How do you capture the excitement of a 370kmh motorsport in still images? The Red Bull Air Race photographers are a special breed: a dedicated team with expertise built over years of shooting the three-dimensional action. In the first of a two-part series, photographers describe what it takes to cover a single race in the World Championship.
"It's really fun to shoot the Red Bull Air Race, because in terms of photography, you can do a lot: freezing action, panning to get motion blur, shooting from the ground, from buildings, from boats, from helicopters... so many different things," says Joerg Mitter, who has been photographing the sport for about 14 years and heads the team that shoots every race.
But the job comes with its share of pressure: Together, Mitter and his team are responsible for documenting every stop on the calendar. They provide the still images shared with media around the world on the Red Bull Air Race Newsroom, plus deliver photos for the social media team, the official website and print materials like media kits and magazines. Altogether, they publish approximately 1,000 images per race.
"We have a pool of 10 international photographers who we use across the season, and usually our team is four photographers on site at a single race, plus one editor," explains Mitter, who is inevitably one of the four. Another longtime Red Bull Air Race photographer, Predrag Vuckovic, contributes, "The most important part is planning carefully while staying flexible for whatever might come up. Even if we've been to the same stop many times, it's always interesting, and we're always trying to improve, like with the cameras we've been putting in the cockpits. That pilot's perspective is something people can't imagine."
Dressing in the morning, the photographers wear black or dark neutrals to avoid capturing their own reflections in photographs of shiny helmets and raceplanes. Then, getting from the hotel to the venue is the first challenge, with roughly 100kg of equipment among them. "Each of us usually brings two camera bodies, and we have a variety of lenses ranging from fisheye to 800mm – everybody typically brings five to eight lenses per event. The best is the longest one, the 800, because you can get up close with the action even though the distances are really big," Mitter reveals. "Plus we have flash heads for specific needs like portraits, the action cameras, remote controls, all kinds of accessories..."
At any given moment, one photographer will be shooting air-to-air from a helicopter while another is positioned on a boat, or very close to the racetrack if it is a ground location. Meanwhile a third photographer is capturing the vibe in the hangars at the Race Airport, while the fourth is in public areas to get crowd shots, images of attending VIPs and more. "We try to rotate through those positions every day, which is really helpful. Providing so many different eyes on the perspectives produces a variety of images, and we learn from each other, so the overall quality rises," Mitter remarks.
Paul Bonhomme tries out his photography skills
Such cooperation may contradict the popular stereotype of photographers fighting each other to get the best shot, but Mitter says, "In this event, it's the team spirit that makes it possible to work efficiently. A lot of things are happening, and they all need to be covered."
The sheer scale is staggering, and the photographers can count on walking about 10km in a single day – sometimes twice as much. "That is what's really different to covering something like football or tennis: you're not just going to walk to the other side of the field or the court," Vuckovic points out. "The area we cover is huge, and there are safety barriers as well."
The photographers credit the contributions of the whole organisation, from the Aviation team to Racetrack Operations, Communications and Event Production, for helping them stay informed, be safe and get to the right places. "Sometimes we might have to ride a bike to a boat pickup, take the boat to a helicopter, fly and shoot, then reverse the process. Or on the ground we need permissions for restricted areas. It's very special," Mitter explains.
Once they have shot the images, the team must get them out to the world – fast. And that is where photo editor Peter Gardi comes in. The photographers crop and colour correct their own photos, then Gardi takes care of tasks like metadata, file naming and uploading to various outlets. He even invented a caption machine to help him do his work as rapidly as possible.
So if a photographer is shooting a single round of the race from a helicopter, he will choose his best images while still in the air, then dash to his computer upon landing. Minutes later, he sends the prepared images to Gardi, who captions and promptly distributes them while the photographer heads back to take more pictures. "Getting the images out quickly is key to being successful, especially on new media," Mitter comments. "If you start to download your images when the event is done, it's already way too late."
The photography team does a lot in the course of a day, but one thing they avoid doing is altering the photos that they put in the Red Bull Air Race Newsroom. "Our images go out on newswires, so we don't manipulate the photographs. We might do a little crop or a bit of color correction, but basically they are untouched," Mitter says.
Besides documenting the racing action, it is also important for the photography team to convey the emotion of the sport. "I remember this great moment when Yoshi [Muroya] became World Champion in 2017. Normally Yoshi is a very quiet person, but all of a sudden he started to roar. I think it had been building up the whole season and he finally exploded," Mitter shares. "I was completely surprised, but I had to be focused and capture it."
And that is why Mitter and his photographers must always be ready, placing themselves for the perfect sightline. Mitter notes, "You even need to know how each pilot gets out of the raceplane – one usually jumps right out, another is going to turn around. There are a lot of little things that you learn over time so that you're able to get all these moments."
The photographers also need the trust of the race teams and pilots. "You might be putting a camera in their cockpit, and when they're pulling up to 12G and flying just a few meters off the ground, they need to be confident that not even a mounting screw is going to come loose," Mitter states. He concludes, "Trust also means the pilot doesn't mind when we're around, because the best photos happen when everyone ignores us. The teams should be able to concentrate and just do their own thing. The concentration, the frustration, the happiness – these are the moments we look for."
Coming up in Part 2: What it's like to photograph Air Racing pilots in spectacular settings outside the racetrack, getting air-to-air shots with the help of some of the world's best helicopter pilots.