As an accredited motorsports photographer, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover many of the biggest series on the planet. With Formula One, MotoGP, WEC, IMSA, Pirelli World Challenge, and others on my résumé, I’ve experienced a solid mix of hurdles and successes at racetracks all over the globe. But until last week, the the 24 Hours of Le Mans had always been at the top of my bucket list.
I knew it was also one of the more difficult races to cover as a photographer. Finally getting the green light to shoot it for Jalopnik, I made my plans, did my homework, and packed my gear.
Here’s what I learned, and how you can try it too—if you’ve got the energy.
The Circuit de la Sarthe is a monster of a track. There are few tracks in the world as long and as massive to get around. Measuring 8.4 miles (13.6 km) per lap, it also covers several hundred acres of infield areas, filled with hospitality tents, campgrounds, amusements, museums, parking lots, and even a football—err, soccer, sorry I was just in Europe—stadium.
I only arrived at the track Thursday afternoon, just in time for a photo briefing, and used a big chunk of the cold track time on Friday to do my reconnaissance work for some corners and angles. That day alone, I covered more than eight miles, and that was just to get a real look at a few of dozens of angles I’d want to cover during the 24-hour race.
Getting from the media center (located in the pit building) to any corner is a massive task, so you better have your most comfortable shoes on. Photo shuttles are unreliable, only certain numbered ones can take you to specific drop points, and once they do get you moving they’re only allowed to get you to areas sort of close to where you intend to go. From there, you’ll still have to hike a bit to get to an access point where you can hit the perimeter road of the circuit for the photo angles.
There aren’t always easy ways to get back out once you’ve walked along a big stretch of a perimeter path, and you get zero warning that you’re going to run out of the trail. That part is super frustrating.
Choke points just happen, and then you have to turn around and hike back. Sometimes you get to see a new angle, and can play with your composition, but that’s little consolation for an hour or so wasted on foot.
Once you land in a spot to shoot, you’re going to be subject to the trackside marshals who I feel are only in place to eat sandwiches, smoke cigarettes, and tell you where you can’t stand... even though the mandatory photo briefing clearly outlines how the track works, and simply establishes the dos and don’ts.
The circuit has some really simple methods for establishing the forbidden spaces for photographers, known as red zones, and they paint a red stripe the length inside a barrier to clearly indicate it being restricted. More tracks should do this, as it eliminates any chance of confusion. Sure, you can walk along the service road in these areas, but if you stop to take pictures in these spots, you will be reprimanded and possibly lose your tabard and credential for doing so.
My French speaking only goes so far. If a marshal really wants to be a nuisance, he or she will walk over to you, state that they don’t like where you’re standing, act as if you’re obstructing their view or ability to do their job, and call you out on the radio. It’s no use arguing with them, whether in English or French, as they’ll complain to their superiors, and have you removed. Feedback to the ACO and WEC media delegates is helpful to an extent, but even they concede that you’re at the mercy of the marshals’ moods. Besides, they’re there for safety, so just be cool.
After you’ve dealt with hiking several miles, and bickering with marshalls blowing cigarette smoke in your face, you’ve found a happy place. Le Mans has so many iconic shots and angles, and I tried to avoid every cliché imaginable. Plenty of others have nailed shots you’ve seen hundreds of times, and I didn’t want to get a single one of them in my stack that weekend.
Mega elevation changes, long sweeping turns, and the longest damn straightaway in racing (now cut with a pair of chicanes) give you some cool backdrops, and I tried to make the most of them in my first time shooting Le Mans.
One of the things I most looked forward to was snapping pictures of these machines in the dark. Some of the cars have some really cool lighting rigs installed, and the backdrops of the ferris wheel and other rides have always made for spectacular composition.
You have to have some fast glass, have excellent technique, and get a little help from the subjects on track, but when the stars align, it can really pay off. I had hoped we got some of Le Mans’ typical rain, but it wasn’t meant to be. That could have really added something special to my shots, but it wasn’t in the cards.
As if the sheer size of the Circuit de la Sarthe isn’t enough of a challenge, you also have to navigate through the one of the biggest crowds in the sport.
Numbers can vary, but this year about 256,000 people attended the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and they roamed all over the race areas. I’m subject to a bit of agoraphobia paired with claustrophobia, and being a motorsports photographer has its complications at the bigger races. Le Mans also makes this hard, as to get to shooting locations you are forced to walk through the big waves of fans getting from one spot to another. The nighttime hikes are crazy. People are tired, drunk, and wandering aimlessly. You’ve got to be on your toes, and keep your head on a swivel.
I’m not the most trusting person when I’ve got over $20,000 in camera gear hanging off my shoulders, and theft of your beloved work tools among the spectators is not an uncommon occurrence at this race. The grid and post race track invasions are two prime examples, and I had to get my shots, while being extra cautious of my surroundings. A friend and fellow photographer had one of his cameras and favorite lenses attached (easily $6,000 between the two) cut from its strap, and handed off to a fellow thief, never to be recovered. It’s not even about the glass and body at that point, but the loss of a memory card that has several paying shots. Some of which could be career highlights.
At the end of all of it, covering the 24 Hours of Le Mans should be on any shooter’s bucket list, and I’m glad I finally ticked it off mine. Sure you cover a ton of miles on foot (more than 40 for me from Thursday through Sunday), you push your mental and physical limits because your sleep schedule is shot, and you deal with some challenges from every angle, but once you’ve wrapped up that weekend, you’re glad you did it all.
I sure am.