Top Racing Photographers Give Us A Peek Behind The Lens

If you are a patron of the racing world, and you say you don’t like pictures, odds are pretty good you are lying. Race fans love to see cool action shots, wreck shots, and all points in between. Drivers love to see unique shots of their cars in action, not only to get a sweet look at their ride, but also to observe the attitude of the car on different spots on the racetrack.

In the same manner in which successfully driving a race car requires talent, there is an equal amount of ability associated with getting those jaw-dropping photos. At OneDirt, we are blessed to have some of the best photographers in the business, who regularly contribute to us. We thought it would be fun to pick the brains of a couple of these ultra-talented photogs. We wanted to know what to do, what not to do, and some of their most memorable moments behind the lens.

Steve Schnars photo.

Steve Schnars – who is widely known throughout the racing fraternity as “Schnarzy” — didn’t first pick up a camera until roughly 6 years ago. The retired police captain quickly caught onto the game, and he’s now regarded as one of the top shooters in the sport.

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I had a blast. — Steve Schnars

Schnars introduction into the photography world came on a random whim back in 2012. “I was living in Pennsylvania and running up and down the road with Chub Frank Racing,” Schnars recounts. “I had no talent for driving or working on the cars, and a guy can only drink so much beer. Thus, shooting was about all that was left for me to try, so one night at Lernerville Speedway I thought I’d try my hand at taking some shots with my camera. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I had a blast.”

Steve Schnars prepping for a night of shooting.

While Schnars is humble about his beginnings, perhaps he was already more attune to what successful racing photography required, than he likes to admit.

“One of my pictures from that first night, of John Volpe in the staging lanes, was later purchased by Speedway Motors and used as a [catalog] cover shot,” Schnars reveals. “That was a really cool moment for me.”

Since that first fateful night in 2012, Schnars, who now resides in California, has gone on to photograph racing events across the United States and Canada. His work has been featured in multiple online and print publications.

Another one of our great photographic contributors at OneDirt is Heath Lawson. The 25-year-old photographer hails from Clanton, Alabama. He currently serves as the tour photographer for the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series (LOLMDS). When not on the road with the series, he also freelances for multiple publications. Despite his young age, he’s currently regarded as one of our sport’s brightest photographers.

Shawn Gage prepares Ricky Weiss’ car for action. (Heath Lawson photo)

While Lawson is now known for his excellence in capturing the moment at dirt races, his racing background actually started in asphalt.

“I come from mainly an asphalt background. My grandfather, father, and one uncle raced,” Lawson notes. “I also had another uncle that was a crew chief for an asphalt Super Late Model team that toured the Southeast. I grew up around the track and always wanted to be involved but never really had an interest in driving. I wanted to continue the family name, so in October 2012 I bought my first camera. I then shot my first race at Talladega Short Track during the 2013 Ice Bowl, and it quickly grew from there.”

What Is The Key?

With both photographers being relatively new to the game, I asked them what the biggest key was to learning the art of photography so quickly. I found it interesting that both were quick to pinpoint the same factor.

Devin Moran casts an eerie shadow in this Steve Schnars photo.

“Asking for advice from veterans of the sport gives you invaluable tips on the do’s and don’ts of photography,” Schnars comments. “Steve Towery was a huge help early on when I first got started. He took the time to share settings and techniques with me. Mike Ruefer is a talented guy and was gracious enough to share his philosophy for a successful night of shooting. The bottom line is always be looking to learn something new from others.”

Lawson echoes Schnars’ advice. “One person that helped me from the beginning was Glenn Katauskas. I really admired his work as a fan of the sport and reached out to him prior to shooting my first race. He actually invited me to shadow him the entire weekend of the 2013 Ice Bowl and continued to mentor me from that point on. Rick Schwallie was another person whose work I always admired as well as Joey Millard. All of these guys helped me develop into the shooter that I am today.”

While both photographers have mentors they admire, Schnars and Lawson are adamant about maintaining individuality with your art.

