back-button focusing

Reader Graham struggles to capture the speed and action of motorsports. Can Chris Rutter help rev-up his shots?


Ql am an avid motorsports fan and have always wanted to know how professional photographers get the fantastic shots you see in magazines and newspapers.

I would love some help with honing my photography skills at a motorsports event, as some practical advice would no doubt help me to improve my shots. Can you help?

Back of the grid?

Simply getting sharp photos of fast-moving motorsports can be difficult, but this is only half the battle for Graham. Adding an element of blur to the background will help add a sense of movement, but being able to predict the action and pre-visualise the effect of panning and timing could transform his shots. The ability to predict the action comes with experience, but many of the skills

Graham will need to pre-visualise his shots will come by looking at the images that inspire him, then trying to get similar effects in his own.

By starting with framing and composition, and deciding on the focal length heneed, hereduce the number of things he has to think about for each frame, and get creative instead.

Graham and I meet at Castle Combe circuit in Wiltshire, where I help him get up to speed.

The Photo Fixer investigates

Because hehad little success when using panning with slower shutter speeds in the past, Graham has concentrated on getting his subjects sharp. The results are good, as he records the cars sharply, but his shots dongive any real impression of the cars’speed.

 back-button focusing

When he has tried to introduce blur, hestruggled

to get enough of the car sharp while blurring the background. This is because heunsure of which shutter speed to use, and hasnhad the chance to experiment. So this is the main technique wecover during our day at Castle Combe.

I also discover that despite getting some sharp shots, Graham has also struggled to keep the cars in focus using the continuous autofocus mode on his Nikon D80. So after a little discussion about how he can improve his hit rate, we decide to start off by getting Graham to use back-button focusing, which heheard of but never tried, to see if this will help him to keep up with the action.

Focus on the action

Wc start with me showing Graham how he can use his cameracontinuous autofocus (AF) mode to track cars as they speed directly towards him. With the centre autofocus point active, and his D80 set to continuous AF, I show him how to keep this point positioned over a single car as it comes through a series of bends, and how to half-press the shutter release to activate focus.

I then get Graham to set his camera to use back-button focusing, as itmuch easier to follow cars when autofocus activation is separated from the shutter release Initially, he struggles to co-ordinate pressing the AE-L button 011 the back of his camera to focus and the shutter release to take his shots, but his sharp-shot hit rate soon improves.

With Graham mastering the art of getting sharp shots of cars speeding towards us, I decide it s time for him to start adding some blur by getting to grips with panning. So we move to a straight area of the track, where the cars are in view for plenty of time before and after they pass us.

I get Graham to set his camera to manual focus (MF),

and to focus carefully on the track opposite us. Then, in his cameraShutter Priority mode, I get him to start with a shutter speed of 1/200 sec.

Graham soon gets the hang of twisting his body, rather than moving his feet, to frame a car in the viewfinder as early as possible and follow it for as long as possible in a single twisting action. However, he struggles to keep the car

in the same position in the viewfinder throughout his pan.

To make this easier, I suggest Craham uses the central focus point in the viewfinder as a guide, keeping that point positioned over the door mirror of each car. This helps him smooth out his pan, and soon heable to use slower shutter speeds for more background blur, while still keeping the car in sharp focus.

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