Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Minoru Kobayashi

The world of cars will never run out of excitement
Automotive photographer and President of the Japan Racing Photographers Association (Japan)

Minoru Kobayashi

Born in 1955, Minoru Kobayashi graduated from the photography department of Nihon University College of Art. He then worked as a staff photographer at auto magazine CAR GRAPHIC. After eight years, he went into business for himself, and has been shooting for a variety of clients and publications ever since. He now covers over 20 domestic and international races per year, including Formula NIPPON, SUPER GT and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest endurance race. He also manages the racing photo contest of Japanese photography magazine, CAPA.

The significance of being a racing photographer

When asked why he continues to shoot racing, Kobayashi answers without hesitation: "I want to relay the excitement of motor sports," adding that his goal is to broadcast this to as many people as possible. "When it comes to the cultural and historical richness of motorsports, Japan is simply not on the same level as most of the world," he admits, "Overseas, racing events are as ingrained in the culture as matsuri (traditional Japanese festivals) are here in Japan. It's a family event, and nothing out of the ordinary."

Kobayashi has learned the essence and atmosphere of racing events while working on assignments abroad. "Most people may think racing photography is merely cars and motorbikes screeching around a turn, but it’s much more than that. There are the drivers, the machine engineers and a massive support team behind the scene but let’s not forget the audience and the energy that they inject into the event. I guess no other sport has this many levels to experience and to capture. Naturally, I am never bored shooting a race." As Kobayashi’s role within the racing industry has grown, so has his responsibility for it. He feels as though he is part of a larger community. "I know this job is physically tough, but I want to work and shoot as long as I can," he says, "I want to continue the work of those who are leaving this industry. I just want to keep contributing." Here is where Kobayashi’s sense of motivation lies: a profound sense of responsibility.

Cars, photography and me

Kobayashi’s interest in photography began early: there are pictures of him holding a camera even before he could walk. In fact, his main interests from youth – cars and cameras — became his livelihood. This made the next phase of his career even more meaningful: becoming president of the Japan Racing Photographers Association (JRPA). "As my career progressed, I began to look at racing and photography from a variety of perspectives," he says, "I adored cars when I was a child, and since I could not buy a car, I took photos of them." It was fun to capture his favorite subjects in his own way, and while he worked for CAR GRAPHIC magazine, he earned his own "Class-A" license in order to race for himself. In his 30s, Kobayashi turned his lens to young drivers who were breaking through to elite racing circuits such as Formula One. This period of his career was marked by a significant amount of international travel, but by his 40s, Kobayashi began covering domestic races as their official photographer. Now in his 50s, he splits his time between JRPA and his own assignments. "With each decade of my life comes different goals, interests, and ways of thinking, " he states, adding: "I am lucky to have lived such a life."

Mission as JRPA President

JRPA is comprised mostly of freelance photographers – lone wolves with their own unique sets of skills and personalities. Kobayashi sees his mission as to nurture a working environment where each of these individuals can express their professional identity. His duties cover a broad range of activities such as arranging press passes and media coverage, negotiating shooting locations, securing internet access at events and overseeing the safety of its members. "I consider it simply returning a courtesy I have already been given," he says humbly. His work is not without sacrifice – he must occasionally forfeit one of his own shoots – but Kobayashi believes that his efforts can benefit the group and give its members an extra advantage. Moreover, if JRPA moves in the right direction, he believes it will energize the entire industry, resulting in more work and more opportunities to communicate the power of motorsports.

Kobayashi is also concerned about young and emerging racing photographers who have less opportunity due to various regulations. His hope is that the next generation will grow more interested in shooting motorsports. With this in mind, he and JRPA created the "Motorsports Japan" event, which takes place annually in the Odaiba district of Tokyo. Here members of JRPA teach children how much fun racing photography can be by showing them how to shoot vehicles in motion on their own.

The professional struggle: reporting and the creative dilemma

Which method should a photographer take: the documentary photo that captures the moment in faithful realism, or an artistic image that incorporates the style and personality of the photographer? Kobayashi believes both methods are important, and the choice between the two is a dilemma that every good photographer must grapple with. "For example," he elaborates, "when shooting a soccer match, you should capture the goalie’s dive in sharp detail. But you could also choose a slow shutter to imply movement. That would be something." While visually stunning, Kobayashi admits that more artistically rendered images are rarely bought for publication. That’s why he uploads JRPA members’ pictures to an online gallery found on the official website (http://www.jrpa.org/gallery.html). This gallery provides JRPA members the opportunity to show photos that take a more personal approach. "When I look at those images," he says, I always feel that's what they really want to be shooting."

As for Kobayashi himself, his position as an official photographer and the president of JRPA prevents him from solely following his own creative whims. Therefore, he believes that members of JRPA can make a real difference if they work together to photograph the world of motorsports and relay it in their own individual ways. So where, then, does Kobayashi express himself to the fullest? "That would be Le Mans," he says with a smile, "There are less requirements and regulations for me, so it is there that I truly follow my heart."