Always be looking for a creative angle. (Heath Lawson photo)

“Everyone shooting in the same corner or location gets on my nerves,” Schnars says. “I know certain places, like Turn 1 at Tulare (California), are the action spots, but there are other places to capture shots that tell the story of the event. Don’t’ go to a spot just because most of the other photographers are standing there.”

It’s a lot harder than people think, because you only have so many chances to try different angles and shooting positions. — Heath Lawson

For Lawson, he loves the challenge of going to new venues and having to find the proverbial “sweet spots” to shoot. “It can definitely be a challenge having to adjust to new places each week,” Lawson comments. “It’s a lot harder than people think, because you only have so many chances to try different angles and shooting positions. If you don’t quickly get a good game plan once you get to the track each day, it could be the difference in getting the shot of the night or missing it altogether. It can be nerve racking at times, but at the end of the day, I love battling the adversity of it all.”

Lawson also cautions photographers to always be aware of their surroundings. Early in his career, he narrowly avoided disaster.

Heath Lawson photo

“I’ve actually been hit by a race car. In 2014, I was on the front stretch of Talladega Short Track — behind the infield catch fence waiting to capture the ‘checkered flag shot.’ A car spun coming off Turn 4 and proceeded to jump the infield wall and come through the fence. I was struck by a fence post that was lodged in the left-front wheel area of the race car.

“Fortunately, I was paying attention and was able to move, and escape with only a bruised sternum and a few bruised ribs,” he says. “That moment taught me to never assume you are in a totally safe location, and to always have an escape plan in the back of your mind.”

Best Advice

When asked what their best piece of advice is for someone trying to break into the photographer business, both Schnars and Lawson share valuable perspectives.

A timeless photo of the late Bryan Clauson by Steve Schnars.

“Buy quality gear. There’s a lot of great used gear available at a fair price,” Schnars declares. “Talk to as many photographers as you can, as most are very approachable. Most importantly, understand the business and the culture. When you visit a track, find out who the track photographer is and go introduce yourself. Let them know why you’re there and that you understand it’s their track.

“Finally, be brave; try shooting from different (but safe) areas. Shoot with a flash, off-camera flash, no flash, and do some slow shutter speed panning. Do not get in a rut artistically.”

For Lawson his best advice involves simply being as active as you possible can while at the track.

“Shoot, shoot and shoot more! You can always delete pictures, but you can’t make them appear out of thin air.”

Steve Schnars catches the battle for the lead at Fairbury.

Schnars and Lawson have risen to become two of the most respected photographers in the dirt-racing world. They are part of a much larger fraternity of dozens upon dozens of top-notch shooters, who eternally capture the most memorable moments that our sport has to offer. Their finished products represent thousands of hours of hard work, trial and error, and perseverance.

Shooting With Your Cellphone

As a concluding section to this look at racing photography, I thought it would be fun to share a few tips for the cellphone shooters, like myself, who like to catch random images at the track for use on social media. I don’t even remotely pretend to possess 1/1000th the knowledge (nor talent) of guys like Schnars and Lawson, but I have learned some good tips along the way.

You can get really nice shots with your cellphone.

First, if you are out there with a cellphone, please don’t get in the way of the real shooters. In the wrong moment this can be a mistake that is punishable by death.

Next, whenever you are taking pics during daylight conditions, make sure the sun is always at your back. This gives you natural lighting and prevents those much-dreaded dark shots.

Last but not least, be creative. Everybody and their brother goes for the head-on shots of the car sitting in the pits. Try holding your phone above your head to shoot downward, or conversely, hold your phone down low to shoot up. A different angle can totally change the perspective of your picture. This just might be the difference in getting 25 likes and 2,500 likes on an Instagram picture.

No matter what your shooting pleasure might be, hopefully this article gave you some valuable tips to use in your next photo-taking endeavor.

About the author

Ben Shelton

Ben got his start at historic Riverside International Speedway. His accomplished motorsports media career includes journalist, race announcer, and on-air personality.
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