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We take great pride in the fact we’re able to work with many of the best cycling photographers in the world and one of those talents is my good friend Kristof Ramon. Many of you will be familiar with Kristof’s work at CyclingTips, his unique style making his photography easily distinguishable.
The photographers on the WorldTour scene are the silent workhorses of the cycling world. They remain largely anonymous while buzzing around on motorbikes or hiding in the bushes by the roadside to capture the beauty of cycling’s arena. It’s a thankless job that requires a unique set of talents that are only achievable through years spent on the road.
These photographers need to know how to read the race and predict the lines riders will take. They need to know who the key riders are and their relationships with others in the sport. They need to navigate countless roads and, somehow, manage to be at all the right places at all the right times while negotiating a race convoy of dozens of vehicles. They need to do this all and then take amazing photos.
I travelled with Kristof to La Flèche Wallonne in Belgium to document his day as a professional photographer so I could bring back some insight and to let you know what makes one of the best cycling photographers in the world tick.
La Flèche Wallonne was a good opportunity because it was the first race Kristof ever took a camera to, back in 2003, and because it’s one of the few races of the year where Kristof prefers to stay roadside instead of shooting from a moto, which made it possible for me to follow.
The day’s start
We arrived to the start area to pick up our accreditation about 90 minutes before the race start. There’s not much sense coming earlier because the team buses don’t arrive until about an hour before the official start time, which is usually around 11:30am.
Most race starts are similar and walking around the team bus area is part of the routine. The big-name riders will usually come out of their bus as late as possible to sign-on so there’s not much sense waiting around just for them.
It’s obvious Kristof knows a good portion of the riders and team staff, judging by the quick greetings and waves around the start area. I don’t think anyone will dispute the fact that Kristof is a warm and personable man and this, combined with his profound respect for the riders and the sport, is a big part of what enables him to do the outstanding job he does.
“It’s actually a bit of a problem [knowing many of the riders quite personally],” he laughs, as Simon Clarke rides by and gives Kristof a big wave as he’s taking a photo. “They all come by waving at me, but that’s not really the way I want to portray them in my photos. Even during the race they sometimes wave at me!”
Searching for light
The first thing that I notice when watching Kristof in action is that he’s always on the look-out for light.
“I look for slivers of sunlight peeking through the buildings. It makes for nice pictures of the riders as they pass through it,” Kristof says. “Everyone says ‘don’t take photos into the sun’, but I love doing it. It creates these spectacular contours around the edges of the subject and gives a beautiful look.”
Kristof is acutely aware of where the sun is at all times; standing at a precise angle, ready to shoot comes second nature to him. It’s one of the many simple but effective things that sets his style apart.
Kristof initially caught people’s attention as a result of his off-camera strobe techniques. Nowadays he prefers not to use a flash and is one of the few cycling photographers you’ll see who goes without.
“I prefer more of a natural look. I don’t like the way a flash looks in photos, even if it’s just for fill,” Kristof said. “I try to work with the natural light that’s around me, and if that means harsh shadows or over-exposed photos, I try to work with those elements as features.”
Another thing you’ll notice about Kristof’s photos is his use of natural lines in the surrounding environment. A slight adjustment of your position is sometimes all it takes to make a photo go from good to great.
“It’s basic composition really. I don’t even think about it. All it takes is a step to the left or right and you’ll find a wall, a railing, or whatever, which will lead your eye to the subject.”
It’s not surprising that these basics come naturally to Kristof; the first part of his career was as a director for television documentaries.
Knowing the riders’ routines and predicting their movements is another key part of Kristof’s keen sense of awareness, which creates opportunities and so-called “luck”.
“You see that scrum of photographers over there standing around that rider? Let’s stand way back here in the open with lots of room. We know the rider needs to come past here at some point, so why go over there with everyone else? Let’s stay here and when he comes past we’ll get a nice clean shot of him.”
“My favourite place to shoot is right at the startline. It’s the final moment of calm for the riders and you’ll often get them relaxing and in a state of mind that you won’t find anywhere else.
“Sometimes you’ll see two riders of the same nationality on different teams having a chat in their native language – it might be the first time they’ve seen each other in months. Or you might see a big-name rider having a chat with with a neo-pro. It’s a dynamic that you don’t see anywhere else at the race.”
