Look Mummy, I’m a star!
If the title is not clue enough, yes I am an Award Winning Photographer now. Pass the Salt Photography is now award winning.
It’s an honour I allowed myself to day-dream about on occasion but I kept my feet firmly on the ground. I imagined my beard to be well and truly grey before my photography would be winning awards or me becoming an award winning photographer.
Yet here I am, the Speedway Photographer of the Year, although I still can’t believe it, the trophy sitting on my desk tells me otherwise.
So how did a photographer with no experience in Speedway photography let alone Motorsport photography, go from total rookie at the beginning of the season to winning an award for it at the end?
Go make something to drink, get extra comfortable in your seat and allow me to tell the story of my Speedway “Career”.
The “career” may be short at this stage but the story definitely isn’t, especially if I want to begin where all good story’s begin: The Beginning.
My Speedway photography journey started as an offer out of the blue. I was attending a get together with my close friends and having a few quiet ones.
Standard fare, the music’s going, people in their corners catching up and retelling stories of the great wide world outside and how, as we get older, it’s rosey tint is wearing away more and more.
I’m on a purple valour couch talking with my old mate Brian, also more commonly known as Ziffel. Accomplished painter, all round good bloke and founder of SpeedwayDownunder.
Yelling over the loud music Ziffel says: “So Pole (that’s my nickname and it’s used so often I may as well not have a real name) you have a good camera, how about you come along and do some driver interviews for us, maybe take a few pics as well.” Brian takes another drink of his bourbon, “we need some better interviews as the one’s we did on our phones were sh*t.”
I laugh and say ‘sure why not. Hopefully I can get the quality you are after. I have never done interviews before but I will give it a crack”.
He says “Sweet, I’ll keep you updated” and we both revert back to our private words to mull over the decision.
Mind blowing isn’t it.
That’s how it all began, a quick conversation and I was signed on and definitely oblivious to what I had just set in motion.
As simple as it all seems theres plenty more behind the scenes that made this partnership work out. There was a mutual benefit agreement from it that we were both happy with. I recorded the videos and took photos in exchange for exposure on the SDU Facebook page.
SDU is all privately funded, so all the work to be done was to be unpaid and I understood that. Granted I felt my quality of work at the time to be unworthy of payment so it was a perfect union.
I love to learn, love to gain experience, so being able to practise a new skill of film making and motorsport photography without the pressures of a paying customer was great.
Ziffel gained a new member of the team that had the equipment needed to bring SDU to a new level. It was the second biggest Speedway page in New Zealand and he had ambitions of becoming the biggest so bringing me on was a natural move.
Interviews and the Build Up to Opening Night.
I arrived at Chris Gwilliams’ house a month or so after I signed on with SDU. I didn’t consider myself a member of the team as I was yet to contribute anything, so I felt out of place when I met Chris.
I saw his Midget up on stands in his garage. Back then it just looked like any other Speedway car. I had no idea of classes and how to tell them apart.
It was just a funny looking wedge-shaped car with its wheels exposed.
I was the ultimate noob!
If I knew back then what I know now it would have been a very exciting and interesting experience. Getting to see the Boss Chassis Midget up close and personal and chatting with the talented driver that sat at it’s helm would have been a highlight.
Of course one has to start somewhere and I am pleased my first experience with SDU was with the Gwilliam Interview.
While I setup my camera gear we waited for Kyle to arrive. Qualified musician, Guitar Teacher and Web Guru Extraordinaire. He was going to be my camera Two operator and general assistant for the filming.
He was already part of SDU before I began, doing most of the content and general running of the page and website.
Looking back at the first interview, I can confidently say my skills have come a long way. I had a general idea of what needed to be done but lack of experience and equally important; lack of proper filming equipment hindered the result by a big margin.
I knew we needed mulitple angles of Chris to make it interesting, to get a nice blurred background behind him and some B-roll footage to cut into while he spoke.
That stuff was elementary knowledge but it was the only knowledge I had at the time so I went with that.
First problem I had was the lighting. We were shooting at night in his garage. The lighting was the quintessential fluroescent bulbs placed in the ceiling which cast light downwards.
They were harsh and didn’t place the light where it was needed most.
