For any motorsport and photography fan, being paid to photograph Formula 1 is a dream job. To find out how to get that job and what exactly a Formula 1 photographer does, we spoke to Mark Sutton – a Senior Photographer at Motorsport Images – who’s photographed over 500 F1 races across 30 years.
What is your role?
I’m a Senior Photographer at Motorsport Images. I’ve been in Formula 1 for 30 years & attended 549 GPs.
How do you become a Formula 1 photographer?
I was brought up on Motorsports by my dad Maurice taking me as a young boy to my local track: Oulton Park. He was a keen amateur photographer and helped me by letting me borrow his camera and lenses in those early days.
I went to learn the basics at college and then got a job working in a studio in Manchester in 1984, then my brother Keith asked me to join him in setting up an agency called Sutton Photographic in 1985. I did national events in the UK, and my big break came in 1992 when I started covering all F1 races.
Do you need qualifications?
I’m not sure now if you need a degree, but I didn’t really need anything, just a passion for the sport and the photography was self-taught. Like most things you make a mistake or try something and it works. Or if it doesn’t then you try it again, until you get it right. Learning with film was definitely a great way to understand the basics and improve – it taught you to be lean and frugal as film and processing was expensive, but the whole process very enjoyable.
Now with digital if you make a mistake you just delete it, or you do the next lap and you improve. We do make mistakes: sometimes we haven’t got them sharp, but it's generally where you’re looking at different shutter speeds where you can make little mistakes.
At the beginning of a race it’s a bit easier as you’ve got around a minute before they come back, but then as the race goes on it’s constant cars.
What other skills are useful?
I think for me, getting to know the drivers when they are young is a great way to talk. You get to know these young kids who could possibly be a world champion in the future, and talking to their parents or PR was an amazing way for me in my early days as the drivers were also interested in photos and promoting their sponsors etc.
I always think that in the junior formula as well that you should introduce yourself – you should say you are a photographer, say who you’re working for because otherwise if you stand back and just take pictures of them all the time then they’ll never know who you are.
I think it’s good to have a business card to give to them – I always did that in the junior formulas. I still think introducing yourself, shaking his hand or giving him a high-five is good because you’ve got nothing to lose. When I started in 1985 I did six years of junior racing – so Formula Ford, Formula 3, Formula 3000 – so I got to know some drivers from Formula Ford – people like Damon Hill, Mark Blundell, Johnny Herbert, David Coulthard. All those guys really came from Formula Ford. One particular one I photographed David Coulthard at the Formula Ford festival and I followed his career, got to know him and then he came to Formula 3.
In Formula 3000 we actually did a deal where we had the Sutton Photographic logo on his car and a patch on his overalls and he won a couple of races that year, so good promotion for us, good promotion for him.
How else can you get to know the drivers?
I know people like George Russell, Lando Norris, all these guys that have even come through from Formula 2, Formula 3, even if you photograph them at that sort of level they sort of know you. Maybe they know you from social media or Autosport magazine, I don’t know, but they seem to know who you are which is great. I do like to photograph the drivers arriving at the circuit. You say good morning to them and they don’t have a massive conversation with you – it might just be hello or whatever – but they’ve got a bit of respect that you’re there early in the morning and taking their picture, and they may wear their branded t-shirt.
A lot of the drivers have started to be quite cheeky on a Thursday and wear their own branded clothes outside of the team. Obviously Lewis has taken that another step by bringing in fashion brands, but people like Fernando Alonso will wear his Kimoa hat and sunglasses to promote his brand. Another one is Daniel Ricciardo, who’s got his own collection away from McLaren, and he’s promoting that every race as well.
Again it’s a good way to get to know them, and I’ve sort of become good friends with Daniel because of shooting those pictures – he wants to use them on his Instagram or on his web page as it promotes the fact that he’s wearing it at the track, rather than just being a promo shot taken at the factory or LA or whatever.
How can I get experience and build my portfolio?
If I was just starting, I would be looking at the lower formulas like karting and junior single seaters. Even other motorsports or any sport to be honest.
I loved photographing my son, who was a county and national swimmer – he was top 20 for his age in the UK and I loved taking my pro-kit. You would always sign a waiver to say the images are only of your son and for personal use, but then the club asked me to help a few times for the parents. So doing other sports and shooting every day really does help and make you improve.
In terms of where to put your portfolio, you can create your own website quite cheaply now. I’ve not actually got my own website because I’m working for Motorsport Images. I could create one, but I think social media is a great platform. Instagram is great for sharing pictures but also Facebook is pretty good for sharing a good selection of pictures. Twitter is more about news, but you can share pictures through it as well.
Social media is a great way of promoting, and drivers are always looking for pictures for social media. They don’t necessarily want to pay for them, but it could be good promo for you. If you work for a driver then he may have a sponsor, so you give him the pictures for free but the sponsor pays for them for the social media channels or whatever.
Instagram is my first one, second is Facebook, third is Twitter, and I think having your own domain name and having your own portrayal of everything you do in one place is a great way of promoting your brand and promoting yourself.
Getting your pictures in front of somebody to see them is the main thing. You can build that by putting a variety of pictures – don’t just put pan shots, maybe mix it with a bit of black and white. Portraits look more moody in black and white. People are interested in everything about Formula 1 or motorsport, not just cars on tracks, so if you can get portraits of drivers, if you can get them laughing, serious, crying, whatever, it’s all about emotions.
You need variety in a portfolio. When you look at it it has to say action, portrait, podium, maybe incident – it’s about creating the story of that whole race.
What does a normal day look like for you?
The F1 weekends are normally five to six days, so two days traveling in Europe or maybe a week outside. On Thursday I’m at the track for 8.30am-9am to set up with a desk and get a locker. Then I’ll check the internet and send a test file from my camera to check the images are uploading to the FTP, and that they can be edited and uploaded to clients or online for the editorial use.
Then it’s driver arrivals to the circuit around 10am, and also track walk for checking the circuit and shooting some scene setters or drivers viewing the circuit.
The press conference is at 2.30pm-5pm, then possibly more track and pits images to end that first day. The other days are action days, and as we are a team at Motorsport Images we would then talk that Thursday night about the weekend and where we are all going to be, to make sure we are not in the same place.
How does working for a company differ from being freelance?
I’ve always worked within a company, so I don’t know anything else. A company gives you support and a job that’s guaranteed with a set income, but you can earn more from being freelance and bringing in new clients. A freelancer has to get the clients and do all the work and this is always risky, but it means you can cover and do as you like.
What equipment do you need/use?
I’ve been a Nikon Ambassador from 2014-2021, so I use all Nikon equipment. This includes:
• One Nikon D5 and one Nikon D6 body
• Nikkor 180-400mm & 1.4 extender
• Nikkor 70-200mm
• Nikkor 24-70mm
• Nikkor 14-24mm
• Nikkor 10.5mm Fisheye
• Nikkor 1.4X Extender
• Nikon SB-910 Flash x2
I don’t use the fisheye very often as it’s quite a specialist thing – it tends to be more when you want to go really close to the driver. You wouldn’t use it on a portrait or on track. Going up from there all the lenses match, so I’ve got the flexibility from 10mm all the way to 560mm (with the extender).
I carry one flash just in case. I used to be a big advocate of using flash, especially for portrait and filling, but with digital I’ve become a bit lazy and it’s nice to get the contrast. In some circumstances where you’ve got a very dark room you’ll need a flash no matter what.
I’ve also got four XQD cards and a pouch, and I download everything directly to a hard drive. It is slightly slower, but I’m not plugging it into the machine – I use it like a server. I carry all the kit, but I don’t often use the fisheye or the 14-24mm.
Modern DSLR cameras have a lot of functions that can be customised, and one really important one for motor racing is how the autofocus operates. Normally it is linked to the shutter release button so when you half press the shutter button, autofocus starts. Most motor racing photographers separate this and move the autofocus operation to a button on the back of the camera instead. This allows you to compose a picture, pre-focusing on a spot where you know the cars will be on the racing line and then track the car through the corner, shooting when they are at your pre-set point of focus. If an incident starts to happen, you can just press-and-hold the button on the back of the camera to have the autofocus start straight away.
I also try and use manual exposure all the time – I feel like it’s the best way to go, otherwise you can get very lazy using Aperture Priority or Shutter Speed Priority. The only time I use Aperture is when there’s a very dark garage, but it can affect the auto ISO – sometimes it can put it up to 10,000. I won’t go higher than 2,000.
How much editing do you do?
90% of the images are now sent from the cameras directly to the Motorsport Images offices in London, where there is a team of editors working live to edit and deliver images to clients.
Apart from that we will do a 2nd edit which is more about downloading the images in JPEG & RAW and saving them to a hard drive, but also checking what you’ve sent. Nikon cameras have a good way to show the images that were sent from the camera. Sometimes on the pitlane images it’ s worth editing those because they’re generally shot at distance, and into a dark garage that might need some photoshop correction. I use Photo Mechanic 6 software to choose my images by tagging them, and then I’ll bring those into Photoshop for editing and adjustments.
I have some set actions ready to use with one click, and they save into a set folder for sending via FTP. I use filezilla to send all my images after the 2nd/3rd edits directly to a set folder on the system, but it’s important to keep the editors informed.
What tips do you have for aspiring F1 photographers?
If you have the passion and goal to make it, you will do it. Look and see what everyone else is doing and maybe go down a new path or angle you think would work. Contact all the editorial newspapers, magazines and websites offering your services, contact all the people in Motorsports and tell them who you are and what you want to do. The main thing is always to be positive.
Motorsport Images is a photographic agency and archive covering motorsport and motoring. It is unique in that it provides photography of all major current motorsport events, from Formula 1 Grand Prix racing to national level racing, as well as archive images documenting the history of the sport dating back to 1985.