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Date: 13/07/2016 | By: Mathieu

Shooting motorsports with the Fuji X series – An interview with Jeff Carter

MacLean Photographic

Shooting motorsports with the Fuji X series – An interview with Jeff Carter

When I was seven years old, I had a passion for motorsports (Formula 1 especially) thanks to Nigel Mansell. Why him? Well, because he was driving a blue/yellow car and I loved those colors (yep, I was a kid after all!). My family, on the other hand, was all about the “rossa” Ferrari (I was living in Italy at the time).

Growing up, my main interest became photography and videography but I didn’t lose my interest in motorsports. After starting this website, I began to follow Jeff Carter’s work not only because his affiliation with Fujifilm but also because of the genre he was involved in. I thought: what a great way to combine two great passions!

Jeff has been working in the business for the past 20 years and founded MacLean Photographic in 1996. Based in Scotland, he works as a photographer for several media companies and magazines including BBC Top Gear, Autosport, The Sun and many others. He is also a FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) Media Delegate and one of four FIA World Championship Media Officials (F1, WRC, WTCC and FIAWEC). In 2015 he became an X-Photographer and started his collaboration with Fujifilm which involves testing pre-production equipment like the brand new X-T2 that he has been using for the past three months. We sat down with him to find out what it is like to shoot car races and the world surrounding them.

This article is part of the series of 100 interviews we are holding with photographers who use mirrorless cameras for their work.

Jeff Carter, MacLean Photographic
Jeff Carter, MacLean Photographic

Visit Jeff’s website and check out his work on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Instagram.

All images in this article are property of Jeff Carter (MacLean Photographic) and are published with permission.

1. Who is Jeff Carter in three simple sentences?

I am a 52 year-old photographer living in Dunbar in Scotland and I’ve been a professional photographer for 20 years since leaving the Royal Air Force in 1996 where I served as an electronics engineer. My career started as a editorial photographer working on the staff of a local paper in Grantham where I lived and I also freelanced for several national magazines, writing as well as taking images for features on cars. I am also very passionate about travel and landscape photography and I have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the world thanks mainly to my work in motorsport.

2. You have nearly 20 years of experience in the field. Did you approach motorsport photography because you have a passion for racing or was there another reason?

My passion for motorsport began while I was in the RAF. I helped run the station kart club at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland where I was stationed and I followed Formula One closely in the early 90s but was also very passionate about rally.  Even though I had been taking pictures for many years, I got serious about photography in 1992. This coincided with a trip to that year’s RAC Rally, the British round of the World Rally Championship, and I saw it as a way to combine my two passions – photography and motorsport.

Ford returns to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and wins the LMGTE Pro class 50-years
after securing a famous 1-2-3 at the 1966 race

3. Do you remember your very first race assignment? What was it like? Do you find that your profession has changed a lot since then?

While I had been taking pictures for several magazines, my first proper race assignment came in October 1996 when Mini Magazine asked me to travel with a team to the Classic Car Races at Zolder in Belgium. Up to that point the magazine had been using my race reports and images in the news section but when I asked the editor who was going to write the feature, he replied ‘you’. So I had to write an eight page article as well as illustrate it with a good selection of images. The result was very pleasing and led to further features for Mini Magazine, including a trip to the Safari Rally in Kenya the following March, which I also covered for several other magazines including BBC Top Gear.

Obviously the main difference between that time and now is the use of film back then. I used Nikon F4 and F5 film cameras and shot with Fujifilm Provia or Velvia slide film.

I would probably use 20 rolls of film for a feature and that’s 720 pictures. You also had to remember there was a cost attached every time you pressed the shutter release because of the film and developing costs involved, so you tended to be more selective with what you shot.

I still try to use the same philosophy when shooting digital but, of course, there isn’t the same cost associated with shooting digital except in time taken in sifting through a lot more images in post production.

Another thing is there a lot more photographers shooting motorsport now, it seems everyone with a decent camera thinks they are a professional photographer. It does make things challenging when working at the side of the track, especially at a place like Le Mans because the good shooting positions tend to be very busy. I’m constantly looking for something different at each of the races I attend as a photographer.

24 Hours of Le Mans

4. What is the most difficult aspect about shooting motorsports on a professional level? And the easiest (if there is one)?

