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19 March 2015 2 comments

Riding through the lens

Correspondence Friends Bicycles Art & Design Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling
By Jack Thurston
Riding through the lens
“Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze.”
So wrote the great Alfred Stieglitz, one of the pioneers of photography, back in 1893. He was wrong of course. Both these novel technologies of the late nineteenth century are still very much with us. And more than that, they seem to go hand in hand. Throughout that decade cyclists were earlier adopters of Kodak’s new ‘hand camera’. Kodak boss George Eastman himself rode a bike to work and made long sight-seeing cycle tours of Europe. He knew that the last thing cyclists wanted to carry was a hefty tripod and a saddle bag full of heavy glass plates. His company sponsored round-the-world cyclists Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben, who sent back more than 1,200 circular images on 3.5-inch nitrate negatives, a selection of which are currently on display at an exhibition in the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles. [caption id="attachment_14287" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Photographs by Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben"][/caption] Today, every cycle tourist is a photographer, whether their bar bag is bulging with a hefty DSLR and all its lenses, they’re toting a compact point-and-shoot or just a camera-phone. Technology has changed beyond recognition but the basic challenge of taking memorable pictures is the same as it ever was. Not being a photographer I faced a daunting challenge when I picked up a camera to take the pictures for Lost Lanes, my book of bike rides around London and the South East. Early on in the project I convinced an award-winning photographer friend Nick Cobbing to join me on a two day ride up to Norfolk. He was to be part riding companion, part model and part photography tutor. Nick made his name documenting political protest in the 1990s and went on to become a photographer with Greenpeace, accompanying activists as they abseiled into power station cooling towers and hanging out of helicopters to shoot the disappearing ice sheets of the Arctic circle. He told me always to be on the lookout out for new, unexpected viewpoints and to get close in to the action. He said to try shooting into the sun, as you never quite know what'll happen. At one point on our ride, we passed roadside verge brimming with wildflowers. I shot a sequence of decidedly dull images before Nick suggested I clamber up into the verge and actually bury my lens in the blooms. [caption id="attachment_14282" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Roadside verge, Essex (C) Jack Thurston"][/caption] OK, so it wasn't going to win any awards but I felt I was beginning to understand what made an interesting image that conveyed the pleasure of a bike ride. In the end what saved me was a numbers game. Spending many months of long, long days in the saddle riding thousands of miles of country lanes, I took enough pictures that I was bound to get some keepers. Along the way I learned what was working for me in terms of light, composition and camera settings and eventually I was able to snap more selectively. Trial and error is all very well but a few pointers can save a lot of time and so I've asked a handful of top photographers who also ride bikes to give some tips of their own. If you’ve looked at a British bike magazine in the past three decades, chance are you’ve already seen the work of Geoff Waugh, a multi-award winning sports and adventure photographer who’s covered cycling in all its forms, from city streets to the velodrome, mountain-biking to elite road racing. Here are Geoff's tips: "Always set the scene with a nice wide angle shot first and then come in to shoot the incidentals that tell the story. I always want to see winding roads, great landscapes and so on - that’s the reason for cycle touring, no? But also the faces of locals, local manufacturing, food and drink. They are the pieces of the jigsaw. If you have a wide aperture lens then isolate interesting subjects by putting the background out of focus or just focusing one one bend on a long stretch of road. What I wouldn’t do is take the fully loaded bike against the signpost picture. It’s old and cliched! And don’t place the horizon in the middle of the frame. Modern autofocus cameras might focus best with the subject in the centre of the frame but that doesn’t make for good pictures. Instead, use focus lock to put the land in the bottom of the frame if there is a big sky, place subject figures off centre, to the right or the left of frame. In other words, learn and use the rule of thirds. Always carry a chamois leather to wipe the lens if the weather turns wet. And remember bad weather often makes the very best pictures." [caption id="attachment_14284" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Descending