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I love a bit of drift action. Nowadays this technique, popularised in Japan in the 1970s, has become an exciting spectator sport. Call me a fan!

As a lover of all things Japanese car related, I often find myself at various motorsport events throughout the country where drifting is featured. It’s only natural that this has found its way on to my camera, so I wanted to share some quick tips for those of you wanting to capture this craze too.

In many respects, the technique mirrors that detailed in our motorsport panning photography guide, so be sure to head there to nail the basics of panning photography. To save time, however, we’ll just incorporate the main points of that article in to this one.

Drifting cars camera settings

Standing in the right place

Firstly, you want to make sure you’re standing where all the action is happening. For drift action photography at a track/circuit, this ideally means positioning yourself on the inside (apex) of a bend. However, drift events frequently take place in large open spaces where your only choice is standing behind a fence on the outside. If this is the case, the technique remains the same, albeit without always producing the best results.

You’re likely to be tracking the movement of the car from your far left or right, over to the other side of you. For this reason, you want to ensure you have as close to 180 degrees field of view as possible. In reality, and at a busy motoring event, this may end up being a lot less. The bottom line is, the wider the field of view you have, the easier the shot is to execute.

Nail your stance

Stand with your legs apart, so that you’re comfortable and sturdy when looking directly ahead. You should be able to pan smoothly from left to right (or vice versa) without adjusting your feet. Moving your feet midway through a pan will result in messing up the shot. So, practice a few swivels with your chosen stance to ensure you’re steady.

Drifting cars camera settings

The technique

The good thing about drift action, compared to general motorsport racing, is the cars are generally travelling a lot slower. This means it’s going to be easier photographing a car going sideways at 30mph than one racing flat out at 110.

Try a few test runs with your camera poised and try tracking cars drifting past whilst looking through the view-finder.

Once you’re confident that you’re keeping pace with the car, you need to hone in your aim one step further. The trick to nailing a the shot is selecting a spot on the car itself and keeping this fixed in your view-finder throughout the pan. Personally, I aim for the closest wing mirror to me, or a headlight.

Keeping this focal point static in your viewfinder throughout the panning will get you your shot!

Set your zoom for the final shot

Set your zoom for the shot you want and for where on the track you will be pointing when you take it. Then keep it set there! If, for example, you were to zoom in on the car while it was approaching you, by the time the car is in prime location to shoot, you’ll be too zoomed in. Always stay on the side of zoomed out, as you can always crop later. There’s nothing worse than nailing a drift shot only to realise you’ve cut the front off the car.

Camera setting for drifting cars
The camera settings

The key setting here is your shutter speed. Drifting is all about action, showmanship and movement, so you need to capture that in your shot. Shooting too fast will result in the car looking motionless and stationary on the track. Shooting too slow will nearly always result in blurred images. For drift photography, I generally shoot at between 1/100s and 1/200s. Don’t be tempted to shoot any faster than around 1/500s. Doing so will mean losing any motion blur from the car’s wheels.

Your aperture, with regards to depth of field, plays little importance here so you can set your camera to Shutter Priority. If you’re shooting in Manual, ensure you maintain an aperture which keeps all of the car in focus.

Keep your ISO on 100 if shooting in daylight. You’ll most likely be shooting outside and shouldn’t need any ISO input unless low ambient light becomes an issue and begins under exposing your images at your chosen shutter speed. Otherwise, just keep it on Auto. If you’re photographing at night or in low light, you’re going to be using a higher ISO, but don’t forget to open up your aperture (lower F number) to allow more light through the lens too.

Set your focusing to AI Servo (Canon) or Continuous Focus (Nikon). This will ensure your camera keeps the car in focus all the while you’re tracking it.

Set your metering to spot or center-weighted to ensure your images are exposed for the car and not the ambient surroundings.

Then it’s simply a case of setting your camera to high-speed burst mode and keeping that shutter button pressed throughout the drift. There’s no harm in taking five or even ten shots for each pass and selecting the best of the set. If you still find you’re not getting pin-sharp shots, then it’ll be down to your technique. So keep practising.

Author – Oliver Pohlmann

Photography – Oliver Pohlmann & Stuart Tree

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2 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Thank you for this. Had my first attempt at photographing a drifting event at the weekend and think it went quite well. Experimented with shutter speed between 1/100 and 1/300 but eventually seemed to settle with 1/200. Also had to bump the ISO up a notch to 200 when the clouds rolled in and the rain started.

    Hope you don’t mind me posting a link to one of the photographs as a thank you for the advice…

    https://500px.com/photo/159550121/drifting-by-chris-ritchie?ctx_page=1&from=user&user_id=16675879

    • Oliver Pohlmann says:

      Hey Chris. Great effort for a first attempt. Nice overall sharpness and wheel rotation blur. One bit of advice would be to leave some empty space in front of the car. It helps with the overall composition. Otherwise excellent!

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