There is an old racer’s expression that goes: “There’s no substitute for cubic inches.” Translating that into advice for drag racing photography turns it into “There’s no substitute for millimeters of focal length.” My guess is that some of your best action images will be captured with zoom lenses that have a 200-300mm maximum focal length but there’s more to drag racing than that. Unlike other forms of motorsports, you can sometimes get close enough to the action to photograph it using a wide-angle lens.
The essence of drag racing is head to head competition between two cars going full tilt down a quarter-mile of straight smooth track. That object on the pole in front of the cars is called a “Christmas tree” whose colored lights count down to begin a race. For action shots at the Christmas tree, I usually shoot a short burst of images using the camera’s continuous mode. Because there’s no time for bracketing I makes test shots during practice and make exposure adjustments by looking at the histogram.
Photographing any sport requires a rudimentary knowledge of the rules so you’ll know what’s going on and be able to capture the peak of action. You can photograph drag racing without knowing the difference between a “Christmas tree” and a Chanukah bush but you’ll get better pictures if you do a little research. Visit the National Hot Rod Association’s website (www.nhra.com) for information and read their publication National Dragster. The biggest challenge with making any image at a drag strip is the busy, distracting backgrounds, so shooting from a high angle, like from the stands, can be an advantage. I always shoot in continuous mode changing both focal length and camera position for each shot as the car moves away from the water pit.
Before a race, cars with “slick” tires will usually do a “burnout” in the “water pit’ to clean debris off of these soft racing tires that they may have picked up when driving to the staging area. This is a great place to make photographs because in addition to cleaning their tires, I think the drivers like to put on a little show. Because motorcycle racers don’t want to get their front tires wet by driving though the water pit, their riders walk the bike around the pit and back into it before doing a burnout. Knowing what a competitor will do before he or she does it helps you get the picture you want instead of being caught unawares.
Using a fast shutter speed when shooting sports freezes action and can produce a good photograph but also lacks movement. Panning is a technique where the camera is moved in the direction of a subject in motion during exposure. By selecting a slower shutter speed than you might otherwise choose, the subject remains sharp while the background is blurred. To keep the background blur smooth, it’s a good idea to start the pan before tripping the shutter and keep on panning after it closes
The pit area of a drag race is the biggest car show that you’ll ever attend and many of the cars are works of art. Between runs, the racers work on their cars producing lots of photo ops as well. Please respect the team’s space, time, and equipment. This may be fun day at the track for you but for many of these racers it’s their profession, so treat the driver and his crew accordingly. Don’t poke your lens under a racer’s canopy without saying “Hi” and asking permission to make photographs. You can even offer to e-mail the driver one or more of the images. Make a friend for photography too.