No matter where he stood we would get half of his face exposed while the other was in shadow. Of course none of us thought to bring some sort of lighting. The entire team was very new to all of this and it painfully showed.
Another problem was audio.
The sounds of the street kept intruding on Chris and forced us to do a retake. It seemed every straight-piped Civic in Auckland had to roll past that hour or so we were filming.
I did have an external directional microphone for the shoot, which is miles better than the standard mic built into the camera.
However, since it was a metre or so away from Chris it picked up a lot of external noise as well.
Despite the problems we went ahead and filmed the interview and that was that.
When I got home I set about editing the footage and turning it into a decent video.
I had an archaic video editing software at the time which could barely handle simple 1080p footage. When trying to work with the footage the program would stutter and previewing anything would require a few seconds of buffering.
When making over a hundred edits to a single bit of film and previewing those changes. A few seconds add up, believe me.
It took a week of evenings tinkering with the video until it was finally done. I managed to correct a bit of the uneven light on Chris’s face and mash all the footage together to make a cohesive piece.
I unvieled the video on location of our next interview. Jakeb and Ben Le Cren.
We shot their interview together which wasn’t too much of a problem as they were well spoken and their parents coached them well between questions.
It also helped we were already warmed up as we had just done an interview with Eric Smith.
With two interviews to edit I felt the pressure to get going and get them done.
I enjoy having projects to do but also I can’t remove the self-impossed pressure I put on myself to get everything done. It’s a silly foible but one I am greatful for.
It provides motivation and commitment to anything I take on as I can buckle down and work without my mind wandering. This definitely helps especially when editing a set of wedding photos. Editing and organizing 2000+ photos into a polished collection while my clients wait is always daunting.
Luckily my work ethic combined with this character flaw help propel progress.
This progress was severly hindered while editing the Le Cren interview.
My editing program could not handle a long piece of video I had in the opening of the piece. The program just froze that bit of video in the final export and I could not work around it. That and the freezing was driving me nuts while I was frantically trying to resolve the problem.
This all lead to me blowing my paycheck and a half on a new processor for my computer which itself was only a few months old. It was the first of many expensive purchases I made for the sake of SDU. By that point I was commited and money spent was quality gained.
After the processor was in I had a better luck working with the program. That problematic piece of video was still freezing so I had to reduce the resolution of that piece and after a lot of stress I called it a day.
Now I can just laugh at all of this and yell “Noob” at my former self. I have long ditched the archaic software for an industry standard one and have a bounty of knowledge compared to back then.
But that’s the reason I joined SDU, I had the opportunity to jump into the deep end with video production and teach myself the skills the fastest way possible.
Sink or Swim.
As the months went on we did more interviews and I was getting more and more comfortable with the role. With every video we were learning more and more and the quality increased with every one we made.
Kyle used his knowledge with music production and after I had the video audio organized I would send him the track for polishing. He would scrub as much external noise as possible, tweak the voices for clarity and a number of other clever tricks to coax the most out of our sub-par audio quality.
By the last interviews I had purchased lapel microphones that clip onto the speakers’ shirt, these little wizards provided us with diamond quality audio and it was money well spent.
Before long Summer was upon us and interviews took a back bench while we amped up for the real show.
It was time to switch my camera back to photo mode and take my first crack at Speedway photography.
The First Taste of Dirt
It was opening night at Springs Speedway and the excitement was a physical thing.
The pits were open and crowded with bright-eyed fans looking at all the race cars lined up.
Crews were busy working on cars, fueling, polishing, inflating tyres and chatting with an ethusiastic fan.
I was being lead by Ziffel through all this with instructions to photograph every single car in the pits. We needed the photos for future posts and news stories and it was a great way for me to familirize myself with everything.
The photos took a while and kneeling down to get a photo of every car took a toll on me. Funny as it sounds my lower body was definitely feeling it the next day.
As it turned out, physical pain was part of the game with Speedway Photography. Atleast it was for me.
Eventually we took our seats up in the bleachers and waited for the action to begin.
As I got my bearings I noticed how woefully far I was from the action. We were sitting high in the stands for maximum view and safety from the mud. While this was great for spectating, it was very far for me to be taking photos.
My camera gear is great for everything from studio work, events and weddings and general photography.
