What lens do you need to shoot a NASCAR race?

Sony 18-55mm at 40mm

As a photographer and a NASCAR fan, I found it interesting that there were dozens of articles telling you what gear you must have to shoot a NASCAR race. But all of them had one thing in common, they expected you to spend a ton of cash for an extremely fast lens. This isn’t in my budget, and I venture to say not in most of my readers budgets. So I set out to see what more affordable and kit lenses would do at a NASCAR event.

 

Sony 18-55mm at 18mm

Sony 18-55mm
DT SAM Kit lens

Most cameras today come with a kit lens that is somewhere in the range of 18-55mm. Maybe a little higher or lower but in this general vicinity. For most people this is probably the only lens they will ever shoot with. Until that day comes when they realize that they want to reach out a little farther and capture something like a 200 mph race car passing 50 feet in front of their face.

The kit lenses on todays cameras are actually pretty decent lenses. You can find numerous reviews that place higher regard for some of today’s’ kit lenses, than many older high dollar lenses. We can thank technology for that. But I am not here to discuss how good they are except in their performance at a NASCAR event.

Quataray 75-300mm @ 300mm

NASCAR Shooting for the Amateur

I can’t really give you a whole lot of tips for shooting race cars. Like you, I went online found some articles to get me a starting point on how I should set up my camera, what to do and how to do it. I wrote some stuff down, played with some settings, and when I got to the track it all went out the window. What I found the first time was that you do not have time to remember how to set your camera if your going to catch that action shot. You had better KNOW how to set your camera to get that shot. Other wise your going to end up with 2000 shots and about 20 usable out of them. Don’t feel bad about it, it’s a learning process for sure.

Lenses I have Collected

My Lenses
If you have read any of my articles you probably know I love finding bargain lenses in pawn shops. I make it a point to hit at least one pawn shop in every new town I go to. I have been fortunate enough to find some real gems, but I have also gotten a few lemons out of the deal too.

My Sony Alpha 550 came with the 18-55mm DT Kit lens, which is a pretty decent lens. The photo at the top of the article was taken from our seats at the Kansas Speedway with it at 40mm. The second image of the guy sitting in the stands was taken with it dialed back to 18mm. I have taken a lot of great photos with this lens and it has served me well. I do not use it much anymore, simply because I have since found my favorite or ‘goto’ lenses, that I pretty much use for just about everywhere I go.

Telephoto or Prime?
One question to ask is whether your going to want a Telephoto/zoom lens or a fixed focal length or prime lens. This is simple to answer. You definitely want a Telephoto. If your going to enjoy the race your not going to want to pack a bunch of gear into the track. What I have done is narrow my lenses down to 2 telephotos that cover just about everything I want to shoot. If there is a special item I want and it is outside the capabilities of those two I make a special trip to the car for it.

With a couple of telephotos you can cover a very wide range of shots, for very little baggage real estate. If you have a 500mm prime lens, that is great, but keep in mind that race tracks are oval, every point on the track is a different distance from you. This makes it really hard to track when you can’t zoom in or out.

Tracks limiting lens size.
One other factor to take into consideration when picking your lenses is the size or physical length of them. We are seeing more and more reports of sporting events preventing fans from bringing large lenses into a sporting event, because they are “professional size lenses” I have not yet heard of NASCAR limiting the use of lenses yet, but I expect it at some point. The US Grand Prix put a 10″ length limit on lenses, which realistically isn’t going to affect most of us. The problem is going to be in what they deem a “Professional” lens. Which is absolutely NOT based on size. There are some 500mm lenses on E-bay that scope in at about 15″ long but they are definitely not pro quality. With all this in mind I am still paying attention to my lens lengths. For compactness, as well as anticipation that in the future they may not let me use it at the track.

Length?
Ok, so lets see what the difference in lens lengths really mean. Every NASCAR race that I know of starts with a pre-race concert or event that season ticket holders get access to in the infield area. The first picture here is with the Sony 18-55mm kit lens at the widest angle of 18mm. You will notice the stage in the back ground. The next image is shot with the lens cranked up to 55mm. So with your kit lens you can still zoom in pretty decent, just not up close and personal. the last shot is taken using my Quantaray AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Macro that I found in a pawn shop for $50, at its longest reach of 300mm. I call this my reach out and touch someone lens. When you get into the 200+mm range, this is where you really to notice a great increase in apparent magnification. Even though it is linear it seems to go faster when you go to the bigger lenses in that they jump out at you more.

18mm

55mm

200mm

Sony 55-200mmDT at 200mm

200mm barrier
When your shooting the cars themselves, it is nice sometimes to have a really lengthy telephoto like a 300mm. But, realistically everything that your apt to be able to shoot, happens between turns 1 and 4, so my findings have been that a 200mm lens is more than capable of getting good images for me. The image of Jimmie Johnson’s 48 to the left is shot with the Sony 55-200mm DT SAM lens that comes in most double lens Sony kits.This was shot with his car at full race speed. So saying you must have high end glass to get sharp and

Quataray 75-300mm @ 300mm

fast images is now debunked.

This lens came with my Sony Alpha-55 Mirror-less camera. It does a good job, though I have to admit I adjusted the exposure on this one. It was my first time with the 55 and I underexposed a lot that day. Thank god for RAW.

Our seats are about halfway up the grandstands so you can get a decent idea of how well that 200mm gets you into the action. The next image is shot from the same spot, at the same car but at 300mm, and the car is in the pits this time. A good 125 yards farther away. Notice the car is about the same size.

What do I recommend?
If your here then your budget minded, and you want something that will give you the pictures you want, without breaking the bank, and without feeling like your missing a shot.My recommendation to you is simple, add to the lens or lenses  you already have. You have a kit lens that is around 18-55 that is perfectly usable at the races. Especially having the wide angle is great in tight spots. So now I recommend finding a lens that takes you up to or around 200mm. That is the sweet spot in my opinion. A nice compromise between Distance, Size and Price. With the quality and number of megapixels in cameras today, you can crop just about anything you take at the track with a 200mm and get a printable image in the 8×10 range without a problem. Don’t worry if you can’t fill the gap between lenses completely, an 18-55mm and a 70-210mm together will be fine. That 15mm isn’t going to be missed.

Sony 55-200mm DT

200MM Lenses
I have tested out 3 different telephoto lenses that end around 200. None cost more than $50 from a pawn shop and all 3 performed more than acceptable for my needs. Those three are the

  • # 1 for fast actionSigma 70-210 F3.5-4.5 APO Macro Push-Pull. If you have never used a push pull lens your missing something really cool. Instead of rotating the lens to zoom, you slide it in and out in the direction you want to zoom. It feels weird at first, but once you master it, it is extremely fast to zoom with. Which I have found in NASCAR to be very important. Also this lens is extremely compact for a 210mm lens, measuring in at about the same length as the 18-55 kit lens. This is my go to lens for most things.

 

  • Decent all around – Sony 55-200mm f4/5.6 SAM DT If you bought a kit that came with the kit 55-200mm lens, whether it is Sony, Nikon or Canon, go ahead and use it. Don’t spend any more money, save it for the $7 beer at the track.. This lens will work great if you already have. Just don’t go buy it if you don’t. the other two lenses i list here are better in quality and performance than the kit

    Quantaray 70-300mm f/4-5.6

    lenses.

  • Best image quality and light gathering —Tamron AF 28-200mm f3.8-5.6 Aspherical LD IF (Model 71DN) The last lens is actually my favorite, but I put it last because even used, it is a bit spendy for this situation. I still see this lens in very good shape going for $150. I was fortunate and found one in a box on a pawn shop shelf and finagled them down to $30 for it. If you can find one cheap, snap it up. This thing has a huge 72mm filter size and collects light great. It is pretty fast and shoots amazing images.

