How To Shoot Cars:<br/>Learn From My Mistakes
Don’t be afraid

I don’t know about you, but I was brought up through an educational system that punished mistakes. There was no try, only do right. This method of teaching taught us that mistakes should not happen and have no benefit to us. We were raised to fear them. It took me quite a long time after high school to realise that this was complete and utter bullsh*t.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I’ve learned more from my mistakes than conventional learning. With that in mind, I’ve trawled through my archives to pick out some examples of times where things went wrong, so I can explain to you why and what I did to put things right.

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So yeah, this happens a lot. With the cameras dangling at my sides, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve accidentally photographed the ground or other people’s legs. This doesn’t bother me too much as it’s a consequence worth living with, knowing that my cameras are ready at a second’s notice.

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What’s really upsetting is when you unknowingly move the settings dial. When you go to grab that shot in a hurry and end up with nothing but blur.

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I’ve been shooting with Canon gear for pretty much all of my professional career thus far, so it doesn’t take a second to put things right without removing my eye from the viewfinder. Still, the newer models have a button which you need to press before the mode dial can turn. It’s probably a five cent part, but I don’t know how I’ve lived without it.

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Sticking with the Nürburgring 24 Hour in 2010, this was my first proper experience shooting motorsport in the dark. And Turn 1, whilst still within the confines of the GP circuit, is pretty much as dark as it gets. I spent a lot of time trying to cope with the fast-moving cars and the complete absence of light. There was plenty of this sort of thing: headlights, darkness and camera shake. I was about to give up until I had a bit of a eureka moment.

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As one of the front running E92 M3s came past, it was being chased by another car. The chasing car’s headlights perfectly illuminated the M3 – like its own personal floodlight. A quick settings change afterwards and I was able to repeat this feat lap after lap. I just had to be patient and wait for the right combination of cars to appear. I learned a lot during that session which I’ve built on since.

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Shooting in sunlight can often have its own issues too. It was easy to set up on a warm sunny day, confident that there’s one less thing to worry about. Where there’s bright sunlight however, there are also dark shadows. I was pretty lucky on this occasion as only the cars that overshot the corner fell into the shade, but it was another lesson learned.

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Some lessons are unfortunately a little smellier than others and the only reminder you’ll ever need to remember to wear the appropriate attire in future. This was a field which had just been covered in a ‘fresh’ layer of fertiliser. Yes, that’s cow dung.

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The reason I was in said field, was that I spotted what I believed to be a decent vantage point. I had, however, failed to account for the fact that the cars were travelling too fast past this gate to capture in the fading light. Not my finest moment.

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As the old saying goes: bad things happen in threes. This was shot at the same event, and the only night stage I could attend. I waited for many hours in the cold (and I mean proper Irish cold) for the stage to start. As the first car came thundering towards me, I quickly came to the realisation that I was going to capture the grand total of nothing. I didn’t allow for the extra light pods used on the front of the cars for the night stages, so it was like shooting into the sun. Luckily, I did manage to get some shots of them going away from me, and some side shots with flash to fill the darkness.

Stay calm
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There’s no worse feeling than driving home after a successful shoot, only to realise you forgot to shoot a critical part of a build. Much swearing was done on this particular afternoon. Much. Make the mistake once and never repeat it. Still, four years on and I don’t think anyone noticed.

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Static shoots can provide plenty of their own WTF moments too. Like those times where you get into a really good rhythm shooting for a while and when you check the images, realise that you’ve accidentally overexposed everything by 7000 stops.

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There are other issues to contend with too, like waiting for a car in the background to drive out of the shot.

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Another one is to be observant for objects growing out of the tops of cars. I’m sure that pylon gives great radio reception though.

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It can be tricky manoeuvring a car with a rig attached to it. You often don’t realise it until you figure out that the crashing sound you’re hearing is the noise of your camera being dragged through a ditch.

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It can often go wrong after the fact too. Like getting a bit carried away with 35mm emulation in Photoshop and adding fake dust to each shot. Dust which just happens to be in the same place in every frame.

Blame your camera
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There are the occasions where it’s permissible to blame the equipment. I struggled before with sharpness on a particular lens and body combination. Not only did I lose lots of shots, it proved hugely demoralising as I was blaming myself for the out of focus images. It was only when I realised that nothing was in focus, that I thought there was maybe something else amiss. Moral of the story – have your equipment serviced regularly. Especially if you depend on it for a living.

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Shooting new forms of motorsport can prove difficult as you learn the intricacies of each form. What I struggled with during my first F1 session wasn’t the speed of the cars, but how late they leave their braking.

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Practice as they say makes perfect, but it really is mind-blowing how late they are on the brakes and how quickly they can change direction. Consider the problem, adapt your mindset and try again.

