How I Got My Start As A Motorsport Photographer

by Sep 25, 2023

Another one of the questions I get asked fairly frequently by aspiring photographers is: how did I become a professional motorsport photographer?

At the heart of the question, they are looking for information and tips about how they, too, can get their foot in the door and pursue motorsport photography as a career. But there is more to the story than just one particular moment.

So, let’s delve into the story of how I got my start in motorsport photography on my way to becoming a professional motorsport photographer.

My Passion For Photography

I’ve always had an interest in taking photos, starting out with those disposable Kodak film cameras as a kid.

With the development of small digital cameras that would fit in your pocket (long before smartphones took over this role), carrying a camera with me all the time became second nature. I’d always have one with me as I travelled around, be that for work or for leisure.

As most young people do after finishing school, travelling overseas was high on my priority list. While I’d taken the opportunity to go to a couple of countries, however, it was one fateful trip to Canada, in particular, the majestic landscapes of Banff, that made me take my photography a little more seriously. You see, the photos I took with my little point-and-shoot camera really didn’t do the scenery justice, and it was upon returning from that trip that encouraged me to purchase my first proper DSLR camera – A Pentax with a twin lens kit.

It took me a little while (and another trip to Canada, funnily enough) to really understand the nuances of my DSLR camera. But I’ve owned a “proper camera” ever since – well, except for a short stint where the Pentax was stolen from my car, but that’s a story for another day.

That drive to take better and better photos and to do the scene in front of me justice, especially as I travelled more and more, forced me to understand my camera and work on different composition techniques. Something that I still work on to this day.

My Passion For Motorsport

Humble beginnings as a Flag Marshall

In parallel to photography, I always had a keen interest in motorsport, despite no one else in my family really passionately following it. Watching Formula 1 replays and Supercar races on TV was a weekend ritual for me as a kid. Bathurst and the Australian Grand Prix, in particular, were full weekends glued to the TV.

Despite watching motorsport on TV for many years, I didn’t get a chance to go a track in person until my Dad took me to my first Supercars event at Eastern Creek (now Sydney Motorsport Park) when I was still in school.

It was at this event I was introduced to the concept of volunteering as an official. As you might notice when you are at the track, the track commentary mentioned a few times that they were always looking for volunteers. A couple of years later, and after a couple more trips to Eastern Creek and Oran Park as a spectator, after finishing up school, I decided to try my hand as a flag marshal and spent a few years volunteering as one at Sydney Motorsport Park.

Over that time, I had the chance to be a flaggie at a range of events, from state rounds to Supercars and the A1GP (remember when that was a thing?), and it was that time trackside that allowed me to learn and get an insight into the behind the scenes of the sport at all different levels. Something that would come in handy later when I returned to the sport as a photographer.

Ultimately, I’d stop volunteering after a few years, mostly because my boss at the time wasn’t overly happy with me regularly taking Fridays off work. But it was an extremely valuable experience that I still find valuable to this day.

Interests Combined

After walking away from volunteering at the track for a few years, I still maintained a keen interest in the sport and followed all of the major motorsport categories on TV. I even went back to the track sporadically as a spectator, camera in hand.

Taking photos from the spectator side of the fence, the same drive that pushed me to take better and better photos while travelling, also existed at the track. As I took more and more motorsport photos, I wanted them to showcase what drew me into the sport: the speed, the action and the bright, vibrant colours of the cars’ liveries.

Getting my camera out of “sports mode” took a few events. In fact, I don’t even think that’s an option on new DSLR and mirrorless cameras anymore, anyway. But once I did and started working on my panning and composition, my photos noticeably improved. That continued improvement encouraged me to go to more and more events as a spectator.

One Fateful Event

To this point, I’d been building a career in IT and taking photos just for fun. However, one fateful evening MOTOR Magazine were hosting a track night event at Sydney Motorsport Park, and I decided to go down and take some photos of it. Again, just for fun.

After sharing the photos on Facebook, a friend of mine who happened to work at MOTOR reached out about some of the shots I took, looking to feature them in an article in the magazine potentially. Not thinking much of it, I sent them a link to the photos that I took from the event. Completely unedited. However, to my surprise, they wanted to use a selection of those photos to be featured in a multi-page spread in the May 2013 issue of the magazine (featured below).

Prior to this, I never really thought that there was more to my photography than taking good photos for my own benefit, but having someone else (who actually knew a thing or two about the media, and working in the industry) show interest in my photos really sparked me to more actively pursue opportunities and take my photography even more seriously.

Featured in MOTOR Magazine

Practice

In taking it more seriously, I made a conscious effort to get to even more events as a spectator and really work on my skills. In fact, I spent one entire weekend taking panning photos to fine-tune and smooth out my technique.

With each new event, not only did the composition of my photos improve, but so did my selection and editing technique. So when I seized the opportunity to pitch a few other automotive/motorsport events MOTOR that fit in with their brand, without the expectation of the photos being published, I could give them a better refined and edited selection of photos.

To be honest, at this point, I just wanted the experience. Fortunately, the team at the magazine were quite receptive to my ideas, and each of those events that I pitched turned into their own multi-page spreads for the magazine, which was quite cool.

If you’ve got copies of MOTOR Magazine from this time, you can see a considerable improvement in my subsequent features.

Perseverance

The one thing I tell everyone who wants to pursue motorsport photography seriously and try to make a career out of it is that you’ll need perseverance.

You can’t just show up to one event, take one amazing photo and have the world open up to you, despite what I said in the previous section. That wasn’t just the result of one photo. That was the culmination of years of practice, regardless of whether I was actively pursuing motorsport photography as a job or not.

Even then, that was only one publication that not even 12 months later would go through a change of ownership, consolidation and change of editorial team, which would ultimately mean they’d bring in their own preferred photographers. Unfortunately, that has and will always be part of the industry.

However, what established me in the industry was taking the opportunity that was opened up to me and making the decision to do as many motorsport events as I could, including the full Supercars Championship.

It wasn’t easy – from convincing my boss to give me the time off, to having to pay all the expenses of travelling to these events out of my own pocket with very little expected income at the time, it was quite a big commitment at the time. But it was that commitment to show up consistently to all the events over the course of that year (and subsequently) that allowed me to build the connections and customer base that would ultimately allow me to make this a career.

The nature of motorsport photography is that many, many people want to do it. Every new season, I see dozens of new photographers show up trying, promising the world, and even poaching some of my customers, only to disappear after a few events. What will make you stand out is showing up consistently over a long period of time.

The Pay Off

I’ve now been fortunate enough to have been working as a motorsport photographer for over ten years. Covering an amazing range of events, not only all across Australia but even internationally.

However, none of these opportunities has just been handed to me; it’s taken a lot of perseverance and building connections, even as people change roles in the sport. Media outlet editors will change, drivers will come and go, and team PRs will move on to roles with different teams, or even out of the sport entirely. Especially at the end of each season.

Nothing about a career as a motorsport photographer is easy; it takes time, but the payoff is some truly amazing opportunities.

Rhys Vandersyde

Rhys Vandersyde

I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.

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