Sports Photography as a Spectator – Rally

With high speed, lots of action, colourful cars and characters, motorsport is exciting to photograph but, with safety a paramount consideration for organisers, it is always a challenge for the amateur photographer to get into a position to get a good shot. However there is one form of motorsport that allows great access and uninterrupted views of the action. Let Jeff introduce you to rallying.

In a series of articles X-Photographer Jeff Carter will be shooting at sports events in the UK and showing how to capture great images with the Fujifilm X Series without the need for a media pass.

Read Jeff’s additional guide to Rugby photography as a spectator here.

With high speed, lots of action, colourful cars and characters, motor sport is exciting to photograph but, with safety a paramount consideration for organisers, it is always a challenge for the amateur photographer to get into a position to get a good shot.  However there is one form of motor sport that allows great access and uninterrupted views of the action. Let me introduce you to rallying.

Border Counties Rally
no36 Michael Binnie/ Claire Mole
Mitsubishi EVO 5

Rallying has a very special place in my heart as it was a trip to the RAC Rally, the UK round of the FIA World Rally Championship, that got me started on my career path in motor sport.  I covered the RAC and Network Q, as it later became, for most of the 1990s for various publications and even traveled to Africa to cover the Safari Rally in Kenya.

Rallying is the challenge between the competitor and their machinery against the environment.  It is a single car going flat out on mud, gravel, sometimes snow and ice, traveling down narrow roads with the car sliding left and right. They are literally on the ragged edge of the car’s performance. Visually rallying provides photographers of all levels with the perfect canvas to capture great action images – it is a fantastic sport to photograph!

Border Counties Rally
no5 Osian Pryce / Dale Furniss – Ford Fiesta RS 1600

The border counties rally

The Border Counties Rally, with its HQ in the town of Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, is the opening round of the British Rally Championship and is also round 2 of the Scottish Rally Championship.  An impressive entry list of over 100 cars of all shapes and sizes converged on Jedburgh for a real festival of motor sport.

Be Prepared

A rally takes place on several stages over a wide area of the countryside so planning your day is really important. Check the event website and allow yourself plenty of time to get around safely.  Work out the travel time between the different stages and then double it because car parks will be difficult to enter or exit and you may have a long walk to get onto the stage to see the cars in action.

Taking the start

Access for spectators is second to none.  The start in front of Jedburgh Abbey was open to all. You could wander around the cars as they lined up before taking their turn under the inflatable arch and as they moved off at relatively slow speed. There were no barriers or restrictions.


For seeing the cars in action you need to decide in advance where you will want to go.  Not all special stages are open to the public, so check the event website.  Also spectators are limited to where they can stand on a stage because of the safety restrictions.  In May 2014 three spectators were killed when a car span off during the Jim Clark Rally and event organisers have taken great care to ensure that spectators are kept as safe as possible.  This doesn’t mean that spectators are so restricted that they cannot enjoy the sight and sounds of rally cars going flat out through the forests, they have carefully chosen areas that reduce the risks of another incident happening.

We chose to go to SS5 (Special Stage 5) at Elibank, which was in the forests near the village of Walkerburn.  After taking images at the start in Jedburgh we traveled the 28 miles to the stage and parked in the official public car park.  Entry was £10 per car and included a programme.  Because we arrived early we were able to park not far from the stage entrance and also choose the positions we wanted to shoot from.

Border Counties Rally – SS5 Elibank

The area at Elibank was an excellent location as we could see the cars approaching on the other side of the valley and then there were several shots available to us as the competitors dropped down the forest road towards us and then back up the hill right in front of us.  Because we decided to get up high it gave us a different perspective for the first 15-20 cars before we moved back down to get some closer, frame filling, images of the cars kicking up mud and gravel.

While high up on the hillside the weather proved to be typically Scottish, with driving rain giving way to sunshine, followed by driving rain again.  This proved to be a challenge for me as a photographer but the X-T2 and Fujinon lenses kept working regardless thanks to their weather resistant build.  I did cover the camera gear when the cars were not running but the covers came off to capture the action.

Border Counties Rally
no10 Martin McCormack / David Moynihan
Skoda Fabia RS

We then moved again to the side so we would capture the cars using a slower shutter speed with the heads of the spectators in the shot to give a sense of the speed.