to Boulder (C) Geoff Waugh"][/caption] Before turning to cycling Wig Worland was one of the world’s most sought-after skateboarding photographers. He’s now a principal photographer at Rapha, the London-based luxury cycle clothing brand. Wig's editorial work has graced the pages of British national newspapers as well as Cyclist and Rouleur. Wig says: "When photographing something that usually moves, like cycling, remember to make it look like it’s actually moving if at all possible. This means experimenting a little but digital photography is ideal for that as the feedback loop is very quick, instant in fact. Shoot as slow a shutter speed as you dare to show movement. This advice goes against most everything you learn at photography class as usually the advice is to try to stop the motion dead. But that give lifeless results. I’ve shot some of my best images of cycling at 1/25th of a second. Seriously, see how low you can go without the dreaded camera shake. Do that and white lines disappear. Roads become silky smooth and everything becomes a little dream-like. That’s is what photography is best at doing: augmenting reality." [caption id="attachment_14288" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Bryan Chapman Memorial Audax (C) Wig Worland"][/caption] Working in both sport and travel for leading newspaper and magazines and top brands Pete Goding has photographed the biggest races in cycling and his breathtaking images of Europe’s finest road climbs appear in the bestselling coffee-table book Mountain High and it’s sequel Mountain Higher. Here are Pete's tips: "I try to be prepared for the unexpected. A unique photo on the road is something that cannot necessarily be pre-constructed or planned. I find the best photos are ones that have elements that can’t be replicated easily, with multiple points of interest woven into the fabric of the scene. Capturing freak rain clouds and storms are one example, as are photographing wild animals and birds as part of a bigger picture. You may have found that killer landscape shot with the sun fading into the distance, but being able to catch that sunset as a bird flies by or a deer wanders by is something which takes lightening reactions. Download memory cards, recharge batteries, backup photos, format regularly, clean sensors and lenses before you go out and always have your camera nearby, ready for action." [caption id="attachment_14289" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Monte Grappa (C) Pete Goding"][/caption] As Pete says, having the camera close at hand is essential. You’ll take more and better photographs if your camera is in a bar bag than stuffed inside a pannier. If you’re prepared to take the risk, a camera slung over the shoulder is even easier to reach for. John Watson is a prime mover a new wave of American adventure cyclists whose often outlandish exploits are captured in the sublime spreads of Bunyan Velo, the brilliantly gonzo Yonder Journal and on Watson’s own Radavist website, which intersperses mouth-watering bike shoots with evocative, on-the-road photography that just makes you want to ride. John says: "As cyclists, we are able to experience landscapes at a different speed and scale. Everything in the environment effects us, from the weather, to smells and sights. Try to make your images capture what you feel the overwhelming sensation you're experiencing is. Be unique. Try new things. Experiment. Not every photo will be a keeper. Learning to edit your photos down to a selection, rather than a massive feed, will help you learn which photo is good and why. BE SAFE. Don't be that cyclist that is in the wrong lane of traffic on a windy rode, or the person hanging off their handlebars in the middle of a tight group. I've seen so many idiots wreck trying to "gram". And remember, the best camera is the one you have on you at the time. An iPhone can make a beautiful image, if you're willing to give it a little effort." [caption id="attachment_14333" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Escaping Black Friday with Bicycle Camping, Bourbon and Coffee (C) John Watson"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_14320" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Escaping Black Friday with Bicycle Camping, Bourbon and Coffee (C) John Watson"][/caption] Plenty of tips from some of the best bike photographers in the world. But what have they missed? How have you got better coming home from a bike adventure with some truly memorable images? ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- #EnjoyEveryMile - Find Brooks England on Instagram
We have published a free 52 page eBook titled “Bicycle Touring Photography a quick guide to taking better pictures” and can be downloaded here:

Grace Johnson 23 May 2016 at 18:09
Appreciate the great tips, thank you! Like the comment, best camera is the one you have with you. Looking forward to my next ride here in Northern California.
David Reynolds 23 May 2016 at 18:09