Behind the shot: Drew Gibson on the challenges of photography at the Nürburgring
"It's a huge challenge photographically – but I think that adds to the satisfaction when I capture a really nice frame."
Covering an endurance race as a photographer anywhere in the world is always going to be a challenge. At the Nürburgring Nordschleife, it's a different ball game entirely.
The Nürburgring 24 Hours is notoriously unforgiving for cars and drivers, and it's much the same for photographers. Therein lies its beauty, though, because capturing the perfect shot here is almost as rewarding as winning the race itself.
Navigating more than 20km of The Green Hell's treacherous terrain would be no mean feat even in glorious sunshine, but the Eifel region's famously unpredictable weather can often be the defining element of an already incredibly unique circuit.
The Nürburgring 24 truly provides the 'perfect storm' for photographers
As prominent endurance photographer Drew Gibson recalls, the 2016 edition was a race which genuinely included all four seasons in a day, making for some unforgettable images.
"2016 was my second year covering the Nürburgring 24, and therefore my second time covering the full circuit," says Drew.
"Ordinarily a return visit would mean I was quite familiar with a track, but the huge length of the Nordschleife, especially during the changing light and weather conditions of a 24 hour race, meant there were endless combinations of locations and times of day to shoot I hadn't explored.
"Despite being my second trip, I had barely scratched the surface in terms of knowledge of the track."
Drew admits he still had much to learn heading into his second Nürburgring 24, but you sense that even if you'd covered the race a thousand times it'd still throw surprises at you.
"The N24 is just a spectacular event, it's a race on another scale to most. The campsites are more like small villages, with bars, discos, electricity, beer on tap, all brought in and set up by the fans," he explains.
"The circuit is huge, the lap time is long, the grid is massive, most races feel like a race that attract a lot of people, N24 feels like a carnival where a race takes place. The race has very non-corporate, no-nonsense, raw feel to it.
"From a photographer's point of view it's the setting that separates the Nurburgring 24h from other races. The fans and trackside parties offer so much material for atmospheric pictures, the circuit offers endless on-track possibilities and the weather is usually very changeable."
Why the Nürburgring is photography heaven – and hell
Admitting he had 'barely scratched the surface' in terms of track knowledge on only his second visit, Drew believes that making mistakes can sometimes be the best way to gain knowledge and unlock hidden gems that only the real seasoned Nürburgring veterans have in their locker.
"The biggest challenge for any photographer covering the Nordschleife is navigating one's way around the circuit," Drew says.
"The race track is huge, but for every kilometre of circuit there must be 20 kilometres of muddy forest track that make up the access roads into this circuit.
"Some roads lead to nowhere, some to campsites that offer no way of getting trackside beyond the catch fencing, and some roads lead to some of the most photogenic race track in the world.
When a photographer describes something as photogenic, it's always going to be stunning
"I use a scooter to get around – which I couldn't work without – but it's on road tyres and can be tricky on the muddy tracks with 40kg of camera kit.
"Track maps, phone apps, google maps and the knowledge of colleagues are all essential tools in getting to photogenic corners."
While drivers have to contend with changing conditions, countless amounts of slower traffic as well as arguably the toughest circuit in the world even on a clean lap, judgements of risk and reward also apply to photographers who are at the mercy of the elements, the elevation changes and the ever-present danger.
"The track is unforgiving for drivers, and it is much the same for photographers," Drew says. "When I'm out on track I'm a long way from any facilities, food, toilets, and shelter.
"It means carrying everything I need for all weather conditions. I've never had any problems with fans there, but photographers do stand out in a campsite containing thousands of drunk rebelling German race fans, and it can be intimidating. We joke that some people go into those woods and never come out, but there might be an element of truth in there!
Navigating the Nordschleife is hard enough on track, let alone off it
"The geography of the track is very physically demanding as well, I often find myself fighting through the undergrowth and climbing up hillsides. I've never measured how far I walk at the N24 but it will be dozens of kilometres a day, with kit, often through less than ideal conditions.
The risk and reward of shooting the most dangerous most track
"Then there is obviously a danger element to the Nordschleife. You only have to witness a relatively light accident there to see how much the barriers move.
"At this circuit more than any I try to have an escape plan and have half an eye out for errant cars. After I took the Bentley race shot you see in this article I moved to a different location, where the cars appear blind over a crest through a right hand kink.
"I crouched in the grass and shot there for one lap but then decided it was too risky. There aren't many tracks where I consider moving because a location is too dangerous, but the Nordschleife is definitely one of them."
Danger is still very much an element of the N24 – the margins are fine and the barriers are close
The unforgettable 2016 race – the perfect storm of weather conditions
The sheer amount of variables at the Nordschleife make it extremely difficult to plan your shots, and a lot of Drew's images – particularly in the 2016 edition – were more of a reaction to the settings around him as opposed to the result of a meticulously planned shot.
"That year we had pretty much every type of weather, from snow to a beautiful sunrise. It's a massive challenge for photographers to cover this event," he says. "One lap is over 24km long, so I only get one chance at shooting each car every nine minutes.
