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Risky business

There’s a lot more to getting great fast-action shots than you might think. From local knowledge, to technical knowledge, to getting down and dirty and having a thick skin. tP finds that Carole McLatchie has all of this, and a great nickname too…

There's often nothing better than somebody working in an environment, or with a subject, they love. It changes the whole attitude, and will always be noticeable in the results coming out the other end. So when Carole McLatchie, complete with a strong family motorcycling background, was musing over what do for her final photography project to complete her college course, way back in the days of film (remember that?), there was in reality only one direction this was going to proceed in. Some years and a digital revolution later, and McLatchie has a stack of Future Publishing's Fast Bike magazines with endless yellow post-its marking her work. The word ‘prolific’ comes to mind.

But back in the early days it was all quite different. She explains: 'I was winging it at Brands Hatch with a load of hire gear I barely knew how to work. Thankfully, the PR lady hooked me up with a couple of seasoned pros to show me the ropes. They would spend the day being incredibly helpful, as well as endlessly taking the mick.' There's little doubt that an element of winging it is essential to give a leg up to most people's careers, but the right attitude is going to help, plus advice and guidance from a true guiding hand. This came from Steve White working for the Camera Sport agency: 'Steve taught me about getting it right on camera, not just nearly right but actually ready to use straight off,' McLatchie continues. This is a point that gets emphasis throughout our discussions.

But back to that early work at Brands Hatch. The remarkable thing about it all was that the results from this wet-behind-the-ears session were actually alright, promptingt ypically sarcastic comments from the previously mentioned professionals: 'They were obviously surprised I'd got anything and remarked something along the lines of "imagine what you can get when you know what you're doing!"so that was a starter for ten.' Leg up respectfully accepted, the McLatchiepace would quicken. Grabbing all the words of wisdom that Steve White could offer,she set out for the race meetings and testing sessions of not just motorcycling but formula one also, forming relationships with the teams and gradually becoming a reasonably well-known face around the tracks.

Hand of fate
It would be in the pit lane at one such meeting, weighed down with the usual set of cameras and lenses, that a chance meeting would form a new and lasting relationship set to reap major dividends. Walking in the other direction was a somewhat flustered looking [insert name], deputy editor of Fast Bike, Future's flagship motorcycling title. He was in a spot of bother, being entirely short of a photographer who had failed to show. Naturally in this game there's only one opportunity to do the job and no second chance come-back-tomorrow scenarios. With a team waiting down the pit lane, McLatchie filled the gap, much to Fast Bike's delight. With successful images in the bag, a short time lag would occur before the Fast Bike team decided to send McLatchie out on a road test assignment.

It should be noted that magazine road test features are an entirely different kettle of fish to working a race meeting, and it's not for the faint hearted or ego-centric. Being a team player is an absolute must, as the photographer has to gel with art director, editors, testers, the lot - as well as dealing with a heavy schedule, little sleep, and endless travel. Glamorous it ain't. Fun it can be - if you all get on. As her input to the magazine increased, and consistency well and truly noticed, McLatchie would eventually land the major prize, that being a location trip to Spain to shoot the annual Fast Bike of the Year test. You should realise that the hooligan attitude to bikers should be put aside here. These guys are professional riders with skill levels to match. Many of the manoeuvres demand experience and precision and indeed are carried out at speeds well below the national limit - these are not your Sunday afternoon overtaking death-wish merchants. Such intricacies generally pass the public by though, when they are shooting on the roads. McLatchie explains: 'It's not unusual for an upstanding member of the public to call the police, but there's never anything illegal going on when we're on the roads - other than common sense, health and safety law sees to that. For the high speed and dangerous bits, we're always on the track.' However, it's not always a bundle of laughs in the controlled track environment, and knowledge of your sport is essential. McLatchie continues: 'Clearly I have got to get really quite close sometimes and the speeds can be very high. The inside of the corner is going to be place to shoot from since the bike is only ever going to go away from you in an accident. That said, risks in truth do have to be taken to fulfill the specific range of shots demanded by an art director. That's why this is a specialist job in that you must know the implications of action that's about to happen. We do have a lot of fun getting these pictures. I can't deny it's hugely hard work though!' Carole's almost always a good few years older than the magazine team around her, earning her the endearing nickname of 'Lady Caroline' - and since the motorcycling community is close-knit, her place in the press room at Superbike races can be seen to carry this nickname too. 'I seem to be photographer, mother figure, first aider, and more, all in the nicest possible way,' her Ladyship reveals.

Now or Never
Being fast-action sport, the approach to the job is always going to somewhat different to many other genres: 'There's only one chance, only one winner in races, and a demanding set of requirements for the magazine work. This is all achieved entirely on-camera - it's as shot, no photoshop and if I don't get it right then the file gets dumped as it's entirely useless to me,' McLatchie states emphatically. Just about everything you see here is shot either handheld or with a monopod and naturally we're talking jpeg capture too. Technically speaking, this means everything on camera counts to the nth degree as you're never going to want to be moving the exposure around after the event. The quality that McLatchie achieves here is second to none, something that is illustrated by Fast Bike's regular use of her images at double-page spread sizes. Crisp, true and slick are words that can be used to describe this work.
Race torture
Coverage of a race meeting can be equally demanding, often for very different reasons. Track knowledge, the best bends, where the main crash sites are and the quickest way back to get the podium pics at the end of the day all come into the equation. Every serious location photographer knows that gear is heavy, and getting about the track is no mean feet. 'I'm knackered after covering a race.' No further words needed there. However, McLatchie elaborates: 'Yes, there's only one winner and the right images need to be wired to the news agencies, and magazines immediately. Things have changed with the advent of continuous and up to date sports news appearing on various websites each and every day, so there is an added pressure about it that perhaps wasn't there before broadband. A magazine may be monthly, but new web content is in continuous demand.' How times change the ways in which a photographer must work. Not all the images are going to be thrill filled - with podium images and portraits for team interviews also going into the melting pot. 'You have to be on your toes and very flexible. Interviews are always done in the worst of all possible locations, and I'm usually soaking wet and covered in mud,' says 'Lady' Caroline – so much for the posh lady of the racetrack snappers. She's down and dirty with the rest of them, ready to turn her hand to whatever is required.
That leads us quite smoothly into one element of the profession as a whole and certainly this genre that's continually getting up the photographers' noses: the pro-sumer; the enthusiastic amateur; the hobbyist - use whatever name you wish. The community of photographers and racing teams is certainly close, but still there's the nightmare scenario of amateurs coming and shooting pics then offering usage for free. With the explosion of DSLR ownership and the double-wammy of decent kit coming down in price, plus the hobby market increasingly spending its pounds on photographic gear there's going to be a problem. Doubtless there's no intention to undermine the profession such players actually wish to enter, but certainly a mis-guided expectation that a photographer with a foot in the door can then start to charge hard cash later is prevalent. McLatchie comments: 'It's a shame really because otherwise the motorcycling world is a great place to be shooting and a real community where you make real friends. In fact it's totally different to Formula One where the shutters are down and everyone has to keep out.'

No one could deny that Carole McLatchie manages to capture a real sense of action, speed and thrill in her images, which is certainly why Fast Bike has come back to her services time and again. Despite the fact that her action photography extends to cover football, golf [action? - Ed], gymnastics and water skiiing, it would seem that her love of bikes and her sense of ease in this environment reaps dividends in the pictures delivered. TP