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The rise of esports photography: Q&A with motorsport photographer Lou Johnson

The rise of esports photography: Q&A with motorsport photographer Lou Johnson

2020 couldn’t have started out better for 28-year-old motorsport and freelance photographer Lou Johnson. In January, she was named Motorsport UK’s Young Photographer of the Year – the first female to be awarded the accolade – and was looking forward to a busy racing season. That was until the Coronavirus pandemic put the world on hold.

Photographers are a patient breed. It only takes one shot. One moment in time. A snapshot of a split-second. Creativity, they say, breeds innovation. For Lou, the global pandemic has required creativity in abundance as she’s turned her attention to racing in the virtual world of esports.

Photography and esports? Surely that’s just a bunch of screenshots and selfies? Think again. As Lou explained when we caught up with her in May, it’s a hugely involved process, especially for a non-gamer.

Why have you chosen to turn your hand to esports photography?

The current climate did contribute a lot. My year was meant to be like everyone else’s in the world of motorsport, dotting around the globe for events. I hadn’t really considered much about esports photography before COVID-19. I had seen a couple of my colleagues try their hands at it and in the back of my mind, I thought it was quite an interesting concept.

I was watching more esports and trying to get into it because a lot of Formula E drivers were involved. Every race weekend there is an esports race for the fans. Primarily I’m a racing fan, I love racing and I love my job. I have a passion to continue doing that too, but I can’t really work from home. As the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge was announced, I received a call from my team, Mahindra Racing, asking if it was something that I could help them with and if I could extend my working relationship with them into the virtual world. I jumped at the opportunity. I was never going to shy away from learning about esports even though I didn’t have any experience with it. Esports pushes me creatively in a new way with a car. It’s still a type of racing for me and it’s great fun.

How much preparation in the lead up to your first race did you have?

I was asked about it on a Wednesday before a Saturday race. At that point, I didn’t have access to a PC because most of my hardware is Apple so that was a challenge. At first, I was doing additional support work for one of my colleagues at Spacesuit Media. I managed to get hold of a PC and I had six days to get to grips starting out with this programme.

rFactor 2 is a really great simulator programme but it is not necessarily intuitive to my non-gamer brain. My approach has been to try and match photos to the quality of images that I would deliver to Mahindra from trackside. It’s important to maintain the standards of what we give Mahindra, so similar colours and everything fit with what they’re trying to do on their social media already. It’s a lot of fun, but it doesn’t quite replace the feeling of working and being at a track. It has its own challenges that are interesting to overcome but very comparable to what I was doing before. Esports lets you be quite creative. I’m hoping once the Formula E season is over, I can do other bits and pieces and work on other esports events. this is something I can continue and it does challenge me while keeping up my Photoshop skills.

What would you say have been the major challenges with esports photography?

I think the learning of it with types of photos. I take stylised shots before the race starts and then I get the race file after it happens. So, it’s making sure I can cover what I think might happen in the race beforehand even down to weather conditions. If it might rain, I want to make sure my team have the right images for those conditions so they can then talk about the race as if it has been a bit pre-empted in a way. It’s quite tricky with that aspect as normally I am very reactive and now, I have to predict more actions. It’s about pushing to another level and making sure I capture leading images which cover almost any story and ultimately please my race team. There’s a slight joy about being able to sit and watch the race and then enter back into the game after to capture moments and major points that I saw. When you’re shooting an actual race, it’s a bit more difficult and you have to be in the right place. With some other sim games, you can shoot as you’re racing which is something I would really like to try in the future. Shooting action as it unfolds live would be the next step up. It would probably be a bit more demanding but similar to a race weekend.

Would you say that it is more or less work than a normal race weekend?

Each individual shot requires a lot more work with rFactor2. There are other programs that races run on which have things such as motion blur and little more comparable to the things we do trackside. On a Formula E weekend, we don’t have much time to focus on each individual image. It’s very much capturing the images, running back to the media centre, adding a couple of presets and maybe boosting a few things. You’re not spending more than half a minute to a minute on each image – we have so little time in between sessions on race day that it’s just about delivering high-class images as quickly as possible.

With esports, a lot of the work happens before the actual race begins. I do have a little more time so it means I can spend a day and run the same session over again or I can set up some shots and import them into Photoshop and work really intently on those images. The files are very small and you have to be delicate with them. They’re not a massive RAW file that you get from leading DSLR’s. You have to get it right as you’re doing it but then you can enhance them after. It can take up to half an hour per shot. It is a bit more intensive individually shot wise, but then again, I am not having to climb a cliff face in Saudi Arabia to get a shot in the first place. It’s similar to the amount of work involved, although each individual shot takes that little bit longer.

What has been your favourite aspect of esports photography so far?

I like with the Formula E element that the entire grid is there and also the running of two races every weekend. It’s enjoyable to see the entire grid because it is a totally new viewing experience. It’s nice to compare the drivers on track and virtually. It’s always a bit fun and chaotic, you learn more about the characters and how each driver is reacting to being crashed into or overtaken. Additionally, the challenge grid is really entertaining to watch. I enjoy seeing the different approaches throughout esports and the different strategies real life race drivers apply to esports as compared to professional esports drivers. It is really interesting how the drivers like Max Guenther and Lando Norris are adapting. I hope that when racing comes back, that real racing drivers and real racing teams don’t forget about esports. I think they’re doing a really big push and it will be exciting to see how it develops in the next couple of months and years.

Is there anything else that you have planned with esports for the rest of the calendar year?

Not yet, I just have the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge in my calendar for now. I would love to explore some other esports series and events. I’ve sent out a few emails to see if anyone requires imagery although budgets are tight at the moment but it has different relevance for different manufacturers and different series. I’d love to keep going with it, it’s been a creative experience and I’ve loved turning my hand to esports photography.

To learn more about Lou’s work or get in contact, visit her on Instagram or Twitter. For more information about Spacesuit Media who Lou works with, visit https://spacesuitcollections.com.