How to capture the perfect flyover photograph

Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

The average rendition of the national anthem comes in at just shy of two minutes and offers a poignant moment of reflection for drivers and crew members alike. For those two minutes, the grandstands grow silent and the hustle of pit road comes to a near standstill, but for photographers and videographers, one of the most important moments of the evening is approaching faster than anything they’ll capture on the race track. Mch01549

Cell phones raise, TV cameras zoom across the track, and photographers contort themselves to get the shot. Fans see the target of attention just over the horizon before anyone on pit road thanks to their elevated seating in the grandstands. The distortion caused by the heat of the exhaust is quickly replaced with plumes of smoke as everyone begins to hear a faint rumble. A time-honored tradition is flying toward the track at an extraordinary speed.

The flyover is here.

PHOTOS: Best flyover shots in recent years

With hundreds of miles of racing to cover, there are plenty of opportunities to capture a great photo, but the flyover only presents one. Planning to capture this sole moment begins hours before checking an email inbox. The pre-race run of show is generally the same for every race and includes timing for recurring segments like the invocation, command to start engines and that two-minute block for the national anthem. In the fine print following the anthem is the key to the perfect flyover photo: directions. “Four F-16s, flying North to South, Turn 4 to Turn 1” tells photographers everything they need to start thinking of the composition that will make the final image.


When a photo is worth a thousand words, it’s important to be deliberate in choosing what story is told. Does a perfect flyover photo focus on the atmosphere of the facility and showcase the fans at the stands? Does a perfect flyover photo focus instead on drivers and crews as they prepare for competition? With differing assignments across the field, the “perfect” photo can be a captured in a variety of different ways, but each one shares the sky-high planes in common.

Once a mental image of the real image is established, scenarios begin to run through photographers’ minds: What if it’s cloudy? What if it’s sunny? What if I can’t get to a location off the grid in time? Do my credentials work around the entire track? Will I be able to edit and send photos back in time before the green flag flies? An approach to the photo needs to be determined by the time driver introductions end and the crossover gates close. Grandstands or the grid, wherever photographers chooses is where they’ll stay until the cars begin to roll.

As teams form lines and drivers turn to face the flag, photographers begin to get into position. The words of the anthem serve as a timer, and with each passing verse, the opportunity to gather content dwindles. Unobstructed views of drivers, composed expressions and a clean background are difficult to find in the coordinated chaos of the pre-race grid, but again, for two minutes, they stand alone.

Candid gazes look into the sky where normally four black dots begin to grow. Fireworks shoot up during “the rocket’s red glare” and serve as a mental reminder all focus is now above the racing surface. With camera bodies dangling from both shoulders and belts lined with lenses, photographers twist into positions that put their driver in the same frame as the planes above. Nas08146

The lens focuses; the planes are sharp. Some cameras shoot more than 10 frames a second, and photographers utilize each one in hopes everything is perfectly positioned in at least one. Sounds of shutters actuating get drowned out by the roar overhead and eventually by the cheers at the stands. The planes are a mile past the stadium by the time the first image preview appears on the camera’s screen. A glimpse at what was captured is all that can be offered before security pushes non-essential personnel off of pit road. The cold side of the pit wall provides a space to review and transfer photos. Some photographers are hardwired into ethernet and can immediately send their photos back to editors off site, while others pull out SD card readers to transfer and edit photos right on their own cell phone.

Sliders get adjusted, horizons get corrected, and the result gets exported. Within a minute or two of the flyover, a photo is ready for publish. Time to race.