An Interview with Nigel Kirby, Racecourse Photographer.
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Nigel Kirby is the familiar face who captures the memories of many a race winner. He is renowned as the “Friendly man behind the lens” and takes truly wonderful photographs. There are the images of racing that go further than the victorious inside the winner’s enclosure: the grooms leading up, a bucket of water snapped forever as a splash, mud-caked faces and diminutive jockey replicas riding in the pony races. Plus, there are albums portraying homelife at racing yards, staff and horses on the yard and stretching out up the gallops.
Yet, Nigel’s expertise and passion goes further than racing with many photos of gundogs, football, eventing and county shows: from showing cattle to beribboned Shires, a herd of wild deer, London in black and white with the iconic buses in bright red, Crufts, steam trains in which you can almost smell the soot and hear the screeching whistles, food and crafts markets and the entertaining tumble of jousting displays. My favourite, perhaps, is one of a pheasant flying through a snowy scene – these birds that are normally clumsy and raucous; yet, this one was photographed in such a way that he seems to glide. To be honest, it was almost too difficult to choose a favourite photo in a gallery of so many wonderful ones.
Born in Leeds, Nigel, 55, now lives in Smallwood, near Sandbach in Cheshire with his wife Vesna, whom he married in August 2018. He has a daughter, 20-year-old Harriet, known as Hattie, from his previous marriage and three rescued Labradors called Alfie, Ella and Yogi.
When/how did you start taking an interest in photography?
I left school at 16 and attended college before joining a large multi-national organisation as a “Commercial Trainee” at the age of 18. For 32 years I stayed with the same organisation and held various roles including in Audit, Finance, Business Management and Business Development and headed up activities for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
In 2015 I decided to take voluntary redundancy and established my own photography business.
I have always had an interest in photography and had a nice camera but never took it too seriously – it was, for a long time, a case of using the simple dials on the camera rather than learning exactly how to use the functionality and understand the “rules” of photography.
How did this progress onto becoming a racecourse photographer?
My wife booked a “one to one” photography session for our dogs and I attended to watch and learn. I was “hooked” and then used the same photographer, Andy Biggar, for lessons and a business course. I have always loved horse racing and attended various race meetings as a paying member of the public. Several shots taken on these visits were posted on Social Media and were seen by the Sales & Marketing Manager at Uttoxeter Racecourse… After a few discussions, I was kindly asked to become their official photographer… Since then I have been appointed at both Worcester and Doncaster.
What racecourses do you work at?
I am the Official Photographer for Uttoxeter, Worcester and Doncaster and act as a deputy for Wolverhampton Racecourse if their official photographer cannot attend.
What is your favourite racecourse?
It is a difficult question to answer but I would have to say Uttoxeter. I owe them a great deal for their trust and support in the early days of my professional photography business. Nowadays they treat me like a true member of their team and I also photograph various events for them outside of racing.
What is your favourite race meeting?
My favourite meeting at these courses would probably the Midlands Grand National Meeting at Uttoxeter. This meeting is always well attended, and the racecourse is absolutely buzzing. You may be surprised that I did not say the St Leger at Doncaster but this is because “most of the nationwide racing photographers” turn up and it can be a real rugby scrum for pictures – I much prefer the quieter days.
Do you prefer Flat or National Hunt?
My preference is for National Hunt. It is always a much longer and harder day with lots of walking between the fences and parade ring, etc, and it does involve more editing of images. However, I have a much closer bond with owners, trainers and jockeys and this makes it all the more worthwhile.
In your opinion, what makes a successful racecourse photographer?
I would say that a successful racecourse photographer must be able to do more than simply take a picture. An interest in the sport is helpful and understanding the rules of racing, the racecourse layout, the people involved, etc, are essential. I am always courteous and polite and want to build relationships rather simply try to sell an image. There is far more photography to be done in racing than simply on race days and so building long term trust and partnerships are important.
What is the best aspect about taking photographs at the races?
People, people and people! The horses are stunning animals but sadly do not talk and so it is the people that make racing. It is also a privilege to be so close to the action and hearing the thundering of hooves.
What is the worst?!
The worst is the same for every kind of photography and that is the editing. I personally view and edit every single image as I want to be sure that everything that finally goes onto my website is as I would like to see. I do not simply want to upload images from my camera. The editing takes a considerable amount of time, especially when owners and trainers are probably looking for images immediately after the race, but I believe this is essential. I always edit when I arrive home after racing and this sometimes means finishing a day’s racing in the early hours of the next day.
