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So you want to be an F1 photographer? – Part 1, How to Approach the Subject

So you want to be an F1 photographer? – Part 1, How to Approach the Subject

This is the first part of a 3 part blog and covers how to approach the subject of Formula 1 photography. Part 2, next month, will cover recommended minimum camera and lens capability plus some basic photographic techniques including ‘Shooting through the fence’. Part 3, the following month, will take you around the best spectator spots to photograph from at Silverstone in readiness for the British Grand Prix in July.

‘How do I become an F1 photographer, how do I get your job or do you need an assistant?’ are pleas frequently posted on social networking sites to the professionals.

It must be every fan’s dream to own that little piece of plastic that opens up paddock gates, permits entry to the pit lane, allows the wearer to stroll amongst the rich and famous on the starting grid, use the photographers’ galleries and watch the action in front of the fence.

Unfortunately, for those with genuine photographic aspirations the prognosis is not good. The official answer can be found on the ‘media centre’ section of the FIA website and if that looks like a closed door then any advice proffered by the professionals would most likely be to start in the lower formulae and work your way up.

This, however, is a little like the paradox of the unemployed receiving counselling from the employed where the advice given, although well-meant, is coming from someone holding the very position or status you are aspiring to. Also the professionals are neither likely to be in a position, or of the inclination, to let you join their elite band. Many of today’s active photographers started in the 70’s or even the 60’s whilst some of the established studios and agencies are now in the hands of their second or third family generation. There are not many job vacancies nor a great turnover of staff in this highly sought after occupation and you don’t see many adverts for ‘Formula One photographer required’. It has been expressed that it is easier to become a Formula One driver than a Formula One photographer and I don’t envy anyone seeking to break into this branch of photography in this day and age. It was certainly a lot easier when I first got my foot in the door back in the 1970’s.

Notwithstanding the above anyone absolutely determined that it has to be Formula One or nothing will need to make their initial impact with images taken from the public areas and therefore hopefully already possess the necessary belief and ability to do so. However, for those who would just like to have a go and are not sure where to start then read on.

A photographer’s pass does not make the holder a better photographer but it does make life a little easier for those whose livelihood depends on it. Nonetheless a good picture is a good picture whether it’s taken by a seasoned professional or first time enthusiast.

Digital photography is now the standard with the great benefit that once you are up and running an unlimited amount of images can be taken at very little extra cost. It also gives the opportunity to ‘tweak’ images at home without the need for your own dark and wet rooms. However, what follows is equally relevant to film photography.

As an enthusiast you are not working to the same exacting demands as the professional but you can still think like one. Dramatic pit lane or candid shots of drivers may be unobtainable, although access to both may be available at some stage of the weekend, but it does not mean you cannot take good quality, interesting images – you just have to adjust your approach and set your sights accordingly. Ultimately it is down to the skill of the person with the camera. Shooting from the ‘peace and quiet’ of the public areas away from the frenzy of the professional media can be pleasant even if it does bring its own challenges. Neither (at this stage) does your livelihood depend on that exclusive, or missed, shot.

To take decent images from the spectator areas follow a few simple rules.

Decide how you are going to treat a particular day or session. Do you wish to be a photographer or a spectator? You cannot do justice to either if you try to do both at the same time, no more than a guest at a wedding can take the wedding photographs. He or she is not sufficiently detached from the events to capture them with the eye of an outside observer. So if you are going to photograph then apply yourself one hundred per cent to that task for that session. Getting the image must be more important to you than watching the action.

Buy a ticket that gives you as much freedom to roam as possible and do just that.  Sometimes even a few feet either way, different angle or different height can make all the difference. A particular grandstand seat may provide an excellent view but not very interesting photographs. Also all of your images are going to look much the same if taken from the same spot.

Be individual in your approach. Don’t necessarily stand where all the others with cameras are standing. They are probably there for a better view rather than a better picture.

No matter how many pictures you actually take, set yourself a challenge of making up a portfolio of say 20 images that will capture the atmosphere of the occasion and be interesting even to those who are not particularly keen on motor racing.  Rather than dozens of photographs of cars ‘frozen’ all at the same spot these would include shots that highlight the location or nature and character of the circuit, general ambience showing spectators and display cars, drivers at autograph sessions or the pre-race parade (if you’re able to get close enough) as well of course as some racing and action shots. They do not have to be technically excellent – just interesting and eye-catching using a variety of creative techniques. The true fans and interesting characters are to be found in the spectator enclosures, not the paddocks and many a professional will take their ‘atmosphere’ shots in these areas. The greater distance and higher vantage position is also better to portray the nature and character of a circuit.  Most tracks will have one or two spots in the general admission areas where decent action shots of the cars are available. Do your research and always look for an interesting corner or braking area, somewhere where something is likely to happen.

Be it landscapes, portraits, action or still-life, vibrant colours or moody black and white, Formula One offers every opportunity for photographers to demonstrate their skill.

Try to see your picture before you take it. Compose it in your mind – very few good images result through pure luck, although moments of instinct will come with experience. If you are going to a circuit that you have visited before have some idea before you go as to where you think the best photographs are to be taken.

If you intend to produce a series of images for a presentation to further your photographic career then you will need to demonstrate your all round skills. Endless photographs of cars are unlikely to do this or stand out from the many others of professional quality freely available.  Try an unusual theme or to portray the occasion from a different and unique perspective. The images must still show the context of the event so motor racing subjects need to be in the shot somewhere but not necessarily the main subject. Silverstone, for example is flat and featureless with few interesting features apart from the ‘Wing’, so most photographs are better with no horizon, or a low horizon with lots of sky. More often than not British Grand Prix weekend can produce some fairly dramatic skies and cloud formations which could be the basis for a theme. This year, just for the hell of it, I intend to record the Colditz/airport-like security the paying spectator (of which I am one) has to contend with at the various circuits. It will be interesting trying to capture some in-character security guards (sorry, event management) and artistic shots of chain-link fences.

Friday is a good day for photography as there are less people, many stands are open to holders of general admission tickets so there is the chance to shoot from more locations and you also get three hours of Formula One track action.

Anyone prepared to offer advice should be able to show by example. Consequently, on disc 6 of the grandprixphotographs.com collection there are 615 images shot almost exclusively from the spectator enclosures of the world’s circuits over the last decade that hopefully serve to show what can be achieved with a little imagination and perseverance. If you need some inspiration, check it out.

Don’t miss Part 2 next month which will cover equipment and some photographic techniques.