The Simple Art of an Automotive Rolling Shot: The 10 Rules by Josh Mackey Featured

Nikon D200 w/ Tokina 12-24 @ 12mm | F/4.5 – 1/40 – ISO100 | © Josh Mackey Nikon D200 w/ Tokina 12-24 @ 12mm | F/4.5 – 1/40 – ISO100 | © Josh Mackey

There is something unique and personal in a car to car motion shot that tends to give the viewer a raw look into the subject. Rolling shots, aka car-to-car motion photos, are seemingly a thing of the past now, often the last resort in capturing cars in action when in reality it could be the best option available.

The trend for the past five years has been to do rig shots, but why mess with expensive rigging systems and the post processing work? Some might say the new trend is Virtual Rig Studio, compositing shots of the car not in motion onto back plates and making it move. That also costs a hefty price tag if you want to invest in the software.  If you sit down and think about it, the only accessory you need for a really good rolling shot is a driver and preferably a car that is on stock suspension to ride in.

The 10 Rules

Shooting rolling shots isn’t exactly about dialing in the settings, but more about confidence in your ability to execute the shot you’re going for. There are a multitude of factors that you need combine to make the shot: how fast you’re going, what road you’re on, what lighting conditions you have, etc.  So, I have developed some “rules” to follow; unlike most rules, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to bend and/or break these rules.

Go Fast!

1 A true motion shot should convey…. motion! So, if you’re going 30mph on a back road, chances are you’re not going to get the speed in the shot you would prefer. Obey the laws of the road of course, but anything over 50-60mph is ideal. Between 70-80mph is the sweet spot, best on a highway or road that allows those speeds.

NWMotiv Project3Canon 5D Mark II w/ Canon EF 17-40L @ 17mm | F/5.6 – 1/30 – ISO1600 | © Josh Mackey

Slow Down

2 Slow down your shutter speed, that is. Sometimes getting the PERFECT rolling shot requires some sacrifice in settings. For years I’ve used Shutter Priority Mode and let the camera determine the aperture. If you think you can manage flipping the aperture whilst hanging out of a moving vehicle, more power to you. I prefer to use anything between 1/20-1/40. If you’re brave and think you have a steady hand, I’ve shot as low as 1/10 in focus. For those manual diehard types, just test your settings before actually starting so that way you’re not wasting time while driving. The only other setting might be ISO, but that’s really pending where you’re driving, such as in a tunnel.

Nissan S13Canon 5D Mark II w/ Canon EF 17-40L @ 17mm | Left: F/7.1 – 1/20 – ISO50 – | Right: F/4.0 – 1/30 – ISO50 – | © Josh Mackey

Go Wide

3 Bringing anything over 24mm (especially on a cropped body) is asking for problems. Roads aren’t kind to even the steadiest of hands. The longer the focal length, the more vibration shows in the camera. Yes, you can buy mount devices to help you with this, but seriously, it’s not the point of this article to buy more crap you don’t really need. I prefer my Canon 17-40L F/4 lens for these types of photos. 17mm is super wide which can get me right up on the car or enough distance for a good crop from a lane away. I also find it a good thing to bring a polarizer filter: cutting down as many reflections as you can is a good thing.

Mazda RX7 1Nikon D200 w/ Tokina 12-24mm F/4 @ 14mm | F/4.0 – 1/40 – ISO100 – | © Josh Mackey

Trust your instincts

4 If you’re already hanging out of a car going 80mph on the highway, chances are that if you’re going to drop your camera, it doesn’t matter if you’re looking through the viewfinder or not. I usually get enough photos looking through the viewfinder but then I drop the camera as low as I can outside the shooting car and just aim. Aim with instinct, with knowledge and experience. LOOK at what you’re aiming at and try and nail the spot that gives the best focus, the front wheel. A lot of people over the years have asked me if I did a rig shot on the highway because the angle is so low. No, it’s just a well-placed shot from me hanging half way out of a moving car.

Mazda RX7 2Nikon D200 w/ Tokina 12-24mm F/4 @ 12mm | F/4.0 – 1/40 – ISO100 – | © Josh Mackey
Armin RichardLeft: Richard Thompson | Right: Armin H. Ausejo

Shoot a lot, then shoot some more

5 Make sure you have ample memory for the remainder of the shoot, but make sure you shoot a lot of rolling shots. Shoot a couple, do a quick check, keep shooting. Chances are getting a perfectly sharp rolling shot at 1/20 going 70mph on an average highway is going to take at least 20-30 shots. When you think you’ve got enough, take some more. Loop back again if you think you need to, until you’re confident knowing you have enough shots to get what you want. It’s best to have a lot to choose from versus none.

Rolling VW CelicaLeft: Nikon D200 w/ Nikon 18-35 @ 18mm | F/3.5 – 1/40 – ISO100 | Right: Nikon D70 w/ Nikon 18-35 @ 18mmF/6.3 – 1/20 – ISO200 – | © Josh Mackey

Don’t fake a rolling shot

6 I can tell. We can tell. When someone enhances their photo with additional motion in a rolling shot, it’s pretty obvious, and it’s pretty bad. Take my advice on the subject and do it over again if you didn’t get it right. Don’t be so butthurt when you’re called out and offered some really good criticism. None of the photographers contributing to motivelife are here without taking a good beating; you shouldn’t be an exception to that rule.

Skyline R33Nikon D70 w/ Nikon 18-35 @ 18mm | F/5.6 – 1/45 – ISO200 – | © Josh Mackey

Post Processing

7 You should always present your photos how you want people to see them. A lot of people prefer to see the SOC shot, however in my experience, cleaning up a good rolling shot is always a good thing. Cloning out a random car, fixing some reflections or making the shooting car disappear are things that shouldn’t be ignored outside the standard adjustments. You can view my post processing workflow below.

Practice

8 Some photographers have an innate ability to capture a good rolling shot, others aren’t so lucky. The only way to get better is to practice and keep testing your settings to get the exact look you want. 30 minutes and a driver is all you need, get out there and do it.

Toyota CorollaNikon D70 w/ Nikon 18-35 @ 18mm | F/22 – 1/45 – ISO200 – | © Josh Mackey

Patience

9 If you live in a big metropolitan city, you’re more than likely going to have to plan your shots around heavy traffic. You know your city better than anyone: coordinate times and plan.

Have fun

10 It’s fun hanging out of a car on a 30 degree day getting pelted by hail. You should try it, I promise you’ll love it.

Subaru WRX StiMy very first rolling shot for print. | Nikon D70 w/ Nikon 18-35 @ 35mm | F/4.8 – 1/45 – ISO200 – | © Josh Mackey

Andrew Link of RIDES Magazine hanging out of a car during the Gumball Rally taking some rolling shots of the cars as they pass him.

LinkCanon 1D Mark IIII w/ Canon EF 17-40L @ 29mm | F/6.3 – 1/125 – ISO100 – | © Andrew Link

Some samples from Armin H. Ausejo

Armin STINikon D300 w/ Tokina 12-24 @ 12mm | F/6.3 – 1/40 – ISO100 – | © Armin H. Ausejo

Armin MazdaNikon D200 w/ Nikon 17-55 @ 18mm | F/2.8 – 1/60 – ISO100 – | © Armin H. Ausejo

Disclaimer

Warning! Attempt at your own risk. We are not responsible if you fall out of a car, get hit by a random object, get hit by a car, get sh#t on by a bird, or anything else that happens to you in your life.