Border Counties Rally – SS5 Elibank
no51 Alistair Ginley / Craig Thorley – Ford Escort mk2

I had planned two other locations but, unfortunately, a car had gone off the track near the end of the stage and was located in a dangerous position.  The stage was cancelled to allow the safe recovery after only 60 of the 100+ competitors had done their run. While it was disappointing, this is motor sport and you have to expect the unexpected to happen.

Service area

The next stop on the Border Counties Rally was the service area at Newtown St Boswell.  This is where the competitors head to have their cars worked on by their mechanics, replace damaged parts and to give them a thorough check before heading back out on the next stage.

Unlike their counterparts in Formula One who have a nice warm, clean garage to work in, rally mechanics have to work on the cars in all conditions, open to the elements and covered in mud.  There are some great images to be taken in these areas and it is worth putting a service area on any rally itinerary.

Access is free to all spectators and there are no restrictions.  Just be respectful to the hard working teams and don’t get in their way.  Also be watchful for cars moving around the service area, especially at busy times.

Podium finish

The final stop was back to Jedburgh for the finish.  Because the Border Counties Rally was the opening round of the British Rally Championship and also the second round of the Scottish Rally Championship there were two podium ceremonies with the winners of the British round going first down by the river with Jedburgh Abbey as a backdrop.

This is probably the only occasion where a media tabard would have been an advantage because most of the time I was looking at the back of the press photographers rather than getting a clear view of the proceedings.  But I was able to get fairly close. In fact I was too close as I was showered in champagne when I inadvertently stood behind the winning team and their driver decided the other team members needed to join in the celebrations.

Border Counties Rally – Celebrations

Camera and lenses

  • Fujifilm X-T2 with battery grip
  • Telephoto Zoom – XF100-400mm f4.5/5.6 or XF50-140mm f2.8 with a 1.4x converter for frame filling images. A good alternative lens in the XF55-200mm f3.5/4.8.
  • Use a 50-140mm f2.8 (55-200mm f3.5/4.8) for wider shots of the car in the environment. Also the lens to use in the service area and at the podium ceremony.
  • Standard zoom (16-55mm f2.8 or 18-55mm / 18-135mm) for start shots, service area and wide action shots.
  • 10-24mm f4 wide angle zoom lens is very useful in the service area and start / finish.

Camera settings

  • Shutter dial set to ’T’ (and locked). Shutter speed selected on rear command dial
  • Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) on.
  • Metering set to Centre Weighted.
  • Autofocus – AF-C with camera set to ‘boost’ to improve reaction time.
  • AF custom setting on Set 3 (Accelerating / decelerating subject)
  • AF Mode to Single Point or Zone (3×3 points) – I prefer Single Point for more accuracy with cars amongst the trees and other obstacles such as spectators.
  • Drive set to CH (8 or 11 fps)
  • Action freezing images – 1/500 to 1/1000s with aperture wide open. Adjust ISO accordingly.  Try to avoid freezing the wheels so the car looks like it is parked on the road.
  • Panning images – 1/125s or 1/60s choose a suitable aperture and drop the ISO down to 200/400.
  • People shots – Autofocus to AF-S and use wide aperture to isolate the subject from the background when using telephoto lenses.

Preparing for the rally event

  • Check the weather forecast and dress accordingly. There are very few, if any, facilities on a rally stage.
  • Take covers for your cameras. The X-T2 / X-Pro2 / X-T1 and the majority of Fujinon lenses might be weather resistant but I always cover the equipment when not in use.
  • Food and drink. It is a long day so take some food and at least a bottle of water.
Border Counties Rally – SS5 Elibank

Safety first

There are some rules to follow when spectating at a rally.  The Motor Sports Association (MSAUK) has five easy to follow rules for spectators –

  • Be Alert!
  • Always expect the unexpected
  • Stay in the designated spectator areas
  • Remember that in an accident anything can happen
  • Always follow the instructions of the marshals

Motor sport can be dangerous, so follow the safety rules and stay safe.

More information

Motor Sport Association       

British Rally Championship 

Scottish Rally Championship

Border Counties Rally                                

Jeff Carter







NEXT MONTH: Canoe Slalom

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