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Karl Noakes: Every Picture Tells a Story

A leading motorsport photographer is determined to capture not just the car, but the emotion of being in the driver’s seat.

Another kind of color and motion: Karl Noakes on the soccer pitch.

Every performance driver, amateur or professional, has a photo of their prized car ready to show at the slightest excuse. If they’re fortunate, the photo was taken by Karl Noakes, who has spent years perfecting the art of capturing cars in motion. Pacific Raceways and ProFormance have provided the backdrop for some of his best work, which shows up regularly in magazines, motorsport promotional literature, The Inside Line, and on the walls of proud drivers who consider their rides worthy of a spot over the mantle.

Not content with his position as an in-demand photographer in Northwest racing, Karl Noakes is on a constant quest to hone his craft and achieve new heights of automotive storytelling.

The Photo Bug Strikes

A gift of a Polaroid was Karl’s introduction to photography. He got the instant-print camera for Christmas back in his childhood in the UK, but he kept photography on the back burner for decades as life intervened. The bug finally got its teeth into him after he moved to the US, when he bought one of the early mirrorless cameras and took some shots at a concours event. Ferrari noticed his work on a racing forum and asked to use one of his images for a poster.

Karl Noakes photo of a sports car at Pacific Raceways
Sunlight, shadows, and speed: some shots have it all. Photo: karlnoakes.com

Making the Connections

Up to then Karl had no acquaintances in the car community, though he was a motorsport fan who followed Formula 1 and was at one time a rally co-driver. Hitting it off with Ferrari led to more calls, more connections, and new friends. When he took a day off work to shoot a SOVREN vintage race, the organizers noticed his talent and used his photos in promotional material and magazines. He was given credentials and access to the track for SOVREN races.

ProFormance: Not Just Improving Drivers

Karl Noakes photo of vintage racers at Pacific Raceways
Capturing the passing moment. Photo: karlnoakes.com

Vintage races, alas, are few and far between, and Karl needed more opportunities to shoot. “I’m a believer in the ten-thousand-hour rule,” he says, referring to the thesis popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. “It takes ten thousand hours to truly master a skill; I wanted to do more, really get dialed in.”

Karl got the chance when he asked to shoot at a ProFormance private track day. “Don and Donna (Don Kitch, Jr. and Donna Porada-Kitch) said to come on over.” After the session he was invited back, leading to many track days and a long association with Pacific Raceways and ProFormance. “It was an opportunity to hone my craft, to practice and practice.”

Emotion in the Image

A motorsport image, to Karl, is much more than merely the capture of a moving object. “I want you to understand it from the driver’s point of view, what the car is really doing, and not just catching it going around the track. The car might be braking, and be high on the suspension, or drifting on the corner.

Karl Noakes photo of a Boxster at Pacific Raceways
Greenery as backdrop at Pacific Raceways. Photo: karlnoakes.com

“I try to bring out some emotion in the picture. Drivers appreciate when I get a photo that captures what they felt on the track, as opposed to just a snapshot. From the young driver whose parents just got them their first car, to ones in the GT3 who are pushing boundaries, I’ve tried to capture the moment, the memory, in a way that tells the story.”

Tricks of the Trade

When the light is right, and everything comes together: photo karlnoakes.com

Over those ten thousand hours, Karl has learned what works and what doesn’t in the viewfinder. Cars of certain colors don’t photograph well. “Solid white and solid black ones are particularly difficult because the details don’t come out. I need to think differently about them, shoot them from the front or rear. Colorful cars are good, and ones with livery.”

You also need to know when to shoot. “Part of it is knowing where and when the sun shines. This time of year there’s a beautiful soft light around three in the afternoon.  You get lovely orange light, lovely shadows.” One of his favorite spots is around Turn 8 when the sun is out. “Cars look great against the dark background of the trees.” Unless it’s a black car against the dark backdrop, which is a different story.

Learning Never Stops

One trait Karl Noakes has in common with the best drivers is that of being a lifelong learner. “Every time I go to Pacific Raceways I learn something new, get a new perspective on the track. It’s about pushing my own curiosity, being able to do things with my camera that stand out.”

That means misses as well as hits. “Sometimes I go to the track with a new vision in mind and it fails miserably. I’m trying to capture cars braking at Turn 2, which is a difficult spot to get to safely. It’s taken me three track days and I’m still not there yet. Some days I come back from the track without many good shots.” Other times he’s rewarded with a load of images that are up to his standard. Those are the only ones he posts on his site.  

Shifting Gears

Recently retired from corporate life, Karl has taken a position as Editor in Chief of Avants Magazine, a glossy car-enthusiast publication which has gained a reputation for superb photography and editorial content. He’s upgraded to a Canon R3, one of the new generation of sports cameras, and is now in a position to expand his repertoire beyond club racing to the IMSA endurance series, IndyCar, and the professional motorsport arena. Sebring is next on his schedule.

There Is No Finish Line

Artistically, Karl’s goal is to create images that are different from what people typically see. That means getting into the mind of the driver. “I might have a certain shot in mind because it’s a fast-braking corner, and drivers are going down from 150mph to 60. If you know what it’s like in the car at that specific moment, with the wheels up in the air and the brakes on fire, you start to appreciate that image.”

“Photography can become very formulaic; you can lose your passion. I avoid that by constantly challenging myself to take better images, chase the light, understand what drivers want.”

Being posted on social media and forgotten holds little interest for him. Karl Noakes is aiming for the image that a driver hangs on his wall because he or she remembers what it was like to catch the apex or lift a wheel on Turn 5A. It’s not easy, but sometimes talent, experience, and dedication come together, and that’s when it clicks.  

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