Top tips to help you make the most of your digital cinema

Photographers: Street Machine Archives

Top tips on how to get the best results from your digital cinema

WITH your digital camera in hand, it’s tempting to just click away but you’ll only get great photos by luck that way. Follow these tips and you’ll have a much better chance of coming home with the goods.

Drags, shows and burnouts offer different challenges but there are a few tips that help in any situation.

Get to know your camera: read the manual so you know what it can do, play with it, do things you think are wrong and see if they are. Go out for a day’s photography with a 100-shot limit and only take one lens (if you have an SLR). That will teach you patience and to choose your shots. Develop your own style by shooting what appeals to you.

Before you start shooting, check the light and the background. Look up, down and around for inspiration.

If your lens accepts filters, get a daylight filter and leave it on — one for each lens if you use an SLR. At Ingham (p82), a blob of grease landed on my filter. Without that, my main lens (a 24–105mm zoom) would have been out of action. Good lenses are more important than flash cameras; you can get great shots with good glass on an average camera but you’ll always get bad pictures with crap lenses. Keep your lenses clean, too.

Make sure your car’s clean and shiny everywhere. Wind all the windows up, or in a convertible put them all right down. For interior shots, clear the crap up, take the keys out of the ignition and tidy the seatbelts.

Think about a location. Most suburban garages make crap backdrops, as does Dad’s daggy work ute.

Park cars on tarmac; grass is for sheep. Use the background: telegraph poles, trees and fantastic views make great props but ruin photos if you don’t think about them. Plain walls are good backdrops — they don’t distract — but make sure your paint stands out against the colour.

Check the time. Early morning and late afternoon are good as the light is softer and warmer, and the low sun shines under the car. Midday sun cast shadows straight down so any details your car has below the waistline will vanish.

Look at reflections in the paint and use them to accentuate the lines — moving your car a few degrees can turn an ordinary shot into a great one. Try parking on a rise and photographing from low down to get the car against the sky. At outdoor shows, you’ll have to wait for the sun to move if you can’t move the cars.

If you can’t find a good background, use a wide aperture setting. As well as allowing a faster shutter speed, this reduces the depth of field making everything but the car out of focus.

Tripods are vital indoors or in low light if you want to use a low ISO (slow film speed) and long exposure but in any situation they give you repeatability — you can leave the camera in place and adjust the settings to get different results.


Drag racing is about speed, so you need to show that. You’ll also need a good zoom lens to cover action along the quarter mile.

To shoot moving cars while standing still, you need to ‘pan’. First find the background you want and check the lighting. Stand as if you’re going to photograph the cars parked at that point, then turn at the waist and follow them as they launch. Hit the shutter button as they reach your chosen point and make sure you keep following them. Set a fairly fast shutter speed (1/250th or faster) then work down to get the result you want. The slower the shutter, the more background blur you’ll get but you’ll also find it harder to keep the cars looking sharp. Faster cars need faster shutter speeds but if you go crazy you’ll freeze the action and the cars will look like they’re sitting still.

speed photographySpeed comes from the blurred background in Chris Thorogood‘s panning shot of Scott Briant’s V8 Corolla

To capture launch wheelstands, you need a fast shutter speed — up to 1/500th sec — as they’re not only moving towards you but also twisting as they lift. Freezing the car is fine here as a car with wheels in the air doesn’t look like it’s parked.

At night it’s tempting to use flash but it’ll flare off numberplates and while it will pick the car out, it’ll also reduce the background to a flat, black void. Most cameras have high ISO settings; this is the time to use them. Pan like crazy with slow shutter speeds and you’ll make the most of the track lighting. If you have an adjustable flash set it to give less light rather than more.


It’s all about the car that’s making the smoke, so you have to be able to see it and that means wind direction is more important than where the sun is, though ideally you want both in your favour. Get upwind of the action and shoot the car as it’s revving hard, creating thick plumes and driving ahead of the cloud it’s making. If the sun’s against you and the car’s in the shadows, you can use your flash to add a bit of light. The trick here is to learn to gauge the light levels in the scene you’re looking at and ignore the bright sky overhead.

Panning works on bigger pads and since the cars are moving quite slowly you can use a much slower shutter speed and still catch the action. That will dramatically change the appearance of the smoke and the background.

motorsport photographySlow shutter speed (1/30″) and panning as Gary Myers rocketed onto the Summernats burnout pad created a blur for a sense of the frantic moment

Staying upwind is not only good for your health; it’s good for your camera’s life expectancy too. Tiny particles of burnt rubber will find their way into your precious digital hardware if you give them half a chance. Zoom lenses let you stand further away from the smoke and still get good close-up shots.


Practice, practice, practice. Be prepared to try and fail rather than playing safe all the time, look at the light and all around the location, then take your time. Check out photography websites and magazines too. And enjoy!