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I learned a lot shooting at Spa last year. With an abundance of media and short enough sessions, there’s usually a rush on the good shooting locations. Once they’re filled, it can be tempting to either wait it out (and risk losing too much time) or try to shoot through everyone.

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The latter is often not desirable as you can get all crazy casts and shadows in your image.

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As it turned out in this particular example, the best solution was to wait patiently for my turn at the spot.

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This last analogy comes from Time Attack at Snetterton last year. I was shooting the cars under braking after the long back straight – hoping for flames on overrun, or maybe a locked wheel or something dramatic.

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I was there for a while, and in the midst of exhausting the location for as many shot types as possible. Wide, tight, fast shutter, slow shutter etc. I was waiting as the cars would come flying past me at insane speeds, before scrubbing speed and then slow-shutter panning them through the corner on a prime lens.

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I was venturing into slower and slower shutter speeds when I heard tyres screeching. It was over in an instant – the Lancer Evolution of Simon Norris had lost its rear wing at 180mph, and when he got on the brakes, the car swapped ends and launched him into the barrier. If I had been set up to shoot like the Metro 6R4 above, I probably would have captured the entire crash sequence perfectly, but it didn’t happen that way.

It’s not something I dwell on, but I did want to use it to make a point. That is, sometimes sh*t happens. Some days you are lucky and other days you’re not. Get out there and shoot. Don’t worry if you make a mess of things; just be sure to figure out why you messed up and how you can avoid making the same mistake in future.

Embrace your mistakes.



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good read. I have a question about shooting formula 1. I am going to the British Grand Prix at silverstone, and I am going to bring my nikon, my 55-200mm lens and a tripod. As a first time going to a race, how exactly would you do panning shots and what kind of shutter speeds should I try out in the middle of a british summer. I will probably be at f7.1 but I don't know. Thank you, any tips appreciated.


altough some of 'em are clearly epic fail. But the rest are still awsm


bigeastbay Try putting the camera in spot metering and shutter priority mode. From memory the Nikon 55-250 has VR? Flick that on and start at around 1/80 shutter speed and slowly increase until you can consistently get the car in focus. If you're nailing it at 1/80, try slower for even more motion blur. Check to see what apertures the camera is giving, flick it into Manual mode and adjust slightly if under/over exposing and as the light changes.


bigeastbay Hey mate, before you get to the F1's try panning on some traffic out the front first. Set you camera to Shutter priority and let the camera do the rest of the work. start around 1/160th of a second and as your shots get sharper try increasing your exposure time. rinse and repeat.


Jarrod Moore bigeastbay @gsrwrc I appreciate all of the tips guys, I will try it out tomorrow and see how the results look. Definite good tip to try shooting at cars going 35mph instead of 185mph


bigeastbay Jarrod Moore What Jarrod wrote would be my advice too, but it depends if you're on a fast / slow section of track. Leave the tripod at home :)


Hehe... this did make me smile. I think we've all experienced every single one of those moments. They're like rites of passage!


And you (Paddy) are, going on about mistakes and STILL i´d love to do pics of that quality..
Awesome write up man, almost makes you sound human..


I was at the german grand prix in 2013 really sunny if you wan't to really capture speed i suggest a 1/60 shutter but that when you capute the legth of the car .


JustinOdijk It's worth re-iterating that what may work for you, might not work for bigeastbay. For example, 1/60th half way along Hangar Straight would be very, very difficult to capture something sharp as the cars will be travelling too quickly. 1/60th elsewhere, say in a slow chicane, might be even too fast a shutter speed. We're not factoring in distance to car or focal length either...


Yes that is true i was in a branking zone to a fearly fast 90 degreest corner so that was about right there , when it comes to shutter speeds you have try a few things and eventually you will get it right , great article by the way really helps me when i get out there !


I mean 180 degree corner XD


Lille Buller It's just practice, practice, practice and putting the experiences to good use.


Jonathan Moore I haven't even mentioned removing lens caps or remembering to ensure that the strap is tight...


"waiting for cars to move out of shots" 

THIS x100000. Especially with people. There's been so many times I've been crouched down, awesome shot framed, and just waiting for one person to walk away when 5 more come up and stare at it for an hour while my feet and legs are near the point of ceasing to work still.

There's also one you forgot Paddy. The "in the moment" feel. You're just taking picture after picture after picture wherever you're at thinking every one is amazing, and when you get home you go through them and thinking "what was I thinking? that shot looks horrible" and end up with about 5 you actually like, then months later you go through old shots and find ones you missed and again, "what was I thinking? why didn't I edit this one?!"


PaddyMcGrath Jonathan Moore Oh yes the lens caps...


Right fess up, what is it that no-one has noticed in 4 years haha


Ah, the dial getting turned by an outside source, seems to get me at least once an event. And it never fails to be at the best/worst time.


Great article Paddy! I absolutely love these more personal stories. It was also a somewhat painful read , as I've made pretty much all of those mistakes myself as well. But as long as you learn from it, mistakes aren't a bad thing. 

