Story behind the photographer: Mark Sutton

Story behind the photographer: Mark Sutton

9 August 2014 – Throughout the 2014 campaign, GPUpdate.net has been running features with Formula 1 photographer Mark Sutton, putting his favourite shot of the weekend under the spotlight. Here, we take time to discuss his route to the top echelon, his all-time favourite photograph and what advice he has for young hopefuls.

How did you become a Formula 1 photographer?

My brother Keith started the business back in 1980. But before that our father was taking us to the races. We were sort of brought up on it. We were young boys going to the races with their father. My brother then got a pass and managed to take some pictures in front of the fans for the first through the manager of Oulton Park. My brother was coming back with the films and I was helping process them in our home in Manchester. So I was seeing what was happening. In 1983 I was 18 and managed to get my first pass to cover some races for my brother.

My first experience was Formula 3 in that year. Ayrton Senna was obviously winning, but he was also crashing. One of my famous pictures is when Senna and Martin Brundle crashed at Oulton Park. They landed on top of each other and I was there to capture it. I had no motor drive on the camera so I was literally taking a photo and winding the film on. And it was black and white only. No colour. It was too expensive and also, there weren't that many publication in colour anyway. I suppose that photo got me a name. That picture was published everywhere. It was the battle of the season and I was the only guy who had a good sequence of that incident. I had one of them side-by-side and two or three with them on top of each other. Those were in every publication.

I actually started working in the studio doing catalogues, believe it or not. So I wasn't even a photographer, I was an assistant. But I was learning all the time. In 1984 I covered the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. That was my only race of the season because I was too busy with my full-time job in the studio. In 1985 Keith came to me and said, "Why don't we set up an agency, drop the Keith Sutton Photography name and call it Sutton Photographic?" In 1992 I started doing all the Grands Prix. We managed to get a contract with a Japanese magazine called F1 Week. They paid me a good a fee to have me there and it meant we had two photographers at every Grand Prix. That grew to six people in the end.

What's your all-time favourite photo?

It's 21 years old, but still my favourite. It's the Flying Finn, the picture of Mika Häkkinen jumping over the kerb in Adelaide back in 1993. If you look in Autocourse you see the pan picture on the left-hand side and the jumping shot of Häkkinen on the right. So you see what I was doing. It was shot at 1/250th of a second. That's quite a slow shutter speed. You get quite a lot of blur in the background. It's not something you'd use when you want to capture a moment like a crash.

What happened in this case is that I heard a screech of the brakes in my right ear, I stood against an advertising wall and there were probably around 10 of us there taking pictures. So I heard the screech, looked up, pointed my lens and kept my finger on the button. I didn't refocus. It was exactly the same focus as the pan picture. I think I fired three or four frames. I looked around to everyone else and asked, "Did you get it?" Most of them didn't even see it, never mind get it. It was actually on a 300mm F2.8 lens, so it was a fixed lens, which means I couldn't change the focal length or anything. The exposure was set, the shutter speed was set. It was literally just fire away and hope for the best. I guess I was very lucky. I never said anything to anybody. I just kept it quiet in those days. I didn't want to brag if I didn't have it sharp. So the photo was processed overnight in the lab we had in Adelaide. The next morning my brother went to the light box to have a look at everything and he was like, "Wow, look at that, it's in the air!" And then all photographers came over and a had a look. That was quite an amazing moment in my career. It gave me a huge boost. The photo was pin sharp.

The story then was to get some prints, because you couldn't really show people a negative. We asked the lab for three prints. One for themselves, one for me and one for Mika. They turned it around in an hour. I went back in the afternoon and showed it to Mika. His face was quite funny. He signed it the Flying Finn and at that moment the Flying Finn as a signature was created. Mika is known as the Flying Finn because of my photo! Then someone from the team came up to us and looked at the print and said, "We thought it was a blip on the telemetry and that we lost you for half a second." It's probably the most selling picture of the whole archive. I think I sold 200 prints to the team and also sold it to Shell and Goodyear for use in their advertising campaigns. It made my name in the business and it shows that I'm a good photographer. Yeah, I was lucky, everybody has to have a bit of luck, that what this sport is all about, just like with the drivers in the last race in Hungary.

Is there a lot of rivalry between Formula 1 photographers?

