Bill Rogers is a rallyista who now shoots events as a pro photog. He doesn’t just shoot the front runners and scoot to the next stage. Motorsport Memories stays until sweep drags the last car out. Bill’s been photographing rallies for years, so we thought who better to share a little insight into the art of rally photography?
I like to think of myself as a rallyist who takes photographs rather than a photographer that shoots rally so I need to explain the rally side. I got hooked on rally as a teenager in England; I did a gimmick rally with a buddy and we won. I was lucky enough to have another friend and neighbor who was a successful regional rally navigator and car owner. Navigation was complicated in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, so when he found I was interested he invited me along to sit in the back of his Ford Zephyr 6 and help navigate. At the time I had won a scholarship from the RAF to learn to fly and navigation was part of the training. He had a mechanic from our local garage as driver and they were a winning and experienced team – I learned a lot. How fast you can actually drive a car, the tricks of the trade and how to deal with motion sickness were some of the things.
I was going through aircraft engineering training at the time, but I could not wait to try all this new found experience with my own car and recruited my buddy, another pilot, as my navigator, first in a Renault 750 and later in a new 850 Mini. We were immediately successful in the local London Counties area and the Mini road holding was more than a match for the MGs, Triumphs and Healeys of the day – not braking much made up for a lot of horsepower. In 1963 my navigator won the championship and I was second in the drivers. We had progressed to National events all around the country, but mostly in Wales where the roads were/are more challenging and less traveled and, yes, I performed my mandatory roll. I also did 5 International events, the RAC in the UK and the Tulip in Europe (equivalent to the WRC events of today except they lasted 3 days and 2 nights) as a co-driver for other people since I could not afford to prepare a car to compete with all the factory entries.
Then my career and a new family took over and I emigrated to the States to continue to work in the aircraft industry as a designer. I left rally but followed it in the Press from afar since rally as I knew it did not exist in the US. Instead I drove autocross and classic car rallies in our Sunbeam Tiger. My navigator Pete Valentine is still competing successfully in historic rallies to this day and I did a couple of European events in 1990 and 1995. They still honored my old International License!
My father was always taking photos and movies, so I usually had a decent camera for family, air shows, and car races, but I never took classes. About 1994, I noticed a piece in the LA Times about the Rim of the World rally, so I went up to Palmdale to see what it was all about. They let spectators onto the stages in those days so I shot the cars running Del Sur. I got a decent shot of Rui Brasil, made an 11X enlargement and the next year I showed it to him and he Bought It! Now, although I had competed in about 100 events I only had 20 photographs to show for all that effort, money and looking at the ground where the sky should be, so I felt there was a market among the competitors.
In 1996 I signed up with the Press and took a ride on Spunky Canyon with Bill Malik in the Volvo since I had seen in earlier years that he was the most spectacular. I felt completely at home and for a moment thought about co-driving but I had so much going on that I decided to stick to photography. That way I could be part of rally again. After I retired from Northrop, in 2000, we formally started Motorsport Memories as a company. We hang out with the teams before and after racing and stay at the host hotel, contributing to the after-party. We get to know the drivers, their families and the service crews, and in time their rally histories.
Most owner/drivers would rather buy tires than images, but apart from having something to look back on, images are important to showcase the team in the quest for sponsorship. Once a team gets a sponsor, the sponsor will need images to exploit and gain some advertizing benefit from their support of the team. They also make great thank-you gifts for sponsors, co-drivers and support crew. We offer a unique product – the rally album. I asked myself what I would like as a memento of a big event – who competed, where did we go, stage times, results and of course a bunch of great photos and that’s what we provide. If someone writes an article we provide images since we shoot everyone and occasionally an advertising opportunity occurs – our shot of Bill Holmes Bilstein rally truck is Miss December in their current calendar. Since none of this happens without organizers we provide free promotional material for their websites.
The most marketable images are jumps and good slideways shots from inside or outside the corner. The guru of rally photographers is Reinhard Klein and his images are often beautiful scenery with a tiny rally car in it. I shoot some of these but they are not particularly popular. As an ex-racer I have a feel for where on a stage things will happen and I drive the stages at reasonable speed to help with this. If a stage has been run earlier, you can often see evidence of cars sliding or running wide – good clues for a good photo spot. GPS is useful so that you can return to these locations at a later date. We usually have two or more photographers which allow us to cover more of these spots or provide different angles. Sometimes I am too good at this and once picked a spot on the Laughlin event where three people went off the road – did not sell a single image since most people don’t want a picture of them crashing! The two other factors are the sun direction or more precisely where it will be when the cars arrive and the wind direction. Unless you have no choice, having the wind behind you is much preferable because of the dust. Sunset provides the most wonderful light but you only have half an hour and usually we are in the mountains where sunset comes earlier so that is a little problematic.