Of course this is easier said than done. It takes years of knowing who the riders are, their backgrounds, and so on. This is one of the subtle but significant things that sets Kristof apart. He knows and understands the dynamic of the scene better than many.
If you’re wondering what settings Kristof uses on his camera, here’s a couple of his techniques:
“I usually shoot on aperture priority and quite often shoot wide open.” I know from experience and looking at thousands of Kristof’s photos that this isn’t always the case, but it highlights the fact that there’s no shame in using your camera’s auto-functions.
But using a 50mm at f1.4 lens with such a shallow depth-of-field is difficult to focus on the subject when at the startline and the riders are almost always moving. Kristof’s tip?
“You always need to have your settings ready to take the shot. You can’t fumble around after you see the photo you want. One trick I learned late in the game is to have your focus settings so that the shutter button only activates the shutter, the focus is set to ‘continuous’, and use the back button focus. This way I’m ready to focus on any situation, whether it’s something still or something moving towards me.”
We make our way to the Mur de Huy, the most significant and decisive part of the race where the riders make their way around three times, and the women’s race comes around twice. It’s a different way of photographing the race for Kristof, as opposed to being on the motorbike, but if there’s one thing to notice about Kristof it’s that he prefers to keep everything in his life as simple as possible. Shooting the race this way provides him ample opportunity.
Rather than looking for places on the climb where decisive moments “might” be, Kristof prefers to look for places that are more photogenic and provides multiple opportunities to get different perspectives from the same position.
“You need to look for multiple ways to shoot from the same location to get the most out of being there. The riders only come around three times, so you need to make it count.”
“If you want to get close-up photos of a rider, it’s often best to position yourself on the inside of the corner. That’s where they’ll always take their line. But if you want an overall shot, often the outside corner is the place to be.”
“I’ll try to scope out my spot different from the other photographers, but I wont stand there for an hour holding it. I’ll find it and then go to it only a few minutes before I need to be there. That way no other photographers won’t say, ‘wait a minute, what’s he doing…maybe I should go there too’.”
After the podium presentations most photographers head straight to the press room (at Fleche Wallonne the tennis centre was converted into the press centre at the finish line (most press rooms are some kind of community hall or sporting center). Kristof, however, rarely sets foot there.
“I never go to the press center. I always go straight home, kiss my kids to bed, then get to work again. It can take me six or eight hours to finish off my work. Selecting and post-processing the photos is the quick and easy part. It’s the tagging and key-wording that takes hours to complete.”
Before the day is complete we have one more special stop to make. Kristof had been nominated for the Nikon Press Photo Awards (NPPA) and we head to Brussels to attend the ceremony. Kristof humbly has no idea what this evening entails, but brought a clean shirt just in case he takes the honour.
After countless speeches from heads of industry and diplomats in a mix of Flemish, French and English which lost me completely, Kristof’s nomination is announced in the sports category. In fact, two of his photos are nominated in the final three.
With so many terrific cycling photos submitted into the NPPA’s, it’s obvious how popular the sport is in Belgium and how highly it’s regarded.
Unsurprisingly Kristof’s name was called and his photo won the 2014 NPPA Sporting Award which capped off a terrific day in his eighth year as a professional cycling photographer. It can be a cutthroat industry, but Kristof has no interest in playing that game.
“I won’t get a shot at any price. Some photographers will see a crash and start shooting right close in. The first thing that enters my mind is that I want to see if the rider is okay. Especially if I know him, it makes me sick. But if the rider already has help, I know my job is to document what’s happening, but I still prefer to do it from afar, or maybe just reference the crash in some way, such as photographing the riders legs on the ground or some part of the aftermath.”
The more time I spend with Kristof the more I realise that he’s not the accomplished photographer he is today because of technical skills or privileged access. It’s his affable personality, ability to connect with people, and his utmost respect for the athletes and the sport. Not just anyone gets rider reactions like these:
It’s another overnight success story which was years in the making. Kristof is often asked by photographers just starting out what advice he has and it’s always the same: “You have to practise! Take lots of photos, experiment, and get experience. It’s the only way.”
Also read: Kristof Ramon: The story behind the photo