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Colin McMaster: <br class="br_visual" />flat out with the fearless

Colin McMaster:
flat out with the fearless

© Colin McMaster/McKlein

January 2016

Colin McMaster is one of the world’s best when it comes to rally photography. The fast-paced motorsport that covers the globe throws up more than its fair share of great images – and great challenges – as he explains to CPN Editor David Corfield...

Colin McMaster lives life by the clock. The sport of rallying – itself governed by hours, minutes and seconds – extends far beyond the lens for him. Rallying is his livelihood and much of his downtime is given over to his passion: photography.

© Colin McMaster/McKlein
© Colin McMaster/McKlein

Estonian rally driver Ott Tänak celebrates. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens at 173mm; the exposure was 1/1600sec at f/4, ISO 200.

One part of the renowned McKlein photo agency (“The Mc in McKlein...”) he and fellow photographer Reinhard Klein have built a business – and a reputation – for world-class images of a world-class sport. So how did it all start?

“It all started getting serious when I picked up my father’s Canon A-1,” he recalls. “My dad was a keen amateur photographer and I grew up around cars, as he worked for Alfa Romeo in South Africa, and at the time they had quite an active motorsport programme so we used to follow that around. I guess with some inevitability I was always going to go the way I did...”

“Motorsport was in the family and my grandfather used to race motorbikes. He was also a journalist – writing for Irish newspapers – so there was a little bit of photojournalism as well as motorsport going on in the background.”

He continues: “I came back to the UK from South Africa in 1985 and as soon as I got my driving licence I would go off to the racing circuits, using my grandfather’s contacts to get some work, selling pictures of cars and drivers to Irish papers and magazines at weekends.”

Preparation and perseverance

After completing a degree in engineering at university, Colin joined the motorsport photo agency Words and Pictures and earned his professional stripes shooting lower formula racing series as well as the British Touring Car Championship at racing circuits around the UK. “Back then as a young snapper it was all about cutting your teeth, not about making money,” he recalls. “Too many young kids these days want to go in straight at the top, but you need to put the time in, build up knowledge, earn trust and respect.”

McMaster is quick to advise amateurs to seek out good opportunities to practise their skills. “Rallycross is a sport I’d advise anyone interested in photographing motorsport to go and cover. Up-and-coming photographers contact me every month looking for work and yet very few have gone out and done national rallies or rallycross championships. It baffles me. If, for instance, you go to a rallycross circuit like Lydden Hill in the UK, you can see the whole track from one vantage point. It’s a great place to work on your techniques.”

© Colin McMaster/McKlein
© Colin McMaster/McKlein

Golden evening light on the cars at the World Rallycross Championship in Canada, August 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 349mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/11, ISO 640.

McMaster’s clients range from PR agencies to manufacturers and their sponsors. One of his earliest memories of rallying came from a company called Prodrive, who ran the ubiquitous blue and gold Subaru World Rally Team cars, fronted by the late British rally hero Colin McRae.

“Prodrive wanted to build up McRae’s profile,” he recalls. “The press officer for Prodrive called into the agency office on her way to work one day and booked me to cover McRae’s testing with the team.”

“One of the first shoots I did with him was at a forest near Silverstone. I remember getting into his Subaru rally car to do some in-car shots – the first time I’d ever sat in a rally car at that point – and I thought ‘I’d better loosen these safety belts a bit as they are a bit tight on me to get the camera angle I wanted.’ We set off flat-out and at the first corner he put the car full sideways. I nearly went through the window. After that I needed some paracetamol to continue.”

“I enjoy rallying much more than racing. I loved Formula One, but it was all a bit artificial for me. Rallying was more natural and the more natural the motorsport, in my opinion, the better the pictures.”

“But the guys who can capture the speed of Formula One or Moto GP are fantastic in my eyes. Technically it is very hard sport indeed to photograph well. Rallying has its own challenges, of course, but many of them are logistical.”

Workflow and workarounds

McMaster is known for his tireless prep work before a rally. “I like to drive all the stages before each rally, then walk around my chosen location before the cars arrive,” he advises. “It gives me time to look around and work things out. There are three or four elements to getting a good rally photograph: knowing the sport and how cars behave and how drivers attack certain situations. That’s quite a thing to understand; how will a car react to speed and road conditions? You’ve got to learn all that as you go along. You have to be very flexible, looking at backgrounds, scenery, working with the elements all the time. That’s why I always arrive early to walk the route.”

© Colin McMaster/McKlein
© Colin McMaster/McKlein

Finland’s Juho Hänninen jumps on Rally Finland, July 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF20mm f/2.8 USM lens; the exposure was 1/80sec at f/16, ISO 200.

