Behind the Lens: Steve Schnars

Editor Note: There’s no shortage of awesome photographers in dirt track racing. This is a fact that is not lost on our staff at OneDirt. As a result, we recently started this new feature profiling some of our sport’s brightest photogs.

Steve Schnars 1 - Heath Lawson photo

Steve Schnars grew up in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania. He graduated from SUNY Brockport and moved to California in 1987 to attend the police academy. He was a cop for 23 years and worked in various roles, including patrol, narcotics, community policing, driving instructor, and tactical officer at the police academy. He retired from the force as a Captain in 2012, due to a serious neck injury.

Since then, he’s been heavily involved in motorsports photography. We recently caught up with Steve to get his thoughts on life as a racing photographer.

When and where did you get started taking racing photos, and what was your inspiration?

My first event to ever shoot was a weekly show at Lerneville Speedway in 2012. I went to the track with the Chub Frank Racing boys and jumped into shooting headfirst. I had no idea what I was doing, and that has served me well ever since. Speedway Motors bought some photos from me last year, and one of the photos from that night — of the cars in the line-up chute, focused on John Volpe #53 — was used as one of their covers. That was a really cool moment for me.

I grew up in the sport at Pennsylvania’s Stateline Speedway, which was operated by Chub Frank’s family. I have no talent for driving or working on the cars, and a guy can only drink so much beer. Thus, shooting was about all that was left for me to try.

Action at Fairbury American Legion Speedway

Who are some of your favorite racing photographers?

Steve Towery was a huge help early on when I first got started. He took the time to share settings and techniques with me. Mike Ruefer is a talented guy and shared his philosophy for a successful night of shooting. Obviously, Heath Lawson has become a very successful shooter, and he’s a good kid to boot. The California/Arizona Sprint Car group is always friendly and a pleasure to shoot alongside.

Which dirt track division is your favorite to shoot?

I’m a Late Model guy. I grew up watching Bob Schnars, Jay Plyler, and Skip Furlow running Stateline Speedway and Eriez Speedway. Then, I hung out as the beverage manager for Chub Frank before I moved to California. The Late Models are hurting out West, so it’s hard to catch them very often.

I appreciate the Non-Wing Sprinters, Midgets, and the Modifieds, and each has the potential to put on an outstanding show.

Do you ever worry about having your camera damaged by flying dirt clods?

I like shooting from the outside of the track, thus, it’s often a contact sport for me. It’s risk vs. reward for the equipment and myself. I shoot with filters on all my lenses, so if the glass takes a direct hit, I’m confident the filter will take the damage. So far, I’ve only been hit in the head a few times, so no real risk to me personally.

When not taking photos, what is your favorite pastime?

I enjoy races as a spectator; I’ve been a fan for over 50 years. I love spending time with my grandkids and family. Living in SoCal, I’m lucky enough to get hours on my Harley Davidson 12 months out of the year.

Flat Track Motorcylce Racing

What’s the hardest part of racing photography?

It’s a social media driven world, and free products trump quality products. There’s ways to make some money, but it’s very time consuming. You do not want to do the math and figure out an hourly wage. Sadly, a plethora of talented shooters are hanging up their cameras this year due to money, time, and social media.

What’s your best pieces of advice for someone trying to break into the photography business?

Buy quality gear. There’s a lot of great used gear available at a fair price. Talk to as many photographers as you can, as most are very approachable. Most importantly, understand the business and the culture. When you visit a track, find out who the track photographer is and go introduce yourself. Let them know why you’re there and that you understand it’s their track.

Be brave. Try shooting from different (but safe) areas. Shoot with a flash, off-camera flash, no flash, and do some slow shutter speed panning. Do not get in a rut artistically.

Last, but not least do not upload your entire album on Facebook.

Bryan Clauson

What’s an event you’ve never shot that’s on your bucket list?

East Bay Raceway Park (Gibsonton, Florida) for the Winternationals and the Hell Tour in the Midwest are definitely on my bucket list.

What’s your favorite track(s) to take pictures?

Fairbury American Legion Speedway (Fairbury, Illinois) and Lernerville Speedway (Sarver, Pennsylvania)

What’s your biggest pet peeve as a photographer?

Reflective vests. Race cars don’t have headlights, and reflective vests reflect direct light, not ambient light.

Also, everyone shooting in the same corner or location gets on my nerves. I know certain places, like Turn 1 at Tulare, are the action spots, but there are other places to capture shots that tell the story of the event.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever had happen while shooting an event?

Boom Briggs once waved at me with all his fingers, rather than flipping me off —like he normally does. That was weird.

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