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© Frits van Eldik
© Remy Cortin
Born in the Netherlands in 1969, the son of a garage owner, Frits van Eldik grew up surrounded by cars. He took up photography as a hobby and “was impressed by the pictures that showed up on a piece of paper when you dropped it in some kind of liquid”.
At a very young age Frits decided to combine his love of cars and photography and tried to make a living out of it. He shot lots of rally photographs in the early years of his career and often went to Zandvoort Circuit to find out how to capture speed photographically.
He worked for a specialist automotive picture agency in Holland and after seven years decided to go it alone. Frits started his own company and photographed his first Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1989. By 1994 he was shooting all the F1 races throughout the season on a regular basis.
In the past few years Frits has shot different kinds of motorsports like Formula 1, the Le Mans races, MotoGP and “everything else that moves fast.” His 2010 schedule has taken in the Visa pour l'Image festival, commercial projects and his in-depth documentation of the F1 season all over the world continues throughout 2012. Frits has also appeared alongside fellow Ambassadors Ziv Koren and Brutus Östling at a Canon Pro Solutions event in Stockholm, Sweden.
From a very early age cars and photography loomed large in the life of Frits van Eldik thanks to the fact that his father owned a garage and also enjoyed dabbling in the darkroom. Aged five he first started spending time in the darkroom and come the grand 'old' age of 11 he had already decided his career was going to combine cars and photography as a motorsport photographer.
He recalls: "I was always impressed by the darkroom, by the magic of seeing pictures being dropped into liquid and seeing an image appear. From the age of five or six I was always hanging around in the darkroom and my goal was photography from almost that time onwards."
"I started to borrow cameras, take pictures and borrow film. From that moment on I was always trying to experiment and get pictures," explains Frits. He badgered friends and family to take him to rally races so he could start refining his art but he laughs: "Probably my first pictures were the front or the back of the car!"
Frits began shooting using a Pentax Spotmatic V and explains: "I remember it was a very basic camera and my father had a kit of lenses for it. I knew I had to watch the light meter it was funny to experience using such a camera."
As he got older and began to develop his shooting style Frits regularly attended rallies at the Zandvoort racing track in Holland. He says: "You don't need a pass to go and shoot at places like that and I was always making contact with people there and taking lots of pictures."
This constant gathering of experience and contacts finally paid off for Frits when he got his first job as a staff photographer on a Dutch newspaper. He worked there for about a year. "I would go to the opening of a new store, the football, a fire whatever I was sent to," he recalls.
One day he got a call from a Dutch agency Van Van Publicity - who were looking for someone to set up a department that would cover shooting car and motorsports photography. It was a position he held for seven years after which Frits decided to take the plunge and set up his own motosports photographic company.
In the early days as a professional Frits used Nikon F3 and F4 cameras but quite quickly he made the decision to switch to Canon in the early 1990s. At the same time Frits had lost some of his gear and wanted a fresh start in equipment terms. He has remained with the Canon SLR system since through using film and then the birth and growth of the digital era.
He explains: "The main thing is from day one I was always using two of the same camera bodies which makes it much easier to switch lenses. Every time a new Canon SLR camera has come out I have tended to upgrade to it."
Early on in his career Frits was inspired by a couple of photographers in particular the French shooter Bernard Asset. He explains: "I always looked at his work in magazines and tried to learn from his pictures. How did he do it? His pictures were amazing amazing action photographs and flames shooting out of exhaust pipes - and now he is sitting next to me when I work. He was really the photographer who made me think 'this is what I want to do'."
He adds: "In Holland I have respect for Pim Ras who always looks to make the 'other' picture in sports photography. I do not really admire photographers, but I like to see pictures that say more than words."
Clearly Asset and Ras had helped to formulate Frits's shooting style and approach: "You always have to try and think how you will be different to your colleagues, so often I try and go somewhere else. I always try to find another angle, say for example the drivers standing on the podium spraying champagne. Instead of standing with the other photographers I will go somewhere else."
The big switch over from working with film to shooting and processing digital images proved to be a simple one for Frits. He explains: "The early digital models were quite expensive and not great with quality. I decided to change to digital for the sake of speed in the pictures and their distribution. Before that I was using slide film but you can only send it to one client with digital you can send it to several clients."
He adds: "Nowadays I spend a lot of my time behind a computer as speed for me is very important. In the old days, when I was shooting overseas Grand Prix with slide film, I had to use the cabin crews from KLM to get my films back to Schipol Airport, Amsterdam. I used to find out their hotels, and go and ask them to take the films back to Holland."
Recalling the days of shooting on transparency film, Frits says: "In the beginning with film you find out that you might not have done a really good job, so you try to find a technique that allows you to get a great picture."
Now, of course, if Frits is shooting, say, a Grand Prix in Australia he can file pictures down the line to a wide variety of clients around the world as quickly as possible after the race has ended. He laughs: "Nowadays everybody wants the pictures as soon as possible after a session on the track. I live in the fast lane. When I take pictures there is a lot of action but my clients want to have my work as soon as possible, so speed is everything in my business."