“I use 3G and 4G mobile to send my pictures from the rally stages as I could be out and about all day and clients want images immediately. These days that way of sending is amazingly good, more so than using a WiFi signal in an Internet café or somewhere. But the big problem with mobile telecoms is you can test a signal before the rally and it will work perfectly but on the day, with 2000 spectators with their smartphones watching the cars, it can often go down. So what I do is drive two miles further on after I’ve taken the pictures. It can often make all the difference. It’s funny the things you have to think about now as a photographer...”

The McKlein agency is a small but very busy team. “We have three full-time people working for us these days, then a pool of freelancers,” McMaster reveals. “There is quite a demand to capture images early on in the day, and the pressure is on for us to transmit them to clients for their press releases throughout the course of an event. So I like to handle that, as I like the pressure involved and the early starts. Often I deal with editing those pictures whilst on the move to the next location, whilst someone else drives.”

Staying ahead of the cars is one part of the challenge on a rally event. And staying ahead of equally competitive photographers is another. “You have to always look for something different,” he advises. “I was one of the first to use remote controlled cameras on rally stages. That was 15 years ago now and those technical skills were something I brought with me from my Formula One days. These days it is nothing unusual but back then it was.”

“I came into rallying as someone very comfortable using slow shutter speeds. Ironically as I’ve got older my technical skills maybe aren’t as great as they once were, but the EOS system with its image stabilised lenses makes life easier. I learned with manual focus but AF changed all that and today I use it heavily.”

© McKlein
© McKlein

McKlein’s Colin McMaster sets up an EOS-1D Mark II remote camera, fired via a PocketWizard remote control on his EOS-1D X.

On his equipment, McMaster reveals: “I use EOS-1D X bodies now. I always have two with me plus an older 1D-series for remote stuff. Different cameras offer you different things and a crop sensor – such as that found on the 7D Mark II – can be very useful too, plus of course Canon’s L-series zoom lenses dominate my camera bag.”

He quips: “I struggle with the wide-angle zooms, they’re just not for me. I don’t know why, I’m funny about these things. But I can tell you that if I looked at all the settings on my wide zooms I’m either at one end of the range or the other, never in the middle.”

“One of the McKlein team has an EF-S10-22mm lens and the sharpness of that plastic bodied lens on the EOS 7D Mark II is incredible. I tested and couldn’t believe it. Technology is changing and the modern EOS cameras are so impressive.”

But there is one old lens that he bought years ago that he has recently rediscovered. “I bought it with my EOS-1 film SLR. It’s a 50mm f/1.0 which was always a dream lens of mine to own,” he smiles. “Manually it was near-impossible to focus. But thanks to the EOS-1D X and its amazing AF sensor, it has had new life breathed into it and it can focus fine. And with the full frame you get the benefit of the f/1.0 maximum aperture. When you nail it, the result can often be a fantastic image.”

“As well as that lens I like the EF14mm and 15mm primes and at the complete other end of the scale I have the new Mark II 100-400mm zoom,” he states. “This lens is a fraction of price and weight of a fixed 400mm telephoto and yet it nails stuff, pin sharp. I’m totally impressed with that. Pound for pound it’s one of the best lenses I have ever had.”

Final word

Of course it’s not all about equipment, as McMaster will be the first to admit. It takes vision, an awareness of subject and context, and that uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. But there is one code that Colin McMaster swears by and it sums up not just his approach but also neatly encapsulates the McKlein agency vision. “If a photograph works just as well without a car in it,” he says, “then it’s going to be a good picture no matter what.”

Colin McMaster’s rallying kitbag:

2x EOS-1D X
1x EOS-1D Mark II (for remote work)

EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM
EF11-24mm f/4L USM
EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF50mm f/1.0L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM
EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM
EF100-200mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

3x Speedlite 600EX-RT flashguns
Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT
PocketWizard remotes
Manfrotto tripods
MacBook Pro laptop (loaded with Adobe Lightroom)

Biografía: Colin McMaster

Colin McMaster

Colin McMaster was born into a family passionate about motorsport. Pretty much the first piece of rally action he ever saw – as an eight-year-old – was an exuberant Jimmy McRae sliding off the road in his Vauxhall Chevette right opposite the place where the McMaster family were spectating. Another 15 years would pass before he saw a rally car driven in anger again and this time Colin was sat alongside another Colin, Jimmy’s son, doing an in-car photo shoot. Just as Kimi Raikkonen did once, Colin McMaster turned his back on a Formula 1 career for rallying. The rest is history and the McKlein agency was born.


Belgium’s Thierry Neuville takes a jump on Rally Argentina, April 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens at 115mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/9, ISO 200.