"So if I have a particular client car, I get a maximum of six chances an hour to shoot it – and that's if it doesn't pit, run off line to overtake a slower car or catch a slower car at the point of the circuit I'm standing.
At the Nordschleife, four seasons in one day is almost a regular occurrence
"It's not a lot of chances when the light is constantly changing, and if I'm shooting a technically difficult picture like a slow shutter pan I might not get the picture sharp every lap.
"As I said, it is a huge challenge photographically – but I think that adds to the satisfaction when I capture a really nice frame."
One of the most surprising elements of the weather is not just the variety of conditions that can occur over the course of a day, but the speed at which those conditions change.
As the below video – taken during the 2016 race – demonstrates, in a matter of minutes you can go from a sun-kissed dry track to a circuit more akin to an ice-rink on slick tyres after a violent hailstorm.
With a single lap taking more than eight minutes even for the fastest runners, the luxury of pitting and bolting on the ideal tyres for the conditions often does not exist, meaning drivers are teetering on the edge of hero and zero with every passing corner.
It may not come as a surprise that the above carnage caused a race stoppage in 2016, with a lengthy delay leaving Drew with some difficult decisions given his very limited communication with the pits and the guessing game of estimating when the race would resume.
"The red flag was really strange for me," he recalls. "I'd chosen to shoot my start picture at the Carousel; I think I'd shot two laps and then the red flag came out.
"The track is so big that where I was located it hadn't even started to rain, so my first thought was there had been a bad crash. Knowing how big accidents can be at the Nürburgring even when they don't stop the race, I feared the worst.
The infamous 'Karussell' is perfect for pictures, but is less-than-ideal when you're stranded during a red flag
"Once the race was stopped the sky went so dark, and then the clouds burst over the circuit and it became very obvious why there was a red flag! With no cars on track, I took shelter under a marshal's post to protect my equipment. It's always a balance when my kit has to survive 24 hours of racing, so this was a fairly easy call.
"The difficulty came in trying to second-guess what would happen. Out in the forest I don't have any access to live TV or radio, so wasn't 100% sure what would happen next. I was in communication with a few people in the paddock who told me it looked like the race would be stopped for a while, so I gambled I could move to a new location before the race restarted, which turned out to be a good call."
Grabbing the trickiest – but most rewarding – shots of the race
"The stoppage lasted for a long time. As the race was held in May that year the sunset was quite early, and this combined with the cloud cover meant it would be almost dark by the time the race got going.
"It seems crazy writing it but I was looking at having two pictures of my clients car in the daylight from a race that started at 3.30pm!"
With daylight fading rapidly due to heavy cloud cover and the elongated red flag, Drew was under pressure to capture shots of his client car – the Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3.
The race initially got back underway behind the safety car to ease drivers back into the tricky conditions and dimmer ambient light, and Drew found himself with a maximum of two opportunities to capture what he described as the 'cinematic scene' unfolding in front of him.
On top of the time pressure, Drew also had to adapt his shots due to his proximity to the cars, being so close that water was being spat onto his lens.
"Following the snow storm and the long red flag I changed locations to the spot where I took the Bentley image," he recalls.
"When I arrived it was a great scene, almost cinematic, with smoke from the camp fires starting to drift over the circuit and the shiny wet track winding before me. However, the race took a long time to restart and when it did it was under the safety car. I was a long way around the lap and by the time the cars reached me the light was fading fast.
Mixed conditions and fading light make for some gorgeous shots
"There are lots of opportunities to shoot slow shutter speed images once it gets dark, but I was determined to get this picture shot with a faster shutter speed to better show the scenery in the last throws of daylight. In reality that gave me one, maybe two laps. When the cars finally arrived at racing speeds the scene was made even more dramatic by the headlights reflecting on the circuit surface and illuminating the rooster tails of spray kicked up by the cars.
"This did present another problem: I was so close to the action the spray combined with the back draft from the cars was blowing water onto the front of my lens. So now I had an extra challenge of trying to hold the camera to the floor whilst looking into the glaring headlights for my client's car and then raising the camera with enough time to frame the picture, but not too early so that water hit the front of the lens.
"It was so challenging, but the scene was so quintessentially Nürburgring I had to get the picture. As an endurance photographer I strive to capture images such as this, that show the atmosphere and feelings of a 24 hour race in a single image.
"After two laps – so almost half an hour – I nailed a few frames of the Aston Martin, and relaxed a little, capturing this image of the Bentley a few moments later.
Drew's image of choice from a spectacular edition of the Nürburgring 24 Hours
"The Aston picture was nice, but purely for the spread of the headlights and the spray being kicked up by the car in front I prefer the Bentley image. I knew when I took it I'd captured a cool picture, it was one I was looking forward to editing once I was back in the media centre."
Big, big thanks to Drew Gibson for his time on this piece – recalling his memories of the event as well as trawling back through the archives to pick his favourite pictures. Why not give Drew a follow on Instagram or check out his website to show some appreciation: