Shooting Nationals 1: Through my lens

Sunday, December 06, 2015

This post explores my life leading up to, during and after a major bike racing event - with an in-depth look at what I think about and do to cover an event. But let me start with a little insight into my perspective on Photography, and working as a Photographer.

Photography can be simple – a combination of time and light, captured with a camera, with a bunch of options in how you create an image. It's not just about what you're capturing, its how you capture it – but that is the easy part. We all have a style that draws us to shoot - reflected vaguely in shot settings, but notably: one that emerges from a blurry transition from getting nice shots by letting the camera take the wheel in AUTO modes, to full manual control with intent and decision making in Manual (at its simplest form). From here we might add additional light modifiers or light sources, and always add some finishing touches in post-production. This is the very, very basics of what goes into creating one [digital] image. Each step has 1000 branches to climb in describing how each decision is made to achieve the right effect - that may or may not be a hyperbole.

Lens, exposure settings, body movement and composition are just a few planets that must align to create this image.
Working as a Photographer; however, is not an simple gig. This is where business becomes involved - which means money is involved. This means pressure. It means commitment and dedication, and most of all, that what's going on is work. I loved the days of cruising around the course at whatever pace I liked, wasting time on the same shot that works so nicely and really just getting better at taking bike photos - these were the less serious times, that were crucial in stepping up my skills to make a job of what's happening around us at an MTB event. The job for me at Mt Taylor involved delivering several images during the day (edited) followed by more at the close of day, and more that evening – all whilst capturing the event that unfolds - dictated by the schedule and executive decisions by myself, and my boss for the weekend (Media Co-ordinator for MTBA).
Most moments will happen just once – the key to working as a Photographer is anticipation
As I was also working for at this event, I would write an article per day after returning to my accomodation and editing the photos I wanted to include (20+ required). My job as the Photojournalist, here, is to compile an awesome photo-story from today's shots - one that will consume a reader and inspire people to enjoy the event from afar - while feeding their love of bikes and action. Without giving away too much of my weekend early, I'll get into the Through My Lens aspect of this piece.

In the week leading up to the event

Clean all my gear - clean gear is easy to use and won't let me down out on the trail.
Charge all batteries - the last thing I want when I get out on the track and find a sweet shot is to know my flash is flat. Charge everything, and double-triple-check.
Clear cards - pics will get lost if I don't move old shoots off my card. I can't afford to run out of room when the racing is on.
Check the Weather - do I need wet gear? do I need warm or cool clothes?
Pack bags - clothes, snacks, chargers, computer, hard drives, hats, sunscreen, mozzie spray, bathroom stuff. Everything I'll need to be prepared to do my job right.

Scouting & Liason

Friday is a little bit less crazy, usually allowing me to arrive during the day when people are doing some light practice and getting to know the course. Shooting isn't as important today while everyone is taking their time to warm up, but I will do at least one track walk of the downhill, taking photos of the course and where I might want to shoot over the weekend.

Same with the XC; normally I'd have a bike for scouting but not this weekend. Things were moving slow at Mt Taylor on Friday after a shuttle issue, so I didn't miss out on too much action whilst out on the XCO course - one I found little inspiration in at first. Preparation is key here, as finding some solid shots I'll definitely be able to use will save me a lot of stress and pressure later on.

I still shot some images that would appear in the DH practice article today, and a lot of editorial/advertising content for the organisers, sponsors and my own library. An early night tonight, after reviewing the days pics and editing some to be used later on. More editing now means the workload will be lighter later.

An example of a reference pic - I don't bother editing these as it's more of a guide than a product.
Making my way down the DH trail with Brett, the man behind fektor clothing, and one heck of a lensman. Hour gaps between riders made this more of a scout mission than a practice session.
Practice days are the time for non-personal editorial practice. 

Practice & Racing

With the XC kicking off at 8:30AM I would be up at 6:30, packing snacks for the day and having a morning coffee, before I head to the track at 7:30AM.
Riders warming up in the early sun.
As racing starts I'm working closely with organisers to get the first images out, and prioritise coverage for the day. I'm also structuring my day with the schedule to make sure I can get some lunch, stock up on water and take all important breaks. I spend a lot of time in my own world on race day, observing the race and the crowds to interpret the atmosphere and get ideas for my stories.

