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Photographing motor sports: an interview with Darren Heath

Photographing motor sports: an interview with Darren Heath

Legendary motor sport photographer Darren Heath  shares knowledge from more than 30 years of experience shooting F1. His exhibition The Art of the Race is at SUNSTUDIOS Skylight Gallery 14-28 March.  

Racing is naturally photogenic – the emotion, speed, colour. What’s your approach to taking imagery to the next level and standing out when there are so many other photographers around?

To try and stay one step ahead of my competition I guess involves a combination of techniques, skills and an unrelenting desire to not let one's standards drop.

As a wanna-be photographer I garnered inspiration and visually invoked excitement from studying the work of lensmen covering the sport I adored who looked for great light, for interesting angles, who used slow shutter speeds to engender a sense of movement and speed in their pictures, who chose lenses that may not have been the obvious option, etc. One day, I reasoned, that’s what I'll do.

35-40 years later I remain true to my beliefs, always looking for as creative a way as possible to make the most of a wonderfully photogenic sport. Of course we live in a world of instant media so it can sometimes be tricky to deliver a client’s picture needs in an artistic style but it’s always my objective.

Interestingly I rarely look at my fellow F1 photographers’ work choosing to garner inspiration and remain relevant in a fast-moving Instagram-obsessed world by studying the work of image makers that have never set foot on a race track. Particular favourites being Joel Sternfeld, Saul Leiter, the movie director of photography; Roger Deakins and of course William Eggleston.  You can judge if I’m being successful by taking a look at my Instagram site here:

Image copyright Darren Heath

Image copyright Darren Heath. 

Is it easy to be overwhelmed or in sensory overload at a race course?

A race track is where I feel most at home so that’d be a resounding no! I guess if one is very new to the arena then that maybe the case but if it’s the place one has only ever really wanted to be then any feeling of uncomfortableness surely suggests it’s the wrong place to be.

What are the biggest challenges in your profession?

Remaining relevant in a market place that moves at a sometimes frightening pace, being aware of trends and fashions that are in vogue at any given time while sticking to one’s core beliefs and principals of delivering visually impactful imagery that stands out from the crowd.

After shooting so many, what are your six top tips for photographing vehicles?

1. Think about your shoot deliverables before picking up a camera. There really is no substitute for planning ahead.

2. Consider the likely weather, the position of the sun relative to one’s subject, and work out a route that maximises your photographic locations. Time is often short so making the most of the opportunities is paramount.

3. Try to be as original as you can. So many photographers of today simply copy what others have done before. As good as any copy will ever be it will only ever be - for people-in-the-know - exactly that, a copy. Remember also that those who simply ape their competitors efforts will always remain at least one step behind.

4.  Be bold, be creative and single minded in pursuit of your image making desires. Use slow shutter speeds, look for interesting shadows, highlights, water splashes, reflections, buildings, spectators, etc. They can all come together to result in a successful shoot.

5. Try to think of the event your shooting as a story to be told, building up your visual chapters as the day/weekend progresses. If you take a look at my website: you’ll quickly appreciate that each race gallery has a good variation of action, portraiture, celebration, pits, and abstract imagery that tells the tale of the particular grand prix weekend in view.

6. Edit your edit, edit it again and then once more after that! Only showing your very best work is key to keeping standards high.

What essential ingredient for you makes racing important and worth committing your lifelong career?

I’m not sure I can distil all the elements down in to one that means more than the whole, but I’ll have a go! The joy of travelling around the world to shoot photographs of a sport I love and have the ultimate compliment of people being happy to look at them, would just about sum it up.

What are the key changes you’ve seen in the sport during your decades of documentation? Any implications for photographers throughout your career to date and now moving into the future? 

There are so many, too many, to list here but I guess the most significant change would be the ever-increasing levels of safety; for drivers, team members, the media and spectators alike meaning one has had to evolve with the necessary shift in attitudes and visual attractiveness of the sport. Debris fences, on-track location restrictions, pit lane red zones and of course the Halo Driver Protection Device have all contributed to an ever-evolving look and feel to the sport. I’m not complaining about any of them, preferring to rise to the challenge of making F1 look as attractive as I possibly can.

Any other comments you’d like to add about bringing the exhibition together?

Exhibitions are always exciting events to plan, put together and experience and, when people arrive and enjoy the photography on display, are perhaps the ultimate expression of flattery that can be bestowed upon one’s work. For my 2019 show in Melbourne I’m proud to be working with the guys at SUNSTUDIOS and particularly so to be staging the event in conjunction with the world’s premier photographic equipment manufacturer; Canon.

This will be my 35th year using their always brilliant cameras and lenses and I can’t give a bigger endorsement of their gear than that!

Darren Heath's exhibition The Art of the Race is at SUNSTUDIOS Skylight Gallery 14-28 March.

Image copyright Darren Heath

Image copyright Darren Heath.