Like a bolt from the sky from a flaky A380, my Picture Editor decided to throw me a challenge in the shape of the WRC Wales Rally. Up to this point, my only experience of motor-sport rally was climbing in the trees of Sherwood Forest when my Dad took me to watch the Lombard RAC rally many moons ago. My only actual memory of it now is seeing all the gimps in Halfords-bedecked Fiestas racing each other out of the car park at the end of the day.

The first call was to other photographers to find out who else was covering it and to gain any advice that I could on how to begin my coverage. With one photographer only offering “It’s great for your mileage expenses”, I finally found a colleague who would be both covering the four days and was prepared to offer a whole selection of hints and tips; Mr Alastair Grant from the Associated Press. After booking hotels all over the route of the rally around central and southern Wales, I headed out to Cardiff to collect my accreditation before heading north to Aberystwyth. An evening’s discussion of routes, plans, angles and thoughts later and I was ready to tackle my first day; “Sweet Lamb”.

Never having covered the WRC before, I didn’t know what to expect regarding information and had assumed that I just rocked up to the area and wandered around until I found a corner I liked but thankfully the organisers are a bit more prepared. In the media guide, a map of the course is accompanied by example images and plan maps of the corners, obstacles and jumps that they believe make the best image. This means that the hardest part is finding some random dirt track up a mountain side with a name like “Crossways” or “Sweet Lamb”. It goes without saying that satnav is of no use really so I was hugely grateful to be following Alastair who had covered the Wales rally last year.

Having been warned by Getty sports photographer (and confirmed petrol-head) Clive Rose how fast Sebastien Loeb would be, it didn’t take long to see that he wasn’t kidding. Unlike other sports that build up to the main attraction, rally sees the #1 ranking driver take to the course first. In some ways, this is great as you get the best drivers through quickly but for a total eejit like me, it just means that I have nothing to practise on. It goes without saying that on some of the stages that I covered, there weren’t THAT many frames to file.

As a prime example of the glamour involved in press photography, I thought I’d include a test shot from my remote camera set-up on the peak of the “Myherin” section of day two. Never in my life have I worked in such truly miserable conditions. It was so bad, the unhappiness passed through into insanity and mania with bursts of laughter and giggles as the torrential rain whipped across the moorland. On arrival, the massive turbines of the wind farm dominated the horizon creating the perfect setting for a nice feature shot. Ma Nature clearly hates photographers though and as the roar of Loeb’s car first came into earshot, the fog fell and covered all but one. With gusts tugging the protective bags from my lenses and triggers, it made for a truly dismal location.

It’s about now that I should probably try to sum up my experiences with Pocket Wizards. Not being a regular sports photographer, I have little reason to play with them so on deciding to use them over the weekend, I faced a steep learning curve. After making the beginner’s error of leaving the flash on TTL rather than manual, I was then deep into the world of completely illogical firing.

As top MTB photographer James Porteous explained to me, “if you ever open one up, you’ll discover that the case just contains magic and confusion”. A perfect description as they would both decide to work for no reason and vice versa with absolutely no changes being made. Utter utter confusion. Bring on the Pocket Wizard Nikon-compatible TTL system as these rather battered Multimax units are just prime shoddiness.

The following day was spent at the “Fourways Crychan” and “Halfway” sections of the course and proved to be a marathon of hiking and endurance. With the media car park 2km from the first jump and the second point of interest being around 4km away, the addition of a 400mm f2.8 lens plus full kit and laptop including three camera bodies, remotes and clamps was a nightmare. Within five minutes of leaving the car, the decision to wear thermals and loads of layers proved to be a bit of an error, resulting in the drenched feelings of yesterday being replicated but inside my clothes this time.

With full accreditation bibs and passes, photographers are allowed access to any stage of the route and, aside from being told not to sit in the middle of the road, are left to their own devices. While common sense initially tells you to steer well clear, it doesn’t take long before everyone is edging closer to the roadside and balancing remote cameras and flashguns on hay bales within inches of the track. It’s only when you watch in-car footage of what the drivers get to see that you realise how insanely close to complete wipe-out these vehicles are.

Halfway through my second day, I didn’t feel that I was really getting anything of much use (or interest) so suggested to Alastair that we headed into one of the wooded sections of the course. After yet more cross-country hiking, I settled on a corner of the track that would see the drivers power-slide round, allowing me to play around with the temperamental pocket wizards once again. An early test shot resulted in a perfectly exposed frame being taken, followed immediately by a BBC sound effect album-style splintering sound as the branch that I’d clamped the flash and trigger to gave way and the toys fell 30 feet into a muddy ditch. Incredibly, the triggers didn’t see this as a perfect opportunity to fail and continued to work for me. As ever, first through was Sebastien Loeb and, with my timing unpractised, I missed the point of firing that I’d been after but got a happy accident in this unusual lighting pattern.

A few cars in and I really started to play around with what I could get. As you may have already decided, I was straying somewhat from the brief of “rally photographer” but I guess that what comes of experimentation!

On the last day, we headed to Margam Park and, like all of the other stages, covered the leaders of the race before heading out to the finish line in Cardiff centre for the cup presentation. With a large amount of amateur teams taking part, it really is only the top ten that are likely to be in contention so, aside from missing some unplanned aerobatics, it makes sense to get them shots in the bag and head on to the next location every time.