Josh Mackey

I am an Automotive Photographer, Marketer and Editor based in Seattle, WA. I am currently the President and Editor in Chief of NWMotiv.com where I apply over 15 years of experience in developing and building the automotive scene in the Northwest. I am also the co-author of "How to Digitally Photograph Cars" and a new unannounced project coming this summer. You can also find me on Facebook, my website, Mackeydesigns.com or NWMotiv.com

Website: www.nwmotiv.com

14 comments

  • Dan
    Dan Wednesday, 06 March 2013 14:20 Comment Link

    love it ... i would also add that you should set your auto focus to continuous as the distance between cars changes often

  • Josh Mackey
    Josh Mackey Wednesday, 06 March 2013 14:24 Comment Link

    Dan,

    I would actually argue against that. I should point that out in the article as an update. I don't shoot continuous for a reason. If you're bursting through shots on the highway, if you don't get the right focus, you just burnt through 4-5 photos, and if you keep bursting, its just worse.

    I always re-focus each shot. I might not be able to burst, but I can still rifle off a ton of shots in a matter of seconds.

  • Steve Demmitt
    Steve Demmitt Wednesday, 06 March 2013 14:30 Comment Link

    I would say continuous focus is best for when objects are constantly changing distances. In this case if the distance is somewhat static, like it would be in a car to car shot then it is best to grab the focus point you want and fire off a burst set.

  • Sherwyn Maistry
    Sherwyn Maistry Wednesday, 06 March 2013 14:42 Comment Link

    Great article Mackey! Keep up the great work dude.

  • Vojislav Vujanic
    Vojislav Vujanic Wednesday, 06 March 2013 14:55 Comment Link

    Great write up!

  • Jeremiah
    Jeremiah Wednesday, 06 March 2013 15:48 Comment Link

    great write-up Josh! I've enjoyed your work since I first picked up "How to Digitally Photograph Cars"

  • Callum Conroy
    Callum Conroy Wednesday, 06 March 2013 18:36 Comment Link

    Great read as usual. Very true that rig shots are now the default...

    Just one thing....

    Canon 1D Mark IIII w/ Nikon EF 17-40L @ 29mm | F/6.3 – 1/125 – ISO100 – | © Andrew Link

    I didn't know Nikon started making a 17-40L :)

  • Steve Demmitt
    Steve Demmitt Wednesday, 06 March 2013 18:49 Comment Link

    Thanks Callum for pointing that out. Fixed =)

  • William Stern
    William Stern Wednesday, 06 March 2013 22:55 Comment Link

    Good shit Mackey! I still have your book. It now helps my dinner table from that nasty wobble it once had, lol. Love you man! #NoHomo ..... Ok, maybe a little.

  • Matthew Blasi
    Matthew Blasi Thursday, 07 March 2013 02:48 Comment Link

    Great write up, I agree with a lot of it, while I like rig shots and feel they provide the ability to get the motion you can't get while actually moving. That said I do prefer the traditional method of tracking shots.

    One good option for getting low on the highway is to rent a minivan. These are great because you can get very low while remaining in the vehicle (side or back) and still have enough room to have a friend to help hold you in or set up a support system. Rock climbing gear can easily be used to add a bit of security.

  • Cris
    Cris Thursday, 07 March 2013 09:52 Comment Link

    Hey Josh ! I actually bought your book a while back when I started shooting cars - it has been a helpful guide. I actually recognized the cover pic and thought to myself - hey I've seen that shot before ...lol.

    Looking forwarf to your next project !

  • Nic
    Nic Thursday, 07 March 2013 21:55 Comment Link

    Damn I wanna shoot some rolling shots now, never tried but after reading this I'm inspired! Thanks for a great write up!

  • Nicolai Pedersen
    Nicolai Pedersen Saturday, 09 March 2013 12:55 Comment Link

    Great guide thanks!
    The two last pictures, could you give me some advice how to get that cool effect?

  • Abdullah J Axim
    Abdullah J Axim Thursday, 08 August 2013 20:30 Comment Link

    i want to ask you one thing, which mode you use in this three options?
    Focus Mode
    AF-area mode
    Metering

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