Tips on How to Photograph Motocross

Tips on How to Photograph Motocross

I love photographing actions sports like surfing, skateboarding, cycling, MTB, and of course motocross and Supercross. Motocross and its cousin Supercross are great sports to photograph and are easy for fans with cameras to get close to the action. Read this first article of a three article series to get some tips to make your first outing or your hundredth outing a little more rewarding.

My love of photographing motocross started when I was about 12 when all of my friends and I had dirt bikes and a long summer ahead of us. It didn’t hurt that my father was kind enough, or perhaps dumb enough, to let me take his Minolta XG-1 out to a dusty, dirty field to photograph my friends. Those photos are long gone thanks to my mother spring cleaning while I was away at college. But the memories aren’t, and it was those memories that got me back to photographing motocross and eventually photographing both motocross and Supercross professionally. For those new to these sports let me explain what they are and how they differ. First motocross is where the riders ride their off-road motorcycles — dirt bikes — on a dirt track that follows the contours of the area. Think of a large farm field with a dirt track weaving its way around the field. Supercross, on the other hand, is contested in professional football and baseball stadiums where they bring in 500 truckloads of dirt to build a track for one day of racing.

Let’s get to the reason we’re here: to discuss the photography aspect of these two unique sports. Let’s start with motocross as this is more widely available for most people to photograph. There are amateur tracks all over the U.S., Europe, South America, and other parts of the world where you can go to photograph the riders. Usually, these tracks won’t charge you anything if it is just open practice. If it’s a race day, they may charge a few dollars. You will find that the riders are very accommodating to photographers as long as you follow one rule: safety. Not only your safety but also the safety of the riders. The riders can reach speeds of 50 mph, and the bikes weigh around 200 pounds. If you get hit, it can be serious and not only to you but also to the rider. So here are a few rules to follow:

  • First, check with the owner or manager of the track to make sure it’s OK to photograph. They may have some rules for where they don’t want you to photograph and these are usually due to safety concerns.
  • Take your head out of the viewfinder frequently and survey your surroundings.
  • Don’t stand on the downside of jumps where the riders can’t see you. 
  • Shooting from the outside of a turn can give you some great shots but give yourself room to move quickly if one of the riders gets out of control and heads for you. Also, try to have some sort of structure between you and the turn if possible. When I cover professional races, they always provide a track map and highlight the locations we can not photograph from for safety reasons. 
  • If possible do not cross a hot track, which means a track that has active riders on it. Wait for a break in the action to cross, especially during races.
  • Never, ever cross the track on the downside of a jump.

OK let’s move on to the fun part of photographing this great sport, and I’m going to focus on a race day at the track. Most of these tips also apply for visits to the track on practice days. There are so many different aspects of the sport to shoot. Of course, the action on the track is the primary thing to shoot and let’s start with, well the start. The bikes and the riding gear tend to be colorful which makes for compelling images, especially at the start when all the riders are close together. The start is a mad dash to the first turn where the riders bunch up and slow down to make the turn. This is a great location to put yourself. Again remember to think about safety but don’t be afraid to shoot this area. This is a must have shot for any professional photographer shooting for a publication. Or another great image is shooting right next to the start line as the riders come off the line when the gate drops.

Jumps: everyone loves to see riders flying through the air. Jumps are always a terrific part of the track to photograph. But don’t shoot the “guy in the sky” type of photo where all you see is a rider and sky. Try to include some other element in the photo. It doesn’t have to be the jump itself or even the ground, it can be trees in the background or the fans in the stands. For the jump shots don’t just shoot them at the highest point in the air, include some shots right when they start to leave the jump. Shoot this angle from the front, the side, and the back. Shoot when there is one rider and then shoot when there are several riders together. Watch the riders, and you will notice that certain riders always add a little flair to their jumps. Then capture them when you see them the next time at the jump.

Turns are must have shots too. There are slow speed turns, and high speed turns. The slower speed turns usually involve what are called berms, which most non-motocross people would call ruts. These berms permit the rider to lean the bike over and use the berm to keep their speed up. This sets up terrific shots especially when the rider has the bike and his leg scraping the ground. Throw in some dirt flying off the rear wheel, and you might have a winning shot. These can be shot from the outside of the turn, or from the inside of the turn. High-speed turns are great shots also. Depending on the turn the riders may have the rear end of the bikes drifting sideways with dirt flying in the air. These shots help to convey the speed involved with the sport.

Of course, there are other parts of the track to photograph and since every track is different these other sections can provide for unique photos. The tracks are rough with many bumps and ruts. Capturing photos of these sections helps to communicate the physical effort that is needed to race these bikes.

Finally, don’t forget to capture the human side of the sport. Capture the riders as they prepare for the start of the race and of course, the photo of the winner on the winner’s podium is another must-have shot. But there are many shots to be captured in the pits of the riders, especially after the race is completed, and also the rest of the team, such as the managers, mechanics, and family members.

The next article will discuss some of the unique aspects of photographing Monster Energy Supercross and the last article will focus on the technical aspects of photographing these two similar but different sports. If you have any photos you’ve taken of motocross racing, please share them in the comments below.