After setting up his agency and gaining clients Frits branched out into publishing and set up a magazine Race Report. He recalls: "Life was already complicated and I had to get a few people to help. It used to come out after every Grand Prix and then we had a PDF version of the magazine." After a period the title was bought by the biggest publisher in Holland and to this day Frits supplies images to the publication in its latest incarnation. He adds: "I always got the feeling I sometimes didn't have the pictures that I liked published. When you think about it, it would be nice to have a magazine showing portfolios of pictures."
Frits has now settled into a style of shooting he likes: "With a longer lens it's much easier to get a moving object. With image stabilisation you can use lower shutter speeds to get more movement. You should not move in a different direction to your subject." He adds: "I more or less have specialised ways of working now. When an object is coming straight at me I will use a higher shutter speed but try to get movement in the wheels. When people look at the picture they should go 'Wow, this is a great picture'."
For around 90% of his work Frits uses the EF500mm f/4L IS USM long telephoto lens. He reveals: "These days even when you try to take a portrait of a driver in an F1 garage they try to keep you out for secrecy and safety reasons. So the 500mm is the most important lens for me as often you are quite far away."
Frits adds: "To be honest the problem I have is I would love to use non-zooms for the quality a 35mm, a 50mm or an 80mm lens. I am always travelling and people at security get anxious about what you have in a bag. Basically it's easier for me to travel with one zoom lens as I always try to keep my gear as cabin baggage. You have to compromise between what you want to take with you and what you can."
After almost two decades of shooting Formula 1 Grand Prix Frits has begun to cut down on shooting the full race season. He explains: "I have skipped about eight Grand Prix this year and have been shooting a lot of the Le Mans series of endurance races, and some races in the USA. At the moment it's very difficult to work in F1 as many teams restrict photographers in garages. By switching to other types of racing you have more photographic opportunities."
Although he is something of a globetrotter the bulk of Frits' market remains in his homeland of Holland at this point. He explains: "At many of the races you will have the big agencies there and they will do the basic start picture and so on. Half of the year I'm at home and the rest away, but it really depends on what I'm shooting. For most Grand Prix I will go on a Thursday and come back the next Monday, but obviously if I'm shooting in Australia it will be a longer stay."
As mentioned Frits actually needs to work with a 500mm lens simply due to the distance that photographers are kept away from F1 garages these days but Frits admits: "I love to work with my 500mm. It is the piece of equipment that I use the most. Besides that it is the infrared transmitter for my flash a little piece of gear that makes me happy. I am also looking forward to using the new 800mm lens from Canon."
He adds: "I am currently mainly using the EOS-1D Mark III and several times I have shot with the 1Ds Mark III which I borrowed to use for big files. But in the main the 1D Mark III is fine for speed and most of my clients don't really need the big files that would get from the 1Ds Mark III."
So what has been the best decision that has advanced his career? "For me it was starting my own company instead of working for an agency. I wanted to make bigger steps than the agency would let me do." Although he is firmly established near the top rung of the motorsports photography ladder Frits admits: "Personally I don't think that motorsports photography can help to make a better world. But news pictures are very important to send a message around the world. I just try to bring the sport closer to the people."
This modesty prevails when asked if he thinks his images may have influenced people in any way. Frits explains: "I can't seriously influence people. But it is a fact that most of the people who visit a motorsport event bring a camera with them." He adds: "First they just want to show that they were there, but as soon as the action starts they try to take pictures of the fast moving objects. They have in mind the pictures that the professionals take. After the event they buy magazines or look at the internet and they have just one question 'how do they do it?'"
As for the future what would Frits like to do next? "You always have ambitions like books and the like but mainly I always try just to keep my clients happy. I have some events in mind that I would love to shoot. A long distance race such as the Paris-Dakar would be very interesting to shoot. I'm trying to move a little bit away from F1 I'm trying to show that there is much more than F1 in the world of motorsports."
After what has been a life since childhood surrounded by fast cars and cameras, what keeps Frits motivated? "I think the good thing about motorsports is that it has everything that makes photography interesting. Glitter, glamour, emotion, news, design and action... I just love it!"
What do you think about the Ambassadors Programme?
"I think it is a very good idea from the Canon point of view to have cooperation with photographers who have experience in different skills of photography. Photographers can learn from each other and from Canon. Canon can use the information from photographers to develop products in the future."
Why do you think the Ambassadors Programme is important?
"The programme can be important when we achieve to get cooperation with the photographers and Canon to develop equipment. From the personal point of view it could be nice to learn from the experience from colleagues who work in different fields of photography."
What got you started in photography?
"First of all my father had photography as a hobby. It was very interesting to see him develop films and process pictures. Beside that I was interested in motorsports and impressed by photography in magazines. At the age of 11 I told all the people around me that I wanted to become a motorsports photographer. From that moment on it was my goal to make a living out of that."
What does photography mean to you?
"I try to communicate with pictures. Show the beauty in the sport, and preferably the motion. It is nice to please yourself with the picture you had in mind. Even better when other people are impressed or try to create the same effect in their pictures."
What kind of photographer do you consider yourself to be?
"I like to work with motion in my pictures. In my field of motor sports it is a natural thing. So lets say an action-photographer. On the other end I always say that motor sports has everything in it. Glitter, glamour, emotion, news, design and action..."
What would you advise someone who is just coming into the business?
"Learn from others but create your own style."