Race Photographer Camden Thrasher tells CRD's David Arnouts about all the blood, sweat and tears that go into capturing iconic motorsport moments.
Question: You’ve just recently wrapped up Sebring, how is the excitement for the season building up? Personally is there anything specific you enjoyed most about the race?
Thrasher: I’m a big fan of endurance events, especially ones with great racing like the Daytona finish for Corvette Racing, then followed up by the competition in Sebring; it’s a great way to start the season. To actually be there, to experience it, and shoot (photos of) it is awesome.
Even cooler is to see the people you know winning. I know the guys from Corvette Racing car number 4 (Tommy Milner & Oliver Gavin) pretty well, so being there and seeing them win makes it even more special.
Endurance events offer a whole range of conditions to shoot in. There’s the light from day to night and the transitions in between. Then you have the changes in the weather, which affects the lighting, and ontop of all that, there’s the changes in the people and machines!
Both cars and teams start out fresh, clean, and eager to get moving. Then as the hours tick by they grow more tired, dirty, and then by the end are completely empty and running on nothing but pure adrenaline. It's fascinating to document.
Q: What does the travel schedule look like for a professional Motorsports photographer for 2016?
Thrasher: This year I am doing the full Pirelli World Challenge Season (11 events) an assortment of IMSA TUDOR WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, more than likely Le Mans and any number of assignments I may get for this year. I've done some things for Racer Magazine to shoot which has been fun. My main deal now is working with Effort Racing. They are a cool group of guys, I started with them when they were in the GT3 Cup, then two years ago they moved to the World Challenge Series and last year won the team championship. Being that they are a small and fun group of people it was neat to experience it with the team!
Q: My guess is that gets pretty exhausting. How do you prepare for that?
Thrasher: Absolutely. Races tends to come in groups of 3-4 weeks. I am based out of Seattle Washington so when things group up on the east coast, it can be a bit much, but it's all manageable; I just prepare for a few at a time. Even races on the west coast like Long Beach of Laguna Seca aren't right next door.
For example so far this year, I started with Daytona, had a little break, then it was off to COTA (Circuit of the Americas) in Austin for the World Challenge race, then to St. Petersburg, and then to Sebring. It's funny though: I want to be at all the events, but I know when I need a break. But shortly thereafter I'm itching to get back on the road and off to the next event.
Q: When did you start shooting motorsports?
Thrasher: Two thousand and five was the year where I purposely went to shoot club racing for practice. I would shoot for hours; focusing on the cars making them big in the frame. Once I started posting them I would get some positive feedback, but I distinctly remember one person said something along the lines of “great, you can take pictures of cars on track, but can you show me racing?” And ever since then I've had that voice in the back of my head when I'm out shooting at events. Fast forward to 2012, where after I graduated college with an automotive engineering degree I began to shoot as a full-time career.
Q: Tell us a bit about your style and what you look for when out shooting.
Thrasher: I tend to use a lot of motion blur to portray a sense of raw speed. I also look at the way certain cars behave on track, some cars roll more than others when loaded in corners and that can create tension in a photograph, or perhaps some driver/car pairings are more aggressive over curbs. Paying attention to the race itself and trying to find where cars are battling or where passes might occur is another thing I’m always trying to highlight.
A big part of showing the emotion and excitement of racing is the people; and I’m finding an increasing satisfaction shooting that material. It's not necessarily the most obvious, you do have to look harder, but it is there and that's what I am constantly pushing myself to capture. Most people can take a decent picture of a car on track, but that's just half of it.
Q: How do you like working full time with a team versus working on your own? How does that affect your style?
Thrasher: Being with the group at Effort Racing, it is nice to have a place and be a part of something. I've been on the outside looking in, and as a photographer that's what you'll always be to some degree, but now a part of the team it makes you appreciate the inside perspective; especially behind the scenes.
Personally I'm a shy guy and I can work on my own. It's more responsibility and being accountable for myself and my work, but I enjoy that challenge. I consider my style more documentary, and being a photojournalist in Motorsports. There I shoot what's in my environment without manipulating it. It's very different then say commercial or product photography. There is so much involved in that style, with planning set ups, staging and teams of people to execute it properly, it's quite a talent, just a form I don't primarily shoot in.
Q: Once an event finishes and wraps up, what’s the first thing you look forward to?
Thrasher: Definitely following an endurance event - sleep.
Q: How do you deal with the lack of sleep at endurance events?
Thrasher: It's important to not try and stay awake or not rest for an entire 24 hour race - like Le Mans. I've made that mistake and fallen asleep at my computer for a half hour or so, but ended up feeling like shit at the end and finished it up poorly. Le Mans is tough because it gets dark later, roughly 10-11pm (being near the longest day of the year) and the sun rises around 5am, so you don't have much down time. By the time you get your bearings you realize you've been up for a million hours and sunrise is right around the corner. There just isn't much room breaks there.
The Daytona 24 Hour race is different. You have almost equal day and night time, and at night it's all lit up and looks the same so you can plan out some breaks, take a nap or work on the photos on my computer. You don't feel like you are missing much with that kind of set up.
For an event like Sebring, it’s not an issue. Twelve hours while not short is easier, and when the light isn't quite right you can take a break.
Q: You find some interesting subject matter to shoot. What's the secret?
Thrasher: I almost always try to walk wherever I shoot, versus getting a cart or scooter. I don't have to worry about parking, finding space or worrying about someone taking it. When I'm walking I see so much more than if I was driving by in a car or zooming by on a cart.
Some places you need transportation, like COTA, it's so big and access is super horrible, but even at places like Le Mans I prefer to walk. I ended up walking roughly 15 miles a day, which sucked by the end, but I was able to see and shoot so much more walking through the camps; I'd have missed that driving by in a car.
Q: What’s the dream event that you have yet to shoot? And what about some highlights on past events? Anything outside of the automotive world?
Thrasher: I've been lucky enough to do a lot of stuff that's considered pretty big or one of a kind. However one I haven't done and would like to is the Dakar. I love adventure and that race is considered maybe the ultimate in adventure Motorsports. The logistics for it alone would be a huge challenge.
One of the coolest events i have ever done is the Baja. A couple years ago, some friends and I decided we just needed to go and see what it was about. We went with no expectations or how to handle it. And we were blown away, it was absolutely incredible.
Outside of automotive, I'm fascinated with and love airplanes. I enjoy shooting airplane events and shows, but found that it's more about feeding my soul a bit. Seeing, experiencing, and being around those events rather than getting the shots, you know? Like the first time I shot from a helicopter, I was more excited about riding in the chopper than taking the photos. They didn't quite turn out (the photos) but the experience was worth it.
I shot the Reno Air Races one year, and the top class is modified World War II planes. It's incredible to see what people come up with in this class. These planes cover about an eight mile course at an average speed of 500 miles per hour. It was very difficult to shoot, but it was one of the most awe inspiring and fulfilling Motorsports (engine related) that I've been too. It very much fulfilled me as a person to be there. I might go again, but I'd also like to see there is a place in the United Kingdom (the Mach Loop in Wales) where they do low level training in the mountains, I'd love to see that. I'm sure I'd take pictures, but it would be more to experience than anything.
Q: Aside from traveling to some of the biggest and best automotive events in the world, what keeps you busy when you aren’t shooting?
Thrasher: In my free time I find aviation related material or air shows. One of my personal pet projects is seeing all 30 displayed SR-71 Blackbirds. I'm currently at 19. I check to see if there are any nearby to a race or event that I'm at and go and see them. Most of the time I'm having to make special trips because the remaining aren't really near any tracks at this point.
Q: It looks like you are a bit of a BMW fan for personal vehicles. What can you tell us about your projects?
Thrasher: You're spot on. So my first car was a BMW 2002, and I drove that for the last couple of years of high school up until I was a sophomore in college. It started acting strange, so I pulled the motor and planned on doing a standard rebuild. I then brought the car to my folks place where it sat for a while. In the meantime I had the opportunity to drive a really nice, balanced and build 2002. At that point I decided to do a E30 M20 swap into mine. It was a nice car, but it wasn't a concours winner so I'm not worried about an engine swap. Last summer I bought an e30 to move ahead with the project, and I've made some great progress on it; I'm not anywhere near finished, but it's moving in the right direction.
I did recently buy an E46 M3. It was one of the cars I saw race as a kid and it was super excellent and I really enjoy it. I also have a Toyota Corolla wagon. I'll keep that car forever, it's the best car I've ever owned. It slow, sloppy and fun to drive slow. If I crash it, it's cheap to repair. Currently it doesn't have air conditioning, so it's not a road trip with friends kind of ride.
Q: So what’s next for Camden Thrasher?
Thrasher: Racing wise, I'm driving down to Long Beach this week. I love road trips and driving places so I'm taking the M3 and five days to get down there. Like last summer, I did a big one from Colorado to Napa California and another from Las Vegas for Mercedes. Those I do on my own and try to drive whenever I can make a fun trip out of it. Those trips allow me to document and shoot how I want. The next weekend I’ll be heading to off to Barber. I just love road trips and driving places.
Photography wise if things come across that work within my style I'd be open to exploring that, especially if it's airplane related.
Q: What’s the best place if people want to follow you work?
Thrasher: You’ll find a lot of airplane, and not necessarily racing stuff, on my Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/camdenthrasher it's more personal stuff and things from road trips.