Lou Johnson: “All I’ve ever wanted to do as a sport photographer is tell a story”

Anyone who has tried to take a good photo will know how hard it can be to get that perfect shot, however, when you are photographing racing cars with a potential top speed of 185km/h, capturing the best image is the quite the challenge. Lou Johnson has loved both motorsport and photography since she was young, and now combines these passions working in Formula E with teams like Mahindra Racing and Dragon Racing. I spoke to her about her introduction to photography, working in motorsport, becoming an award-winning photographer and her advice for others.

With both her parents being passionate about motorsport, Lou spent much of her childhood surrounded by it, as well as the automotive industry in general. “I’m not a massively sporty person really, but I’ve always been interested in motorsport,” she said. “My Dad used to be an area sales manager for Audi and so would take me along to things like hospitality at Brands Hatch as a two-year-old. I’ve been around cars forever, on a Saturday I would go to the showroom with my Dad and I’d sit on his lap when he drove the cars in in the evening. My parents both love motorsport so it has always been a part of my life.” Her passion for photography came a little later when a friend was bought a ‘how to use your camera’ course. Wanting Lou to go with her, the pair spent a day learning the ins and outs of the art of photography. “I was fascinated by it and just wanted to learn more. I was doing art and textiles at school and was quite practical, so I started doing a GCSE in photography outside of school in Year 9. I then did the next one, my AS level, whilst doing my GCSEs and then the A2 Level whilst doing my AS Levels. It was a lot, especially outside of school,” she explained.

Credit: Miguel Valverde

Following the completion of her A-Levels, Lou had to make the decision as to which direction her career would take, and with photography being considered a less-conventional path, she admits she felt a lot pressure. However, a little inspiration led her to believe she could be successful. “I thought I just had to give it a go and so I went to UCA (University for the Creative Arts) Farnham for three years. My school friends were going off to be doctors and engineers and I felt a lot of pressure to do something ‘worthwhile’. It took a lot (to pursue photography). Because I loved motorsport, I began making sketchbooks with photos that I loved from Autosport and F1 Racing magazines. I then saw a female photographer, Emily Davenport, and became besotted with the idea that I really could do it because not only is it really cool, but there are women doing it. It is definitely risky, and I would probably be more financially secure if I hadn’t done this, but I wouldn’t be as happy. I never thought my job title could be ‘motorsport photographer’,” Lou told me.

Motorsport photography soon became her aim, allowing the combination of two passions. Wanting to get involved in the industry, Lou began photographing any cars she could. “When I was little, we lived quite near a main road so I would practise my panning on the cars, but it was always an absolute treat to go to somewhere like Silverstone or Brands Hatch. We would go and I’d take some pictures whilst my Mum would wander around and luckily, she loves motorsport too. When a Renault show car came to my town centre, I went and took photos from every angle because I knew they were the shots that sponsors want, and now I take them of the cars I work with. I think it is a case of just being around any car and taking photos using the same techniques,” she said. It was through her photography as a fan that her first paid work in motorsport came about after posting some of her images from Goodwood Festival of Speed online. “The access at Goodwood is just amazing! You can see the cars in anger and get up-close and personal with them, and that really inspired me. The last year I went as a fan, I took some shots and put them up online, and Ross Ringham from Spacesuit Media, the agency I now do freelance work for, saw them and asked if I could do some event photography. I’d been working as an event photographer, but it was going as a fan that led Ross to ask me to work for them. I didn’t spend ages sending emails, mainly because I was too terrified. I didn’t want to annoy anyone because I thought then they would never hire me, but actually, if they don’t know who you are, they can’t hire you,” she explained.

Credit: Lou Johnson

When Spacesuit Media approached Lou, they were looking for an additional photographer for a contract they had with Formula E’s hospitality at the EMOTION club. Although her role was events-based, the club overlooked the circuit and so this allowed her to also capture some of the action on track. “I worked there for season two in both Paris and London, and then in January of season three, I got a call to say they had a spot on their trackside team from Monaco onwards and I’ve never left since,” she told me. When preparing for a race weekend, there are key things that Lou must do and organise ahead of getting on a plane, from organising her kit to doing research. “First thing, I have to make sure all of my kit is cleaned and check if anything needs to be serviced. I always make sure I have cashew nuts, they’re a staple because I am definitely a hangry person and there can be really long shoots. I will then get my briefs from the teams. I work primarily with Mahindra Racing, but also Dragon Racing and then I also do support imagery for my colleague, Shiv Gohil’s team, Nissan Formula E. If there’s a new track, for example the new layout for the Rome ePrix, I will go onto Google Maps so that I can get an idea of what I’ll be looking at, and if there are any tall buildings I might want to try and get access to. It’s nice to get a real variety in the shots so if you can familiarise yourself with the circuit, you can look at things more creatively,” the photographer said.