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19 Comments

Simon Patterson's picture

Good tips. I shot a little bit of motorcross quite early in my photographic adventure and found it more difficult to get impactful shots than I expected.

Douglas Turney's picture

Simon I found the same thing. The sport itself is not hard to photograph but to get shots that make an impact is very hard.

great advice Doug....the combination of great light/dust/action can certainly provide some memorable images, even racing in the rain/mud provides some great opportunities

Douglas Turney's picture

Thanks Nigel. Yes the mud can really provide some opportunities. Last year a the Seattle Supercross it poured and turned into a real mud race. I liked it because it gave a completely different look and style of photos.

Andrew Smith's picture

This article has reminded me how much I like photographing motocross. I must do some more. Hope it's okay to post one of mine. I'll look out for the other articles.

Douglas Turney's picture

Andrew thanks for sharing your photo. Yes get out there and shoot some more. It is fun shooting motocross.

Christian Berens's picture

Great article Doug and good timing, I'm about to go shoot at a local track in a week.
I luckily obtained a media pass for the STL SX a few years ago and it was a blast! It seems harder and harder to obtain one as the years go by though :\
Any tips on that aspect? My old neighbor races pro, his team manager (motoconcepts) said they have no need to hire a photog
I tried sending e-mails to countless support teams and heard back from one (O'Neal USA) but they could only offer pit passes (which i already had via motoconcepts)
Your photos are amazing and anyone that doesn't get it, needs to give it a try to truly understand the difficulty of a great MX/SX shot!
Thanks!

Douglas Turney's picture

Christian you're right it is harder and harder to get credentials each year. There are less and less publications following the sport now that so many magazines have folded. Supercross is hard to get credentials for and teams are only going to be able to get you general media if that. Photo credentials are hard to get. Outdoors are a little easier since there is so much area that can be covered.

Thank you for the compliments on my photos. When I'm covering the events I post more on my Instagram account so give me a follow if you want to.

Remember to check back next week for the follow on article.

I used to race motocross back in the 80's. Since then, I've done some photography throughout the years and more recently at a local track back a couple years ago. I love shooting it, so, if you don't mind...here's one of my favorites I've taken.

John Sammonds's picture

The biggest problem with photographing any motorsport is getting past the barriers and getting into the arena, and not behind some 20ft high barrier and so far away you need 500 mill lens to get a dot on the frame.

Andrew Smith's picture

I agree John, luckily I have Canada Heights and Lydden Hill near me. You can get very close without high fences. At Lydden Hill you can walk through the pits.

John Sammonds's picture

I live close to Lydden Hill one track i never visit, I should and will and Canada Heights I had forgotten about, thank you for the reminders

Francesco Scaccianoce's picture

I used to ride dirt bikes until a couple of years ago, doing some races now and then.
Since I didn't want to abandon the sport completely, one day I decided to bring the camera and a lens with me at the race track and start photographing everything: the race but also the riders and the mechanics are great sources of inspiration.
It was a beautiful experience, the one that started the sport photography passion I now have and I'll be forever grateful to Motocross for that day!

I hope I'll have the opportunity to come to the States one day to photograph some races: beautiful tracks and great riders over there ;)

p.s. I uploaded a couple of shoots in my profile on this website because I was unable to post them directly here, unfortunately.

Rob Burnside's picture

Great article! I can’t wait for the next 2. As far as my experience a lot of photos shoots I’ve done are more hare scramble races. There are a couple of outdoor tracks near me. Plus I’ve been able to get into some arena cross events. I’ve found it is a little easier to make money at the events by talking to parents of riders. Parents always love having photos of their kids racing. I’ve also worked closely with small motor shops in the area photographing the sposonered riders. All in all I mostly shoot motorcycles for fun. Riding and shooting are a passion for me. Hopefully I didn’t jump ahead. Great stuff!!

Douglas Turney's picture

Rob, thank for the compliment on the article. When I was younger I raced hare scrambles too. It was a love hate relationship for me with them. I'd like to get out and photograph some of those races just for the fun of it. Working the next article right now.

Rob Burnside's picture

🤣 my love hate relationship with racing is I am no where near fast enough on a bike to make money doing it. Although I have knocked around the idea combining them both by vlogging, but not sure I could be entertaining. If you ever make it out to N.M. they have 2 scramble series. WEBE and Gas It Off-road. Plus there are a couple in AZ. It’s on the bucket list to photo the hare and hound in Cali.

Jonathan Bougie-Lauzon's picture

Great article! I have been photographing motocross for a couple years now and had 2 dirt bikes in the past. Love the sport and it's action! Here is some nice shots I made at my last race. I had acces to the complete track with permission from owner. Just ask, you never know. Having a friend with a bike, I also wanted to do some artistic shots with some lightpainting in the 4th pic.

Jeffrey Douglas's picture

Doug, I spoke with you and your daughter at Ironman MX. Great article and impressive shots. Good luck to you!

Douglas Turney's picture

Hi Jeffery. It was nice meeting you this weekend. Hopefully, the rain didn't ruin the day for you. Thank you for the compliment on the article and photos. Checkout Gatedrop.com for my photos from this past weekend.