The human touch
Monza, Italy -- The adrenaline was pumping as I covered my first Formula 1 race two years ago. I’d watched the races for years, was a great fan of legendary racer Michael Schumacher and had been wanting to cover one as a photographer for a long time. Finally I got my chance. And at the Monaco Grand Prix, of all places! The history, the glamour, the excitement. So it was a bit disappointing to realize that the human aspect was missing.
There I was, at that first race, at the famous Mirabeau corner, all ready with my long lens to capture close-up pictures of car and driver. But all suited up, the drivers appear like robots or fighters out of Star Wars. There was very little human about them. So I had to look for the human aspect elsewhere.
Every sporting event requires its own specific knowledge for a photographer to produce interesting pictures, knowledge that’s usually gained from experience. When you cover an event for the first time, you try to prepare as best you can by watching the race and talking to colleagues. And you try to improve with each race, to correct the mistakes, to come up with new angles and ideas.
As a news agency photographer, you always have to maintain a balance between “taking” pictures -- ie recording an event -- and “making” pictures -- finding different angles and using different techniques to tell a story or convey a feeling. For me, the “making” pictures is the most interesting and satisfying challenge during an F1 weekend.
For me, an F1 weekend lasts four days, from Thursday to Sunday. Thursday is the day of drivers’ press conferences and the day when I walk around the paddock and garages, checking out the scenery and taking some features.
On Friday there are two training sessions, during which I take most of the weekend’s images. I prepare a plan of the points along the track that I think will produce the best pictures. I am always in a team of several AFP photographers and we take up different positions along the track to get different angles -- from car close-ups to drivers in the pit, to more “creative” shots.
Saturday offers another practice session and the qualifying round, which is all about getting good images of the top drivers that will be at the starting grid the following day. That’s when you realize how important it is to follow the news and to keep an eye on the drivers and teams that are in the news, so you have the necessary shots.
And Sunday is race day. I usually start by shooting the starting grid, which is normally crowded with celebrities, journalists, mechanics, grid girls (a woman who marks a driver’s position by holding a pole with his name and/or number), cars and drivers. Then I run to take up a good position for the start of the race, since sometimes the start can be crucial to the outcome. During the actual race, I shoot from one or two spots that I had chosen ahead of time, and then go back to the pit and wait for the end. After the chequered flag come the pictures of the trophies and champagne -- those are the pictures that will end up being published all over the world. Although Sunday is the most important day of the race, it’s not necessarily the most interesting one for taking pictures.
During each weekend, I try to look for various things to “make” my pictures. I always try to take “postcard” shots -- the cars with some local landmarks, so that people can recognize right away where the race is taking place, or just pictures giving an atmosphere of the race. You learn the best positions from where to get these shots with time and experience.
One of my preferred techniques to use in the race is panning -- when you shoot with a lower shutter speed and move your camera keeping the focus on the car. The image comes out with the background blurred so you get a sense of speed. I like this technique because with it, you can blur some of the advertising that’s so omnipresent at a race.
And then of course, you try and get the human element in. The easiest shots to do that are the celebration shots, with the champagne flying. But there are also more nuanced ones -- like the drivers interacting with the mechanics in the pit, for example. And sometimes you get lucky.
For example, when Lewis Hamilton jumped into the crowd after winning the race at Silverstone in July this year. It was pretty special to have this link between the driver and the hardcore fans. It’s also something unusual in the sport -- Hamilton is British and Silverstone is in the UK, so it’s his home base and he does it. But it doesn’t usually happen at other races.
One of the things that you quickly learn when covering Formula 1 is that the more history there is to a race, the more energy there is. The places with the history -- Monaco, Silverstone, Monza -- you feel the energy there, from both VIPs and the hardcore fans.
The spectators at any race can be roughly divided in two. You have the VIPs who come basically to be seen. What I call the strawberry and champagne crowd. And then there are the hardcore fans who come to see the race.
There is also the energy and excitement that follows a specific team. For example the Ferrari crowd in Monza. They just spew out the excitement, even if their car comes in third.
That type of energy, you get it mostly at the historic races. You don’t really feel it at the newer ones, like Abu Dhabi or Bahrain. The stands there are a bit empty. And to get that true F1 energy, you need the human touch...
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris