Formula E Photographer Louise Johnson: “I was dreaming that I could be a motorsport photographer"
Lou Johnson is a Freelance Motorsport Photographer and, currently, she works across a range of racing categories, including British GT, FIA Formula E and W Series.
Working as a freelancer is different to working as a full-time contracted photographer for a team, and Females in Motorsport sat down with Lou to learn more about her passion for photography, her job, and what it’s really like to work freelance in the industry.
FinM: Is photography something you’ve always wanted to work in?
Lou: I’ve always loved photography. There are countless photos of me as a child with some sort of camera in my hands, be it a toy, disposable, polaroid or just my dad’s camera. I don’t think I considered it as a career though, not until about the age of 14. A friend and I went on a ‘how to use your digital camera’ day in our local area during the summer holidays and the more I learnt about photography, the more I fell in love with it.
How and when did you start out in photography?
I don’t think I can really put a specific time frame on it. After I finished school I went to university to study photography and I just couldn’t get enough of it! I didn’t really use my time at university as effectively as I probably could have done to set up my business. I threw myself into my studies and my sketchbooks and forgot about the making money side of photography. Once I graduated, I started doing the odd bits of photography, at first for friends and family, then for local organisations, and theatres or other events.
What is it about photography that is so special to you?
Photography has the ability to tell a story in a single frame, capture a moment and bring the viewer directly into the situation. There’s the challenge of capturing someone’s portrait in a way that truly represents them. Working with light, be it ambient or studio to create the best images I can - it’s something that’s always fascinated me and I’m very privileged to consider it my job.
How do you manage to convey such emotion in your images?
It depends on a variety of factors. It’s important to be prepared, from knowing where the sunlight is likely to be at certain times of the day, to knowing the team’s schedule so you can try to be in the right place at the right time. I have a great relationship with the team at Mahindra Racing in Formula E, from the mechanics and engineers to drivers. It all helps! Knowing how people are likely to react in certain situations, or what their routine may be during qualifying, for example, really helps me to equip myself in the best way to capture whatever may unfold in front of me.
Is motorsport an area you’ve always wanted to work in?
Motorsport has always been a part of my life. My parents are racing fans and would often take me to Brands Hatch - my local track - at the weekend, or have Formula 1 on the TV. I was surrounded by it! It wasn’t until I was about 14 or 15 that I started to become really interested in it though, around the same time I started to really get into photography. It seemed very natural to bring my camera along to the racing events I was attending, like the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the British Grand Prix. It quickly became one of my favourite things to do.
I would always see photographers on the TV or at events and I think by about 18 I was dreaming of the possibility that I could be a motorsport photographer. I’m not sure I ever quite believed it would happen, though!
How did your motorsport role come about?
Almost by accident, really! When I left university I started working as an event photographer mainly, shooting local events and theatre performances. One day I was browsing Twitter and noticed a new photography agency – Spacesuit Media – and I liked the style of images they were producing and just followed their account so I could keep up to date with what they were doing. It just so happened that they had seen the notification of me following their account at almost the exact time they were looking for someone to cover some hospitality photography for them at the Paris and London ePrix in Season 2. They saw I was an event photographer but also that I had some motorsport in my portfolio and invited me to join the team. Halfway through Season 3, there was a position available in the trackside team and they invited me back to join them – I’ve not left since!
How did previous experiences help?
I don’t think I ever dreamed that photographing events in my local area would lead me to the motorsport career I now have, but I’m so thankful. My work in theatre really helped. Learning the basics of stage lighting and being surrounded by different plays and performances week in week out really gave me a taste for dramatic lighting and pushing my photography forward, inspiring a number of the shoots that I’ve done recently.
Event photography in general really helps you prepare for motorsport; motorsport meetings really being events in themselves. Picking up a camera in any capacity, learning how you like to shoot and developing your own style, it all helps!
Being a freelance photographer means that Lou works for herself; she isn’t employed by a specific organisation full-time. Although she works for different photography agencies, she is paid for the individual jobs she carries out and doesn’t bring in a monthly wage. Also, Lou is responsible for her own tax contributions.
She enjoys the flexibility of her job and highlights that it’s common to work on a freelance basis as a photographer, even though it can be stressful at times. With motorsport, there is more scope to have longer-term clients, like teams and sponsors and those come hand-in-hand with season-long contracts. Although these types of contracts can provide more financial security than separate shoots do, at the end of a season or beginning of a new season panic about job security is still often a thing.
How many races do you attend in a year and which championship do you cover most? Or, is it evenly balanced?
This depends year on year really, and often on the championships I’m covering. This year, for example, I’ll be at all 16 Formula E races working with Spacesuit Media and Mahindra Racing. However this year I’ve already covered tests for W Series and GT Open and also a race weekend in British GT. I never know a full list of race events I’ll be covering at the start of the year as it evolves over the year as I have conversations with new and returning clients based on their needs. The variety is one of the highlights of my job!
Across the different championships, who do you work with?
I’ve worked with Mahindra for nearly four years now and have grown a lot as a photographer with them. We certainly work very closely together, and that is down to how long I’ve been with them. I’m incredibly lucky that they give me so much creative freedom and trust me with creating their photographic content in a style that’s true to me. The family atmosphere of the team is extended to include me, and it’s a lovely and supportive environment to create work in. They listen to my crazy ideas, and give me the time I need to create whatever I come up with.
This said, this is very true for the other teams I’ve worked with. It very much depends on the role you’ve been hired to do. If you’ve just been hired to shoot some track images for a sponsor, manufacturer or driver, you’ll naturally work less closely with them as you may do if you’re in a paddock throughout the weekend creating content for the team, driver or race series itself.
Does ‘the perfect shot’ exist?
There is a common saying by photographers ‘my best photograph is my next one’ or something along those lines, and it’s so true. I believe as a photographer we are always going to find faults in our work, want it to be better, maybe the lighting could have been different, maybe we could have changed the composition a little bit, or maybe we didn’t quite get the settings right. Whatever it is, that search for ‘perfect’ shots are what drives us to continue creating.
You focus a lot on candid shots of drivers - how do you know what to capture?
I love shooting candid photographs of the drivers. I really want to focus on showing them for who they are, their personalities and individualities, and what makes them ‘them’ if that makes sense. Often it involves a lot of tagging along to shoot behind the scenes at interviews and TV commitments, or simply just being in the right place at the right time in the garage. I’ve got a good relationship with my team and drivers and I spend a lot of time in the garage during race weekends, and I think that shows in my images.
I’m super lucky to have worked with some great drivers in my career so far, who trust me and allow me to photograph them in a way that’s not always overly staged and shows who they are.
Can you take us through the editing process?
Once I’ve taken the photos the data gets transferred onto my portable hard drive and laptop and then put straight into a programme called Photo Mechanic where I make my selections and often embed some basic information into the metadata of the image (driver name, event etc). Then I bring the images into Lightroom where I edit them. I have a basic pre-set which just boasts the colours a bit and then a lot of the rest I do manually for each image.
On a race weekend, I often don’t have longer than a couple of minutes to edit a single picture, so it’s about working quickly and instinctively most of the time, especially in between sessions when there is very limited time to edit and deliver images to clients before the next session starts.
Motorsport photography is still very much a male-dominated area of the sport, and at times, when Lou is working at some events away from Formula E, she’s the only female photographer. To Lou, it’s important that motorsport becomes inclusive for everyone to feel welcome.
Getting into motorsport photography doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t always a linear pathway like other job roles.
“Photography is such an emotive art and it’s important you use that as your strength,” Lou says. “Follow your heart. Be true to yourself.
“Keep shooting, keep sharing your work and have patience.”