Photographer of the Gods - Keith Sutton on Developing the Past and
After Brooks’ last tour de photo, I decided that a visit with the man who has
stamped his style on how the image of motorsport is viewed was in order.
Keith Sutton was generous with his time and thoughtful with his answers. For
a business and sport as unapproachable as F1, Sutton is one of the good
Kerry Morse: What was your first race that you attended with a camera and
from that point, when did you decide to turn “pro” and make it a living?
Keith Sutton: My first event was a small national racing fixture held at my
local circuit Oulton Park in the north-west of England. I was 17 at the time
and was legally too young to shoot, but was given the chance by the circuit
manager Rex Foster, a good friend of my father Maurice. It was at that
moment I knew I wanted to become a professional motorsport photographer
and set about writing to all the circuit managers asking for permission to
KM: Today is very difficult to get any kind of credential from the FIA, how did
you introduce yourself to the establishment when you started out? What was
the scene for a young race photographer back then?
KS: Although it was, to some extent, easier back when I started out, it was
by no means easy to gain a pass to shoot at events. Essentially to gain
accreditation for national events, you had to work for a publication, which
could include your local newspaper, mine being, at the time, Cheadle Today.
Despite the paper having never had a motorsport correspondent before, I was
fortunate that the editor was keen to help out a young local lad and he duly
wrote a letter proclaiming me as their official motorsport photographer.
My first proper accreditation came through a chance association with Rex
Greenslade, a touring car driver, who happened to particularly like some
shots I took of him on two wheels through Lodge at Donington Park. He
explained to me that they could be published in his magazine – it transpired
he was also the sports editor of Motor magazine. This led to future work with
the publication and I went on to strike a great relationship with his successor
In early 1980 Mike produced a covering letter allowing me access to the
national circuits. Back then it was IRPA (International Racing Press
Association) and its leader Bernard Cahier who managed the distribution of
F1 media passes – not the FIA. With that letter from Mike I was able to cover
the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder when Motor's regular staff went on strike,
and with the help of the RAC MSA Press Officer Ann Bradshaw, I was able to
cover the British GP and that year also covered the Dutch GP.
In the early 80s you had to cover 20 races in 3 years to gain a permanent
IRPA arm band – which I attained in 1985 after years of covering Grand Prix
where I could fit in between national racing and the popular European Formula
Two Championship. Coincidentally it was then that IRPA ended and the FIA
took over in the distribution of passes.
KM: Did you start out in the junior ranks of UK motorsport, BTCC, Formula
Ford, etc. or did you try and cover everything including F1?
KS: Yes - I concentrated on European F2, British F3, BTCC, Formula Ford
and 2000 and 1600 etc. I continued to cover these extensively when I was
covering F1 until 1985 when my brother Mark joined me and we formed
Sutton Photographic. In 1986, I attended all the F1 races and the events
abroad and Mark concentrated on the national racing. To this day we still
cover a wealth of formulae other than Formula One.
KM: Your friendship with Ayrton Senna was well known. How did you
become friends and was there something even in FF that made him stand out
among his contemporaries?
KS: I first met Ayrton at Brands Hatch in March 1981. At the opening
Formula Ford race at Thruxton, I had taken lots of photos of him as I was
working for a Brazilian magazine that wanted images of Brazilian drivers
racing in England. I was shy back then, so never introduced myself. But at
Brands Hatch Ayrton approached me and enquired if I was a professional
photographer. When I said I was, he said he needed photos of him racing
sent to Brazil on a regular basis. On that day he won his first race and I was
able to get some great photos of him celebrating on the podium late in the
evening. From then on I carried on working with him, taking photographs,
writing his press releases, answering his fan mail and handling his PR work
for three years.
In the early years we had both a professional relationship and a personal
friendship. I would often stay at the house he shared with fellow Brazilian
driver Mauricio Gugelmin and talk about music, movies, cars, women and
Brazil. In return when he raced at Oulton Park he would stay at my house. I
celebrated with him when he won his junior formulae championships and he
invited me to Brazil for his first F1 race, paying for the airfare and for the hotel.
He was certainly very professional from the moment I first worked with him,
and he was very focused and knew exactly what he had to do to make it into
F1. Fundamentally though it was his undoubted talent that made him stand
out; he was on the pace instantly in pretty much anything he sat in.
KM: Senna seemed ahead of the game early on, how did those early press
releases start up. It was rare even to see a release about a driver at the top
let alone the first step of the ladder.
KS: Ayrton was certainly acutely aware of the importance of self-promotion.
He was keen to have his PR in English, as he figured that to gain the
attention of those that count – the F1 team owners and managers – the
majority would be English speaking. He asked me in the early days to write
his press releases, as his English was not at the level we grew accustomed
to when he was in Formula One.
