Mark Gunter – An inside view of photography at the Tour de France
In this post, Stefano Ferro, one of our “Ultimate Job” competition winners, catches up Australian professional photographer Mark Gunter to find out more about how he got into the business, what equipment he uses, and what it’s like to be working at the Tour de France.
The media around the Tour De France is just gigantic and they tell me that is getting bigger and bigger every year. I am not sure if there will be a natural limit to it. If you are following the tour in a car, be prepared to queue, a lot. There are priorities, which are highlighted in colours, accreditation for anything you can think of. It is a huge, well oiled, moving machine.
One of the most interesting jobs, and possibly one of the most tiring ones, is the photographer. You can see them early in the morning around the town where the TDF starts, they follow the ride by motorbike, back and forward, based on how the day progress. They are ready at the finish line and they move quickly to the pro-rider area, where the team caravans are. They quickly check-in to the hotel and work on the photos and they share them the with magazines, newspapers and websites. Everything as quickly as possible, otherwise, in the internet era, the photos become too old to be interesting to the wider audience. And they do this for the three weeks of the TDF, moving accommodation every day…..before flying to the next race, again and again.
I am not sure when they actually find time to eat and sleep. I consider myself very lucky that I was able to organise this interview with Mark Gunter, one of the best Australian sport and cycling photographers, emerging to an international role. It is no surprise that he has won already four times the Cycling Australia Photographer Prize.
Good day Mark and thanks for your time. In every career the start is the hardest part. In photography is a combination of skills, marketing and networking. How was your beginning?
How did I start taking photos? To be honest I’m not really sure… I don’t remember there being any defining moment. When I was a teenager my mates all skateboarded and I was never really that talented in the half pipe so I ended up taking photos of them skating instead. From there it went to snow skiing as I worked in a ski shop for 9-10 years. I didn’t ride a bike at first but other guys in the shop did and after 3 years they finally talked me into getting a bike. The natural progression from that was to start taking photos of the local bike club (Cooma CC). In those days the Tour de Snowy was still held and I managed to hitch a ride on the race, I even got some images published.
The rest is history really. I have a large bag at home full of accreditations I’ve collected over the years. If I even get a free minute I will count them up just to see how many events I’ve been to.
How did it go your first time at the TDF and what suggestions can you give me?
My first time was great (at the Tour that is!). I had spoken to plenty of people before hand who had been to plenty of Tours before, so I had a rough idea what it would be like. It lived up to all expectations with a few surprises to boot…
I will never forget that feeling I had when I walked out onto the Champs-Élysées for the final stage. It was that feeling that what I had just witnessed was one of the great events in the World. It was real feeling of ‘Wow, I’ve just finished covering the Tour de France…..’
It’s pretty tiring being on the road for 3 weeks on the Tour, so make sure you eat well (with a glass of local wine of course), Sleep well and make the most of every day. Who knows when you will get this opportunity again.
Last year I missed 4 stages in the middle of the Tour to check out the Pyrenees. That was a great way to see France away from the Tour and to recharge my batteries in readiness for the Alps.
You made some incredible photos at the Tour Down Under and amazing ones at the TDF. What is the difference between the Down Under and the TDF, from a photography prospective?
As far as organisation goes, the Tour Down Under is up there with the best and with the accommodation being the same location every night just adds to the ease of covering the event. Tour Down Under has a good system going. Even the European photographers that come over for it say that is the best-organized event of the year.
Everyone involved in the TDU is happy to be there (including most riders), so it all adds up to an enjoyable week.
It’s a popular race with media outlets as well…. First main race of the year, and new kit and teams etc… As long as some decent riders keep turning up media outlets will always need images and stories for their news feed, plus the uniqueness of Australia compared to Europe in winter makes for some nice images.
When in 2011 Armstrong turned up it really raised the profile of the race. There were some pretty crazy moments in the media crush when he was around. The race has been a ‘bigger’ event since the first year Lance raced. But they continue to get some big riders in every year and I’m sure the race will only continue to grow in the years to come.
Where do you spend the most of your time during the TDF stage?
When I’m on a motorbike I get a few more opportunities. I pretty much try to get a bit of everything. Start, finish, landscapes, action. Some clients are just after the one or two main images (i.e. finish line and podium) but others want the ‘story’ of the race. I have to read the race a little, because I don’t want to be up ahead of the race waiting at a nice scenic spot for the peloton when the days winning break is forming back down the road. Some times I get lucky, and other times I get unlucky…. The race goes on.