It is being different from the crowd. I am sent images by photographers who want to get into motorsport photography almost on a weekly basis and I’ve seen thousands of shots of cars going around a corner. They are in the main technically perfect images but there is nothing unusual about them. Sports photography is not just about capturing the action, it is telling a story.

Motorsport is probably the most difficult subject to shoot because on track action is only part of the story. If you shoot rugby, soccer, gymnastics or horse racing the main subject, the sportsman or sportswomen, is visible and you can photograph the emotion, the agony, the elation on their faces.

In motorsport the driver is in the car, hidden from view behind a helmet and, in the case of sportscar racing, also in a closed cockpit. You can’t photograph their emotions while they are racing. The trick is to get the reactions of the team and drivers when they are out of the car, in the garage, on the podium.

2014 LMP2 winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans prepares for qualifying for the 2016 race

As a landscape photographer I also use my skill set from that genre to photograph the circuits we visit. I’ve shot some of the most famous corners in the world with a wide angle lens and Lee filters and I try to give the viewer a sense of the challenge the drivers will face on each and every track.

5. When you are working on the race track, is there a specific type of image you must absolutely bring home (the one that a magazine or newspaper will ask you for 99% of the time) like, for example, a perfect panning shot of the race winner?

As I said an image must tell a story, while an action shot of the winning car is important, the emotion shot of the driver, or drivers in the case of sportscar racing, is probably the ‘must have’ from the weekend.

Nicolas Lapierre celebrates winning the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with his SIgnatech Alpine teammates.

6. Because drivers follow a precise trajectory on the track, it is easier to know where the cars are heading at each bend. But we know there can be some unforeseen events like a collision between two or multiple drivers. How can a photographer prepare for that?

You are right, because cars follow the racing line, it is pretty easy to predict where they will be on track. Now, like any sport, you need to be able to read the action. To be good at any form of photography, whether it is sport or wildlife, the professional will know precisely what is happen in front of them and they use this knowledge of their subject to anticipate. Now a race car in trouble may be off line, the noise from the engine or gearbox isn’t correct or there are two cars going into a corner side by side that can only fit one car etc, etc. The trick is to read the action and be ready.

Now it has happened on more than one occasion that I was set up for panning images and a car went off in front of me. Because I usually shoot aperture priority all I have to do is twist the aperture ring from say f11 to f4 and the shutter speed will rise to a level where I can freeze the action. It doesn’t always work out that way but that is how I prepare for changes on track.

The TCR International Series in Belgium

7. You were recently at the legendary 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race where cars compete non-stop for 24 hours and each team has three pilots sharing the driving. As a photographer, do you share the work with a team or do you stay up for the entire race?

Now for the 24 Hours of Le Mans I am not there solely as a photographer. I am the FIA Media Delegate and in charge of all the international media, including the 500+ photographers who attend. I did go out and shoot at the event but I had other duties as well. I slept for three hours during Saturday and Sunday of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Adrenal Media, which is run by fellow X Photographer John Rourke, is the official photographic agency for the FIA World Endurance Championship and they do have a team of photographers. It isn’t possible to shoot for the whole event, which with the build up and the post race images can mean you are shooting for 36 hours and then you have the editing to do on top of that.

8. I can imagine that a good telephoto lens is the most important tool for a motorsport photographer. Is there another type of lens (zoom, prime) that you would consider a “must have” for this genre but that an inexperienced photographer wouldn’t think to use at first?

Yes, a good telephoto is a must. The standard motorsport photographer lens is a 400mm for trackside action, while a 70-200mm zoom is also a ‘must have’. The lens that most photographers don’t think about for motorsport is an ultra wide zoom for getting in close in the pitlane and the garages. I have even used a fisheye in the pitlane, with some dramatic results. I love using fast primes if I have the time but zooms offer the best flexibility in a fast moving motorsport environment.

Teh no7 Audi R18 being worked on in the Audi garage after it stopped to repair damage to the front of the car.

