Pedal to the metal: rally photography at the heart of the action

Photographer and Affinity Photo user Jason Nugent passes on his advice for shooting the fast-paced world of rallying.

I’m a Canadian photographer who’s been photographing rally for four years—not nearly as long as some others I really admire, but long enough to have thought a lot about what I want my rally photos to convey.

When I’m not photographing rally, I do expedition and adventure work worldwide, and exhibit fine art landscape photography. So my goal with rally photography is to try to make something that looks artistic and still captures the essence of the sport.

Performance rally is an endurance motorsport that requires a combination of speed, stamina, logistics, skill, and a measure of luck.

It is a thing like no other motorsport I have ever witnessed. The fans are passionate, the action fast and frantic. I knew from the first time I watched a rally as a spectator that cracking the photography component of the sport was something I wanted to do.

In the years that I have now spent photographing the Canadian Rally Championship and the American Rally Association series, I’ve discovered some things that work well for me. Some of these are photography suggestions, and others are things that will help you organize your plan so you will be in the right spot at the right time.

Safety first

Rally is very exciting to watch. The teams are very fast, it is awesome to see cars sliding sideways through corners, catching huge air off jumps, and generally going flat out. Please keep your wits about you, though. Unlike many other performance motorsport events, there are often no physical barriers between you and the action.

You do not need to stand in a dangerous spot to get great photos. Never stand on the outside of a corner, below the road surface in a ditch, or in exit roads. Listen to the marshals at all times. If they tell you are in a bad spot, move to a new one. Use remote cameras if there is a photo you absolutely want, because cameras can be replaced. The ideal outcome is to photograph rally for many years to come.

‘Recce’ the stages in advance if you can

When you photograph a rally for the first time, you may be overwhelmed by the scale of the event. Rallies feature stages that may cover hundreds of kilometres through forests, mountains, and even in populated areas. Do not wait until the day of the actual event to start looking for your photo spots.

If you apply for media accreditation ahead of time, you may be given a copy of the route book, which will contain step by step driving instructions to help you navigate the stages.

“I drive some or all of the stages before the race and examine interesting corners, landmarks, and sight lines with photos in mind. A spot may look good on paper but may not look great once you see it in person. ”

At my last rally, there was a very fast stage that had a 2.8km shunt through tight forest that looked amazing in the route book, but when I drove it I discovered that it was very overgrown and I would not be able to see very far. On to the next spot!

The rally will proceed according to a specified schedule so you will know generally when certain stages will take place. Use this information to your advantage.

If a particular spot looks good in the early morning light but you know that it won’t be raced until late in the evening, think about how that will affect the shot.

A spot might look good on an overcast day but may not look so good in harsh sunlight with contrasting shadows. Obviously you can’t control weather, and occasionally things get delayed, but planning your day can help.

Time how long it takes you to reach your spots, and make sure you have a safe place to park your vehicle if you must park it on the stage. You will need to arrive at your spot ahead of time in almost all cases, sometimes as much as an hour before, since the rally organisers will close the stage before racing starts. Write a movement plan, so you know what your day will be like. Give yourself plenty of time.

If you can’t recce, study (actually, do this regardless!)

Some rallies have been running annually for decades. I just photographed at the International Rallye Baie-des-Chaleurs, and this was the 41st year it ran. Perce Neige, in Maniwaki, Quebec, ran for the 53rd time this past February. There may be small changes to the course from year to year, new stages, etc, but some rallies have famous features that are included every year. Look at what other photographers are doing, as this will inspire you.

And especially, if you’ve never been to a particular event this may give you some insight and flatten the learning curve.

It can also help to search around on YouTube for in-car footage from teams racing the stage you want to work on. You can get a sense of how fast a car will go over bumps, whether or not they will jump or not, and this may factor into your decisions. It’s all good info.

Know your gear and think about the shot

There is a saying in rally: “thousands of corners, once”. Rally photographers may only get one chance to photograph a car in a specific spot because once the car is past that spot they may never come back unless the stage is rerun. You won’t have time to fiddle with your camera settings so think about what effect you want to achieve, preferably back when you were doing your recce.

Slow shutter speeds can capture the dynamic nature of the sport, and fast ones with wide open apertures can freeze the action. Do you shoot wide, and make the background and scenery a part of the shot? Or do you go in tight? Using a polarizer is a good idea because it can remove glare on windshields and show you the intense looks of concentration on the faces of the driver and co-driver.

I’m a fan of slow shutter speeds. There’s a magical speed of about 1/250sec at which the wheels will look blurred and if you nail focus and pan a bit the car will be sharp and the background will be slightly blurred and it looks oh, so very nice.

“Slow it down even further and the effect can begin to make everything look like fine art instead of a photo of a rally car. I tend to take more risks, photographically speaking, once I know I have solid shots from earlier in the rally. Push the envelope.”

Rallies are long—take care of yourself and have fun

Look after yourself out there. Bring lots of water, food, and clothes appropriate for the forecast. Rallies are all-weather events and bad weather just means epic photos. Also, take time to enjoy the spectacle. The teams are great, the fans are among the most welcoming I’ve ever encountered, and if you have a good time it will reflect in your work.

Edit your work

I try to treat my rally photos like I would my landscape work. It can be hard to think about composition in the heat of the moment, when a Citroen DS3 is flying sideways past you, but trust your workflow.

For me, I work with my RAW files in Capture One Pro, and then usually export out to Affinity Photo. I really like the clone stamp tool because your sensor will get dirty and if you want slower shutter speeds when it’s bright out you’ll be shooting at small apertures, and it’s also great for removing bits of distracting backgrounds like caution tape.

I also love the tonal range selection tool for letting me be able to grab certain parts of an image and then really refine them. The selection brush tool is pretty awesome.

To see more of Jason’s work and order prints, go to his website.


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Credits & Footnotes

All photographs: Jason Nugent. Used with permission.