When it comes to shooting fast moving objects at distances over 100 metres or more that camera gear starts to show serious flaws. Even with my biggest lens equipt I could barely fill half the frame with a car. That is if my Auto-focus system even managed to lock onto a passing car before it sped off again.
The thick metal fence seperating the track and the spectators also proved to be a major concern. It was just high enough to keep intruding in every shot I took and it’s steel girders often popped up infront of a car in my image.
It was then that I saw the track photographers with their fluro-vests standing in the in-field.
This is the centre of the track where safety crews and helpers stand-by during the race. You cannot get any closer to the action than that. Especially when standing on the near edge of the track, you had cars blasting a mere metre or two away from your camera.
They had no fence to deal with, no distance concerns or obstacles.
They had the golden goose of camera positions.
That and their gear was made for this. All bristling with Canon’s or Nikon’s best telephoto lens, they had more than enough reach to photograph the sweat on the driver’s faces if they wanted too. (If they could see past their helmets of course, but you get my meaning.)
To me they were the kings of this game.
I knew I could never achieve the same results they could.
I had all the odds stacked against me.
Taking all of the obstacles into account I tried my hand at shooting the action. I kept my camera to my eye and shot the whole evening.
For a first effort they were not too bad.
Even looking back on them now I am surprised I had already starting developing the technique I would eventually use for Speedway Photography.
Ziffel was blown away when I uploaded them.
He finally had quality photos of his own to share on SDU and have free reign of where to use them without seeking permission from the authors.
These days people demand dynamic content that is visually appealing and eye catchings. No website or Facebook page can compete with just text alone.
You can be the William Shakespeare of modern day sports writing but without some colour to back those monochrome words up, you will find it hard to stand out amongst the others.
Would this be a bad time to mention I also provide Website Photography? I can provide great quality photos of your business for you to add to your website, Facebook page or advertising material. Most of your competition will have websites of their own and it’s an unfortunate fact people do judge a book by it’s cover.
A flash website with high resolution photos will persuade a person to hire that company much easier than one with a couple stock photos. Sparingly spread out over the page like toppings on a cheap Pizza.
What would you prefer?
A pizza overflowing with juicy sauces and toppings or one with a couple pieces of pepperoni and cheese so scarce you can see the tomato sauce base, which is also spread on thin?
Think about it.
Can’t Join Em, Beat Em
That first meeting at the Springs combined with all the pre-season driver interviews quickly took hold in my mind.
The methanol that ran the cars was a hyperdermic needle and it was pumped into right into my veins.
The fast action, mud and dirt flying, personally knowing the legends behind the wheel, it all made me become hooked on the sport.
After that first meeting I came out a newly formed fanatic of the sport and I could not wait to get back.
The methanol was in my blood now and I would do anything to taste it again.
As the beautiful summer went on past Christmas there was meeting after meeting. I attended every one I could and with every race I learnt more and more. Trying different locations at the track, experimenting with my camera settings and lenses.
Thanks to SDU my images were also beginning to get noticed. I started getting comments complimenting my hard work and it encouraged me to keep going.
It was also by this point I learnt about the Track Photographers and how I wouldn’t be part of that clique any time soon.
Johnny-come-lately was frowned upon, especially since due to working with SDU my work was getting more exposure than the usual enthusiastic photographer sharing on Facebook.
I learnt to keep out of their way and let them carry on their work, while I did mine.
Although I knew my photos could not compete with their’s due to factors explained earlier, I still tried.
I stuck close to the fence and managed to shoot through it without it getting into the photo. Of course it was a very small window but it paid off.
My first experiment with this resulted in this shot above of Speedway Star Michael Pickens. This is also one of the photos that helped me win the Speedway Photographer of the Year Award.
Even though I couldn’t get the same angles that the Track Photographers were getting from their superior position, I was managing to get some comparable quality shots.
If someone told me back then that I would end up winning the Award I would laugh in their face and point to the Track Photographerd in the in-field. I would then point to my camera and say “All this combined probably costed less than their camera alone.”
I guess I was doing better than I gave myself credit for.
It wasn’t all fun and games, mainlining methanol and overpriced hot dogs while snapping photos like a tourist seeing the Eiffel tower for the first time.