The weather at the TDF this year is pretty shocking considering we are in July; rain and cold almost every single day. How hard is to make photos in this tough weather condition?
I always get a bit excited if I know the weather will be bad, as you can get some pretty dramatic images from these times. But shooting in heavy rain and snow can become tough going. Lenses fog up, fingers get cold and remembering those 40c days at Tour Down Under where I complained of the heat don’t seem so bad after all. At a race in China a few years back (Tour of Qinghai Lake) it was pouring rain and my moto pilot wasn’t so experienced and we ended up crashing into the back of a team car. I ended up going through the back window watching my pilot roll down the road.
Thankfully neither of us were too hurt. I did have the next day off though as my shoulders and back were a bit stiff. The weather is just another element to deal with in a race and it can make life interesting at times. Safety is always the number one priority though.
I can see photographers clicking almost every second minute, if not more. How many photos do you make during a stage?
It all depends on what the day is like. If it’s an exciting stage with plenty happening I will take more, but I try to not rattle off to many images as it just uses up memory and extra time sorting and editing later that day. In my mind I try and pretend I’m shooting film (Which helps me concentrate on taking quality over quantity), although when there is action going on its easy to go through a heap of frames. As far as how many images I sell compared to how many I take. That varies as well. But as a very basic rule, I might send in-between 15-20 images to a web site. Enough to tell the story of the race. But this all depends on what the client wants… so , it varies.
In cycling pretty much every angle has been photographed before, so it’s good to see when a photographer comes along with something unique. The trick then, is to make some money out of that image. A lot of photographers out there can’t afford to get too creative with their images as their clients need, or want, that ‘standard straight on finish line photo’ or that ‘sweeping landscape’ that can be used as a banner image, So depending on who I’m working for on that event I go into it with a different mind set of what style of images I want to get.
Can you describe your typical day at the Tour?
Firstly, it is a fantastic job. It has its ups and downs, but most days I’m pretty happy with how the day went.
It can be a long day though, and will regularly be on the go for 12+ hours.
Often there is a transfer to the start town, and you have to be there at least an hour before the start, then 3-4 hours on the road shooting the actual race, then often there is drive to the accommodation. I generally work in the car as well sending out the day’s first images. The editing and captioning can take a couple of hours and then I upload most images to my website. And being at the Tour de France you can add a couple of hours stuck in traffic on top of that as well.
I’m not one to complain though.
Cycling is a great sport to photograph. So many different variants can happen in a day. Shooting a tour can also take you to some amazing places, not just in Europe but covering the NRS I have seen some amazing and interesting places in Australia I never knew existed.
I hope the interest in cycling in Australia continues to grow. The more people involved in all aspects of the sport will mean everyone involved in the sport will be better off.
When Cadel won the Tour in 2011 I noticed a difference straight away after. There was an immediate rise in the interest in the sport. The future is looking bright….
Which cycling photographers do you take inspiration from?
The first cycling photographer name that I knew was Graham Watson. I used to get Cycle Sport magazine (back then it was up to 3 months behind the issue date in Australia) and just loved those double page spreads at the beginning of each issue. It was different back in the day without many websites, but even today I look forward to grabbing the last issue of a magazine and quickly flicking to those first few picture pages. Anyway Graham Watson’s name was generally on those pictures, so it was him that was an early inspiration. Now I even do the odd bit of work for him for some events that he isn’t covering but needs images from.
There are plenty of other good photographers out there as well these days. Doing their thing on a daily basis. You just have to look at the photographers who supply to Cycling Tips to see a few of them.
Sitting at this years Tour de France pre race photographers meeting I could look around and name at least 10 amazing photographers. All with their own distinct style, all there to get some amazing images.
What photography gear do you use at the TDF?
I have a pretty basic kit. 2 bodies, Wide angle 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and I have a 400mm that I bring out for special occasions. The 400mm is pretty big and heavy and can be a hassle when travelling so I only bring it out when I know I will be at a stationary position for the most and I don’t have too many other bags to cart around.
I am trying to make a living of photography. How hard is in the sport photography environment?
Not easy. Apart from digital camera’s getting better and cheaper and with there being plenty of fans now at races getting some pretty good shots. It can make it tougher.
Getting good consistent images is only half the job. As important (if not more) would be the running of a business. I’m still learning all the time, but it’s a pretty important aspect. The costs involved in equipment and getting to races all over the country can get expensive so if you don’t charge and manage costs accordingly, it’s eventually not going to work. Just like any business I guess.
A selection of some of Mark’s images throughout the years…