We would send these releases to all the F1 team managers and 30
international motorsport magazines to keep them informed of how Senna was
performing. He also had the PR translated and sent to Brazil, as it was
important for his Brazilian sponsors and for their media to be aware of his
It was from these releases that I began receiving phone calls from Bernie
Ecclestone, Peter Warr and Frank Williams enquiring about this young
Brazilian. To be honest I was too young and inexperienced to know best how
to handle them, so I passed them onto Ayrton. But it was clear from these
calls that the Press Releases had achieved the desired result.
KM: F1 used to just sort of move along at slow pace where even a two to
three year old car could still win races. When did you see the pace develop
and whom would you credit?
KS: I think I have to disagree there! Certainly there have been cars, like the
Lotus 72 or the McLaren M23 in the 70s that were raced with great success
for many seasons. But it is wrong to think that the cars remained unchanged
from season to season, or even race to race. Formula One has always been
about relentless development, whether it be the drive to provide the most
powerful engine, or the most efficient aerodynamic package. The McLaren
M23 that Denny Hulme debuted in 1973 was a very different beast under the
skin from the one that Hunt and Mass drove in 1977.
When we go back through our archive from the late David Phipps, it is clear to
see that developments in the 1960s and 1970s were bought on-stream with
as much, if not more, regularity than is the case now. Look at Lotus' 4WD car
of the late 60s or their turbine car of 1971; Tyrrell's 6-wheeled car from 1976;
the tall wings from the late 60s developed almost literally from session to
session; experiments with brakes, suspensions, fuel tanks and so on. There
was greater freedom with the rules then to be radical, and so new ideas were
tried far more frequently, something I think is sadly missing in F1 now.
KM: How did you personally view the turbo era of F1? Which team and driver
made the most impression on you?
KS: The turbo era coincided with my burgeoning exploits in becoming a
professional photographer, so I look back at the era with fond memories.
Personally it was a tale of working very hard to establish myself in the F1
paddock, making personal and financial sacrifices to work my way up the
ladder. For instance I remember back in the early 80s hitching a ride in the
back of a McLaren truck all the way from England to Monza for the Italian
GP, as air travel was still very expensive, especially for a young lad from
I also see the turbo era as a time of great fun. The paddock was a more
relaxed place and the things we used to get up to with fellow photographers,
journalists, team members and drivers, well most of it is unrepeatable! There
were fewer demands on us back then and I used to joke that at some races I
was on the beach within 30 minutes of qualifying ending!
It was also a time when we were very lucky to have a group of truly
exceptional drivers: Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Rosberg, and so on, who
were using their talents to drive increasingly powerful cars – far more so than
we have now and likely to ever have. It made for great racing and great
opportunities for photography.
KM: The establishment of F1 really seemed to change in the mid 90’s with a
more managed and staged event. F1 has drowned out so many of the other
championships with their self-importance and coverage is difficult to come by.
Do you see this continuing, can sports cars make a return to the front page
again other than Le Mans?
KS: Our company will always be indebted to sports car racing, thanks to an
introduction by John Brooks to Castrol in 1989, which led to us working for
Jaguar, Toyota and Dunlop in the World Sportscar Championship through to
its demise in 1992. The relationship with Castrol we forged in those years led
to us securing our first F1 team contract with Castrol and Lotus in 1992.
Le Mans is a wonderful event, with an atmosphere unique in motorsport, but it
remains the only sports car event familiar to the general public. But this
'problem' is true in many other sports. Take cycling, for instance. Ask the
general public to name a cycling race and they will nearly all say the Tour de
France, and struggle to name another, despite to the fan there are great
races throughout the year. And so it is the same with sports car racing. It has
many great events, a great championship, and a legion of dedicated followers,
but it suffers, and is likely to always do so, from the 'one great event'
That said, sports car racing has the opportunity with the internet and mass
channel television to offer its product to a far wider audience than it ever could
in its 'glory' days of the 60s through to the 80s. And whilst I don't ever think it
can compete with F1, it certainly has the opportunity to claim the prize of the
second most followed motorsport behind F1.
KM: Many ex-F1 people have lamented the changes in the circuits. While
this has been done in the name of safety, it has to have had an effect on how
you cover a race. How have you dealt with this over the seasons of change?
KS: It's certainly true that the freedom to shoot from anywhere on the circuit
was diminishing in my time compared to my contemporaries in the 1960s and
70s and has continued to do so. Our biggest problem nowadays is that with
the newer circuits the run-off areas are so vast that even with our biggest
lenses we are struggling to capture the full-in-the-frame image. We are also
more restricted with the number of red zones (Forbidden areas) increasing
year on year. Long gone are the days of standing on the outside of Tarzan on
the first lap and crossing over the circuit to the inside for lap 2! Because
fences effectively line the circuits, we are restricted to shooting in designated
areas where holes have been cut for us. This massively restricts opportunities
to be creative and to shoot something different from our competitors.
At the end of the day we just have to accept that some shots are just not
possible nowadays because we cannot stand in a lot of the 'dangerous'
positions we once could. On the other hand, advances in cameras and lens
technology means we can zoom in further, closer, and shoot cars at a higher
speed than was possible 20-30 years ago, so it very much a case of doing
the best you can with what is available at your disposal.
We still have circuits like Monaco, which retains most of the wonderful
opportunities to shoot as close up as we used to. This year too we are
visiting the street circuits of Valencia and the night race in Singapore, which
will hopefully provide some pleasing photo opportunities as opposed to many
of the bland modern circuit constructions.
One of my biggest laments is shooting in the pit lane. When I started we had
near free access to be where we wanted, and for every car there would be
only a handful of mechanics around it. Often the driver would be out in the pit
lane, sitting on the car, chatting in full view of the handful of photographers
around him. Nowadays we have quite often 50-60 photographers clamouring
behind a barrier in front of a garage to shoot a driver who is hidden away at
the back of a dark garage. Frankly it doesn't make for inspiring photography.
KM: How many photographers do you have at any given F1 race?
KS: Typically we will use 4-5 photographers at an F1 race and take along a
technician, whose job it is to select and edit the photographers' digital
images. At any session other than the race itself we will have two
photographers in the pits and the rest out on the circuit. We will plan our
positions carefully before the event to ensure that all angles are covered over
KM: No doubt many of our readers will want to know what gear you are
KS: The company has traditionally used Canon. We currently use a mixture
of Canon 1D Mk3s, 1D Mk2s and Mk2Ns. As a company we were one of the
first to embrace digital technology and stopped shooting on film in 2005.
Naturally, we have a full complement of lenses, from wide angles to 600mm
KM: How do answer that age old question when someone approaches you at
a race and asks, “how do I get to be a race snapper”?
KS: Practice, practice, practice! Use national races to build up a portfolio.
Don't be afraid to send your portfolio to many different people, but be prepared
for rejection. Also don't expect to leap straight into F1. Like most other
professions, it is nearly always a case of starting at the bottom and working
your way up. And the bottom rung may not even be working as a
photographer, be prepared to bide your time and learn the industry before
KM: As a pro, your own feelings of film versus digital? You can even wax
sentimental if you want!
KS: As I mentioned earlier, Sutton Motorsport Images was one of the first
agencies to embrace digital technology and so have seen overwhelming
benefits, in terms of cost, flexibility, distribution and immediacy of the digital
format The first incarnation of our website dates back as far as 1996, and it
was this early pioneering of hosting an archive of images that has enabled us
to have over 480,000 of our four million images fully searchable on-line.
However, as a photographer who used film for the vast majority of his
professional career, there is one aspect of the medium I preferred – and that
is the thrill of developing your own film and eagerly awaiting the results. As a
company we used to develop our own images, whether it be in our makeshift
darkroom at our small house in Towcester, to our state-of-the-art E6
processor that filled an entire room at our company headquarters.
Whereas an image can now be seen instantly on from the back of a camera,
our first opportunity to see the fruits of our labour when shooting film would
come after a weekend of shooting, when we would rush back from whatever
country the race was held on the first available flight back to our office. Whilst
I certainly don't now miss those mornings after the race where we would often
stay up all night processing the films, ready for selection and dispatch to our
clients the day following a race, there was always a sense of trepidation to
see how well shots had come out, especially if there was a 'special' shot
amongst them. With the immediacy of digital, that trepidation is all but lost
I remember on a few occasions the shot you may have got was so potentially
impressive that I couldn't wait until we traveled home, and so would have it
developed at the circuit in one of the special dark rooms they had back then. I
remember my shot of Ralf Schumacher crashing hard into the barrier at the
Canadian GP in 1997. I was shooting on a long exposure time when the
crash happened – I knew I had shot a sequence of the crash but was unsure
if I had caught the impact. I had to have the film developed there and then; the
moment when I put my loop to the frame of Schumacher – seeing him hit the
barrier in perfect clarity was immensely satisfying.
KM: How about your own top three of F1 races you have witnessed and don’t
worry, you can change your mind as many times as you want, even after we
have gone to post time.
KS: I'll pick a race from each of the three decades I have covered F1 – I have
many other favourites but if I can only choose three, I'll offer these: