Colin McMaster is highly regarded as one of the world’s best motorsport photographers, and a founding partner of McKlein Photography.
With over 300 WRC events under his belt, the "Mc" of McKlein chats about his life in the WRC, his favourite events, and why you shouldn’t party with rally drivers!
RSM: You're one of the most experienced photographers in the WRC. What keeps you coming back year after year?Colin McMaster: I turned my hobby and passion into a job that became my career. Many things keep me coming back, not least the fact that I make my living from running the agency’s [McKlein] on-event WRC photography business.
I’m a bit of a control freak so I need to be on the rallies to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible. And I still love the competition, challenge, excitement and freedom that comes with photographing the WRC.
I’ve been fortunate to experience many different types of motorsport through a lens and I still consider rallying the most photogenic of the lot.
Colin McMaster editing images between stages at Wales Rally GB in 2018..
How many WRC events have you done now, and what are your most memorable?
I’ve never added them up. I know that (according to Wikipedia) Richard Burns did 104 WRCs and up to that point we’d done roughly the same. He stopped in 2003 and I kept going, so I must have done around 200 more in the last 15 years. It’s a lot.
When photographers reminisce, the details are often embellished and everything was better in the past. Sometimes it really wasn’t better.
The “Remember when…” stories often involve the rallies we don’t go to anymore: Acropolis, China, Cyprus, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, New Zealand, Poland and Safari.
But I don’t include Bulgaria in that list because it was sh#t, fortunately just a one-off.
For me the most memorable events are the ones that engaged my spirit of adventure - that always brings me back to the old Safari rallies. In East Africa you were more than just a photographer, often you’d be a car mechanic, a diplomat or an explorer.
Then there was the last Hong Kong to Beijing Rally in 1996, a round of the Asia-Pacific Championship. That was an eye-opening seven days driving through rural China, at a time when the infrastructure was still very basic.
I can concur with Katie Melua, there were at least nine million bicycles in Beijing.
Colin McMaster is the "Mc" of McKlein Photography.
What are your annual stats? Days away from home, nights in hotels, number of flights, kilometres travelled, etc?
A big moment in my working life came in 1996 when I was dovetailing between F1, WRC, APRC and British Touring Cars.
My annual accounts showed that I’d spent £2000 parking my car at London Heathrow airport, being away from home for +200 days.
Something had to give and that’s when I chose stages over circuits and set-up McKlein Photography with Reinhard Klein and Bob McCaffrey.
Today I try to minimise the travel, but it’s still 100 days away and I’d rather not think about the other travel stats.
For me the worst thing about travelling is travelling. I’m not a keen flyer. I’ve too much imagination to consider all the possibilities of what could go wrong in the air and I hate airports.
The queues, the hassle of getting all my camera gear onto the plane and the lack of fresh air makes me feel claustrophobic and trapped. Far better to think about what awaits once you leave the airport on the other side.
How many photos would you take per event?
Too many, because I have to go through them all on the computer.
Creating his own fun in the Turkish dust on last year's WRC round.
Has the digital and wifi technology made things easier or harder for you? Presumably a little bit of both ....
Digital photography has changed the business completely. In the days of film there was a physical commodity that had to be delivered to your clients.
At McKlein we built up a reputation for offering a service beyond pure photography. We captured the events on both film and digital, being early adopters of the new technology in 1997.
I still shot film for another five years and would rush back to London on Sunday nights to get the films processed in a lab and then visit the magazines on Monday morning. I knew the editors and had strong personal relationships with my clients.
This is all a thing of the past. Today, communications are mainly done electronically and despite calling it “Social Media”, the online platforms are some of the most anti-social environments I’ve ever seen.
On a positive side, the digital technology saves us a fortune on film costs, but this also lowers the barriers to entry. Today everyone is a photographer, you don’t even need a camera.
I use wi-fi to send the first pictures of the day straight from my camera and this is absolutely brilliant. McKlein work for Toyota in WRC and often the team receive pictures of their drivers instantly from a stage which they are still driving.
One drawback to this is that you are at the mercy of local 3G/4G data networks. You can check these things beforehand on the recce, but on the day of the rally if there are several hundred fans at your location, most using their phones streaming the wrc.com ‘AllLive service’, then you have no chance to send anything.
You were great friends with Richard Burns. Are you close to any of the other current drivers, or don't you get much chance to socialise with them?
I can tell you this, race/rally drivers make poor company. They are selfish, just drink water and leave before the bill comes!
Seriously though, I’m a generation older than the current crop of WRC hotshots, so they don’t really need me in their social diaries. Twenty years ago there were gravel crews on every rally and the drivers would always go out for dinner with them and their friends and that would’ve included me.
Times have changed. Today there are no gravel crews [except on asphalt] and each WRC team brings its own restaurant.
The drivers eat in their team’s service area and don’t tend to go out much, whilst the photographers spend all evening editing photos. It’s not an ideal situation for socialising.
Having said that, I get on well with Seb Marshall and I would consider his pilots [past and present] Hayden Paddon and Kris Meeke as friends.
McMaster comparing notes with Petter Solberg in Spain, 2018.
What do you miss about the "old days" in the WRC, and what has improved in recent years?
I miss the element of endurance and adventure that has disappeared because WRC rally routes have to fit around a static centralised Service Park.
The old RAC Rally was a proper tour of Great Britain and you used to move with the rally. The Safari used to travel through three countries [Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania], and New Zealand has scenery which was off the scale.
When we photographed those events shooting film, the evenings were free to socialise, mainly with other media, and therefore the camaraderie was so much stronger.
The biggest single improvement in WRC is the spectator safety. It’s a work in progress, but I genuinely believe it’s nothing short of a minor miracle that we have not have a colossal accident involving large numbers of spectators since Portugal 1986.
We got away with it and now proper work is being done to minimise the risks.
How long can you see yourself remaining in the WRC as a photographer?
No comment, I’m still a youngster at heart.
Finally, what's your number one tip for budding rally snappers?
Please, please do not contact me asking for a job at McKlein. I get this all the time.
Two things I would say though: first you have to practice and then practice some more. Don’t expect to just jump straight into WRC, instead look at national level rallying and if you really want to experience something, then I’d be looking at the Targa series in Australia.
I imagine it would be easy to sell good pictures from Targa events to the competitors.
Secondly, never stand next to another photographer. Stand alone, then you stand out.
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