Photographer's Blog: A Story of Racing Portraits
I've been thinking a lot lately about what advice and help I can give other photographers, largely because I'm leading a photography seminar two weeks before the MotoGP round at Laguna Seca. In addition to technique, camera settings, and workflow secrets, I'll also be talking about the 'mental game' of photography, and one of the ideas of this aspect of getting interesting pictures is overcoming shyness and having the courage to take risks.
The above portrait of Romano Fenati and his father, Claudio, is one of my favorites from 2012, and I'd like to share its tale, both for those who are interested in a behind the scenes MotoGP story, and also for my fellow shooters who enjoy occasionally finding photography-related comments in this space.
In Qatar I was one among many who were surprised by Fenati, who seemed to appear from nowhere on a gorgeous Italian Motorcycle Federation Moto3 bike and storm to the podium in his first G.P. race. I knew I wanted a portrait of him to mark this impressive debut, and thought I'd grabbed it when I saw him in pit lane.
Later I realized that this is Niccolo Antonelli, not Romano Fenati. I think that when I saw him I was hypnotized by the combination of the expression, the hair style, and the general similarity to Marco Simoncelli. Having realized my mistake, I looked for another opportunity to photograph the correct Fenati but came away from Losail empty handed.
At Jerez, I went looking for the FMI box and along the way ran into friend and fellow photographer Nick Little. Nick is a gregarious and very likable British expat living in Spain, and he works regularly with the CEV, WSBK and MotoGP series among others. He seems to know everyone in the paddock, and is a great guy to tag along with if you want to meet people. Together we walked down pit lane as I told him what I was after, but when we found the busy FMI box, Romano was nowhere to be seen. Former racer Roberto Locatelli was there, getting the effort organized, and so was the man I would come to know as Claudio, pictured above with his arm around Romano.
In my broken Italian and Claudio's similar English, we established the he was Romano's father, and that I had been suitably impressed in Qatar with the youngster's speed and poise. We chatted for a few more minutes before Romano appeared briefly from the back of the box as if looking for something, then disappeared out the back again.
It is not my habit to request people to pose for me, mainly because I prefer, in general, the 'candid' portrait. When most people pose, aware that they are having their photo taken, the adopt a manner different from their normal one. For this reason I like to 'sneak' portraits, to catch people being themselves while unaware that they are being photographed, or else too busy doing something more important to care. For these portraits I like to use longer lenses, not only for the compressed look but also for the distance they allow between camera and subject. That distance often allows a desirable candor in portraits not usually attained by sticking a lens in the subject's face.
With that in mind, it didn't occur to me to ask for Romano to come back so I could get a portrait. I assumed I would keep trying over the weekend to catch him in the type of shot I've just described. But as Nick and I walked away, again empty handed, we talked about it and he suggested going back and asking for what I wanted.
And here is where the courage to take risks comes in. To be perfectly honest, there is also a kind of safety in the type of portrait I usually make. If you look at the Racing Portraits gallery at PHOTO.GP you'll see that the images I've included there, while interesting, evocative, and displaying some insight into their subjects' emotions (at least in my opinion they are!), generally do not show the subject looking directly at the camera. Few of them were made with the subject's direct help. By that I mean, only a few said to the camera, "Here I am, take my picture!" When you do have that participation, coming along hand in hand is a certain responsibility. When people give you that participation, they often also feel entitled to seeing the result, as well they are. And if you are trying to pass yourself off as a professional photographer, the result had better be at the very least competent, and at least some of the time, at least a little bit magic.
The above I freely admit. But I also stand by my opinion that this magic is not guaranteed by technical proficiency with the tools of photography, because the magic has to come from the subject. A master portrait photographer can find that magic more often than an amateur, no doubt, but that ability is not one of camera settings or lighting. The best portrait photographers have personalities that bring forth that magic from their subjects so that they can then make the exposure to capture it. The rest of us try to find that magic when it appears in fleeting moments amid dramatic situations. We wait patiently for it to present itself and then FIRE! Sometimes we get it and often we don't.
But if we don't, there is no one to say, "Let's see that picture you took of me in pit lane at Jerez! I'm sure it's fantastic." No, actually, it's just another semi-boring posed shot. Or worse, Sorry, but I forgot to reset my ISO from the night before so it's really noisy. Fortunately I make this type of mistake much less frequently than I used to, so I don't worry too much about messing up technically when I'm asked to take someone's picture. But I do worry about not finding that magic I talked about. True, the presence of magic is subjective, but at the same time, this special quality appeals to something inherent in our nature as human beings. Otherwise we would not respond as we do to images.
