The business of track photography.

Since most folks don’t know what it’s like to photograph a track day, I’d like to give a quick overview of what it’s really like.  Let me first say that this isn’t a rant from me of any kind, but more about trying to educate non-photographers about what it’s like to shoot at the tracks here in the Pacific Northwest.  I don’t know how it is to shoot in other markets, so I can only comment about what it’s like here.

Day 1:

Normally begins the night before the track day.  I need to make sure I have all the necessary gear ready, batteries charged, and flash cards empty.  Having to leave so early the next day, I normally pack everything into my car except for the expensive stuff.  Gear includes, but not limited to, rain gear, camera gear (bodies and lenses), knee pads, sunscreen, 3-legged chair, fluids (Gatorade), snacks and fruits (enough food to last the whole day).  All this gear must fit into gear bags that are very likely to be carried from corner to corner.  Check the forecast to plan what I’ll be wearing.  Since I try to hide into the scenary as much as possible, clothing is limited to dark and/or neutral colors.

Day 2:  Track day

Up by 5:30am to leave early enough to fight traffic and make it to the track for the 8am riders’ meeting.  After the meeting, I need to decide how my day will flow.  I need to make a general progression from corner to corner as I don’t have time to go to any corner at any time.  Normally the previous corner or next corner are my choices to move to in between sessions, so I must plan accordingly.  I head out to my first corner around 8:45am and break out the gear.  Find my usual shooting angles and wait for the track to go hot.

9am and the track normally fills with the day’s first riders.  Most riders are intrepidus in the first session and don’t make for good photos, but it is a good time to get me warmed up to the day’s shooting.  Depending on the number of riders, I’ll fire off 10-15 shots of each passing rider.  Multiply that by the number of riders as they lap every few minutes.  Within a single 20 minute session, I can easly fire off several hundreds of images that will later need to be filtered, processed, sorted, and uploaded.

Every 20 minutes a fresh group of riders hit the track.  Every third session the groups cycle through, starting with the beginner level, moving to the intermediate level, and lastly the advance level.  In between the cycles, I try to move to a different corner or angle.  Getting a variety of corners and angles will only help sales.  Getting the same shot over and over again limits the customer’s selection.  The difficult part here is that during the sessions, you are very limited on your movement, so for each session, I’m essentially stuck at that angle for 20 minutes.  This means for that 20 minutes, I’m going to get riders in the same angle over and over again.

This continues throughout the day.  At the end of it all, I’m exhausted.  I normally have about 64 gigs worth of RAW files, at about 5,000 to 8,000 images to process.  Time to head home and a nice hot shower.

Day 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…:  Processing

Most folks may have this idea that photographers have a glorious life going from assignment to assignment, shooting in exotic locations.  It can’t be further from the truth, with the exception of a few high profile photographers.  Along with the business aspects of running a photography business, processing photos takes a lot of time.

Before I dive into the details about post processing, I just want to make a quick note on some of the camera settings used thoughout the day. This information is more for my fellow photographers out there reading this.
RAW files: I shoot almost everything in RAW, including at the track. I normally carry more than enough CF cards to handle the payload. The machine I use to process the images is hefty enough to handle the required disk space and CPU crunching of the RAW files.
Shooting mode: Tv. Some ask why I don’t shoot in manual mode and it’s for a couple of reasons. Here in the Pacific Northwest, most days do not have consistant lighting. Most days are partly sunny where patches of sunlight hit the track. Trying to keep in sync with the lighting conditions would be almost impossible.

The process:

  1. Download all my memory cards to my computer (20 minutes)
  2. Import them into my image processing software and pre-process (cache) the images (30-40 minutes).
  3. Eyeball each and every image weeding out blurry, out of focused, poorly composed images (5-8 hours).  By the end of this step, I’m ready to gouge an eye out.
  4. Adjust exposure, contrast, white balance, etc. on each and every image (5-8 hours).  Ugh!!!  Gouging my other eye out by the end of this.
  5. Sort each image (2-3 hours).  Riders normally have numbers and sometimes would like to buy galleries of their images.  Yes, this means eye-balling each of the images again.  Create online galleries for each rider and placing the images appropriately. Edit: Starting this season, I’ve modified this step by only creating a gallery upon request from the rider.
  6. Upload the images (6-8 hours).  Slowly but surely, the images get uploaded.

In between all this, there is still the business to run, emails to answer, go to a full time day job, and live a life.


So lets see.  Prepare the day before, one full day of shooting and several days of processing.  How many hours is this?  It’s at least a full week, so lets say 40 hours.  How much would you say is a good hourly rate for this type of skilled work?  Lets say $50/hour.  At 40 hours, we’d hope to collect $2000.  Minus taxes we pay (28%) and sales tax (9.5%).   This brings us down to about $1300 for a weeks work.  Minus fuel expenses, health insurance, wear and tear on hardware, etc….  This would be ideal.  Is it what really happens?  Ha!

Average Joe doesn’t see the work and skill required to take great photos.  $10/photo or $45/gallery is way too much and they aren’t going to spend their hard earned money on photos that he thinks his uncle Bob can take.  On a really full day, 30 riders per group with 3 groups; 90 riders total.  On average, 1 out of 15 will buy a gallery at $45 ($270) and 1 out of 10 buy a single photo at $10 ($90).  This comes to a grand total of….   $360 for the whole day.  Minus sales and fed taxes, we’re down to about $235 for the 40 hours of work.  Yes.  that’s $5.86/hour, on a good day.  Don’t forget the cost of travel, wear and tear on gear, insurance (health, business, and liability).

So, how many folks out there work for less than $5.86/hour?


5 thoughts on “$5.86

  1. Jason, a great write up. Only thing I’d point out is the added stress of having different organizations, and inconsistancy between rules, whats allowed, whats not allowed, how can I get there, its a never ending battle/stress as well. But you definitely hit the nail on the head. Good one.

  2. A very interesting write up. I only hope you spend enough time at the track making your presence known to every rider, as I’ve been so many times and hardly ever can find the photogs I see out there and have no idea how to talk to them to buy the pics of me from them. Also, why not simply upload all the images and dump them into each riders number online. Then if they are interested you can edit them, instead of editing all the images first and then only selling a few? Could make it so there is a pop up when someone goes into the website stating that all images have not been edited, and will be if a rider is interested.

    Just some thoughts on how to make your life easier/increase hourly rate average.

  3. Hey Jason. Enjoyed the read – thanks! I’m baffled as to why you’d shoot RAW for this kind of event; IMO it adds lots of time to your post-event workflow, which reduces your hourly rate without providing much in the way of better images. What I discovered here on the east coast in the 2009 – 2011 trackday seasons is that sales diminished in a fairly linear fashion, going from $1500/day in 2009 to less than $400/day in 2011. As much as I love photographing trackdays, it simply stopped making sense for me to continue doing it for that kind of return. Something you (and other trackday photographers) may be interested in is the custom sorting software I created – it allows me to simply key in the bike number (or other Windows-foldername-legal text), and the software moves the file to the appropriate subdirectory. When sorting by bike number, you can easily sort about a thousand photos per hour. Let me know if you’re interested in learning more about it!

    • Hi Terry. Shooting RAW only takes up space and CPU cycles, which aren’t issues. No matter if shooting RAW or JPEG, the time required to sort and tweak images is the same.

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