The Friendly Man Behind the Lens
Are there any improvements racecourses could do to generally assist the photographers more?
I am incredibly lucky in that I have a dedicated location at all three racecourses, so I am not having to share “Press Room” space with others. The one improvement I can think of is internet access and speed as I hear from other photographers that this can sometimes be a problem. In this digital age the images are needed moments after a race and so time is of the essence.
Which racing yards have you visited and which ones left a big impression?
I have visited several racing yards including Jonjo O’Neill, Olly Murphy, Oliver Sherwood, Fergal O’Brien, Dan Skelton, Dr Richard Newland, Tom Dascombe, Donald McCain, Kim Bailey, Martin Keighley and Philip Hobbs. They all leave their own impressions whether it be their location, the yard itself, their history, the building, etc. and so it would be unfair to name a single venue that left a big impression.
Who do you admire in racing?
I admire anyone in racing who can take the time to have a chat. The racing industry has suffered some awful losses and so it is important to be friendly and enjoy life. We are all equals.
As mentioned above, before I became a professional photographer, I was employed in the corporate world for 32 years. During this time, I enjoyed a role that took me to Dubai on a regular basis and I will always recall Thursday nights at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse before Meydan was built. I have a lot of admiration for Godolphin and was a big fan of Dubai Millennium and Fantastic Light. Despite the recent bad press for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, there is no doubting the enormous contribution he and his family have brought to racing in the UK and rest of the world. His quote “In the race for excellence, there is no finish line” is one of the best quotes ever!
At the opposite end of the scale, more recently I admire the work of some racing syndicates and believe Dan Abraham at Foxtrot Racing (and the Racecourse Syndicates Association) is doing a fantastic job in getting “ordinary” folk involved in racing – something that is desperately required.
What other events have you photographed?
Away from racing I photograph at all kinds of events. I am an official photographer for The Kennel Club and have done several of their Championships. I also do work for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and this includes their gundog classes at Crufts. The Gundog Journal is a new magazine to which I have contributed both images and editorial. I also do personal dog photography commissions throughout the year as well as working Gundogs during the season. Other work includes larger outdoor Fetes and Rallies.
I am proud to offer my voluntary support to Riding for the Disabled (RDA), Labradors In Need and Racing Groom.
Do you photograph weddings and, if so, is this stressful?!
I have done several weddings as both a lead photographer and a support photographer. They are obviously incredibly special days for the clients and so yes, they are stressful; but only as stressful as capturing a winner crossing the line or the Princess Royal doing a winner’s presentation at Worcester! You are more likely to have a second chance of a shot at a wedding than you are of a horse crossing the line.
What is your most favourite ever photograph that you have taken?
This is probably the toughest question you have asked!
My marketing strapline is “Capturing Life’s Moments” and so I have numerous images that mean so much, my first photo as a photographer at a racecourse, family images, pet images, first picture in a magazine, etc, etc.
However, I have narrowed it down to the two below. The racing image, taken at Worcester, is the first picture that I will have published in a calendar and it will appear in the 2021 “Countryside Alliance” calendar.
The second image is the Princess Royal presenting at Worcester – an image that “I simply had to get right”!!
If you could take photographs of one thing/place anywhere in the world, what would it be?
My daughter’s wedding (still some years away) – although I will probably not be able to do it as I may be too involved and certainly too emotional.
I was lucky in my previous life to see many parts of the world but was busy working and so did not take my camera or any shots. When Covid has gone away and we are all safe again, I have the following places on my “bucket list” to photograph – India, Vietnam and New Zealand – as well as the Rocky Mountaineer train journey.
Other than that, I am happy with “Capturing Life’s Moments” for anyone that needs them.
What are your hobbies?
I obviously love my photography and so I would be wrong not to say it is a hobby as much as a job – the camera comes everywhere as “there is a picture in almost everything we see”. I like to go on walks with my wife Vesna and our three Labradors. Holidays typically involve touring the UK – especially the Lake District and Scotland – so that they can come too!
I am not a fan of watching TV or films and so spend as much time as possible outdoors walking the dogs, in the garden or cleaning the cars, etc! I have a “piggy bank” whereby every time I clean our two cars, I put in it the amount of money it would have cost me at a car wash. It is amazing how much it adds up and typically pays for a short break each year.
Please describe your character.
Honest, Generous, Respectful, Considerate, Polite, Ambitious, Hardworking