Things I Learned Photographing The Most Violent Motorsport On Earth: Formula Drift
The stakes always feel high when photographing drifting because, well, they are.
Under the floodlights of Irwindale Speedway, a small paved oval in Southern California’s Inland Empire known as “the House of Drift,” there’s a special sort of energy in the air. The uniquely young Formula Drift series populates the small oval once a year, to host its final round of drifting competition in a given season. In 2016 and 2017, I was a member of the media circus responsible for covering the highly energetic, manic, wild-west style motorsport, that I fell in love with for a period.
Shooting drifting is one of the most uniquely gratifying things I’ve done in my time as a professional photographer. Even getting media access to a round of Formula Drift, is surprisingly difficult, and took four years of shooting the amateur stuff. Luck, and knowing people in the media business is key, and I was tight with some guys on Mad Mike Whiddett’s team while he was competing stateside. In 2015 I casually mentioned my desire to shoot the series to his video guy, my good friend Tommy Babiarz. Simply put, he made it happen.
Drifting is equal parts incredibly difficult to shoot, and easy-breezy to photograph. The hard parts present themselves in the viewfinder and out of it. To start, the media sections at tracks are typically very crowded. This leaves you limited for shot choice, and you often end up getting the same stuff as a lot of other photographers. So you have to start thinking outside the box for cool shots, and pushing some boundaries. Basically, I went wherever I wanted that was safe from my swift death, and asked for forgiveness if and when I got shooed away by somebody.
The technical shooting of drifting is hard to master, requiring a mix of high and low shutter speed shots, a mix of pans, unnatural action composition, and picking the right tension points in a run where a car will tap a wall or a cone. Generally, the rule in action photography is that the action should be entering the frame. That means that if the action subject is moving right across the frame, it should be at the left quarter of the frame. Completely and utterly forget that rule for most drift shots. Because of the massive trail of tire smoke, you’re gonna position the action (drift cars) exiting the frame, so you can get a sweet shot of all the smoke. You can still use conventional framing techniques and get some dope shots, but I do love breaking some rules.
When I shot my first few rounds of Formula Drift, I was armed with a puny Canon 70D, a pathetic 70-300mm lens, and soaring aspirations. The most shocking thing about being trackside, even more than leaning against the walls that the drivers are aiming for, is the explicit violence of the tandem runs, a staccato against the dust-in-the-spotlights peace of the time in between the runs. A gargantuan, 1,000 hp turbo spools up, a plume of smoke, ear plugs threatening to fall out… then you’re quietly reviewing your shots before the next run.
For me, the rush didn’t end once the sessions were over. I would head back to the paddock, and see most of my heroes in the flesh, hashing it out with Dai Yoshihara, or the one time I hung out with Mad Mike in his trailer. Being amongst the heroes is common in drifting, and gives it a real people’s sport feel. The beauty of this access is that it’s easy to make friends and get your name around, and also presents opportunities also ask questions without having to deal with layers of PR handlers and the like.
With drifting, the car is always in an excited attitude, it always looks incredibly fast, you just have to be ready to get it, every single time. Shooting the event itself is a high-explosive melee. You get one chance to get a given shot – there are no repeats. No guarantees of a clean run, or a crash. In circuit racing, you get plenty of chances to set up, capture what you want, perfect the framing, the exposure, the attitude of the car. There is no perfection in shooting drifting, because the cars are usually beat up and imperfect, and the tracks are certainly not as clean or well trimmed.
Point is: You don’t get a lot of latitude to recalibrate if you want another picture of a car that’s already gone by. It’s a rare talent for a drifter to be able to stamp out perfect runs every time, so each run you get to capture will be a unique record of the run. To get the best record of that run, you need to get the sickest part of that run, and that is usually the wallride or a huge plume of tire smoke.
The stakes always feel high when photographing drifting because, well, they are. The whole point of this type of racing is to almost-crash with as much unique flamboyance as possible. Capturing that requires a quickness you’ll have to master to get good frames. But if you can get some good pro drifting photos, I’d like to think other types of motorsport photography will only be easier.
So if you’re keen to give it a shot, find a local drift event and shoot some dudes doing skids. It’s rewarding, fun, and there’s plenty of access. Granted, it isn’t the big leagues. But I can tell you personally: shooting Formula D has informed the rest of my time as a shooter. It was unbelievable and I wish FD didn’t think that they’re F1 and I could still go and shoot freelance without spending a huge chunk of my money on a media card.
If you ever get the chance to spectate FD, grab your camera and shoot. You’ll be surprised by what you capture! Remember to have fun, and keep that shutter speed low. Happy drifting!