Portraits of the Tour Down Under

by CyclingTips

As with any skill, in order to progress you need two key ingredients: inspiration and challenge. The challenge for me was to diversify the manner in which I photograph and subsequently create a diverse range of photographs. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to get a ride on a motorbike on a UCI World Tour race so I need to improvise. The question is how do I improvise?

As it turns out, since the Giro I was doing portrait work of the riders and fans but not in the sense of a true portrait photographer. The missing constituent in these portraits was engagement between the subject in the photograph and the viewer of the photographer.

In order to pursue this avenue further, I took inspiration from a fellow Belgium photographer and friend, Kristof Ramon. Wade and I were often drooling at some of Kiristof’s portraits. Having these intimate and close up portraits of the riders seemed challenging. Part of this challenge was to approach the rider and get well inside their personal space. Accessing the personal space alone was a challenge in its own right.

Eventually, Kristof and I met in Paris after TdF was over. I asked him what was his approach, he replied, I ask the riders if I can take a photograph of them. I was very intrigued because it was too simple to be true. Later, I saw Kristof weave his magic and it was as simple as that. Kristof encouraged me to try it out but I was not too confident.

It wasn’t till the Herald Sun Tour that I decided to give this an attempt. My first portrait was of Baden Cooke, and my heart was racing. The only thing I could envisage was Baden’s fist making contact with my nose. I approached Baden, he didn’t seem to be in a good mood so as photographer I had only a few seconds to take a photograph, thank him for his time, and walk away.

The Herald Sun Tour planted a seed and gave me the confidence to approach riders. During the Tour Down Under, I wanted to continue building my portraiture collection of pro riders. My approach did yield a few reactions. For example, Andre Greipel sarcastically said come even more closer as I was standing a foot away. In turn this threw me off my game.

The reason I tend to be in close proximity with a 35mm lens, is to fill the frame with the rider’s face and shoot very tight by focusing on an eye. By focusing on an eye with a wide-open aperture, allows you to keep the eye in focus and the rest of the face is gradually blurred out. Also these portraits accentuate various characteristics of the face such wrinkles or if the person is cross eyed.

Attempting to photograph Bijarne Riis, he complained about being too close but I replied, “trust me I know what I’m doing” and we both laughed. Similar experiences were with Stuart O’Grady and Grame Brown but with these two I had the most fun. The most nerve wrecking experience was trying to photograph Alessandro Petacchi. He seemed rather reclusive and would stay in the team van till the start time. Often he would be sitting right at the back of the van. It was rather daunting to pop my head inside the van, utter a few words in Italian. He gave me a nod, I climbed into the van and while he was stretching I had to wait till he looked into my direction. The waiting felt like an eternity, his eyes kept wondering, I felt uncomfortable but it was too late to leave without a photo.

By taking close up portraits, it allows me to differentiate from others and also help build rapport with the riders. Hopefully, this opens up further opportunities down the road.

The man behind the lens - Veeral Patel (He's gonna kill me for putting this up, but I think it's only fair!)

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