Insider cheat: How to take race photos without press access

By Chris Tropea
May 19, 2024 | IMSA, Photography, Rolex 24 at Daytona, rolex 24, Race Photography, Automotive Photography | Posted in Columns | Never miss an article

Photography by Chris Tropea

For as long as I have been going to the Rolex 24 at Daytona to shoot photos, I have lusted after having a photo vest. After having one this year and looking back at my photos, it didn’t really change much.

[Acura: First GTP win, third consecutive win at Daytona]

Now don’t get me wrong, it is amazing to have the access to go beyond the fences and close to the track and into the hot pits, but the access that fans get still allows tons of great photo opportunities.

Want to know the cheat code for getting great shots without a photo vest? Buy a lightweight folding step stool so you can shoot above the fences. (Also, wait for the good light.)

Here’s one of my favorite trackside shots from the Rolex, and I was doing exactly that. I will admit you still need the right equipment–like a DSLR or mirrorless camera and a long lens–but it’s possible for any fan to get great shots.

Another tip: Get the pass with garage access. Then you’ll be able to get up close to the cars when mechanics are working on them, allowing any camera–even a cell phone–to get shots that tell a story.

Nighttime is the best time from my experience to shoot in the garages. This is when teams are thrashing to repair a mechanical failure or replace body panels after a crash.

However, this is where you need to constantly pay attention to your surroundings because teams do not care that you are there to get a photo and will push you out of the way to get a car back on track, and the guys in the pit carts will run you over to deliver tires and fuel. Just remember to always be aware of your surroundings.

Also, with garage access you can get close to the pit areas from behind a fence. You won’t get to see pit stops, but you can see how the teams set up their pit boxes and how they work throughout the race.

The coolest place to shoot photos, in my opinion, is the tire-changing station. It is insane to see how quickly and efficiently teams can bring in used tires to get swapped out for new ones.

Don’t underestimate the view from the grandstands. From that perspective, you can see almost anywhere on the track, and at night you can capture some stunning views. If you, like me, are afraid of heights, then stick to the lower levels as the upper seats are terrifying.

Ultimately, remember that you are there to have fun and enjoy the race. Spend some time just watching–not from behind the lens–and soak in the event. And when you find a good spot or a cool view, snap some photos and share them with friends.

As for me, I’ll still get the photo vest every chance I get, but I still cherish the images that I got and what I learned from shooting over the fence standing on a step stool.

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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
2/2/23 8:40 a.m.

To Chris's credit, all the photos used in this story are ones he took without any sort of special media access.

Aaron_King GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
2/2/23 8:48 a.m.

My favorite part of going to a race is the paddock hands down.  You do have to keep your head on a swivel and be respectful of the people working, but getting to see the cars and equipment up close is so cool.

RadBarchetta New Reader
2/2/23 8:48 a.m.

I'm a little confused. What is a photo vest? Does photo vest = press access?

j_tso Dork
2/2/23 9:05 a.m.

Nighttime is the best time from my experience to shoot in the garages. This is when teams are thrashing to repair a mechanical failure or replace body panels after a crash.

Are their garages lit enough to not use flash?

Ranger50 MegaDork
2/2/23 9:07 a.m.

That's why I goto the drag races. Spectator pass gets you everywhere but against the wall and starting line. But if you know a team you can get on their "crew" and get access to both. Of course doesn't apply to the clown show called NHRA. But even then with a large enough lens you'll get 95% of the same shots.

ChrisTropea Associate Editor
2/2/23 9:10 a.m.

In reply to RadBarchetta :

A photo vest gets access to better unobstructed views of the track, you have to work for a media outlet and be approved by the track and or sanctioning body to get one. If you have been to a track and seen photographers with vests with numbers on them that is what I am referring too. Photo attached for reference. 

ChrisTropea Associate Editor
2/2/23 9:12 a.m.

In reply to j_tso :

At Daytona at least the garages are very well lit. Here is an example

bmw88rider GRM+ Memberand UberDork
2/2/23 10:05 a.m.

Have a really big lens helps a lot. Also some tracks are way better than other's for pics. If you have the right gear, you can get some great pics at COTA and Road America. Leguna Seca is pretty good too. Hill Climbs and Rallies are awesome for pics too. I've gotten some great ones at PPIHC and 100 Acres. 

You'll get a different view from the all of the different pictures that are published. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/2/23 11:30 a.m.

As I tell people, work with the gear that you have.

No long lens? No problem. Instead of taking marginal on-track photos, spend your time in the garages. You should get good results there. 

And if you do bring a long lens to Daytona, shoot from the tops of the infield bleachers.

Thanks, Chris, for sharing the handy advice. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/2/23 11:41 a.m.

Also, no photo vest for the photos in our piece on International GT. All of those images were taken from spectator areas.

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