Kym Illman’s Formula 1 photos are eye-catching, to say the least, the snapper from Down Under is relatively new to shooting the top flight, but he clearly has an eye for it as his images have a certain style unique to the way he sees the paddock and action out on track.
In a world of copycats and everything done to death, his images manage to stand out which is a tribute to the way he views the sport which is far more than cars racing around.
Kym spoke to Ben Stevens about the life of this F1 photographer.
Ben Stevens: First things first, what made you want to get into F1 photography?
Kym Illman: I went to Abu Dhabi in 2016 as a guest of Red Bull – I paid the money, got down into the pits and did the whole experience, and it was quite lovely standing there and listening to Daniel Ricciardo talk to his engineer, and it was all very calm in the paddock and the garage at that stage and I thought “this is quite lovely, I wouldn’t mind photographing this stuff!” When I got back I made some enquiries with some people I’d bought the tickets through, who got me to the right people at Red Bull, who gave me the right people at the FIA, and I sent them a package with obviously a compelling enough letter and they said “yeah we’ll take the punt on you for testing” so I got accredited for testing, then they said “alright, we’ll take a punt on you for Melbourne for the first race, then I did race-by-race for the whole year, every race – 20 races – in 2017, and that’s what you need to do to get a permanent pass so I got a permanent pass last year and did 18 of the 21 races, and I’ll probably do 18 this year, maybe 19, and I quite love it!”
BS: So then for you which one came first, the F1 fandom or the interest in photography?
KI: I spent 26 weeks in Africa over two-and-a-half years with my wife and we did this beautiful wildlife book – going back to 2015 we launched that, and then I sort of thought “right, I’m done with Africa, what’s next? And this sort of popped up, grabbed my attention and ticked all the boxes. I like Formula 1, but I’m certainly no avid fan or junkie of it. I like it for the colour it offers in terms of the photographic opportunities, and I’ve pursued it with much vigour and enthusiasm!”
BS: What are those sort of opportunities you get photographing F1?
KI: In terms of at the races, obviously because you’re accredited you get to stand alongside the fence – in places like Monaco you may be 30 centimetres from a car tyre, and you can’t do that as the general public! You also get to spend the whole day in the paddock where all the drivers are, and that’s what I tend to focus on. I don’t mind the car pics but I think I’m a better photographer of people and what’s going on in the paddock, I tend to focus on that. Certainly on my Instagram account (@kymillman), I tell the backstory to most of the pics that I put up, and I think it’s struck a nerve because I’m not sure many other photographers a: bother to post as many pics as I do on Instagram and b: put much of a backstory on there, and certainly the pics that they put up are normally brilliant shots of cars on the track, which I can do but I sort of like the people stuff.
BS: Over the course of an F1 weekend, how much time are you in the paddock, how much time are you walking around the track – how does that split work?
KI: Well, it’s four days. We get there Wednesday night for Thursday, all day Thursday there’s no cars on track so that’s all paddock and people – I probably sit in the media centre for two hours out of eleven editing, but the other nine or eight is wandering around looking for opportunities. On Friday it’s the busiest day because of the two 90 minute sessions so there’s three hours out on the track, there’s two hours editing and the rest is finding people in the paddock or perhaps nearby in the grandstands. The next day [Saturday] is the easiest day, because there’s only two one-hour sessions, of which there’s probably another two hour of editing, so the rest of the time is looking for people. On race day, well, race day is probably the day we do the least amount of shooting at cars because we do the start, then we’ll hang around, but normally we’ll head back with 25 minutes to go to get a good spot for parc ferme. Often, I never shoot the last 15 minutes – that’s often when exciting things happen, but I tended towards the end of last year to change that a bit and stay out, miss parc ferme because I thought “oh well, there’s probably more things happening”, and everyone gets the shot of parc ferme and the podium, where sometimes I hang around the back of the garage and get the drivers coming out all looking sweaty and disappointed or elated, and those tend to be pictures no one else gets because they’re all getting the major shot for the newspaper.
BS: How does that interaction with the drivers work? You had that really nice picture with Charles Leclerc (see above), obviously, you were very close to him there.
KI: Yeah that was during Abu Dhabi post-season testing, and there was no other photographer around, he was relaxed and I think it was the first time he’d had on the Ferrari shirt. I came up to him, he looked at me and smiled and we took a few pics, then I put the camera down and had a little chat with him and his manager, and then went back to the media centre and downloaded the pics and thought “that’s pretty good, I’ll put that one up”. He saw it, contacted me and said “can I post it?” so I sent it to him. That resulted in a 25% jump – probably even 30% jump in my followers on Instagram, and that’s the power of a driver like him or any of the top six or seven reposting your stuff.
