Painting with light

Frits van Eldik lived life in the fast lane as an F1 photographer. A master at motosports, he is now pushing the boundaries of painting with light.
A Formula One race car captured at low shutterspeed and in full red colour tone, producing blurred lines that give an artistic look to match the speed of the car.

Written by Frits van Eldik and Cecilie Harris

Canon Ambassador Frits van Eldik grew up surrounded by cars, so it was only natural that in his photography career he would shoot Formula One, travelling the world to capture all the big moments in motorsports. While living in the fast lane, often quite literally, Frits feels the thrill of not missing a single moment. Today however, he is looking at his passion differently, elevating these moments of speed and drama into art, painting them with light.

“My father used to have a Fiat Lancia garage, so I grew up in-between cars. Photography was his hobby and so he would take pictures on Sundays and the kitchen would become a dark room. It was only during winter when he started to print his pictures – and I was allowed into the kitchen – that I became interested. Watching him put a piece of paper into liquid and seeing the image appear on paper was magic to five year old me.

I was lucky that my father’s garage took me to races and rallies, and he gave me a camera to take along. The first time I took it to a circuit, with a film of 36 frames, I finished the film within 10 minutes, so that was my first lesson learned; that you need to understand what you are taking pictures of and when you need to capture them. At the age of just 11, I decided I wanted to be a motorsports photographer and everyone around me laughed, but I knew it was what I wanted. I spent my weekends at races and in my father’s garage, I started to read books about photography and was inspired by motion pictures I saw in magazines and books. A magazine I discovered at the time, Grand Prix International, is still a part of my life and always had stunning images from Formula One by Bernard Asset.

There was a lot of movement in the images with stripes in the backdrop, and the wheels were moving instead of being frozen. Seeing these images, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. It’s funny because now Bernard is a good friend of mine. A lot of my colleagues were also inspired by him, and when we are all out photographing together we always ‘blame’ him. In Formula One, there are about 65-70 photographers, all of whom are very skilled, but there is a lot of respect. We raise the bar for each other and help to keep each other challenged. There is a nice sense of camaraderie – it’s basically a group of friends who see each other every two weeks in different parts of the world.

On the left, a portrait of Frits van Elrik shown at work at the race track, lying on the ground holding a Canon camera with a very large lens. On the right, a quote that reads, I still work for newspaper and commercial clients, but I love challenging myself to create artistic work and see myself playing with light even more.”

Photography became my profession when I was just 18. I joined an agency in Holland that needed someone to help them set up a photography department. I wasn’t supposed to start going out on jobs in the first six months, but it didn’t take long before I had already photographed some of the biggest races and I was flying all over the world. One week in China, the next Brazil and then in the US. I was literally living in the fast lane. I am now starting to slow down a bit on the travelling, as it can be quite exhausting. This has been due to Covid too, as during this period there was no reason to travel. I found that my body liked this quite a lot and I felt really healthy, so instead of doing all the Grand Prix Formula One’s, I just do 8-10 instead.

These days, I focus more on selling prints. The money we get from pictures published in media is not even 10% of what it was 10 years ago, so to find a way of living, also during Covid, I had to find alternative methods of making money. I have some Canon printers, and they allowed me to start playing with printing. I still work for newspaper and commercial clients, but I love challenging myself to create artistic work and see myself playing with light even more, as well as capturing old cars using new techniques to create interesting and artistic images. I’d also love to go into book printing with some of the images and stories I’ve been able to take. When people have something printed in their hands, it always makes more impact.

A Formula One race car captured at low shutterspeed and in full red colour tone, producing blurred lines that give an artistic look to match the speed of the car.

© Frits van Eldik

In motorsports photography, the choice of shutter speed is important. Playing with the shutter speeds of your camera can give great results. Many people choose to go for a very high shutter speed but, for me, if I can see the brand of the tyres, then the car looks like it’s parked! As a photographer, I try to go as slow as possible in shutter speed to get the most dramatic action. This image [above] is half a second of shutter speed, which can be a challenge, but if you move your camera during the moment you push the button, you create all kinds of stripes and strange lines in the image, and that’s what I like about this type of photography. You never know the result you will get. I only changed the temperature from orange to red here, but this shows action, yet is still recognisable as a Formula One car.

What I like about motorsport photography is that it includes all types of photography. You do sport, landscapes, news, celebrities, architecture, portraits – all these things combined, and that’s what keeps me challenged. But what inspires me the most is light. I love to work within the first hours of the day or the last hours, as I like playing with the sun. The challenge is that you always have to be creative and come up with something different from your competition. I love challenging myself to ensure I keep my style of photography updated and bring something new.”

Learn more about Frits and his work on his Canon Ambassador profile page.

Frits van Eldik and Cecilie Harris

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