Yeah, there's huge rivalry. There are so many of us. There are about 60 permanent photographers at every Grand Prix. We're all looking for that one special picture. And digital probably didn't help because it has made it easier for everybody to create nice pictures and it has made it easier for the semi-pros to come in and start doing it. It has it made it easier for the crowd to make pictures. It helps in some cases, like a few years ago when Lewis Hamilton crashed into the wall at the Nürburgring. Someone contacted the office and offered us the photo. We ended up buying it and we made him a bit of money and we had him published in Lewis' book. You need to understand though that pictures don't make millions. They might make a few thousand. That's what people don't understand. It might be slightly different when you have Leonardo DiCaprio naked on a beach somewhere, but you aren't going to make millions on a motorsport picture unless it's something really special. Nowadays it's really difficult to get an exclusive picture. You've got the public, the TV and over 100 photographers, including all the locals who camp out in every corner.

How's your relationship with the current Formula 1 drivers?

Pretty good actually. Some of them keep themselves to themselves. Some of them you have a laugh with. Some of them don't say anything. They are a funny bunch. But I can understand why. They have got a job to do and I think sometimes they feel we are infringing on their private side. But we are not. We are there to do a job at the end of the day. They can't understand why we are taking pictures of them every moment but people like you want pictures. The problem is that we don't see them all the time because they are hiding away in their motorhomes. So when you are shooting them as they are walking from their motorhomes to their garage, they don't understand why. But we haven't seen them, we haven't got any pictures of them. So we need something!

There was a funny moment with Nico in Germany, when he had just won the race. I was taking some pictures of Nico with some of his friends and Nico was shouting, "Work, Sutton, work, keep firing, keep firing." There was a bit of banter going on. That was quite nice, I quite enjoyed that. So he knows who I am. But a lot of drivers you know from their early careers. Jenson Button we supported all the way through from Formula Ford into Formula 3 and into Formula 1. We were his PR company. With Kimi Räikkönen we did a similar thing. Keith had a few parties with him so they have a good relationship with each other. Sebastian Vettel we know really well because we supported him through the Red Bull Junior project. We helped his career when he was 15 and we have pictures of him with his braces on. Some of the other drivers we know from GP2 and GP3. Not so much from  British motorsport anymore, besides Daniel Ricciardo, who did British F3.

Do you have advice for people who want to be a Formula 1 photographer?

It's horrible to say but we can't help you anymore. When we started, we had eight photographers here. They were doing all the junior formulas as part of their apprenticeship. But it has all changed. If you have got the drive to go and be a photographer, you have to go and do it yourself. You have to love motorsports and you have to love photography. You have to be out there in the rain and the cold. You have to have some kind of backing from your family or have rich parents or whatever. You have to go and do it yourself. And then we will try and find you and pick you up. It's all about being positive. You need to be pushing the agencies. Show them what you have got and what you can do. That's the only way it's going to happen. People need to contact us. We can't find them otherwise. Send us a link to your website or your Flickr. Send us some pictures on a link. They need to be high-res. Give us the opportunity. It's a sad situation. We would love to have people here on apprenticeships but it just doesn't work anymore. It's a totally different business to what it was before. Also, I don't think the interest in the smaller formulas is there anymore. I don't know why. In the 90s and early 2000s there was a huge amount of interest in British motorsports and foreign motorsports, but that interest seems to have gone down a lot.

And do you have advice for fans who want to take photos when they are the circuit?

It's all about knowing where the light is. The light always needs to be behind your head. That's a simple fact. That way you're going to get the best light on your subject, whether it's a car or a person or whatever. In terms of position, obviously always try and look for a position where you are quite close to the car or where it's going on a kerb or where it's coming around a corner quite slowly. Because when you are shooting, you have got to follow the car, despite the fact the autofocus systems are quite good now and certainly the Nikon systems we use. Where you want to focus it is entirely up to you, but in most cases you focus on the helmet or on the track before. And then you would fire around the car.

At the beginning I would recommend a fast shutter speed, because you want to freeze the action. It's all about freezing the action. So select shutter priority, which means you are shooting with a shutter speed selected by you and the exposure has been selected by the camera. Each car has a different colour and a different brightness. So the camera will adapt to this automatically. You can do it manually. It's quite easy to do. Do a pre-shot. If it looks good then leave it as it is, if not change it. But with shutter priority it will automatically change for you. It's all a matter of experience, trial and error. If you make a mistake, reshoot it. Obviously you can look on the back of your camera. I never had a chance to do that in the old days. Now you not only have the opportunity to look at the picture on the back of your camera, but also enlarge it, zoom in and check if it's sharp. Today it's so much easier. Once you've done those basic steps, you can start to experiment.

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