So back to Jerez: even though I was reluctant, for the reasons described above, I decided to accept Nick's suggestion and go back. I didn't know what would happen, what I'd come away with, if I'd be happy to show it to them after they made a point of arranging themselves for my camera, or if they'd even be willing to participate. There was a lot of uncertainty to be overcome. And not to put too fine a point on it, for me personality it took some extra courage on my part not to say, "Naw, thanks Nick, but I'll just catch up to him later," i.e., on my terms, where I'm comfortable.
Fortunately, I got over this and we went back, asked if Romano would come out for a portrait, and it was like poking a stick in a bee hive, except that the bees were happy instead of furious. Someone wanted to take their young star's photograph! Don't just sit there! Find Romano!!! If the actions of a group of hardened racing men with calloused and grease-stained hands can be seen as cute and adorable, this was it. A few disappeared out the back of the box to find Romano, the rest either looked at us with new appreciation for the attention we were giving their team, or else they were truly just about the racing and went back to working on gears and exhaust pipes.
But shortly Romano reappeared and was ushered forward into a very dim media spotlight. I thought Nick would seize the opportunity as well, but he was talking to someone else as Romano and Claudio followed me out of the box and onto pit lane. Suddenly it was just the three of us, two looking at the other for direction about where to stand. In the shade of the pit lane building, there was not much light to work with and I'd not brought a strobe. So I just made sure they stood where no distant poles or wires would appear to be sticking out of their heads. (That's another challenge with the casual portrait; you often have little control over your background, which can result in some very unfortunate instances where objects behind the subject interfere with the image. This is why there is Photoshop.)
I was incredibly lucky that my subjects in this case were pleased to have their picture taken and supplied the magic themselves. I take credit for getting the exposure right with a clean background, but the humanity in this portrait is all theirs, and it was simply my honor to record it. They were so in the moment they even asked if they could show me another pose, one that clearly meant something to them but of which I had no idea about its significance.
When I got back to the media center and saw the images, about 10 in all, I picked the best one and decided that I would print it and give it to them as a gift. Things got better when Romano went on that weekend to score his first G.P. victory. On the back of prints I sell I affix a label with contact information and some details about the image, its location, date etc. I'd forgotten Claudio's name and appealed to Twitter and Facebook for this detail, finally getting a response from someone who watches Romano's Facebook page. Claudio is the man's first name, but I still don't know his last name as he is Romano's father by circumstance rather than blood, being the long time partner of Romano's mother. So I titled the image Claudio e Romano, Jerez, Spain, April 26, 2012, Weekend of Romano's First G.P. Victory
Fast forward to SIlverstone, where I'd brought several prints to delver at various places in the paddock. Unable to find the FMI press officer (and unsure at the time if they even had one), several times I stopped by the FMI box looking for Claudio and Romano. Eventually I found them both at the same time and presented one of two copies of the photograph. Romano is 16 years old, and while he's a very mature 16, he's a bit young to appreciate how special a good photograph of a son with his father might be in the years to come. He was polite and appreciative in a teenager way, but did not feel the photograph's magic as Claudio did. He looked at the picture of himself with his son and was moved by it. This is when photography is at its best, when it stirs emotions and provides a link to special moments in the lives of the subjects or the viewers, and sometimes both.
I'd brought two copies because the photo was special to me as well, and I asked them if they would sign one of the copies. This pleased them as well, that I wanted to display the image of them in my office, and a moment later I was the one glowing as I carefully placed my signed copy back in its plastic bag for the trip home.
I'm lucky to have a handful of signed photographs in my collection, but this one is my favorite because it reminds me of the story, of meeting Claudio and Romano, and of giving them something they will appreciate for years to come. And to Nick Little I owe a big Thank You for nudging me out of my routine and back to the FMI box, for if he'd not done so, this image and the story behind it would not exist.
f you'd like to see more of Scott's work, please have a look at his online archive, PHOTO.GP, and to keep up to date with his work, appearances, adventures, etc, subscribe to his newsletter. For information about his upcoming motor sports photography seminar at the San Francisco Dainese D-Store, please click here.