A challenge to Le Mans

One of the three components in the Triple Crown of Motorsport, Le Mans is a 24-hour race held in France, and the most interesting and exciting race of the year for Kobayashi. One reason for his fascination is the opportunity to work with a full 24 hours of changing light. Another is the complexity of the racing course – one of the most challenging in his career to capture. A racing photographer, he explains, must utilize strategy just like the racers themselves. What he shoots and where he shoots depend completely on the time of day and the light that comes with it. "I usually run through a few practice situations beforehand," he explains, "and it never works the way I expected. But that's the fun part. I’m always looking towards the next year. Le Mans is the place that tests my abilities. I find it fascinating." Les Mans, as with many other races outside of Japan, has less strict regulations for photographers, thereby giving Kobayashi more freedom to capture the action as he sees fit. This was even more so in years past, when he had even more freedom to work. In that environment, he learned a lot about the craft of making pictures and being flexible within his working environment.

Committed to skills and equipment

With such kinetic subject matter, it’s easy to understand that the meaning of a moment is extraordinarily significant for people like Kobayashi. Racing photographers face extremely limited opportunities to capture the vehicles and their drivers as they hurtle past, so Kobayashi believes that skills and equipment are vital to utilizing the powers to communicate.

Within a fraction of a second, many judgments must be made, such as lighting, composition and how much personal touch to add. Another major component is one’s choice of equipment. A photographer must be uncompromising, ignoring brands or image and deciding solely on the basis of capability. There are certain types of pictures that only top equipment can take.

"When the D3 came out, the impossible became possible," Kobayashi explains, "this was extremely exciting for me." What appealed to Kobayashi most about the D3 was its 51-point AF performance, which allowed him to concentrate more on composition without concern for the location of the focus point. Its accuracy and consistency first proved itself at the Fuji Speedway. The camera’s dramatic jump in ISO performance also made a considerable impact. "The D3 pushed me so hard, and it would never let me sleep," says Kobayashi with a smile, and he’s only half joking. Le Mans, he explains, takes place in June when daylight is at its longest, with sunset just before 10 p.m. and sunrise around 5:30 a.m. "Before, I could take a nap during the middle of the night, but once I had a D3, even a little light on the circuit was a photo opportunity. And if I know I can shoot, I have to. It’s my nature – I can’t stop." He also praises the power of NIKKOR's Nano Crystal Coat. Most racing machines are required to use headlights at all times, he explains. Without Nano Crystal Coat, capturing the front of these cars clearly would be much more difficult.

Kobayashi believes that there are no right or wrong answers in photography, and its interpretation varies among individuals. "It's my greatest pleasure that each viewer look at the pictures with their own imagination and interpretation," he says, "the more interpretations, the happier I am."

What reliability really means

"Without a dependable camera, we are useless." Kobayashi believes it is impossible to overestimate the importance of reliable gear. Aside from the off-season, he works almost every day, carrying equipment around racetracks on the weekends and working on editorial work and location shooting during the week. Being this busy means his gear must be ready and working at all times.

However, the reality is that no technology is flawless. That's where Nikon Professional Services (NPS) come in. They check and maintain members’ equipment regularly in order to reduce the chances of breakdown. If something stops working while the photographer is in the field, NPS will come to fix it there, and if they can’t, members are given replacement gear. "To me, my relationship with NPS support is a special component of reliability. I completely trust the NPS staff. They have kept me shooting on more than one occasion."

NPS philosophy has a long history of listening to its members. This feedback filters into Nikon’s development branch as well as the other departments, resulting in better product designs in the future. "It’s important for me to see the faces of those who actually made the equipment," he explains, "because that’s when I often find clues on how to best apply their technological creations."

"Reliability," concludes Kobayashi, "that's where Nikon means the most to me."

Caption for Gallery

Audi R8 Spyder at the International Press Association Test Drive in Nice, France
Audi R15 running through Porsche Curve, around 6 p.m. at Le Mans 24-Hour Race
Audi R15 passing through Dunlop Bridge with the sun coming up behind, around 6 a.m. at Le Mans 24-Hour Race

What's in the camera bag?

For professional racing photographers, ideal shooting opportunities are both rare and brief. That’s why they must use only the best, most reliable equipment. Kobayashi usually carries two bodies: the D3S and the D3X. One of these is attached with the AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR super-telephoto lens because of its optimal balance between weight and focal length. The other camera body will usually be fitted with a shorter zoom lens, such as the AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, the AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR or the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. All three are fantastic for capturing the atmosphere and human drama surrounding the race. He also owns other accessories such as the AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II and several SB-900 Speedlights.

Audi R8 Spyder at the International Press Association Test Drive in Nice, France
Audi R15 running through Porsche Curve, around 6 p.m. at Le Mans 24-Hour Race
Audi R15 passing through Dunlop Bridge with the sun coming up behind, around 6 a.m. at Le Mans 24-Hour Race