When she arrives at her destination, it can be pretty full-on even before the cars hit the track, with her usual work and then additional projects on top. “It’s a similar formula as to the action that’s happening on each day so we will have a set-up day, a media day and before that I may have a shoot where we take the drivers out somewhere. I have a skeleton of work that I know I need to do and the briefs are then additional on top of that. We have to tag our images to make them searchable and so I have to make sure that’s all in-place, I’ll make my light room catalogue and make sure everything on my laptop is set up and ready because from the moment I have finished that first shooting session, it’s just all go,” Lou explained.

However, the pandemic has meant that many motorsport events around the world have been cancelled and so Lou has had to look to virtual racing. Speaking about this, she said: “Mahindra called me when the first Formula E: Race at Home Championship was going on and asked if I could try and get some similar images to what I do trackside. I’m not a massive gamer, but it was a lot of fun actually. There are some really interesting camera angles and you can do some cool stuff with perspective. Any motion blur you then have to add so I learnt a lot very quickly last year about photoshop. I also did some work with Xynamics who do a lot of e-racing photography, as well as real life motorsport work. It felt like the closest I could ever get to working from home.” Despite being very different to working trackside, there are some aspects of the virtual world that may help Lou in the real world. “I hadn’t realised that some of these racing programmes are so true to real life. You can simulate it to certain times of day which really enhances my prep and you can see what parts of the track will look good at what time, along with the sun calculator apps I use. I don’t think the style is necessarily what I would bring into my photography because I don’t want to manipulate my images, but I think the compositions can be quite interesting and it has definitely helped keep my eye in,” she explained.

Credit: Lou Johnson

Although flying around the world, photographing incredible cars may sound like a dream for many, it’s not always easy. “The long days can be really tough in whatever series you are in,” Lou said. “To stay at your creative peak and not focus on that you are so hot when in Santiago and it’s 40°C, you have to really dig deep. The easy shots are great, but for your own portfolio and development, you want the most creative shots and to feel like you’ve got the best out of the conditions. By the time you get to the actual race, you are just exhausted, so to still get the best podium shots is a lot. You can also shoot a 45-minute session and then you have half an hour to edit and give the clients as many images as you can and then get back out. It’s properly full on, but I absolutely love it!” Despite these challenges, it’s clear Lou loves her job with it even helping her to become an award-winning photographer, something which is among many of her career highlights. “One of them is definitely my first Formula E race. It was in Monaco and I don’t think I had really grasped just how amazing it was until I was stood out on the grid. It was that moment when I thought: ‘wow, can I call myself a motorsport photographer now?’. Similarly, winning the Motorsport UK Young Photographer of the Year award last year. Some of the people that have won it are those I have looked up to throughout my entire adult life. I was the first woman to win it too which felt like a big moment. I’m also really proud of the connection I have with Mahindra Racing. They always talk about their ‘Mahindra family’, but I really feel like part of it, and because of that, I can get some quite candid shots. All I’ve ever wanted to do as a sport photographer is tell a story and I feel with Mahindra, I’m in a really good position to do that,” she told me.

Lou Johnson’s career in motorsport began when she posted her images online after attending racing events as a fan. It can be difficult to know where to start, but Lou believes you don’t necessarily need to be at a track to practise. “Start by just taking pictures, it doesn’t even need to be of a car, it really can be anything,” she advised. “Learn the basics of things like composition because some of the best motorsport images are those that are composed very similarly to classic landscapes that lead the eye in perfectly. There are also a lot of great British racetracks where they have really good access for spectators so there is no reason why you can’t get better shots than some of the people with accreditation. Put them online and have a presence, whether it be a social media account or a website. Contact people with links to your social media, make it really easy for them to find you because people are so busy. Make it easy, contact people, don’t be afraid and keep practising.”

Heading photo credit: Marta Rovatti Studihrad