Photographing Race Cars at Night with Flash

Races are not always run on bright sunny days, sometimes they race at night. Events such as the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, some races in the American LeMans Series, and even local drag and oval track races include occasional night races.

Night at Laguna Seca

Caption: The answer to the question of why you would even want to make flash photographs of night races are all well demonstrated by this photograph made during the night portion of the six-hour American LeMans Series race at Mazda Speedway at Laguna Seca. The cars use reflective decals and the additional combination of headlights, dark backgrounds, and flash produce drama. Exposure with a Canon EOS 20D was 1/80 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 800 with an EX 500 flash. ©2012 Joe Farace

One of the problems of using flash is that if you’re not careful you will produce a static-looking image that looks like the car is parked on the track, instead of going fast. That’s why in addition to using flash, you’ll also want to pan the camera using the kind of techniques covered previously in “At the Track.” Sure, using panning and slow shutter speeds can produce a slightly blurry photograph but the car will look as if it’s in motion, not stationary.

How much flash to use under these conditions is not just a matter of applying a simple formula and depends on many factors including the ambient light, camera’s ISO setting, lens used as well, as the speed and reflectivity of the car itself. As in much of sports photography, experience will be your guide. Start by using the flash at full power and then adjust it down after reviewing the results on your digital SLR’s preview screen. If you can adjust the flash output, use the flash’s diffuses panel (if it has one) to spread the light or attach a Sto-Fen Omni Bounce to reduce light output.

ALMS at Laguna Seca

Caption: This image of a racecar made during a night race at Laguna Seca Raceway has an exposure of 1/20 sec at f/8 at ISO 800 and an on camera flash was used. In this case, I “dialed down” the Canon 550EX flash by minus one and one-third stops, reducing the impact of the flash further while providing some fill but making the reflective decals on the car “pop.” ©2012 Joe Farace

Safety Tip: Shooting at any racetrack especially at night can be dangerous. You should only make photographs in designated areas and if you use flash make sure that you only fire it at the side of the racecar. Using flash when a car is coming directly toward you is not only foolish but places you and the driver in serious jeopardy. He or she has enough to do without being blinded by your flash.

You can learn how I photographs motorsports and more in my  e-book, 15 Tips for Better Car Photos from Flatbooks.

Author: Joe Farace

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