Let’s talk some more about photographing motocross, and this time, let’s get down to the technical aspect of photographing this great sport. Don’t worry, you don’t need lots of expensive gear to get decent photographs, especially if you are shooting at your local track.
My last article, "Tips on How to Photograph Motocross," addressed the types of images you want to capture at the track, but this article is about the technical aspects of shooting motocross. What technical article would be complete without talking about gear? So, let’s get the gear part of the article out of the way first. You don’t need any fancy gear to get started, but some more expensive gear will make it easier and make your photos look better. Any DSLR or mirrorless camera that permits you to take control of the shutter speed is going to work. Because the speeds of motocross can be rather high at times, having a camera body that lets you control the shutter speed is a must so that you can shoot all the action. Cell phones just aren’t going to cut it for lots of the action. I’ll discuss the typical shutter speeds you need a little later in the article.
Sticking with the camera body, a body that has continuous shooting capability is a plus but not mandatory. When I was a young kid, I shot numerous races with a Minolta XG-1 with no motor drive. It was single shot action for me. So, if for some reason your camera does not have a continuous shooting mode, don’t worry, you don’t have to have it. If your camera has a continuous shooting mode of 3 to 6 frames a second, that is absolutely fine too. I’m currently shooting with a D500 that gives me 10 frames per second, and I’m finding that more often than not I’m dropping it down to perhaps 7 frames per second. Why? Because at the end of shooting an event all day, I don’t want to view 4,000 shots to pick the 50 I owe my editor. Yes, there are times when I bump it up to 10 frames per second, like at the start and the finish. So, don’t worry if you don’t have continuous shooting or a very high frame rate. Nice to have, but by no means required.
Lenses are more important than the camera body, and the lens you pick is going to determine the look you get and the ease of getting the shot. If you are shooting at your local amateur track, a long lens like a 300mm or more is not needed. A 200mm is not required. I’ve shot many local tracks with a 24-70mm. 70mm gives you enough reach so that you don’t have to be right next to the track, which makes it a little safer for you and the riders. I like the 24mm to get those wider angle shoots that capture several riders at the same time or to get those environmental shots of the track. If you have the money, then the next lens I would recommend is something that goes out to about 200mm. At this range, you can zoom in on the riders and get some great, tight images without being too close to the track. I prefer to keep some distance between myself and the riders. If you have it, then something like a 300mm is excellent, but that 300mm, especially the f/2.8, can get heavy quickly. While I know it isn’t exactly the same, I choose to use the D500 crop sensor with a 70-200mm f/2.8. I get very similar results, and it's a lot easier on my body. Another lens I like to use sparingly is my 10mm fisheye. I only use it a couple of times during the race to give a different look. Most of the time, I don’t use the photos, but every once in a while, I will. Notice I didn’t mention too much about the speed of the lens. I shoot with f/2.8 lenses, but this is not a must. f/4 or f/5.6 lenses are excellent also, but the faster f/2.8 will help isolate the rider from background clutter by providing a nice blur.
That’s it for gear. Nothing too special to start with, and if you want, you can quickly add to the gear as you go. A flash can come in handy for those shots in the pits or at the winner's podium, and again it doesn’t have to be anything special.
Now, let’s get to the camera settings and start with shutter speed since I mentioned it earlier. This is probably the most important setting you need to control. To get lovely, sharp photographs, you are going to need a shutter speed in the neighborhood of 1/1000 s, even for those slow speed turns, since both the rider and the bike are bouncing around. One thing to consider about higher shutter speeds is that you are also going to freeze the rotation of the wheels. This tends to give the photograph a very static look, almost as if the bike and rider aren’t moving. So again, a shutter speed of around a 1/1000 s can give you some wheel blur and dropping even lower will help with the wheels. Or go really slow, like 1/20 s, and grab a panning shot. Remember, some part of the rider needs to be sharp; you can’t have a completely blurry shot and call it a panning shot.
Aperture settings aren’t as crucial, so a less expensive lens that has a low aperture of f/4, f/5.6, or even f/6.3 can be used for daytime races. Get into the evening or under the lights, and the need for a lower aperture is going to be needed. As I mentioned earlier, a smaller aperture is going to give you a beautiful bokeh background. Just because you have that f/2.8 aperture doesn’t mean you should always shoot at f/2.8. Seeing the fans behind the rider with their signs and flags can provide a great background that helps to tell the story.
I shoot raw format, so white balance isn’t a concern for me since I will adjust it in post. But, if you prefer to shoot JPEG, I would recommend using a cloudy day setting to give a bit of warmth to your photos. Of course, this really comes down to personal choice.
If you’ve shot motocross, share some of your photos in the comments below.