So what is required to make up the average, sometimes successful motorsport photographer? We’ll sort this into the requirements for the person, the general subject knowledge, equipment, and last but not least, photographic know-how.
The Person and his subject knowledge: Not a male dominated field anymore, we now fortunately also have female photographers joining the ranks. Therefore, when I refer to “him/he” it also means “her/she”! This is a person who must really be interested in motorsport, be the adventurous, outdoor, all-weather type, be able to suppress his emotions and exuberance, especially when his favorite team /driver is performing well, and generally be the all-round good guy. It will also help if he is athletic, acrobatic, big, fit and strong, with a body that can absorb all kinds of punishment, for track racing and more so when he likes to do the rally and off-road racing scene, where the fun really starts!
If you are really passionate about your favorite sport, it becomes extremely difficult not to cheer and jeer at you favorite competitor or enemy respectively. The photographer who wants to produce the goodies must be ready at all times, not only watching his man/team, but the lesser machinery as well, hoping to catch that Once In A Lifetime Shot (OIALS) at every event. Mental alertness, in terms of the progression of the race, identifying the more respectable racing lines and entry speeds into corners and at the same time staying tuned to the reaction of the crowd, is a sure requirement. Knowing when a competitor is bound to get it wrong into a corner, or is being lined up or are lining up someone else for a dramatic overtaking move helps to catch the shot that the media and sponsors are looking for, the shot that tells the story of the race. Pre-season and race preparation will include getting clued up on new teams, sponsors, driver changes, who is the current champ and his main wanna-be successors where to get the best shots per type racing from the specific track, or review rally routes for accessible shooting spots, which stages to skip due to time/distance traveling, and which to shoot, etc. I know it’s very difficult to get an accurate weather forecast for the duration of the event, but at least try.
The Oohs and Aahs from the crowd can alert the photographer to something he isn’t looking at; they have done me a few favors over the years, and hopefully he will be able to re-aim/focus, zoom if applicable, and catch the OIALS all in one fluid, practiced motion. Afterwards he can gloat to all who’ll listen about the one that didn’t get away.
From personal experience, the Oohs and Aahs from the crowd has given me quite a few nice shots, and saved me from possible injury as well. We poor photographers holding a Motorsport South Africa (MSA) accredited press pass, are put into the front lines at the race tracks, there where no normal, sane member of the public are allowed to venture, to capture all the dramatic events happening on track, such as wheels falling off and bouncing towards the unsuspecting photographer, looking elsewhere, concentrating on the action, waiting for the OIALS, then hearing the reaction from the crowd, starts glancing around for the missed action, only to see a loose wheel bearing down on him at a very rapid rate of knots!! This is where the athletic part comes in, with the photographer dropping and rolling away from the immediate danger, behind the low Armco barrier, shielding his prized camera and lens with his body, watching the wheel pass overhead and slam into the high safety fence (for the spectators), dodging the wheel now falling on to the ground at his feet, and then jump up and still catch a few close-up frames of the luckless driver as he loses his car into the kitty litter or Armco barrier. Wow!! Also keep in mind that there is usually no cultivated lawn behind the Armco and tyre barriers, but unpleasant things such as small rocks lying amongst the thorns growing through the pebble strewn hard ground. I usually wear old clothes to race meetings.
It is also not a very good idea to put your equipment onto the tyre barriers around the race track when taking a brief moments rest, or when using more than one body and lens combination. For some reason, cars banging into the barrier always makes your equipment jump up into the air, and then your acrobatic juggling skills are needed to save the day. This I have seen happening to fellow photographers, and it wasn’t really very funny.
The rally and off-road racers do it differently. They like to drive very fast on uneven, rough gravel roads and two wheel tracks, spinning their wheels and sliding the cars around bends at great speed, spraying rocks, gravel, and sometimes-muddy water in every conceivable direction, but usually aimed at the exact spot where the photographer is hoping to catch his OIALS. I have been struck on the body by fist sized rocks, leaving my shoulder bruised and sprained, I have jumped out of the way of a mud spray coming at me with a vengeance, I have replaced the UV filter on my lens after a pebble has struck it, going underneath the lens hood and cracking the glass element, giving its useful life to save my lens from damage. (This is why as a rule I always have a protective filter on the front; it doesn’t only happen to other people you know).
The people planning these types of events never take the requirements of the photographer into account. Rally and off-road races are held in rather difficult terrain, spread out over millions of square km’s, and then they tell you the roads are closed for the event, supply you with a few spectator points along the route, and all the round about you need to drive to get to these points where everybody else is watching from, and still expect miracle photo’s from you. Who wants to capture the same pics everybody else do? The nerve of them!!!. So we take our backpacks, hiking boots, sustenance, raincoats and umbrellas and hike the route to find that special spot where no man has set foot before. This is where the fitness part comes into play, every step into the route also has to be retraced at the end of the stage, doubling the distance traveled, and you can’t really stroll along lazily admiring the fauna and flora, this has to be done rather urgently as there is another stage set to start at a specific time that you have to get to. Carrying a heavy backpack with equipment and fluids takes its toll on the unfit, and then you have to breath regularly when shooting, being out of breath with aching muscles are not conducive to a steady camera platform.
Rally drivers also don’t always seem to listen to their navigators, and then overdo things a bit, running off the gravel road, bouncing along merrily through the brush, before getting back on the road. We have to watch out for these little transgressions, and make quite sure there is no other human obstacle in their way. Rally and off-road racers have almost missed some photographers I know off, and this is not because of the photographer – the driver racing blindly through a sugar cane field looking for the track he strayed from, and then running into the photographers parked bakkie from the wrong side all of a sudden, does make for an interesting situation. Maybe that is why it’s called “off-road” racing? Rally cars losing it when they get over eager and brushing a fellow photographer off his stepladder where he was shooting from to get a higher view, and guys jumping earth banks when doing a bit more speed than called for, with myself and a colleague forced to abandon our high-up perch and sprint for cover. Really keeps life interesting.
All of the above is combined with the fickleness of the weather. I have covered events in blazing summer sun (most summer events), pouring rain (Tour Natal rally 2004, some Kyalami track events), extreme wind and dust storms (Phakisa 2004), and even icy winter with snow around me (Motorpics Mountain Trial 2003, a rally event).
All of the above plays a major role in selecting your equipment, and the next installment will deal with that aspect of the game, and how to use your equipment to best effect.
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