How to shoot motorsports with a monopod: get sharper shots, and no arm-ache!

• Watch video: How to shoot motorsport photography with a monopod

Many motorsport photographers swear by shooting handheld, and there’s no denying it offers you greater freedom of movement. But racedays are long and often involve a good deal of walking – it’s no wonder hours of holding lenses can take its toll.

With a monopod, though, you can take away all that pain and fatigue. We visited the UK's Castle Combe Circuit with a Nikon D800 and Sigma Sports 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM. The lens’s excellent Optical Stabilizer meant hand-holding was a cinch, but a combined weight of over 3.5kg is a lot to hold during a long event.

This is where monopods come into their own. Some motorsport photographers do use monopods exclusively, and what you lose in freedom of movement you gain in stability. The Manfrotto XPRO we used retracts to just 56cm, making it easy to carry when not in use.

We took the image above with a shutter speed of 1/80 sec and although that’s still possible handheld, you might find your success rate is higher when using a monopod at slower shutter speeds. Prefocusing and shooting on corners could prove easier too, since the camera will move less. And by keeping the camera upright and in position between laps, you’re always ready for the next moment.

We’re not suggesting you shoot motorsport photography on a monopod exclusively. But if you’re keen on racing and using heavy kit, a monopod could prove a great addition to your kitbag.

How to shoot motorsport with a monopod

(Image credit: Future)

1. Set the height

Set the monopod’s height so that you’re able to stand comfortably while looking through the viewfinder. We used a Manfrotto XPRO monopod combined with a three-way photo head, which makes it slightly more bulky but has a handle for smoother, steadier movements.

(Image credit: Future)

2. Mount up

If your lens has a collar and foot, use it. This will balance the centre of gravity and reduce strain on the lens mount. We mounted our camera backwards, so that the monopod head’s handles pointed away from the torso and wouldn’t get in the way. With the camera attached. 

(Image credit: Future)

3. Fend off flare

Lens hoods help prevent flare and damage. You’ll encounter direct sunlight at most circuits, and lens hood will help with this and also offer some physical protection for the lens – it’s not uncommon to knock a piece of fence with your lens, for example. The lens hood on our Sigma 150-600mm is made from metal. You might decide to omit the extra weight of a lens hood when shooting handheld, but it’s barely noticeable when using a monopod.

(Image credit: Future)

4. Image stabilization or not?

The rule of thumb is to turn optical stabilization off when using a tripod, but panning with a monopod still produces plenty of movement, so our advice is to turn it on. Our Sigma Sport features three stabilization settings: 1, 2 and Off. Mode 2 is designed specifically for panning, only countering movement on the vertical axis.

(Image credit: Future)

5. Slower shutter speeds?

Using a monopod doesn’t allow the same freedom of movement as shooting handheld. But the extra stability can make it easier to shoot at slower shutter speeds, especially if you’re struggling with tired arms. We shot in Manual mode, kept our aperture between f/4 and f/8, and altered the ISO to get the shutter speeds we wanted. 

(Image credit: Future)

6. Twist and shoot

Use AF-C (continuous autofocus) to maintain focus on moving subjects and target the rider’s helmet (if shooting open-wheel racing or motorcycles) with Single Point AF. If your lens has a tripod collar and you want to slant your composition for a more dynamic image, simply loosen it just a little bit and twist the camera.

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Mike Harris
Technique Editor

Mike is Deputy Editor for N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine, and brings with him over 10 years experience writing both freelance and for some of the biggest specialist publications. Prior to joining N-Photo Mike was the production editor for the content marketing team of Wex Photo Video, the UK’s largest online specialist photographic retailer, where he sharpened his skills in both the stills and videography spheres.  

While he’s an avid motorsport photographer, his skills extend to every genre of photography – making him one of Digital Camera World’s top tutors for techniques on cameras, lenses, tripods, filters and other imaging equipment, as well as sharing his expertise on shooting everything from portraits and landscapes to abstracts and architecture to wildlife and, yes, fast things going around race tracks.