The Wales rally proved to be quite an odd experience in that not only was it a new discipline to get my head around but also, the winner of the whole championship had been decided weeks before and right from day one, there had been little doubt that Loeb would take the Welsh rally title too. When the time came for the cup presentation, it was a decidedly muted affair with no real sense of excitement or celebration. As the main cup had already been presented to him weeks before, it was a bit of a damp squib. Added to this, it’s so weird to cover an event that gets so little press coverage in the UK. Thankfully, I can see my play reports so get to see that the images are being used across Europe but here in the UK, it’s as if it didn’t happen.

In conclusion, I actually enjoyed covering the rally. Yes, I know that goes against my usual anti-sport feelings but a combination of a new field of photography to get to grips with and having such an open physical area to find angles and ideas really does make for a creatively challenging and fun experience. If I’d been writing this blog while sheltering behind a turbine, it may not have been quite the same answer.

16 Responses to “Rally in the Valleys”

  1. As usual a great write up Leon. Interesting to see your take on the experience and I particularly like your ‘close encounters’ shot.

    Hope you’ve managed to dry out now!

    Keep it up.

    Posted by John Wood
  2. Cracking write up…Will bookmark this blog for future updates :) Might bump into you next year if you end up covering the event again.

    Posted by Jason Aspinall
  3. love it Leon, thanks! Started me thinking, all the fuss in gigs about no flash because it puts off the performers and spoils the atmosphere. You never see the drivers complain, or be told by the event organisers that flash guns are not allowed. You can imaging what a SB900 would do to your eyes in the dark morning forests, while trying to concentrate at 90mph.

    Look forward to the next.

    Posted by Stu
  4. @John Wood Thanks John. I’m just about back to normal although I’m not sure my 70-200mm will ever be quite the same! :(

    @Jason Aspinall Cheers! It’d be interesting to shoot it again, now that I know what it involves and what’s expected of me. Maybe see you next year!

    @Stu A very fair point. I was a little concerned at first but there are no restrictions on it and these guys don’t seem to mind. For the night shots above, I was firing at full power with the flash a few metres from the car on the far side. Just imagine how delicate those poor singers must be. *breaks out smallest violin in the world*

    Posted by tabascokid
  5. Nicely done, my liege!

    Posted by pixgremlin
  6. @pixgremlin Cheers bud! :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  7. The main reason for not wanting flash at gigs is because it completely destroys the stage lighting effects, not because the ‘artists’ get pissy with all the flashing going on (bear in mind all the fans in the audience shooting on compacts).

    I shoot all manner of gigs and would *never* want to use flash 😉

    Posted by Jason Aspinall
  8. I’ve shot plenty over the years and while that might affect the groups lighting in small venues, I can’t see that excuse holding when they’re playing on the main stage at Glastonbury during the middle of the day!

    As for wanting to use flash at gigs, I’ve never used it either but it’s the outright ban that irritates me. I’ll hazard a guess that the idea hasn’t even crossed the mind of most musicians but this rule is applied across all venues without anyone really knowing why. Baffling…

    Posted by tabascokid
  9. Lovely stuff there sir. Living in Cardiff I would have liked to have gone myself, but a temporary lack of camera and permanent lack of press pass conspired against me somewhat. Must have been exciting to do something a little different though – despite the shitty Wales weather and marathon hikes?

    Posted by tom ashmore
  10. Cheers Tom. Yeah, I would say “despite the weather” but I think it added to the whole Welsh experience! As it happens, my family always go to a place in mid-Wales for an annual break by the sea (and frostbite) at a place called Borth so I’ve always loved it really. 😉

    Posted by Leon Neal
  11. Very nice Leon…not bad for a noob! In fact, I almost prefer the “moving away from the brief” shots. Makes something different from the other guys out in Wales.

    Glad you had a nice chance to experience the usual weather suffered by us sports guys who work mainly in Wales…funnily enough Wavey from PA didn’t complain too much about the weather. Seasoned pro there! Not like these guys who cover festivals and art installations 😉

    Posted by JamesB
  12. haha! Cheers James. I’m well aware of how hopeless I am at covering sport so, whenever I can, I try to disguise it in “off brief” shooting. It seems to have worked for me so far! As for festivals being easy, you should try Glastonbury in a mud year… 😉

    PS You’re my 1000th comment on the blog! Cheers for being a good one!

    Posted by tabascokid
  13. Great piece and some amazing shots. TTL paah, get some YN602 triggers, throwaway prices and better range and reliability than the PW’s. Love the off camera work. Merry xmas

    Posted by paul
  14. It seems to me the only advantage you had of having a photo jacket was the ability to put yourself into more danger than the public :-)
    It’s also interesting to see you shoot out of your comfort zone and how you progress assuming your shots are in chronological order ..
    Apart from the physical discomfort I wonder at your feelings about what you were producing as output and the additional pressure that must have caused ,let alone the idea of being away from remote equipment with the possibility of losing it to unforeseen circumstances .
    I do like the ‘Ultimate’ car shot and the on top of the world ridge shot which both stand out for me .
    I hope your editors appreciated the effort involved .

    Posted by Ray Fothergill
  15. Yup, that sounds about right! Thankfully, it’s quite refreshing to be allowed to take your life into your hands like that while on a job. 😉

    Like anything that I’m new to, I like to think my output improved as I got my eye in but it’s only after repeated opportunities to shoot a sport that you start to find the “path”. As this was my one and only time shooting rally, I’d be back at square one if they asked me to shoot it again!

    Posted by tabascokid
  16. I’m not so sure you would be back to square one and that you are being modest .
    Most of the time I come away from something new I’m thinking of things I didn’t think of at the time the pressure was on .
    They quite often come back to me if I get another opportunity .
    The great thing here is the choice of elevations you seem to have had

    Posted by Ray Fothergill

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