<%@ Language=JavaScript %> Photographing Formula 1 at Sepang, Malaysia

Photographing Formula 1 at Sepang, Malaysia

Taking the Shots

Malaysia is now one of the 17 countries in the World Formula 1 calendar. In fact we are linked to two teams in F1, Sauber Petronas and Go KL Minardi. And of course we have our own driver Alex Yoong in the line up although he has not been doing well compared to his teammate. I have my own views on that but thatís another story!

Being an F1 fan and also keen in photography, combining these two interests of mine makes it more interesting for me. Letís be honest here; despite all the glamour and high tech in F1, it is actually quite boring to watch a race especially when you have someone like Michael Shumacher driving in a top-form team (for the moment anyway) like Ferrari winning most of the races!

Sepang is one of the best F1 circuits in the world and also the most affordable place for Malaysians to watch a race. A lot of people will bring along their cameras, mainly point and shoots (PS) and hoping to snap their favourite drivers and cars.

Reality is that you never get to meet the drivers nor get anywhere near the cars other than last seasonís model on display at the main entrance stalls. Of course you can photograph the girls or models at the stalls and all that but I am assuming that most people reading this are more interested in photographing the actual race.

What I write here is based on my personal experience of going to Sepang over the past four years and taking photos as a spectator i.e. most of us. No pitlane passes for me, so I have nothing to write about that.


For the race, I use a Nikon F100 with 3 zoom lenses: a 20-35mm, a 28-200mm and an 80-400mm. I also bring along a 1.4x teleconvertor.

I use the 20-35 to capture the atmosphere of the place, fellow spectators, the ground and so on. I donít use it that much but it is useful nevertheless. I also use it for panoramic shots to stitch the photos in the computer later. This works out quite nicely for the full length of the pitlane although a wide angle does have noticeable edge distortions, which can be a bit tricky in stitching into a panorama photo.

The 28-200 is an all purpose lens that I use if I donít really need the close-ups. I put this on before the race starts to just take general snap shots of the parades and happenings around. Actually 200 can get you some decent photos as long as you are not hoping to magnify anything significantly.

My most useful lens is the 80-400. This had vibration reduction (VR), which I personally found to be one of the best feature at the race. Before this I had a 170-500mm lens, which was almost impossible to get good shots hand-holding. No problem now. 


I take both print films and slide films. I like slides because the colours are more punchy and realistic. Of course slide exposure can be tricky but so far my F100 has performed well. I normally use 12 to 16 rolls of 36 over the three days and bring about 25 rolls with me. I am quite trigger happy at the races Ė better not to hesitate than to regret later.

I have tried Fuji Velvia, Provia 100 and 400F and MS100-1000. The best balance that I found was the Fuji Provia 400F in terms of speed and quality. Similarly, Fuji Super Reala 400 the most suitable print film for me. For Kodak fans, you have to find the one you like because I do not have experience with Kodak films.

Other accessories:

I also have an MB15 battery grip to give me longer lasting power supply, slightly faster motor wind and easier to hold vertically. By the way, having a decent motor wind helps. Otherwise you have to be very quick and precise on your shutter triggering, and I can tell you itís not easy!

I bring a monopod with me as a back-up in case the VR function doesnít work well. In the end I did not have a need for it. For the majority with normal lenses, I personally find that the monopod is not easy to use if youíre near the track. A tripod is next to impossible to set up and use, so leave it at home.

What about polarising filters? I personally do not use them because I donít want to lose 1.5 stops of valuable film speed and possibly make the auto-focus work harder. In any case you wouldnít have time to use a polariser during action shots. Maybe for the static shots. But experiment with your graduated effect filters if you have them.

Needless to say, bring your usual lens cleaning kit and lens blower. 


Map source copyright from: http://www.malaysiangp.com.my/sic/graphic/vector/f1-general-map.gif

Sepang is quite a large race track and I have personal experience at two locations, on the grandstandís north-side in Sapphire nearer the end of the main straight (start/finish) and in K1, which is the first corner at the end of the main straight.

The grandstand has two levels. For photography, avoid the lower deck because the fence will interfere with your photo taking. You have to be on the upper deck. The north-side also gives a good view of the pitlane and offers a lot of photo opportunities without requiring to get onto the pit itself. But if you want closer shots, you will need at least a 300mm to 400mm.

If you do get a ticket to the grandstand, try to get a front row seat. This is because when a race is on, everyone will stand to try to get a better view of the track. This will definitely block you big time and spoil all photo opportunities. If you want to take photos of the winners podium and the start/finish line, you need to get a seat facing the podium.

Sepang is unique in F1 because its grandstand splits the racing circuit into two halves. The side that faces away from the main straight (i.e. south side) should offer very good photo taking opportunities as the cars whiz round the other half of the circuit. I cannot be certain how good the view is because I have not been on that side before but heard the view of the track is clear. I suspect that it will also give you a lot of opportunity to practice panning because the cars run parallel to the spectators. The same should apply to those on the hills too although you may have to take on whatever the weather throws at you! By the way, the grandstand has been designed to shield you from the sun the whole day.

I personally prefer to be at stands K, at the first corner. The spectators here get a good view of the track and nobody needs to stand up. So you can sit down and snap away to your heartís content. The other advantage is that it is a corner (two corners actually) and cars will have to slow down. You have more time to practise your photo taking. Not needing a front row seat here also helps shade you from the sun especially before noon time. 

Taking the Shots

The Sepang F1 Grand Prix lasts for three days; Friday (practice sessions), Saturday (qualifying) and Sunday (race day).

You should make an effort to attend the practice sessions because of much smaller crowds. Some people turn up for the qualifying and everyone with a ticket will turn up for the actual race on Sunday (i.e. very crowded). The practice sessions offer good photo taking opportunities, time to hone in on your skills, and figure out the good sections of the track to take photos.

If you want to practice panning, you do not want to be too near the track with the cars speeding past you at up to 300km/h. I doubt even the pros will stand a chance either unless they want to look like a clown turning left to right trying to keep the car in frame. So you need to be some distance away to pan properly and smoothly, which unfortunately means you also need longer lenses.

I bring a monopod with me but hardly use it. I am also fortunate to have a vibration reduction lens, which is more flexible. But if you do not have this feature in your lens, then a monopod is necessary. It is very difficult to handhold long telephoto lenses and keep them steady unless you are quite strong and use high shutter speeds. Be reminded though that using a monopod during the actual race is very difficult because of the crowd. A lot of people use the railing at the front row to brace themselves, but be considerate that you do not block others for too long.

Even shots of cars coming towards you directly or at an angle can be tricky. Although it is nice to think that our wonderful high power telephoto lens will frame the whole car nicely, reality is that the car are moving so fast that you will have difficulty focussing (manual or auto) and trying to keep it in frame as the car gets larger nearer to you.

I find that pre-focus and wait for the car or cars to come into frame (and you need to be conscious of your surroundings) works well. Forget about snapping when the car is in full frame; chances are you will miss part of the car. I normally allow more free space in the frame for errors and crop later in the computer (or at your lab). And you can even use a 200mm lens (depending on your distance from the car) quite effectively this way too.

On the other hand, I seldom enlarge a print without cropping. This is why even a 200mm may give you decent photographs as long as you are realistic with your quality expectation. Using ASA1600 and enlarging a car 4x and printing on an 8x10 enlargement would almost certainly be unusable!

There are many views on the use of teleconvertors regarding quality and slowing down the auto-focus system. For Sepang, I do not have problems using a 1.4x teleconvertor. Although I do not need to use it much, it is good to have the extra reach when I need it. I do not have noticeable impact on auto-focus speed. In any case, I do switch to manual focus and pre-focus sometimes and hence auto-focusing is not my concern. Most of us cannot afford nor have access to a F4 600mm telephoto lens. So my suggestion is to use a teleconvertor if you need to.

I use both aperture priority and shutter priority. For shutter-priority, you need to be aware that the light is adequate not to cause underexposure. Aperture-priority avoids this most of the time but then you need to watch out that the shutter speed is not so low that it may cause camera shake. I tend to leave my camera on matrix-metering mode but switching to spot-metering if I have to.