9. What’s in your bag when you head out for an intense weekend like the 24 hours of Le Mans race?

Well I have been completely Fujifilm since 2014 after 18 years with Nikon. It has been a challenge but the products that Fujifilm have been developing have seen a massive leap forward in the last 12 months. Also being an X Photographer, I, and my colleagues, have been helping shape the future direction of the X Series. I don’t know of any camera company that listens to the photographers who use their products quite like Fujifilm. They are an amazing company to work with and it is quite cool to see something incorporated on a camera that you have specifically asked for.

I’ve been shooting with a prototype X-T2 since April and on the 7th July I was invited by Fujifilm to be involved with the launch of this camera in Europe. The X-T2 is the next step in the evolution of the X-Series and this is the camera that the X-Photographers working in sport and wildlife have been waiting for.

In my bag at Le Mans was the X-T2, an X-Pro2 and two X-T1s. For lenses I have the XF100-400mm f4.5/5.6, XF50-140mm f2.8, XF16-55mm f2.8, XF10-24mm f4, XF18mm f2, XF35mm f1.4, XF56mm f1.2, XF90mm f2, a Samyang 8mm f2.8 fisheye, the Fujinon 1.4x and 2x converters and a Nissin i40 flash.

The beauty of the OIS on the XF100-400mm zoom means I don’t need to take a monopod anymore but I do use a tripod at night trackside for light trails at certain parts of the circuit. Tripods are banned in the pitlane for safety reasons.

Audi mechanic waits to change the tyres on the next pitstop at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

10. You photograph different types of car races (F1, WRC, WTCC and FIAWEC). Is there one you enjoy more than the rest?

I am most involved with the FIA World Endurance Championship and the European Le Mans Series. I love sportscar racing because of the people involved and the accessibility you have to the teams and drivers. It is probably the most exciting form of motorsport at the moment. I also get to travel to some wonder places around the world, with Japan and Texas being my favourite destinations. We are going to Mexico City for the first time in September and this will be my first trip to the country, so who knows if this might be added to the favourites list.

My other motorsport passion from a photographers point of view is rallying but apart from the Snowman Rally up in the Highlands of Scotland earlier this year, I haven’t covered a rally for many years. This is something I might have to change in 2017.

11. I can’t begin to imagine the number of images you’ve captured in the last 20 years but out of them all, is there one that stands out as your favourite and why?

Wow, that is a tough question. I am always learning and improving – I never stop – and I am a huge critic of my own work. I think my favourite motorsport image from recent years is one I took at Spa-Francorchamps in 2015 and is actually not an action shot.

As I said earlier I try to capture the essence of the circuits we visit; they are amphitheatres where high drama is played out on a grand stage.

At Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium there is probably the most famous corner in the world called Eau Rouge. Actually is it two corners, Eau Rouge at the bottom and Raidillon at the top. This immense climb is taken flat out in the most powerful race cars in the world, which takes a huge amount of courage as there is little run off if the driver gets it wrong.

Trying to capture the essence of this climb is a challenge and the shot I took in 2015 was one I had been trying to get for many years.

Using a Fujifilm X-T1 and 10-24mm f4 I placed the camera on the kerbs at Eau Rouge and used the track as a lead in line up the hill. I fitted a Lee 0.6ND grad to the lens to balance the exposure and to emphasise the clouds above the track. I still get a kick out of looking at that image.

Around the track in Belgium

12. Your job requires you to be on the track often but your portfolio also features events, portraits and commercial work related (mostly) to the motorsport industry. Is there a type of assignment you enjoy more than any other?

As I said earlier, motorsport is more than just cars on track, you need to capture the whole event; there is so much going on behind the scenes. The job of a photographer is to capture the whole event from every angle and tell a story. I used to work for the organisers of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, which takes place every November. All of the 500 participants drive cars built before 1905 and there are hundreds of stories to be told. I did this for six years until 2010 and I never tired of working on the very British 3-day event.

The start of the 2010 London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in Hyde Park, London
The start of the 2010 London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in Hyde Park, London
The start of the 2010 London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in Hyde Park, London

13. You have been part of Fujifilm’s ambassador team (X-Photographers) since 2015. Do you think Fujifilm could become a leading brand for sports photography in the future? Is there something you feel is missing from the system right now?

I think they are already changing everyone’s perceptions of what makes a great sports camera. I have been using the X-T1 since 2014 and in 2015 was invited by Fujifilm to help test the version 4 software that improved significantly the autofocus capabilities of the camera. The X-Pro2 was another mighty leap forward in terms of usability for the sports photographer and I have shot international rugby, wildlife and motorsport with this camera.

