Behind the Shot: Night Racing at Le Mans

1/1000, f/4.5, ISO3200

The Le Mans 24 Hours is without a doubt, one of the most incredible sporting events in the world. Every summer over a quarter of a million people descend on Circuit De La Sarthe in Le Mans, France, for the greatest motor race on the planet. National Geographic even called it the #1 event on the planet!

The cars and drivers battle for a continuous 24 hour period around a race track that is partly made up of local roads, and partly a modernized F1-style facility. From a photographic standpoint the race delivers many challenges because of its length, and also the huge physical size of the track. It also gives some unique opportunities because the cars are running during the night, and also at sunrise and sunset when the light has the potential to be amazing.


This shot was taken at the Dunlop Curves just about an hour before sunrise, so the cars had been racing for about 12 hours at this point, and I’d probably walked about 10 miles! Even in this low light I was able to use AI Servo mode to track the lead car as it came towards me at over 100mph. Part of that is down to the camera’s AF system, and part of that is down to using a lens with a max aperture of f/2.8. The larger the maximum aperture of the lens, the more light the AF sensor has to do its work. This is one big reason why you usually see sports photographers working with the 300mm f/2.8 or the 400mm f/2.8 rather than the longer 500mm and 600mm lenses which have an aperture of f/4. Yes the f/2.8 lenses can also deliver some benefits in terms of shallower depth of field, but in my experience, the AF speed in dark situations is a huge benefit.

Manual exposure was necessary for this shot because the camera would have otherwise tried to use a much longer exposure to bring up the brightness of the black areas. Exposure sensors can also be easily confused by bright point light sources like the LED headlights on these cars. To ensure consistent exposures, always use manual settings for oncoming cars in the dark like this.

In terms of creating the shot, I wanted to maintain the sweep of the inside of the corner right into the corner of the image.  I think it helps to imagine the cars zooming out of the picture and on down the track.  Given the human propensity to read images left to right it also gives a pleasant starting point and leads the eye right to the car.  I also wanted another car in the background, this is a race after all, and other cars show that. The car in the back of the shot also needed to be just the right distance behind the car in the front so that they didn’t overlap each other. One of the most eye catching elements of the shot is the “rumble strip” around the inside of the corner. This jagged concrete is backlit by the headlights from the car, and that has created a wonderfully contrasting and textured element which is always a visually interesting thing to have in a shot. The second car in the background helped to even out the lighting of the strip so that it wasn’t just the first half that was illuminated by the lead car. In Lightroom, I applied a touch of local contrast to this area to make it stand out even more.

Equipment Used for This Shot

Photo of author

Dan Carr

Founder of Shutter Muse, full time photographer and creative educator. Dan lives in the Canadian Yukon, but his wanderlust often sends him in search of images all around the world to meet the needs of clients and readers alike.

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