Common Sense Is Important For Racing Photographers


Stories Of People Who Make A Living In Motorsports

Guest Columnist

Freelance photographer David E. Heithaus specializes in short-track open-wheel photography.

Fast Fact: Heithaus is a real estate banker during the day.

Auto racing has been a passion in my life since age eight. Although I didn’t attend more than a handful of shows until I reached my teens, the pages of Lyle Kenyon Engle’s Auto Racing Magazine, Racing Pictorial, NSSN and Sprint Car Pictorial brought racing to life and kept the fever alive for me until my father could get us to the next show at Winchester, Terre Haute or Eldora.

In my early teens I borrowed my dad’s old rangefinder 35mm camera in hopes of capturing a few images to remember the races. Initially, I had no other motive than to document the day, but by the late 1970s, I had made idols of John Mahoney, Gene Crucean and their “gang” of contributors to Sprint Car Pictorial, which was published annually from 1968 through 1983.

These guys seemingly knew everyone in racing, and had a great time, so it occurred to me that photography could be my ticket to be involved in the sport, instead of just a “fence hanger.”

My first published photo appeared in the old East Coast paper, Illustrated Speedway News in 1978 and I have been a contributor to National Speed Sport News since 1980.

The best thing anyone who wants to be a race photographer can have isn’t the latest $5,000 Nikon, but rather, a great mentor. Early in my career my mentors were John Mahoney, Tom Dick and Jack Gladback.

Later, my buddy Randy Jones became my greatest influence. These guys were all talented photojournalists, but it was the example they set, not their technical savvy, that made them great mentors. All of them demonstrated obsession with racing and racers that went far beyond “getting the shot.”

Obsession led my father and me to many hours in the darkroom and many late-night post office runs in an effort to make NSSN’s Monday morning deadline; but I always felt my first responsibility was to document the day, because those events could never happen again.

So what makes a great action shot?

In short-track racing (my specialty), I believe it involves capturing a moment that a fan in the stands only glimpses, or can’t catch with the naked eye: A chassis twisting as a car hooks the cushion or drivers’ eyes behind the visor as they set up for a turn. Finding an angle that exaggerates the action also adds drama: Shooting from a low perspective emphasizes any “wheels-up” action, and an infield angle where you can see the right side of the cars adds to the feeling that the cars are really “backing it in.”

It’s also important to pay attention to the direction and “quality” of light. A good bet is to pick a point on the track where the sun is behind you and where the drivers pick up the throttle to exit a turn. Sometimes, it’s beneficial to just put your camera down and watch the action unfold, especially if you are covering a new venue.

When you find that magic spot, it’s important to be cognizant of your surroundings. Never turn your back on moving race cars. I count being in the infield as a privilege. Putting yourself in harm’s way won’t endear you to the promoter who allowed you to be there, and the publicity of getting killed by a race car won’t do the sport you love any favors either.

It’s all about exercising some common sense. Common sense extends to courtesy to other shooters. While I won’t deny there is competition between the pros to nail that special image, it is common courtesy to ask “Am I in your shot?” if you position yourself between others and the track.

“The Zone” has become something of a cliché in sports, but I think being “In the Zone” is an important component of great action photography that occurs when you become so comfortable with your surroundings and equipment that you can anticipate action before it happens.

It’s almost like seeing in slow motion. You could try Zen to reach The Zone, but the surest path is practice: thousands of frames of practice.

(Original Print Date: October 31, 2007)