Shutter Speeds for Motorbikes

Posted on 8 Sep, 2014 by Scott Jones
Jack Miller Silverstone

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At 1/80th of a second (f/9, and I had to lower ISO to 50), the letters in Generali are really blurred, and I love the wash of color in the foreground as the green of the grass flows into the red and white of the curb. Compare it to the image above, what a difference.
Brad Binder Silverstone

But the exposure is now long enough that while the front of the bike is sharply in focus, the rider was moving slightly while the shutter was open and thus he’s not sharp. He has moved on a different axis during the 1/80th of a second.

To me this is still an acceptable image because the bike is sharp. The image shows how the rider is a moving part of the man-machine combo. The same is true if the rider’s helmet is sharp but the bike is blurred. That shows a different version of the same fact: rider and bike move independently.

In general, though, one of these two things (front of bike or rider’s helmet) has to be in focus for the image to work for me. If the foot is sharp but everything else blurred, not so great. You can have your own take on this, of course, I’m just stating my view.

A few more comments: the faster the shutter speed, the more likely you are to get a useable image in fewer tries. As the shutter speed slows down, the more difficult it is to track the camera exactly with a quickly moving subject. But the rewards are greater, imo. I prefer the slower shutter speed images to the first one. I like the 1/125th example best of the lot.

What makes a given shutter speed fast or slow is really the speed of the subject rather than the exposure duration. In pit lane, 1/200th is not slow at all given that speed is limited there. If you’re trying to capture a bike going 150mph, 1/200th is very challenging. In a slow corner, bike speed 75 or 80mph, say, 1/200th is a good contender for a nice image.

It occurs to me now that I should also have done an exposure at 1/1000th of a second, and perhaps one at 1/1500th, just so you could see those in comparison. Just look at the first image and imagine the Generali text with no motion blur, though a bit out of focus due to depth of field. Also image the wheel frozen as if it is not moving at all. Yuck.

For my own work, 1/640th is a really fast shutter speed and at trackside I never intentionally go faster than that without a very good reason. I usually begin a session at 1/500th, then start working my way toward slower shutter speeds a step or two at a time until I’m at 1/125th, which is a good balance of motion blur and being fairly sure I’ll get at least a couple of usable shots in a given bike’s pass.

The main thing for you is to experiment and find the look you like best for a given situation. Keep in mind that the slower the shutter speed, the more practice you’re likely to need to get good results.

Photographs: ©2014 by Scott Jones / PHOTO.GP – All Rights Reserved

Camera info: Nikon D4, Nikon 500mm f/4.0.

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