Colin McMaster is a WRC Rally photographer who has been capturing the action behind the lens for over three decades. A native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Colin grew up around motorsports; his grandfather raced motorbikes, and his father worked for Alfa Romeo in South Africa. On weekends, the family routinely headed to the track.
As a teen, Colin began selling car and driver photographs to Irish newspapers and magazines thanks to some of his grandfather’s journalism contacts. He later partnered with Reinhard Klein to form McKlein Photography, one of the world’s most highly regarded motorsport photography agencies.
We had a chat with Colin about his start in photography, his all-time favorite photographs, what he keeps in his kit, and what advice he has for photographers who are just starting out in the field. Read on to find out what he had to say.
“Come back with one photo that sums up the whole event.” This mantra has stuck with me and I always have it in my mind when I shoot a rally or anything really. – Colin McMaster
Let’s take it from the start. How did your adventure with photography start, and what’s your favorite thing about taking photos?
My adventure with photography began when I was 11 years old. Under the Christmas tree in 1980 was a camera for me. It was a very primitive Instamatic 110-cartridge film camera with a fixed-focus wide-angle lens. Each film had a maximum of 24 exposures and I actually loved the fascination and build-up of excitement waiting for the film to come back from the processing lab with a set of end prints. I got to experience this tactile and patient world of film photography for the next twenty years because that 11-year-old me didn’t become a full-time professional photographer until 1992.
During the same time, camera technology had gone through its own revolution from being fully mechanical to fancy auto-focusing electronic machines. But something even bigger was on the horizon — the birth of digital photography. And I was an early adopter.
In 1997 I set up a new photo agency called “McKlein Photography” and one of our first capital investments that year was a digital SLR camera. It was a super expensive monster of a thing in physical size, and the memory cards were called Microdrives. They were little spinning hard drives with a whopping 340 Megabytes of capacity!
Why did you choose to shoot car racing? Is it still exciting after years of work? Did you ever think about switching to something else?
I was born into a motorsport family, but primarily two wheels rather than four. My grandfather was a journalist and used to write about and officiate at motorcycle road racing events in Ireland, back in the 1960s & 70s. My father used to compete on bikes and even represented Ireland on International off-road trials.
As a kid, my parents would take me to watch car racing at many of the UK circuits and I became extremely keen on motorsports from a very young age. It was fast cars doing crazy things that excited me the most, so when I discovered rallying in the early 1990s I was hooked. Even today rallying is quite wild in nature and it’s one of the few great adventure genres remaining in the world of motorsport. It still excites me as much as it did three decades ago.
I also love music and in the past I’ve been fortunate to work at some UK festivals, shooting for the organizers. I love capturing the atmosphere and crowd interactions at big events, but my favorite part was always after sunset when the big acts were performing on stage and I had full access to shoot them close up. Ironically, I found the noise levels much higher at concerts than I do when shooting motorsports.
We’ll see 20, 30, or more photographers on the sidelines at any major event. What do you do to make sure your photos stand out?
Ansel Adams did say, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” so it’s no surprise that many professionals will gravitate to the same spots for good shots. I’ve tried to stand alone, it’s what I strive for. I like to have angles that are different from the other photographers. Or, often I will play with some of the more demanding photography techniques in order to stand out. I particularly like to portray speed using long exposures and slow-shutter speeds for action shots of cars that are moving incredibly fast.
On a rally I may only see the cars in action twice per day – that’s it! So, it can be risky to gamble too much and end up with a blurry mess. But in the ‘Risk vs. Reward’ game, I think fortune favors the brave. Plus, I’ve had a lot of years of practice.
A magazine editor who often commissioned me used to say, “Come back with one photo that sums up the whole event.” This mantra has stuck with me and I always have it in my mind when I shoot a rally or anything really. In rallying, which is a fully international sport, I always look for a strong action picture of the winner, in stunning light and scenery, that also shows the country we are in.
Suppose you had to choose just one photograph of yours that means the most to you, or it’s just your favorite because of the background story. What would it be? Is it even possible to choose one?
In sad circumstances, the photograph that means the most to me changed on January 2nd, 2023. American rally driver and online car-cult megastar Ken Block was killed on this day. I first met Ken in 2007 and in recent years I had become his go-to rally photographer, thus we became good friends. In 2019 Ken commissioned me to shoot him competing in a rally in the Swiss Alps. I knew there was a potential jump on this one particular section and, as was often the case, we discussed it. He said he would go flat-out over the jump and that I should definitely go there, so there was a bit of pressure on each of us. He flew over the jump and I nailed the shot. That’s the photo you see here: driver and car, photographer and camera all in perfect harmony.
Let’s talk about equipment. Rally events are very dynamic. You need long lenses and reliable equipment. What’s in your typical gear kit?
Apart from the odd medium-format Hasselblad film camera purchase and a short fling with Sony, I’ve been a loyal Canon user throughout my entire career. I’ve gone from SLR to DSLR and, as of last year, a full mirrorless setup with Canon. I own five RF-mount lenses that cover a combined focal length range of 14mm to 500mm. I like to work with prime lenses, yet I understand and appreciate the versatility and quality of zoom lenses today. Rarely would I take all five lenses on a rally, often I find 500mm too much of a hindrance to showing the wider view or full scene. Likewise, ultra wide-angle lenses are probably the most tricky lenses to use in the sport I mainly cover because quite often the backgrounds in rallying are full of distractions.
How important are memory products to you? What is your go-to memory card?
Memory cards have become increasingly important to me in recent years. The file size capabilities of the cameras seem to increase exponentially with the release of each new pro-spec camera. I use the two memory card slots in my Canon (R3 and R5) cameras, one for recording the jpegs and the other for the RAWs. So much of my work has to be edited and uploaded super fast and for this, I’m often transmitting the jpeg direct from the camera. The most important thing for me is to have the RAW files on the fastest and most reliable card possible and I have found Prograde Digital’s Cobalt CFexpress cards coupled with the dedicated reader is exactly that.
What is one piece of advice that you would give to all the young photographers out there?
I have to paraphrase my late friend Ken Block here: Be creative, have as much fun as you can with photography, and be nice. If you master these three elements you might end up making a career out of it. Oh, and one more thing; learn how to shoot and edit video. I never really did this properly and it’s one of my biggest regrets.
Colin McMaster is an incredible motorsports photographer with a long history in the sport. His passion, energy, and admirable talent have enabled him to maintain a strong career over the past three decades. If you’re an aspiring rally photographer or just want to gain insight into some of Colin’s favorite photographs, check out his work. His vivid images will transport you right onto the track!