If your camera has a motor wind, use it. Set it to a reasonably fast speed such as 3fps, wait for the cars to start coming into frame and then let the films rip. I know this is a brute force approach and those of you who prefer a finer approach may laugh, but I get the shots I want.

Along the straight, I find that 1/1000s and above freezes the cars quite well unless you are doing panning or want to try some special effects. Since Sepang tends to get quite a lot sunlight, you can get quite high shutter speed even with a not-so-fast film. Personally I find ASA400 film most suitable for my style. Grain quality these days are very good too. You may have your own preference and slower films may work well especially at the corners.

A faster film is more flexible because although Sepang is generally sunny, it does rain unexpectedly or get a heavy cloud overcast that may give you problems if you only have slow speed films. Better yet, bring a variety of films of different speeds, which is what I do.

Remember too that if you use a slow speed film, you may have to open your aperture wide. This will reduce depth of field and lens are less sharp at their widest aperture. If you pan your photos, you may be able to close down the aperture with a slower film but I am sure you do not pan every one of your shots. Do not get me wrong though, I have seen very good F1 photos using slow films like Velvia 50 but these tend to be the arty effect shots.

I use slides most of the time. I like to be able to view positives although getting the right exposure can be more difficult because you do not have the luxury of time to experiment or bracket your exposures. The weather can and does change during a race and whatever presets you have in mind would probably not work. I normally leave my camera on auto metering and let the camera do the work, which has proven to be reliable enough most of the time. I also use the same lab every time to ensure consistent results with my slides.

However, I did shoot half my shots on print films (ASA400) during the last Sepang race. Negatives are more forgiving with exposures and handle difficult situations much better. The shots were actually quite good. But negatives are not so easy to scan into the computer because of the orange cast in them. They generally do require more post-processing work to get right in the computer. Of course, if you only use the labs for all your prints, then negatives should give you very satisfying results.

What about those with digital cameras? I tried with my Ďoldí Nikon Coolpix 950 without much success. To be honest, unless you are using a digital SLR, most (but not all such as the Olympus E20/E10, which is actually a digital SLR) of the current crop of consumer or even prosumer digital cameras are unlikely to be of much use for F1 photography. The reason is because the shutter-time lag from pressing the shutter to the camera actually taking the shot means that you will miss most shots. The cars are just too fast. The only real chance of being successful is probably when shooting the cars coming straight at you. Do not be discouraged though; it is not impossible, just more challenging! 


Taking F1 photos as a normal spectator is definitely more challenging than having a media pass because you have to deal with 101 other elements that can spoil your photo taking. But with a bit of preparation and having realistic expectations, you too can take decent F1 photos.

I summarise below a list of items that you want to prepare for to get a more satisfying photo-taking experience at Sepang:

        Study the race track well and identify the seating areas within your budget that will give you the best   views of the race.

        If you have watched past races on TV before, that will give you a rough idea what to expect. Be reminded that the racing circuit is not flat throughout either.

        Book front row seats if you can and make sure there is no fencing blocking your view. Try to get higher levels if possible.

        Corners slow the cars down and give you better photo-taking opportunities.

        Try to attend all three days of the F1 race. The practice and qualifying sessions are less crowded and you can take your time to experiment.

        Use a medium to fast film speed to give you more flexibility. I recommend ASA400 as a good compromise between speed and quality. And be prepared to waste a lot of films.

        Use a film SLR if possible. It is more difficult to get fast cars shots with digital cameras.

        Try to have at least one lens that reaches 200mm. 400mm to 600mm is even better without saying. Use a teleconvertor if you prefer.

        Bring a monopod if you are using long lenses although its use is limited during the race.

        And remember that you are attending a world-class Formula 1 race. Do not forget to enjoy the race too!










All exposures and lenses data recorded by the camera. Please note that photos have been cropped as needed - lenses data are for original photograph sizes. All photos scanned with Nikon LS2000.

Original article and all photographs © 2002 K.K.Chin . Duplication or reproduction in full or in parts and in any form not permitted except with written permission from the author. Printout for personal home use only.