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As Tour de France nears a number of you will be heading off to France to support Cadel Evan’s defend his title. I have asked Veeral Patel to share some of his knowledge on cycling photography that he has gained over the years so that you can return back with some great moments of your cycling adventures.
For a while I have been asked to produce an article that would explain the thought processes that goes through my head when I am taking photographs at the grand tours. Truthfully, my mind is a convoluted mess when it comes to taking a photograph because I am simultaneously trying to get drive, look at the terrain and judge a good vantage and look for a good spot.
Whether you are photographing a grand tour or taking a beautiful landscape photo of Wineglass Bay in Tasmania, you share the same photography fundamentals. Rather than going into each fundamental in detail instead I will deconstruct a few of my favourite images to give you a better insight as to why its good.
One of the major misconceptions is that you need to have accreditation in order to have the opportunity for capturing great photographs. To a small degree it helps but as you will read on, the races take place on open roads and mountains passes so everyone has the same opportunity. However, it comes down to perspective and perception.
I purchased my first SLR camera back in 2001 as a means to capture memories of my first trip to Europe. I was armed with a Nikon F65 and a Tamron zoom lens. Almost a year later I started going to criterium races aiming to see what sort of photographs I could get. Looking back at my initial print photographs to what I have achieved recently and the contrast is staggering to say the least. Over time my skill and visual acuity has improved tremendously, helping me to strive for more and my camera equipment has evolved as well.
Having very good equipment helps you take amazing photographs in the most difficult environments whilst being exposed to the elements whether it’s the dusty cobblestones of Paris Roubaix or the unexpected hailstones on the slopes of Zoncolan. Ultimately, everything rests in the capable hands of the photographer who needs to create beautiful art.
At the moment my current kit consists of a Nikon D4 DSLR body, 70-200mm lens , 14-24mm lens and SB900 flash. For a sports photographer this is a very basic kit. Due to the events of Verona during the Giro, I had lost the ultimate sports photographer’s kit. Thankfully I had received a lot of support in getting new gear especially from RCS Sport and Chain Reaction Challenge Foundation. As a result this forced me to change how I take my photographs extensively.
I understand that not everyone has the luxury or is willing to spend a lot on camera equipment, so what can be achieved with non-professional grade camera equipment? A heck of a lot.
When you go to a race like the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France one of the most first things that you will notice is the beauty of the surroundings in each of the respective countries. To incorporate the peloton as part of a beautiful vista is not challenging nor do you require an extremely high end camera equipment. It’s all about perspective and timing.
In my opinion any stage that has a mountain pass will have a great view and is perhaps the ideal location to capture those iconic photographs you often see in magazines or has you mesmerized. Though the hardest part is refraining yourself from joining the hordes of people standing around the hairpin turn waiting for the leading group of riders to pass. Reality is that sometimes you may get lucky in getting that perfect shot but what will you do if your camera is too slow to focus or your view is blocked by media motorbikes ?
The answer is simpler than you think. You can change your perspective and find yourself higher ground. Just making this simple change will dramatically give you a different outlook to the race.
For example, during stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia this year, one of the mountain passes was Passo Manghen. It didn’t have the switchbacks you would find on Stelvio but it did have an incredible open vista surrounded by tall trees and exposed roads as the peloton would make its way to the summit. My goal was simple, I wanted a single photograph that would give me a unique composition that I have not photographed before and I wanted the helicopter as part of the composition. With those two pre-requisites the search for the location began.
I found a ledge, which gave me an unobstructed view of the valley below, but I still couldn’t determine the correct composition. The first test photograph I took below, didn’t quite appeal to me due to the openness on the lower left hand corner as well as the hair pin turn the peloton would look too bunched up.
I took another test photograph as I and this was somewhat appealing but again there was too much of the roads leading to the summit and it felt too fragmented.
I panned my camera to the right of the composition above and again it felt too fragmented as there was too much of the roads leading to the summit. Finally, it dawned on me that the best composition would be zooming in and photographing the middle section of the photograph. Having the road off center made the photo look unbalanced and it captures your eye. The size of the riders in contrast to the trees and the helicopter hovering above the trees would give some sense to the height upon which the photograph was taken from. For landscape photos I avoid extensive cropping, I aim to get the composition correctly framed in the camera as this gives me more pixels to play with it if I need to make very large prints in the future.