I believe one of the biggest mistakes people can make, is to stop learning. Experiment and try new things, practice a lot and never stop learning!


I think the biggest mistake I've made is finding an old polariser that fit my 50 1.8, thinking great, using it, and for a year thinking my 50 was slightly wrong as sometimes it would just miss focus. The polariser was LINEAR. Found this out after I blamed my 7D (also did it on my 28, same filter...) and upgraded to a 5D3. Expensive mistake, but ah well.


MatthewDear Yup, had a similar experience with a cheaper CircPol when I was first starting out. Everything was soft and couldn't figure out why. I also learned that you need to rotate the filter for best effect too...


Maurice Bergers That second paragraph is a great point. Nothing more frustrating than seeing people with huge potential think they're doing enough and can just ride the wave of e-fame. Never stop wanting to be better.


Been there on the lens and body combo not working before. Intensely frustrating - for a while, made me think I was messing up my settings, or I'd just lost the knack for shooting. When I realised it was affecting everything and my older camera remained unaffected, I figured it was the body. No longer have that problem!


I've done a lot of those things..


But standing in a pile of freshly laid manure would be worth it only if you got the shot...which you did get right?


I am a casual photographer and I've experienced a number of these; nice to know these mistakes aren't just confined to the amateurs!
Your last point on the Norris Evo incident is one that has happened to me more than any other. You think nothing is happening, start playing with slow shutter speeds... then bang: massive incident in front of you!


Nice article. I love these insights into automotive photography and try to learn from your mistakes/triumphs.  One question though...  How do you get the effect of a panning shot when the car is coming at you directly or at an angle?  Such as the (in focus) shot of the F1 car?


roryfjohnston You're still panning, but just at a different angle. You can't really pan a car from directly head on, unless you're above it.


d_rav I forgot to shoot the retrimmed interior...


bhop73 Me too. Wait...


antonyingram Yes, and it's very easy to blame yourself and let your confidence take a kicking.


Maccawan I forgot to shoot the interior...


Thank you M. McGrath! Your Photo 101 articles made me buy my first DSLR a month ago. I will try to bring my lovely Nikon with me as often as I can. Thank you again. 

I might not be able to own all my favorite cars, but I gladly try to capture them the best I can.


I have to agree with your point on the Norris Evo, however its usually me concentrating on something else or just not paying attention in general. My old Konica Minolta 5D is pretty dated and severely outclassed by today's DSLR's, but I know I can still work some magic with it. It is quite difficult to get the perfect shot, but that adds to the challenge.

This photo was taken a while ago so I don't fully remember the settings, but I think the camera was on full auto. The position I was in was perfect to capture some sweet panning shots but back then I had no idea I could do that. I probably could now, but what sort of settings would I need to have to pan something like this NSX?


PaddyMcGrathroryfjohnstonBut, how does the camera catch the car in focus with the background blurred?  The shutter would have to be open and the lens self adjusting for the car coming at you.  How is that possible?


PaddyMcGrath antonyingram I know this feeling so well, so many lost shots because of the insanely slow focus speed on my 75-300 (and the fact that it refuses to focus on oncoming cars) coupled with an aging 1000D


roryfjohnston PaddyMcGrath If you look at the picture of Rosberg in Presentation Mode, you'll notice that whilst the driver is sharp, the front and rear of the car is not. The slower your shutter speed, the more pronounced this becomes. With a faster shutter speed, the sharper the rest of the car becomes. It's what I've always referred to as Turning Focal Plane.

To answer your question, it's not possible to achieve a tack sharp shot of a car from front-to-back with a slow shutter speed when the car is passing you at this or any other angle which isn't perfectly parallel to the camera's sensor. It's a rough rule as there are many variables such as vehicle speed, vehicle movement, track condition etc.


KrisMoffatt  Hey Kris, plenty for you to read at this link:

Let me know if you have any questions.


Louch That's awesome. If you need any help, don't hesitate to get in touch!


PaddyMcGrathbigeastbayJarrod MooreAnd do not use VR while panning. The VR on the 55-200 is not the VR version which allows panning. It'll constantly try and stabilize the image and every picture will look weird. And like Paddy said, leave the tripod at home :)


Hey Paddy. Interesting read. I am going to the Melbourne GP and would love to know how to deal with the high catch fences. I have a Canon EOS 1100D with an 18-55 MM lens. Any settings you recomend.


@Andrew  Only seeing this now Andrew, apologies. You'll have to either try shoot over them (from a higher vantage point) or shoot through them with a super, super slow shutter speed. The closer you are to them, use a wider aperture (smallest f/number) to minimise them but it's going to be a frustrating experience shooting with such a short lens.


Hey Paddy, what do you think about my panning?:/


Or maybe this one, thanks!