Nikon pro Graeme Brown has 30 years’ experience in motorsports photography, from car rallying and F1 racing to superbike championships. We asked him to share how he shot some key images from his career and what’s in his kit bag.
A life on the track
Professional motorsport photography is a specialism that requires sharp instincts. There’s no second chance for a shot in the world of motor racing. Graeme Brown has been honing those instincts for nearly 30 years – starting out with car rallying and racing, then shooting Formula 1 and motorcycle racing. Since 2000, when he won the contract with the Castrol Honda World Superbike Team to cover the FIM Superbike World Championships, he has focused on the motorcycle industry – shooting Superbike, Moto GP and Motocross racing, as well as magazine editorial and commercial work for the manufacturers. Graeme also shoots for event sponsors and holds championship contracts with Kawasaki and Yamaha to supply all their event images.
Graeme told us, “The images I’ve shared reflect the principles I apply to most of my race and event coverage: a shot that shows the context or location of the event, an unusual angle that other photographers won’t think of, and conveying the speed of the race. My shooting style is to create images that fill the frame, showing the speed and drama of the sport, but also making sponsors’ branding clearly visible. My clients need to have their product showcased with all those details, but also in an interesting and creative way.”
Kylesku Bridge, Scotland – shot for RiDE Magazine
“A common saying in Scotland is ‘If you don’t like the weather here, just wait five minutes’ and never a truer word was said on this shoot. It was an odd choice to head to the north-west in spring to shoot a comparison test of touring motorcycles, but often these jobs are scheduled around availability of the models rather than the season. This press trip experienced it all: howling winds blowing in from the North Atlantic, with heavy downpours that were interrupted by periods of bright, low winter sunshine.
We timed it perfectly, reaching the bridge for our first shooting location of the day. The menacing clouds over the mountains had just been punctured by a shaft of sunshine. A shower of rain had just passed, leaving the road wet, and that made the shot for me. Normally I wouldn’t shoot into the light, but with the sun reflecting on the wet asphalt – combined with the dark clouds and shadows over the hills – gave me a stark contrast to frame the bridge and the motorbikes.”
Embalse del Bembézar, Spain, 2020 – shot for Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX press introduction
“This European press event staged in and around Córdoba introduced a new sports-oriented touring bike for Kawasaki Motors Europe. The brief was to provide journalists with shots of them riding the bike, and also shoot a generic set of images for a press pack to be sent to media outlets unable to attend. It was the first commercial shoot I’d done with the Nikon D850 body and MB-D18 battery pack and grip that I’d bought a few weeks earlier. I’d retired my D4 that was almost 10 years old and on its second shutter box with well over a million actuations. As I already had a D5 for motorsports shooting, I was attracted to the 45.7 MP sensor in the D850. I work exclusively with RAW files, so the information and detail that the larger sensor produces gives me the capability to supply very high-resolution files that some clients require for display format printing and high-quality brochures.
Another element of the shoot was to impart a feeling of freedom and the opportunity this bike offers to travel comfortably for long distances and explore new destinations. This location presented itself spontaneously as we drove past at the end of the day. After a bit of ‘gardening’, we had a clear area to shoot the bike and rider with a fantastic vista of the reservoir beyond, shortly before the sun set behind the hills. Had we arrived 20 minutes later, the light would have been completely different and this shot wouldn’t have been possible. It reminded me how important it is to be flexible on a shoot and capture an unexpected moment.”
Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, Australia, 2019 – shot for Pata Yamaha World Superbike Team
“In motorcycle racing it’s important to reflect the raw speed in the images. The riders push their race machines to the limit, which in Superbike racing are highly-modified production motorcycles with speeds up to and beyond 300 km/h. To convey that speed in the photographs, I shoot with a slow shutter speed, in this case 1/30 sec. I used the Nikon Z 7 body for this shot, as the light weight combined with the mirrorless shutter allowed me to track the bike accurately throughout the shot.
I stood behind a row of photographers who were concentrating on a head shot as the bikes came around the famous Lukey Heights corner at Phillip Island. It meant I was at eye level with the track and captured Michael van der Mark as he passed, creating an almost ghostly image of the photographers – and reflecting that sense of speed as he hangs off the bike at around 180 km/h.”
Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola, Italy, 2018 – shot for FIM World Superbike Championship
“I like to find unusual locations around a circuit to show the geographical context of the event, or sometimes the view from the grandstands, immersed in the crowd. The Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari is most famous for Formula 1 racing and is sadly where drivers Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna tragically lost their lives on the same race weekend in 1994. It’s also been home to motorcycling over the years and is a regular fixture on the WorldSBK calendar. It is both a beautiful and a terribly difficult circuit to shoot racing. Unlike modern circuits, there is no service road around the track so you have to leave the paddock, travel on the public road, and re-enter the circuit at the corner you want to shoot from. Access is limited and restrictive, and its F1 legacy means that you have to shoot through narrow ‘letterboxes’ in the safety fence.
That said, it is in such a stunning location that it would be a shame not to show the setting in the image selection for the event. I ventured into the garden of the Rivazza Hotel at the highest point of the circuit. The hotel gives a stunning view over the race track and the surrounding city, and as luck would have it, it is right in line with the start and finish straight, giving the context I was seeking.”
Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, Australia, 2020 – shot for Kawasaki Racing Team
“I’ve been working with Kawasaki for 15 years, initially covering their MotoGP race programme and the WorldSBK programme full-time, after their withdrawal from Grand Prix racing at the end of 2008. Over the last few years they have been incredibly successful, winning 6 rider World Championships and for the 2020 season they’ve signed the former British champion, Alex Lowes. I’d shot Alex testing the bike over the winter for various press releases and different media outlets, but the first event of the year at Phillip Island would be when he’d ride the race machine in its full 2020 livery.
In the early practice sessions before the actual race, it’s key to capture a series of ‘stock’ images. These show the bike and rider in dynamic riding situations, filling the frame, with a clean backdrop and shot so that the sponsors’ and manufacturer’s branding is clearly visible. These images are then used for the rest of the year on posters, rider signing cards, and in all sorts of marketing material for the manufacturer, sponsors and technical suppliers. This is a classic shot that I take every year. It’s at the Lukey Heights corner of the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, which is unique in that you can stand relatively close to the track and get a shot that looks as though the rider is heading straight towards you. I have to use a fast shutter speed and a relatively high f-stop to freeze the action, but using the 600mm lens throws the background out of focus, making the bike stand out.”
Circuito de Jerez, Spain, 2019 – shot for Aruba.it Ducati
Shooting with a wide-angle lens on the inside of the Dry Sac corner – named after a local sherry – I wanted to catch the bike in the light just as the sun caught the edge of the surrounding hills. It always surprises me how quickly the earth moves in relation to the sun and I was only able to shoot here for around 10 minutes, when the sun was where I wanted it, before it dipped completely out of view. The other challenge is that during testing the riders don’t run to a schedule. The mechanics make many adjustments to the bikes and their components and the riders come on and off track at random times, depending on when the bike is ready to run. If the light is perfect, it quite often coincides with a period when no bikes are on track. On this occasion, luckily Chaz Davies was running on the Ducati.”
What’s in my kit bag?
As the main body of my work is shooting motorcycle racing, my kit has to be up to the demands of an extremely high-paced sport. Primarily, I use a Nikon D5 body to give me fast autofocus tracking and a fast shutter speed to capture the action.
Photographing motorbike racing is subtly different from photographing other forms of motorsport. Cars, for example, nearly always present a flat side to the camera, as they’re on four wheels. A motorcycle leans towards or away from the camera at all times, and it’s also half the size of most race cars, plus it has the rider moving around on the outside. All those dynamic elements place a lot of demands on the autofocus system of the camera. Shooting a 22-lap race means that you often only get one chance at a shot. With the D5, I can count on the focus tracking system to keep in sync with the bikes and riders as they pass through the frame. This gives me confidence that I can rely on the results.
I also now have a Nikon Z 7 in my kit bag. I use it with the FTZ adapter so that I don’t need to carry extra lenses when travelling around the world. It all works very well, and I use it a lot in and around the pit box. The ability to shoot silently has become a real advantage. When you’re in a high-pressure environment, the whirring of a shutter can draw attention to the photographer and people’s facial expressions can change, or you can even be asked to leave. With the Z 7 I can keep shooting without necessarily being noticed. The touch-screen shutter release is also a really useful feature. It means I can put the camera into a tight position, shoot silently, and not need to have it by my face or drawing attention to the fact I am shooting.
With a lot of sports photography, I have to use fast-aperture prime lenses with a long focal length to capture the action. My ‘bread and butter’ for track action is the AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR lens. I have the last version of this lens, that was first introduced in 2012. Aside from regular servicing, it has been faultless in all the time I have used it, and at the moment isn’t quite ready for upgrading to the current version introduced in 2008. It produces clean, crisp images and the focal length allows me to get full-frame shots of the motorbikes on track when we are behind the gravel traps and safety barriers.
I mostly combine the 600mm lens with the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED lens. I use this lens for action such as race starts, and where I need to get a wider view to achieve some context in the image, but also around the pit box and paddock. The f/2.8 aperture allows me to shoot in the low-light environment of a pit box without using a flash, to avoid blown-out highlights and harsh shadows. This is also an ideal lens for shooting motorcycles on the public road. Often the location I’m at has little space around it and the 70-200mm zoom means I can adapt quickly and easily to most situations.
I use an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and an AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f2.8G ED as my wide-angle options. I particularly like the 14-24mm. It gives really wide shots with no discernible aberration around the edges. I like to use it on track when the weather is dramatic – having the motorbike small in the frame with a huge expanse of dark, angry cloud above, or a low setting sun. This adds another element to the images that gives context and ensures I’m not just presenting my clients with pictures of motorcycles going around corners. It allows me to tell a bigger story of the day’s events.
One of my favourite lenses I carry is the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G. It’s a classic portraiture lens that I use a lot when doing formal portraits, but it also comes into its own when shooting the action in and around the pit lane. The wide aperture allows me to shoot with a higher-than-normal shutter speed to capture any spontaneous moments. With a shallow depth of field, it also makes any feature or detail standout from the background, which can be useful for sponsor-specific shots. For those reasons, I like to use it to shoot the race technicians working on the bikes or when riders are debriefing during a practice session.
I also have an AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens that I use in certain circumstances. It’s such a lovely lens, I wish I could use it more, but it is great for shooting out on public roads. In terms of motorsport, it’s an ideal lens for shooting off-road sports such as motocross. For motocross, the demands placed on the lens are the same as at the road race track, but you can shoot nearer to the action. So, the 300mm lens is ideal for filling the frame, but also has the advantage of being lighter and more portable than the longer 600mm lens.
Discover more of Graeme’s work at www.instagram.com/geebeeimages.