Now we have the X-T2 which incorporates a lot of the things I and other sport / wildlife photographers have been asking for. The AF is quick and accurate, the EVF is brilliant to use and there is no black out now as there was on the X-T1. The 11 frames per second is also a new feature that certainly adds to the flexibility when working and so is the 4K video.

I was also involved with the testing of the XF50-140mm f2.8, XF100-400mm f4.5/5.6, the 1.4x and 2x converters and all of these new products have given the X-Series photographers the tools they need to take sport and wildlife images. I would like to see a long, fast telephoto prime lens added to the line up in the future and Fujifilm are well aware of my, and my fellow X Photographers, wishes on that particular subject. But at the present time I have the tools I need to get the images my clients require.

24 Hours of Le Mans

The X-Series is certainly not considered as second best. There are five X Photographers working in the World Endurance Championship and at Le Mans and several other sports photographers who have moved, or are about to move, to Fujifilm.

You would also be amazed to see how many Canon and Nikon professionals also have an X-Series camera in their bag for capturing action in the pitlane or for portraits.

Remember professional photographers use their cameras to make money, they are the tools of their trade and they wouldn’t use a system if it didn’t work for them. Look at my position; my clients expect images that they can use. They don’t care what camera system it is taken on, that is the job of the photographer. Some people think you need a big camera to be taken seriously, to look professional. Well that might be true in some areas like in wedding photography or commercial work, but even in these areas I think client attitudes are changing. For my line of work it is the results that matter and Fujifilm provides me with the tool to deliver the images my clients need.

14. You seem to enjoy landscapes and long exposure photography as well. Do calm and quiet places help to counterbalance the loud and intense days on the circuit?

You are quite right, landscape photography is my passion and if I could just be a landscape photographer I would be a happy man. However I do love the action packed thrills that motorsport offers and the ability to travel to some pretty amazing places. I run small group workshops from my home town here in Scotland and enjoy the slower pace and the tranquility of shooting the local landscapes and wildlife.

Dawn at Barns Ness Lighthouse, East Lothian, Scotland

15. You are based in Dunbar, East Lothian, which is south of Scotland and east of Edinburgh. What is the “must see” location in the area you would recommend to a photographer passing by?

Bass Rock is a must for anyone visiting this part of the world. In the spring through to the autumn it is home to 150,000 northern gannets and the Bass looks like it is covered in snow (or bird guano) but it actually the number of birds covering such a small area. The Scottish Seabird Centre runs boats trips out to Bass Rock but it also quite close to shore at Seacliffe and you can take images of the birds diving for fish just off the beach.

Photographing the Gannets of Bass Rock
Photographing the Gannets of Bass Rock in flight. A good test of the AF capabilities of the X-T2 and 50-140mm lens

16. What are three pieces of advice you would give to a young photographer who wants to embark on a career in the motorsport industry?

Dare to be different. Try and make your mark by finding a different style to the hundreds of photographers who stand next to the track and take pictures of cars at 1/2000s @ f4.

Capture the emotion. Motorsport is more than just cars on track, it is the highs and the lows of the drivers, the mechanics, the spectators.

Never give up. It is a very competitive environment and there will be plenty of low points. Motorsport is quite a small industry and once you start to get noticed you’ll find yourself recognised and accepted by the people involved.

I am going to give a fourth piece of advice and that is do not give your images away for free. If you think you are gaining access by giving your images away for free and then you can start charging later, trust me it wont work. Once you get a reputation for giving images away, you’ll find it almost impossible to start charging at a later date. As I said in motorsport everyone knows you and reputations will proceed you. Always charge, even, if it is at a lower rate to start with.

MacLean Photographic

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About the author: Mathieu Gasquet

Mathieu Gasquet is a professional photographer with French and Italian origins. Besides running his own video and photography studio 3Dit Lab, he is also the official photographer for the National Cinema Museum in Turin. You can follow him on Google+, Twitter or Facebook!

  • Eli

    Very good article and impressive insider’s points. Very much appreciated.

  • markthetog

    Thanks for the great article. Always good to hear insights from someone on the front lines of his trade.

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