The rest of this is from my experience covering rally in the deserts of the Southwest US so your experience in other parts of the globe may vary. To shoot rally safely and successfully you need to understand what is happening and preferably be in range of the stage radio net. It is easier to shoot if you can take your car onto the stage to carry your equipment and to save time. We always check in with the Stage Captain at the start/end of the stage and tell them where we are going and what we plan to do; that way if they see us wandering about they do not shut down the stage to check for interlopers. Note: if they give you a tabard (vest), wear it. The ability to park safely a good distance off the road will sometimes determine where you can shoot – no parking means you may have to walk some distance carrying equipment. One photog I know brings a bike. Because roads must be closed for the rally you must be in position at least an hour before the first car, so planning your day is like doing your own rally but often with a tighter schedule. We once shot all the cars leaving the start ramp at Laughlin and then beat the first car into the second stage. If you understand rally you know that the 00 car comes by about 30 minutes before the start and then the 0 about 15 minutes before the first rally car at close to rally speed – use these as opportunities to check your position, image composition and camera settings, since when the first car arrives it will be too late. After the rally passes, you will be stuck on the stage until sweep comes by, usually a fast sweep, medical car, and a truck to tow out stuck or broken rally cars. Don’t try to leave the stage until all these have passed – in CRS the last vehicle carries a flashing green to signal that the stage is clear. If possible, follow them out; but be prepared for marshals or civilian traffic coming in the other direction. To understand what is happening we carry a scanner tuned to the stage frequency and that is particularly useful if there is a delay or the stage is cancelled entirely; you know when the cars start and if one crashes or breaks down. We also carry little comm radios to communicate between ourselves.
The question most people ask is “What kind of equipment do I need?”, meaning camera gear, and I will get to that, but we have found the need for quite a bit of other stuff to the point that I use a check list to make sure I have not forgotten anything important; there are no shops 60 miles out in the desert. The CRS events we cover are 75 to 1000 miles from home so you need a comfortable, reliable road car to get there; you may then be faced with 100 miles of dirt roads and from unsettling experience we don’t go anywhere without 4WD and a skid plate under the engine and diff. We also carry 2 spares, since punctures in road tires are quite common. Take a tow rope, tools, a shovel, TP, duct tape, plastic bags, windshield cleaning gear, safety triangle, working flashlight and a cell phone. Take plenty of water and a cooler with snacks.
As far as personal gear goes, long pants, boots, and a wide brim hat are minimum wear but keep rain gear and cold weather sweat shirt/jacket handy. I wear a shooting vest to carry spare batteries, CF/SD cards, sunglasses, suntan lotion, water, lip balm and a multi-tool. I also carry a flashlight since climbing down a rocky, cactus-strewn hill in the pitch dark is an experience to avoid and the light can be used to signal an oncoming rally car in case of an incident. Pruning shears are useful for cutting back the odd bush to avoid cluttered foregrounds. I also carry a small backpack with spare gear and small folding stool – there is a lot of waiting involved in rally.
The vast majority of professional photographers use Canon or Nikon digital equipment and either will provide excellent results. Rally photography is probably the worst environment for any camera due to the ever-present dust which used to scratch the neg on old film cameras and spots the sensor on digitals, so I use a midrange ($1000-$1500) digital camera (Canon 40D) rather than a top of the line piece. You need something that focuses fast, shoots say 6 frames/sec and with a 12 megapixel APS sensor. With a crisp shot you can blow that up to a 20 X 30 print if necessary. Automatic sensor cleaning is a huge plus. I shoot exclusively with an 18-200 auto focus, stabilized zoom lens so that you can capture the whole car as it comes by a few feet away on the inside of a corner but will fill the frame if you are standing up on a hill. Longer lenses are hard to keep steady and you risk cutting off one end of the car or the other. In daylight I usually shoot aperture priority and pick an ISO that gives 1/400 – 1/500 sec to make sure the car is sharp; as it gets darker I increase ISO to cope up to about 800 when it gets pretty grainy.
I tape a plastic bag to the lens hood to reduce the dust that can be sucked into the lens, but the camera is invariably filthy after an event so I try to wipe it down with a clean cloth after a day in the desert and when I get home. Canned air is useful but be careful since you can force dust into a unit that is not completely sealed. I always carry a spare camera, the biggest flash you can buy, a complete set of spare batteries, a card reader and laptop computer to down load and review our days output. Digital is great because filing is so much easier; I set up files and sort images by year, by event and by driver.
Safety is of primary importance so always stand in a safe location. A longer focal length allows close up images from a safe distance. The inside of a corner is safer but cars can spin and come towards you, so have an escape route planned. If I must be on the outside, I find a spot up on a bank or behind a solid guardrail. An accident would be bad for you and rally. Watch out for rocks especially behind a powerful 4WD; they can hit you and your camera, so I clean them off the road where I am.
Getting started as a photographer is harder now since spectators are discouraged or kept corralled. I would suggest volunteering to work a rally first; that way you will understand how it operates and get to know the organizers. You will need to sign up at the start registration area for media credentials provided by the organizers in order to be allowed on the course, so contact them ahead of the event – that will be much easier if they already know who you are and you can show a legitimate need. The top Rally America events are really tough on photographers, so good luck with them.
I keep coming back for the people, the desert scenery, and the excitement of a committed driver taking a car to its limits where the slightest mistake can spell disaster. Good shooting and I’ll see you out on the stages.
We would like to thank Bill for taking time out of his busy schedule to share his stories and experience with us.
What about you?
Have you ever met Bill?
What’s your favorite rally photo?
What rally photog tips and tricks have worked for you?