lens pouches

Drew uses Domke lens pouches to carry his lenses around when shooting out on the circuit. Image by Nick Dungan | www.nickdungan.co.uk

So from cycling round the circuit on his bicycle, to carrying lens pouches, and covering his laptop screen with a hood, these are Drew Gibson's 10 camera items he couldn't live without. Have you tried your hand at motorsports photography? Why not leave a comment down below if you have any tips you've found helpful when shooting?

Images used with permission from Drew Gibson.

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10 Comments

Joel Manes's picture

So true about dirty sensors. 10+ years on and there is no real solution to keeping sensors clean.

Christian Fiore's picture

IBIS cameras that shake the sensor for cleaning seem to do pretty well when combined with a rocket blower, though. Way better than the old ultrasonic cleaners.

Willy Williams's picture

After all that planning is done, especially finding the right spot to be in, you'd better be planning on knowing your escape route, just in case something goes to worms. Know that when it happens, it will happen VERY fast, so you'd better be ready or be rubbing your rosary real hard!

Ben Harris's picture

Rule 1 of motorsport photography: always have an escape plan. I’ve had to use mine twice, and that’s after choosing a safe place to start with.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

A very good point! Exit strategy for keeping safe must be something that a lot of beginner photographers overlook.

Ben Harris's picture

In my other life as an event organiser you wouldn’t believe the number of people I had to remove to being in a (very) dangerous position.

Craig Adams's picture

I love going to the track to shoot motorbikes. I've never owned or ridden one but I love photographing them. They look like fast moving works of art. As an amateur, you have to shoot from outside the fences so it's a challenge. But when you get a great image it's really worth it. Can't wait for lockdown to end so we can get out and shoot again.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Yes I did some trials bike shooting a while back with the photographer who works for Silverstone - really awesome textures in the dirt.

Ben Harris's picture

Great article. Motorsport is it whole own genre and it’s very tough. Now take those same fast cars and add some dirt...

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Gotta love them clouds of dust!