300mm Lenses

Shot on a Sony Alpha 550 with the Quantaray 70-300mm @f5.6 1/640sec ISO 200 at about 175MPH

I have really only tested one 300mm lens and that is the Quantaray 70-300mm F/4-5.6 ZOOM Macro ( they also sell this as a Tamron). This is not an expensive lens by any stretch of the word. New it is around $125 if you can find it in stock anywhere anymore. Used it varies. I gave $50 for mine in a pawn shop in Branson, Missouri on vacation. I didn’t have my camera with me and they didn’t have any bodies in stock. So I took a chance, and didn’t find out the drive mechanism for the auto focus was roached until I got it home. It still works, you just have to ‘bump’ it out of the home position and then it focuses fine. But I have a 300mm that I can use when I want to. This is a nice lens with but a few draw backs. It focus hunts a bit at times, and it can get pretty soft on the far ends. Make sure you double and triple check your focus. I have about 60 bald eagle photos that are complete crap because I didn’t check it with this lens. But if your willing to pay attention and work with it, this lens can take some good photos for very little money. If you lock your focus and take a little setup time you can take some killer shots with it too. I found focus lock to be a great thing at NASCAR races.

Above 300mm
I don’t have any lenses above 300mm, the reason is first and foremost, money. Decent glass above 300mm is not in my budget. Notice I said decent, there are numerous lenses out there for around the $100-200 price range that boast 500mm focal lengths, usually fixed. While you may get lucky and snag a good one, be prepared to return a couple in the process. They always seem to have problems. For the most part the 500mm is not going to be that useful at the races anyway. For those one or two shots you can get with it, you can crop the images from a 300mm just fine.

Crop Sensor Factor
Now I am going to let you in on a little secret about Digital SLR Cameras. Everyone has seen the number listed in the specs of their cameras call the Crop Factor or FLM (focal length multiplier). What this number is used for is in determining the field of view your lens will give. Most DSLRs use a crop sensor, which just means it is smaller than the size of the old 35mm negative images you used to get from

what is referred to as a full frame camera. To get a full frame camera you pay big bucks in the digital world.

Ok so what does this do for you. Let’s say your cameras crop factor is 1.5 (which my Sony happens to be). This means that when I put a 300mm lens, like my Quantaray, on my Sony, that I get the same field of view as a 450mm lens. Yes, I just got free mm’s. You take the size of your lens (300mm) and multiply it times your crop factor (1.5), this gives you your apparent field of view (450mm). So basically if you pick up a 300mm lens your getting a 450mm. A 200mm becomes a 300mm and so on. So you may have already been closer to that ever elusive 500 than you thought.Free focal length is always a good thing.

Summary
So keep your eyes open on Ebay, Craigslist and in the pawn shops. These lenses are out there and will open up your NASCAR race experience tremendously. Just make sure you don’t forget to sit back and relax, and watch the race. I have a three step formula, Take a picture, drink a beer, watch the race and repeat.

Happy shooting and racing.

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Is an amateur photographer and writer who enjoys sharing information with others. "Technical information sharing is a critical part of helping everyone become a better photographer. If you don't know it, you can't do it!" From Film to Digital, photography has changed a lot, but the idea of learning hasn't.

2 comments on “What lens do you need to shoot a NASCAR race?

  1. Bennah says:

    Your night photography is impressive. I have worked on star trails myself and i have been having a blast. I was wondering how you took the images of the night sky that do not show trails. They are light and have great balance without long exposures. Do you have any tips or tricks?I benefit from seeing the metadata of some of the images if you dont mind providing it. Its gives me a baseline to start some of my images. Your images are beautiful and i hope to emulate some of them if i can. Thanks again, Joel

  2. Twitter23 says:

    Hi, just wanted to say i liked this article. it was practical. keep on posting.

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