When the Elite fields are out riding it's all business. From one shot to the next, using time between riders as they spread out, and counting the laps to know how much time I have to get around. To miss a race leader, or get anything short of a great shot of them could be fatal to the job.
Sometimes it can be like shooting a wedding - but there is no point begrudging anyone (ever) for taking a photo. 
One lap in, riders are still close together. By the end of the race most shots will be solo rider images or battle shots.
Triumphs and tragedies bring the story to life. XC is all about the hurt faces, and the mental and physical power of the riders.
When races are over it's photos of the winners winding down, more pit shots and podiums. A podium shot is a great keepsake for winners and sponsors, and while many people can be less than optimistic about their value it's an integral part of the event. You've all seen one before, this article is bursting with pics as it is, so I'll omit the podium shot.
Portraiture is often part of the job, as these aren't just bikes with machines on them..!
After the XCO podiums are wrapped up its time to hit the downhill and fill out the rest of the shots for the practice article. Searching for shots and trying different lenses all around the place - today is the day to make mistakes or take average photos for the sake of working with the track. Race day we get as little as 2 chances to get the money shot of the right rider. In all the action today I'd drop the camera and break a lens whilst doing a swap - $260 in repairs and two weeks later we are back in action (what profit, you ask?). But the show must go on.

Practice & Racing

The downhill is always exciting, and I rarely find myself uninspired for a shot - though sometimes unmotivated when wishing for an Elite rider to blast through and help me make that money shot.

Out at the track by 8AM again, all the riders are getting into gear. A few editorial shots to put out for the organisers and I'm back up the hill, on a shuttle to the top getting ready for a big day of nailing shots for a photo epic story. A positive and calm perspective on it all will make for smooth sailing here - thinking too much or getting stressed at the instant results won't help. A sort of cool seriousness is the way I find comfort in my ability to do the job.
More storytelling moments that bring that warm, fuzzy feeling to the event.
After shooting the trail 3 days in a row, I know where I am easily and about how long it'll take me to get to the next feature. On a pedally trail like this one there is a lot of transit to be made with not much action in between - meaning I barely take any photos of the flat areas, and it's a waste if a rider comes by that I know would have laid down something good on an interesting section. Throughout practice and seeding this is how I shoot. With a few shots I haven't taken yet, still in the bank for racing.

During racing I'm focusing on clean, usable shots and not getting caught up in the same angle. Once I have a decent shot from one spot it's onto the next. The next shot might just be on the other side of the track, or at the next feature - I can't really explain how this works! I just see the track and perceive the shot, then move to where I can take it!

As the only shooter for my story I'll need to be at the bottom of the race for the finish - this means missing some action of the top riders but if all's well I'll have already got them in the bag. The 'story' moments such as these below are what might make or break my coverage.

After podiums and the conclusion of the event I need to send out shots to organisers, and dig into my report. But first let's get nearby to a shower and comfy bed. 3 hours driving takes me to Bombala, inside the NSW border and a good leg of the way home. Arriving and settling in for 9pm, I boot up and begin processing shots. At 1am I'll have submitted a bunch more shots to the organisers, and made a lot of progress into the PB report.

Image Editing & Output

After the last 5 hours driving home, it's time to unpack, unwind and finish off editing all the photos. I can copy editing across similar images, which speeds up the process. However, every photo always gets individual attention before they go online - from tagging, to tonal range and sharpening, to most importantly: crop. Not always necessary, but always important is cropping to correct composition.

At a race I will process the 'keep' shots that I take regardless of the rider, and make them available to buy online. Selling to the riders has never been a profitable venture in my experience, and while I still offer my shots to everyone for sale after the event, it's mainly just a better option than hiding them away in my archives.

As the editing comes to an end, all the images are tagged with race plates and in some cases teams. This makes things alot easier when I get emails saying 'any chance you got a photo of rider #555?'. Most image requests will come in and be filled by me today, and we are on the downward slope for this event's work to come to an end.

Output, output, output.
Over the next couple of weeks I'll find uses for the images, such as articles like this, or for submissions to magazines. It's too easy to just shut the computer up, put the folder away and move on with my life, and the value in these shots is too great to just ignore. In busier times things move quickly, but it's always important to keep lookout for images that can go in my portfolio to help win future work.

Thanks for reading about my weekend at Mt Taylor for Nationals Round 1 - it was a blast, and it's all on again in Canberra next weekend for Rd 2. Say hi if you see me there, and please leave a comment if you have any questions, so I may answer them in the next post!

In the meantime, find me on Instagram & Facebook.

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So, what do you think?