BS: Do you get many interactions like that throughout the season?
KI: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of arrangements with drivers that I do things for, and it works well. I get something out of it, they get something out of it. Some [drivers] don’t even bother, I know Sebastian Vettel doesn’t have Instagram which amazes me when you look at Lewis who has this huge following, people love what he puts up and he’s prolific with what he posts – he really works that particular medium whereas other drivers don’t see the need.
BS: So then would you say Instagram – whether you’re a driver, photographer or journalist – is the medium that’s going to drive F1’s popularity in the future?
KI: Maybe it’s my ignorance of Twitter that I don’t tend to touch that, so I don’t know how powerful that is, but certainly Instagram kills Facebook for reach. I don’t know why that is, because I do other things with facebook, but I’ve learned to focus on [Instagram], and it’s a great way to grow a readership and get people interested with the view probably to a book at the end of this year. I’ll shoot this year for the book, and hopefully I’ve got 50 or 60 thousand followers, and that may translate into some sales, you never know.
BS: Being an Aussie – we’re pretty far away from the main show, it’s European/Northern Hemisphere most of the time – does that give you any sort of extra challenges?
KI: Cost me a fortune getting there-and-back, that’s what it does! And I don’t tend to do it cheaply, I do it comfortably. Some of the flights, like Brazil – that’s 25 hours in the air with a stopover – so yeah, it’s a challenge, and I think “yeah, is it worth coming home to Australia for six days sometimes?” This year I’ll do a seven-week trip with five races, last year it was six weeks for five races which was pretty good, but then I’ve got to stay away another week this year. Of course when you get races like Melbourne that’s a bonus, Singapore, Malaysia was great, Vietnam will be ok, Japan’s not bad, but the majority are 10-to-25 hours getting there.
BS: What’s your relationship like with other photographers?
KI: Very good, I tend to knock around with all the English guys, and they’ve been – particularly the guys from Getty – have been very positive. The first half of the first year I shot, I’d be standing in a certain spot and Mark Thompson who runs Getty, he just grabbed my shoulder, pulled me about a metre to the right and said “this is the spot”, and I said “oh, thanks Mark!”, so they have been just great to me. In general, they’re a great bunch, other people say there’s a bit of infighting but I’ve not seen that, and perhaps because I’m not much competition to them, and I’m not out there chasing work from teams – I imagine people who are doing that could get a bit cutthroat. I’m there to shoot the stuff I want to shoot. I shot the first year for Sutton Images, which is one of the major image houses in the world, and that was an eye opener, and was fantastic to work with Mark Sutton and Manuel Goria – who’s an Italian by birth but lives in Australia. I learned so much so quickly and I had to, to be able to do what those guys do. I remember the first day I went down to the pits and they said “how’d you go”, I said “yeah, yeah”, “how many pics?”, “oh, I got about fourteen I think”, “fourteen!”, “how’s that, not too good?”, “no, you need about 120!”, “oh okay, alright I get the picture!”. Now I’m acutely aware that you go out and you shoot a lot, and then you pare down, pare down, pare down, come up with x number from the session then quickly post them online, and that’s the pressure that all of those guys are under, especially those that work for news-gathering agencies.
BS: Is the number of photos you take because it’s sort of hard to plan in advance where you need to be for a good photo, so you’re just snapping and hoping you get the right ones?
KI: I can tell you the brilliant F1 photographs of cars on track are normally always to do with the background. Because the cars are the same every race, what changes are the backgrounds, so if you can identify a track, like in Austin that big tower, you try and work that into your shots, the Ferris wheel and Suzuka, and different tracks have their redeeming qualities and quirkiness – that’s the sort of stuff you have to try and work in. I think every photographer who goes into this game would be as guilty as I was – and probably still am to a lesser degree now – is you tend to shoot, shoot and stop thinking. [Now] I think “What am I doing? I’ve got a 100 of that shot and it’s not a great shot to start with”, so sometimes I check myself and say “stop it”, walk ten minutes extra, miss out on shooting for ten minutes but get five or ten stunning shots with a great background.
BS: Along those lines then, is it kind of hard for you to separate yourself from the “job” of taking photos. Do you get a chance to appreciate the experiences you’re having when you’re shooting?
KI: Yeah, sometimes I stop, and I just think “this is great”, particularly in places like Monaco where you get so close to the cars. At the exit of swimming pool, where there’s a knee-high metal barrier, and that’s it. You could throw a lolly into the cockpit of the car passing you – admittedly they’re not going 300 k’s an hour, but it’s still a real buzz and sometimes I stand back and even take wide shots of just the photographers with the car, because I think we often get too excited about taking shots of the car and you don’t tell the story of “look how close we are”, so there’s that sort of angle as well.
BS: That Grosjean one [see slideshow above] is a great example of that – you’re photographing the guys who are even closer than you to the car, looking right at this helmet.
KI: I’ve not asked a driver but I would like to have a chat with one and just ask them about that. Do you see us? Standing there, or one of the [other] sections of track where we stand in this crazy position, the barrier’s only a little bit higher. The most terrifying place is the bottom of Eau Rouge, leading up the hill where they come past you at 300 plus, and there’s no wire above the fence, and the amount of air they push through the fence that goes up the leg of your shorts is frightening. And of course if they happen to kick up a rock, that’s essentially a bullet – if that hits you in the temple, gee. I don’t tend to last too long there, during the race – which is a lot more frightening than during practice because you get five or six cars in a row go past – I did seven minutes and thought “this is crazy”. Oftentimes I’ll shoot through the fence because it gives you a little bit more protection, and mentally you think “I’m a bit safer” as well.
BS: Are there instances then of photographers getting nicked, getting scrapes? Obviously, if it was a serious injury we’d all hear about it, but are there those general injuries?
KI: I’ve not heard of anyone in my two years being hurt. I do know that one of the Getty photographers tells a lovely story of him photographing motorbikes once and a bike went over his head and knocked his cap off! So he was very lucky to escape injury there.
BS: Do you have a favourite picture or moment taking a picture?
KI: Yeah my Max Verstappen photo, which was [at] the very first race I’d ever shot, in Melbourne, and I’d seen a shot on the Friday from a guy and it was similar to the shot I took of the sparks coming out the back of Max’s car. I talked to him and he said it was just “turn six, shoot through the fence, 500, shoot at about a sixtieth of a second and follow the car”. So I did exactly as he told me and I got this remarkable moment of Max locking up, with sparks out the back. Of the fourteen frames I think there were two that were good, and one that was excellent. I’m very lucky that that being my first real race and shooting and I get this glamour shot straight out of the box. I felt pretty chuffed.
BS: It’s interesting you mention the sparks because in recent years that’s something F1 themselves have been emphasizing bringing back, do you find that’s always a good thing to get in your photos?
KI: Oh hell yeah, and a lot of the good photographers will specifically go out there and target those shots in maybe half a 90 minute session. There’s a great spot [for sparks] in China into the first corner, where you can stand on the outside of the track and shoot without any wire in front of us, you’ve got to have a long lens and probably got to be shooting at 800ml to fit it comfortably in the frame, but you can get some beautiful shots. [However] it’s very, very difficult, and guys much better than me struggle with it as well so I don’t feel quite so bad when I come back with zero or [just] a couple of shots!
BS: Final question, do you have any advice for aspiring F1 photographers?
KI: Yeah, there’s no money in it! If you want to make a quid out of it you’ve got to be very lucky. I don’t even know if you have to be the best in the world, I think you just have to have the right contacts. The teams will pay, but certainly if you’re coming from Australia you’re not going to make any money because all your budget’s going to be gobbled up with air travel [and] accommodation. A lot of the blokes that do this sport, they’re not living the high life, they’re five or six blokes perhaps in a shared house, driving an hour to the track each day, so if anyone can make money out of it, I’d pat them on the back, I’d think they’d done a tremendous job because it’s mighty expensive and I think the days of making money in any real terms are gone. Most of the guys that I deal with are doing it because they love it, they’ll make a few bucks, but quite frankly, they’re better off getting a job as a tradie.
BS: Do you think that will endanger the profession in the next 10-20 years?
KI: Yeah, I don’t know how it’s going to go, I honestly don’t. I couldn’t even tell you, I’m just certainly glad I’ve got a business that allows me to do this, and maybe I’ll make a few bucks out of a book, but I’m never going to make the cost of my air travel back.
BS: Where can we find more of your work?
KI: Any image I shoot can be found on prostarpics.com. They can be licensed for personal use so if they go into a race and want [for example] Daniel to sign something, they just buy one of the digital images, download it, print it, take it along, Daniel signs it, or they can post it on social media. You can also license stuff for editorial use and commercial use. Certainly there aren’t too many of the photographers who have sites where people can go and a: search Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton, see 7-800 shots of that driver then go and download one. People can go and see my blogs at kymillman.com/f1-diaries, where I put up a pre- and post-race blog and I post pictures to that site throughout the day and to prostarpics. So yeah, my stuff’s eminently visible and that’s what I want, I’ve realised now keeping it all secret – “oh that’s a good photo I don’t want someone stealing it – if someone’s going to steal it, they’re going to steal it.” They still have watermarks on it, so essentially they’re still advertising for me.