Lenses typically used: Nikon 70-200mm, 14-24mm, Canon 70-200mm, 17-40mm.
Capturing the essence of action in a cycling race is something I am extremely fond of doing. This is one aspect of cycling photography whereby having very fast and long lenses coupled with a high end DSLR body helps immensely.
Action in cycling can vary from the sprint to the finish line or even patiently waiting around a hair pin turn on a mountain pass or even nestling yourself amongst the fans shooting very wide. Photographing action centric shots on a mountain pass is ideal for two reasons; 1) fans will line up the road and the riders will have a very narrow corridor to pass through 2) tight, narrow, and steep hairpin turns provides amazing opportunity to capture the pain on the rider’s face they push on out of the saddle with the fans screaming in the background.
My preference is to always shoot on a very narrow and crowded roads. Especially on a mountain pass, a photograph encompassing the mood and excitement of the crowd adds an extra level of depth to the photograph.It makes the viewer feel they are part of the excitement rather than just a vacant road with a rider. Even kneeling on one knee below the fans as they thrust their arms over top of your head and shooting with a very wide angle, gives you an extremely different perspective to capture the mood. They key is to again vary your perspective.
Again you don’t need press credentials to be standing on the mountain, you just need to find that sweet spot on the hair pin turn or when standing shoulder to shoulder with fans on a hill top for the King of the Mountain.
Lenses typically used: Nikon 70-200mm + (TC17III), 14-24mm, Canon 70-200mm,17-40mm, and 500mm
Portraiture can be defined in many ways and can be photographed using a multitude of different lenses. My preference is to take photographs of the riders after they crossed the finish line. There is no magical formula that I can divulge that could explain what makes a good portrait or how I photograph my portraits. Most of my after race portraits are done on gut feel and consistently on the hunt for that elusive fleeting moment where a rider displays his utmost frustrations or anguish. I often have my camera pre-configured to the correct exposure so I can maximize my time photographing the most poignant portraits. One tip I can give would be to aim the camera at the rider’s eyes and wait for the facial expression to change or the eyes to make contact with the lens. Sometimes this feels like an eternity but patience is of virtue.
Having a press credentials in this situation can pay dividends. Although, you can still capture those portraits as they riders make way to their team buses, which are often parked up to a kilometer away from the finish line. However, you will need to fight your through the frenzy of media and other fans who are trying to get free water bottles.
Lenses typically used: Nikon 70-200mm, Canon 70-200mm, 500mm
When I photographed with either Nikon or Canon cameras, I have always shot in RAW. Why RAW ? RAW gives me the flexibility in terms of uncompressed data which helps me to make further adjustments and is particular helpful when I want to make extremely large enlargements. Whenever I take a photograph, I try to get the exposure as close to perfect as I can in camera. Once I am back in the media center, I do not want to waste time making unnecessary exposure adjustments which consumes more time than required. Furthermore, I am not concerned about the file size of a RAW file as hard disk space is cheap.
My preferred tools for my digital darkroom are Adobe Lightroom 4 and Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2. Lightroom is my primary tool for cataloguing and processing of all my images. Additionally, it has very good features embedding additional metadata such as IPTC. My photographs are known for the black and white processing (B&W) I do and I simply use an amazing tool called Silver Efex Pro 2 which provides excellent film emulation for my digital images. With B&W processing you need to be careful on how much color is present in your photo.
From my experience, if an image is too colorful, i.e. contains many bright colors then the impact of B&W processing is lost. On the other hand if the original image is flat in terms of color i.e. if you took a photo on a mountain pass on a very cloudy day as if there is going to be a thunderstorm and you are shooting on a high ISO ( greater than 1200) than the B&W processing is going to be very dramatic. Here is a good b&w processing tutorial using photoshop I have used in the past. I also process my photos according to the standards of the magazines my work is sent out to.
I have wondered into the world of photography unguided but it’s something that has given me so much exhilaration and has allowed me to venture into parts of the world I would not have had the opportunity to experience. One of the biggest challenges is to be constantly inspired to create great art and my main source of inspiration is Flickr. Additionally, having switched to the iPhone, Instagram has become my daily dosage of creative inspiration. Albeit its simplicity, the aforementioned duo will definitely get your creative juices flowing. If you have any questions then feel free to drop in the comments below and I will endeavor to do my best in answering them.