Photographer Naim Chidiac at the Dakar Rally
© AP Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Rally Raid

How the Dakar Rally pushes action sports photography to the limit

Shoot for the top with hard won advice from leading sports photographer and Red Bull Photography teacher Naim Chidiac.
Written by Paul Keith
Published on
Part of this story

Dakar Rally 2021

Saudi ArabiaJeddah, Saudi Arabia
View Event Info
A great photographer is nothing without great timing: you have to choose your moments and pounce on the opportunity – that applies not only to when you click the shutter, but in every way that you approach the subject. And being able to judge the perfect moment takes years of practice and diligent preparation. Naim Chidiac has been photographing action sports and motorsports for Red Bull for 15 years, including Red Bull Car Park Drift, Formula One and the Dakar Rally. Formerly a pro kitesurfer, he’s one of the busiest men in the business who also runs a hugely successful photography agency in Dubai and is a regular lecturer with Red Bull Photography Academy.

What would you say is the most important thing to master to be a top sports photographer?

I’ve been building up my experience for years and even now I pick up something new on every job. Building your skills is a long process and it gets refined through the years. But I learned very early on that the most important thing for any photographer is to have a good relationship with the client – that’s top of the list.
'It's essential that you have a good relationship with your subjects. If you don't take up their time and they like the results, they'll always be happy to work with you.'
Relaxed portrait of Mr and Mrs Dakar, Stéphane and Andrea Peterhansel

How do you deal with motorsport athletes in particular?

I learned from working with the team at Red Bull that it’s important to know what they like and dislike, and when you can talk to them. The athlete is dealing with a lot of pressure and the last thing you want to do is add to it. They can’t be anything less than 100 percent focused. You learn to be very discreet and to shoot the right moments, often without them even knowing you’re around.

How important is it to know your subject when you come to a shoot? Such as your split ‘Superhero’ portraits...

It’s extremely important. I'm an athlete myself. I used to compete in kitesurfing and I enjoy lots of sports. So I have my sporting life and my professional life as a photographer. A lot of my friends are also athletes and one evening a group of us went to the beach after dinner, and I saw them playing sport in their everyday clothes and the idea came to me to combine their normal life and extreme life in a portrait.
'I’m very happy with these portraits because the splits are 100 percent match in terms of perspective and proportion.'
Split portrait of MX rider and Dakarist Mohammed Al Balooshi

With all that experience in your back pocket, what was it like photographing the Dakar?

The first time I covered the Dakar Rally, there was a lot of pressure but I succeeded because of my experience. I did my research and I asked a lot of questions so I’d know what to expect. When I got there, it was so much worse! The logistics are a huge challenge: there’s so much going on around you and it all requires your attention.

You say your experience helped you to succeed at the Dakar. Can you elaborate?

My preparation paid off because even though there were hundreds of photos being taken, mine were going viral from the first day, and it was because I had thought about the story behind the shot: in this case, it was the first time that the Dakar had come to Saudi Arabia. Anyone with good photography skills can take classic Dakar shots of great close-ups with sand flying – but you can’t tell if it’s Africa or South America or somewhere else. I chose to work on action and landscapes instead, trying to show the beauty of Saudi Arabia and the cars at the same time. With hundreds of close up images, the ones that combine the action with the beautiful landscape really stand out. I’d recommend that way of thinking to anyone who wants to become an outstanding photographer.

Presumably, you still need to be able to improvise on site?

At the Dakar, you never know when you’ll get a chance to shoot from the helicopter – they don’t give you much notice. Shooting from a chopper, you can’t try lots of different angles, so sometimes you just get lucky. I don't like to have lots of messy sand – I try to catch the action as the first two or three cars pass through the undisturbed sand dunes. That’s where experience and concentration are useful. I focus on which lines the cars are taking and what will be my best shot. If most cars are taking the same line, then there’s no need to repeat yourself. That’s when you look for the athletes who are trying something different – and most often that is the Red Bull drivers – and you have some more shots with line cleans.

Since you started, the technology has also moved on dramatically. How has that affected you?

I trained on analogue cameras for 10 years and when you shoot on 35mm, you count every shot. It taught me to be precise. When I go on location, I look all around me for my images. In Formula One. I try to avoid being in the photographers’ pens because it limits you so much. If there’s 54 laps in the race, you’ll end up with 54 photos that look the same. I usually go to the grandstands and around the circuit because you have more freedom.
'I trained on analogue cameras for 10 years and when you shoot on 35mm, you count every shot. It taught me to be precise. When I go on location, I look all around me for my images.'
Naim Chidiac on location at the 2021 Dakar

What would be your advice for anyone entering Red Bull Illume?

Take a good look at the past winners because chances are that is what the judges will be looking for. Of course you have to bring your own style and originality to the competition but no one knows it all: looking at other people’s successes will refresh your mind. I follow Red Bull Illume every year because you see the strongest images: amazing natural scenery and great athletes. My advice would be to find the right place, the right athlete and the right timing. Be strong, be as creative as you can and treat your picture very carefully. If you do all of that very well, you could win it.
Any professional or amateur content creators may enter Red Bull Illume free of charge. All submissions must be made by July 31, 2021. Content creators can submit their best still or moving images up to 60 seconds into the Best of Instagram by Lenovo category by tagging @redbullillume on Instagram with #rbi21submission in the caption.
Part of this story

Dakar Rally 2021

Saudi ArabiaJeddah, Saudi Arabia
View Event Info