As I started becoming competitive and invested in provided photos for Speedway Fans I felt that old pressure on myself. I felt I needed to get the photos out there as soon as possible.
Soon as possible being the next day at 9am in the morning.
Not only is it a peak time for Facebook users but I also had this mental image of SDU fans logging in with their morning coffee and excitedly seeing the photos from the racing they just experienced last night.
I bet you never thought of the behind the scenes work it took to get those images up there on time.
Read on if you want a glimpse.
After the racing was over we would go to the pits and take photos of the winning drivers, chat with some others and usually head over to McDonalds for the obligatory milkshake.
Before SDU I hadn’t had a milkshake in over ten years, then suddenly I was having multiple in a week.
Add milkshakes to the list of things I was mainlining.
So taken all that into account I would get home around midnight.
First thing I would do is backup my entire memory card so I knew the photos were safe in case of disaster.
While that was copying I would chuck my multiple camera batteries on charge and make coffee.
Past midnight and my night has just began as I go over the 1000+ photos I took from the meeting and edit the keepers (remember my no photo left behind rule).
This could easily take over two hours or more. I would often look at photos remaining and inwardly groan at how much I had left.
After I export the full resolution copies I would export lower resolution copies that will be used for internet uploading. Once their on the internet their fair pickings like fruit to birds so my master files never saw the harsh light of the internet sun.
Having your photo stolen and seeing it posted somewhere without your permission, especially if it’s the master file with no watermarking is a nightmare scenario for any photographer. It’s a fact of this game but it dosen’t make it any easier to stomach no matter how resiliant you are.
This brings me to the next step which is sifting through the keepers and deciding which photos I will upload to SDU and which I will upload to my Facebook Page.
For SDU I usually put up the general Speedway life photos and happenings with a couple action shots thrown in as a sweetener while my page got the bulk of the action shots.
Once I had the photos organized in their seperate folders I would set about watermarking every photo with their respective markings. They were mainly the same except SDU received an extra watermark with it’s logo.
There is no quick way of doing this. I would go over the 100-200 photos by hand and applied the watermark to every image to go online.
With all that done I would set my alarm and sleep off the methanol, milkshake and hot dog binge.
About 7.30a.m I would be up and uploading the folders to their respective Facebook profiles and captioning the images and double, triple checking everything was okay. I am a stickler for not making mistakes so the Quality Checks took up a long time.
Around 9 I would hit that Publish button and send the images towards 15,000 waiting fans.
During the 50 Lapper Race this was particularily hectic.
With the event being rained out the first night and it being held the next day, then other racea shortly after it, I was finding it difficult to keep this up.
Luckily I was on Summer leave so I could concentrate on that alone.
Nonetheless, that vacation was far from relaxing or lazy.
And I loved it.
I love being productive, of having a goal outside of work that I can devote my energy and time to, and this was it. That height of events at the Springs was full on and it gave me so much in return.
Around this time we also managed to land an exclusive interview with American Speedway Star Spencer Bayston.
He arrived in New Zealand a few days before he was racing and without telling our fans we managed to get a surprise interview with him.
We did the interview the night before he was meant to race and the plan was to get the interview up the next morning before the race.
The interview was filmed in the evening.
And remember how previous interviews usually took me a week to do?
After arriving home at past 11 that evening I remember feeling very exhausted and tired already. I had zero motivation to boot up my PC and get to work on this interview that I had just stood around for hours recording…
I had the coffee machine brewing cups of coffee while I went and took a shower. It was time to switch out the methanol and start injecting caffiene instead.
I used the hot steam and caffiene as guard dogs against the looming threats of sleep and lack of motivation.
I got the interview all edited and alligned a few hours later and sent off the audio to Kyle. Luckily he was still on his own mission and managed to get the audio file back to me all polished and ready.
I inserted it back into the video and waited the 40 minutes or more for it to export, did my usual quality check of the finished product and as luck would have it, it was perfect. No need to go over and redo a minor mistake or spelling error.
By that time it was past 4am, I sent the finished interview off to Kyle for uploading that morning and repacked my gear in preparation for the racing that day.
To celebrate the quickest interview turn-around and completion, I went to bed. At that point, it was the best prize I could have got.
Confessions of an Addict
“Hi my name is Les, and I’m a Speedway Addict.”
Now now, before all you old-timers scoff and call me a fake and words best saved for the gutter, let me explain myself.
By this time I have interviewed a fair share of drivers, I have become friends with them and their families, I have attended many Speedway Meetings and it got to the point where Speedway was on my mind daily.
Sure, my hands were not shaking and my vision wasn’t blurry due to withdrawals however Speedway had definitely gotten under my skin and ingrained itself into my brain.
Deep into that little space dedicated to passions and obsessions.
It was a tight fit thanks to my wide number of said passions but it found a corner.
That leads to another point, when I decide to take something on, I take it on 100%
I don’t half-heartedly do it and call it a day.
I took on the work with SDU simply for the experience I would gain as a photographer and so I put my best foot forward and tried my hardest. I didn’t want to let Brian nor myself down.
Little did I realise that Speedway would capture so much of my interest and force it’s way into my life.
But I am very happy it did.
By now January was turning to February and slowly the Speedway Season was winding down. The meetings were getting fewer and far between with a lot of the racing happening down the country.
Due to SDU having no sponsors we couldn’t afford to follow the racing. Much to all of our disappointment.
As much as we love Speedway it dosen’t pay rent nor feed our families so those things had to come first. We are still looking for the Holy Grail in that regard:
Getting paid for our passion.
SDU would be so much bigger than it already is if we could offer coverage of the entire Speedway Season.
With live race results, write ups and of course, photos and videos.
If you are a company looking to advertise with the biggest Speedway page in New Zealand with solid engagement and following then feel free to get in touch. Think it over.
Before the Speedway Season wrapped up I had amassed a hefty collection of photos.
The numerous times my camera and I got smacked by hard mud or the constant dirt in my eyes from standing at the fence was definitely all worth it.
By the end I also started doing video work to break up the photos.
Apart from the ever-popular Michael Pickens victory dough nuts I also recorded Feature Races and even a Sprint Car Pole Shuffle.
Those videos were a great way for me to develop skills in a new professional editing software I had begun to use in a bid to increase production values. Since there was no relative time limit I could learn the software in my own time and develop a technique.
My crowning achievement was the Pole Shuffle.
The race itself was very exciting with Daniel Thomas blitzing his way through every competitor he was lined up against and even winning one heat against Rodney Wood with a split second photo finish.
The video ended up having over 4.8 thousand views and overall the few videos I shot got over 10 thousand views.
You take such numbers for granted untill you realise nearly every view is from an individual person. Then it becomes a little unbelievable and humbling.
That a video you “whipped up” in your own time for fun would garner such attention is amazing.
Never before in my life had my work gotten such an audience so it makes it even the more surreal. It’s definitely something I need to get used to for next season.
In amongst all of this Speedway New Zealand was running it’s annual awards for a host of different catagories involving Speedway.
There were catagories for all the car classes, best presented teams, media support and of course Photographers.
My team at SDU were the first to share the news that I was one of the three nominees for Photographer of the Year.
I got home from work to have my phone melt from the messenger notifications constantly going off. I read the message thread with disbelief and my ever present skepticsim.
Upon reading the list myself did the news really set in.
Somehow I had pulled off the impossible (in my eyes) and had gotten selected over all the others shooting Speedway professionally and become one of three nominees for the award.
Pigs Can Fly
Despite my conviction that I couldn’t possibly win it, I decided to break open the piggy bank and use the savings for the trip to Wellington, where the awards were being held.
It was my first visit to the Capital so I indulged with the typical touristy attractions and distractions for a few days prior to the Awards Dinner.
If I wasn’t coming home with anything, I may as well come home with memories.
The Awards Dinner came around quicker than expected and so came on the full suit and tie with jacket. It definitely felt nice to wear something different for Speedway over the usual dusty SDU hoodie and shorts.
My partner and I arrived to the Brenthood Hotel not knowing to expect. It was our first time at this event so we kept our heads low as we searched for a familiar face.
Luckily we found safe harbour with the Guptill Family.
Their name is well known in Speedway with father Brian being Team Leader of the Springs Safety Team amongst many other things and his son Hayden Guptill. 1NZ in TQs and Midget Car driver for BSL racing.
Hayden was also a nominee for TQ driver of the year so the competition was on for who would bring home the gold.
I was fourtunate enough to become friends with the family after first interviewing Hayden and Brian then later hanging out with them during races. A trip to Taipa for the racing over Queen’s Birthday Weekend solidified that friendship and it is one I look forward to building next season.
With everyone fortified with a beer (or three) we were called to our seats for the awards.
We were seated with the Guptills and another family known to them so dinner conversation was easy. Dinner would come later however as the first round of awards would be handed out first.
At this point I was definitely feeling the pressure.
As it got closer and closer to the photographer award my vision was getting narrower and narrower. The nerves I was holding off for so long were finally making themselves known.
With a vengence.
The first thing that made me think that I may have done it was the announcers long pause before reading out the nominees’ names. My legal name is not the easiest to pronounce and that has followed me all the way since primary school.
The screen near the stage showed all three of the nominees’ best photos and just in case I still didn’t believe I was actually a nominee, one of my photo’s was up there.
I remember being very still with my vision locked on nothing as I waited for the verdict. At somepoint I forgot to breathe.
“And the winner of the Speedway Photographer of the Year Award is…Les-“
I hear the rest but suddenly my brain isn’t functioning as I take a breath and it seems the world’s colour has been enhanced ten-fold.
It feels like everyone’s eyes are on me (which most of them were) as I stand and give my partner a big hug – as her support throughout the whole season was part of me being called up – and I make my way to the stage.
All the way making faces of disbelief and awe.
I reached the stage without tripping and my speech started with:
“Well ladies and gentlemen, that proves it. Pigs can fly.”
The rest went by in a blur but photos taken of me later showed the speech was quite enthusiastic as I was shown karate chopping at one point.
And so the hype is all but over now.
The awards are all but a distant sweet memory and the world keeps turning.
Yet whenever I remind myself I am the New Zealand Speedway Photographer of the Year it brings on a rarely allowed sense of pride and achievement.
Despite all the facts going against me I managed to somehow come out on top in a field I knew nothing of this time last year.
I had never done any motorsport photography and my knowledge of Speedway was limited to the few meetings I attended when I was a teenager.
With equipment built for the slower paces of Weddings and still life photography added to the fact I was shooting from the cheap seats, I somehow managed to become the best amongst a field of experienced and battle-hard professionals.
Is it going to my head?
I am very aware this victory was an amazing miracle born from a lot of hard work and a good measure of luck.
I am positive next years competition will come back much more fierce and capture some stunning photos.
My place at the top will be quickly contested and most likely edged out by someone else. Whether or not I ever get nominated again remains to be seen.
Not that I won’t be trying!
If anything I will be working harder and with more confidence knowing that I actually mean something in Speedway now. I am no longer a nobody.
Now I am a nobody with the title of Photographer of the Year!
And at the end of it all, that’s all that matters.
I got recognition that a lot of hard work and effort is noticed and appreciated in life.
You may not know it at the time but every bead of sweat and ache, every hour missed of sleep and relaxation thrown aside for work is counted.
And whether or not it results in something as grandoise as an award, you as a person will become stronger at whatever you have poured your heart into and the pride that comes with it will mean more than anything.
I was fourtunate enough to come away with such a degree of recognition from the highest authority in my field.
Yet even if I didn’t win the award. Even if I didn’t even get nominated or acknowledged, the friendships I have made over the season, the excitement of the racing and personal growth in my photography passion mean the most.
If you have managed to read all the way through my story, congratulations! I told you it was a long one and you endured the journey. You are a winner of my gratitude and respect.
This post required a lot of effort to write and pushing aside my qualms of writing solely about myself but I felt someone, somewhere might enjoy it and might even inspire them to keep going at whatever their working hard at.
I’m proof it’s possible, just don’t give up, follow your insticts but don’t be afraid to learn and grow. You will get there whether it be tomorrow or next year.
Okay that’s enough literacy, time for photography!
My next booking’s tomorrow and my camera isn’t even charged!
…Oh who am I kidding, an award winning photographer isn’t caught out that easily. I was packed and ready hours ago 😉