Cool Job: Cycling Photographer
So you wanna be a cycling photographer? Sure, it looks like a cool job (it is!), but if you think the magazine editors will line up to buy your poorly cropped, badly lit, blurry shots of the back end of the pack… think again. There’s a reason these guys are called “professional” – we spend the day with 2 pro “shooters” at the CapTech Classic.
Best seat in the house. Mike Zinski hangs on while the moto-driver angles for the next position. Many photographers bring their own moto and driver to the big races.
Bob Badalucco is an action sports photographer based in Orlando, FL. Bob became a photographer after his years as a cyclist/mountain biker/triathlete were curtailed for health reasons, so grabbing a camera and covering the action was a natural progression for him.
Bob stakes out the ground’s eye-view at the finish line.
Mike Zinski, cut his teeth in the business shooting sports in college, and he got the itch for cycling photography shooting the Tour Dupont in 1991. During that summer he cycled across country with a team of 25 and it just kept going from there. “I found I was able to take the knowledge I gained as a cyclist/triathlete for so many years and capture a perspective that most photographers are unfamiliar with.”
Just as cyclist have particular bikes for particular days we have to have the right equipment to get the job done. Nowadays that includes the digital camera, various lenses, memory cards, PCs, etc, This gear ain’t cheap, so make sure you have a good nest egg or at least a high credit card limit – most pros own at least 5 figures worth of gear. And that’s just the start.
Panning with your subject is no easy-peasy, especially when they’re doing 65kph.
Keep in mind there is more that makes a good shot than just a lot of expensive equipment. A thorough understanding of photography is essential – and that usually comes from experience gained over several years of practising the craft. Innate knowledge of shutter speed, aperture, ISO settings, white balance, depth of field, and lighting are all essential. But there is more.
The Game Plan
Every event presents a new challenge. You gotta know the course well in advance to formulate your game plan, but also be able to think on your feet when conditions change, or a chance for that once in a lifetime shot arises. We always consider where will the sun be shining at a particular time of day on the course? Will the riders be front lit? What happens when the weather changes? Be prepared for rain even on a sunny day when weather.com says it will be perfect out.
Using local features like buildings can enhance the shot by providing a cool background.
Recently we covered the 2004 Cap Tech Classic in Richmond, VA . We were there not only to get the shot that makes the story but also to photograph every last rider. The actual race was May 8th, 2004, but our work started months earlier, as we collected route information, lists of racers, sponsor information, climb info, you name it. Before we even scouted the course we had a good idea of where we wanted to be and shots we wanted – the corners and backgrounds that would make for good shots as well of time of day for the lighting.
On race morning we’re up at 6:30am. We packed all our gear and went through the lists over and over again. Juiced up on the “Jo” but not too much water, our day would last about 16 hours with not a lot of time for pit stops. We showed up at the race site with two vehicles loaded with gear, and set up our tent (along with sample prints) to serve as an onsite promotions office, and refuge between races.
Bright sunshine focuses attention on the leaders, contrasting them against the dark, shadowy background.
We to try to stay coordinated with Motorola radios with earpieces, but our game plan can change in an instant, due to weather, race developments, or other unforeseen events. It’s essential we stay in communication with each other the entire race. We picked up our “Media Badges” and it was time to get to work.
Our course was a 1.3 mile loop. The criterium style of racing offers the photographer many chances, angles, and backgrounds to shoot the riders. Outdoor light is ever changing and very unforgiving, and impacts each shot along with location on the course, time of day, a rider’s position in the pack, etc., so re checking camera settings is constant and ongoing.
The plan was to split up and cover the race individually, so we split the course into 2 sections that we’d each be responsible for. We both shot the start and regrouped at the finish line on lap 40.
A wide shot can leave you with more options to crop later, and find a shot you didn’t expect. (See the next 2 pics…)
Cropping close on the lead rider and using the shadows at bottom create a little drama. Or…
Focusing on the bunch gives a sense of the chase.
Viewing the race through the lens of a camera is quite a different experience than a typical spectator. Our view of the world is only a small fragment of the race itself. We see tiny little racers through a viewfinder that are being tracked by a bull’s-eye style focus point. Our goal is to keep that focus point sharp until the moment of truth when we pull the trigger and an image is produced.
Being downtown this course offered a lot of challenges as the day wore on. As the sun moved across the sky the corners that offered decent lighting early on had become darkened shadows. We were moving around a lot to get our shots now. The rule of thumb that we live by is to get our safety shots done first and then go for more creative style shots. So later on in the race we were trying different things to see what would work.
Different vantage points can produce some unexpected images.
Nearing the end of each race we journeyed from our spots on the course and get set for the finish shot. This is of course the most important shot of the race in terms of photojournalism – it’s the shot every newspaper agency wants – and you only get one chance to capture it.
We got to the finish of the pro race with 5 laps to go. This meant we had time to practice our finish shot. The shadows were playing havoc with lighting. As the laps wore down we settled into our final positions with the rest of the photogs, and all lenses were focused on the finishing sprint. We all want the rider crossing the finish line in first place. No matter how good the camera and equipment, capturing a sprinter winning a stage at 60 mph is no easy task. The tension builds at the finish line. As the crowd intensifies, you realize how important the shot is. You only get one chance. Not too early, not too late.
Through the lens all we see is a road full of tiny riders racing towards us at 60khp – the whole thing will be over in a few seconds. We scan the pack to find the leader and put the bull’s-eye focus point on him to track him into the finish. Timing here is key.
Gord McCauley wins the day, but Mike would have preferred more light on the subject.
Gordon McCauley was in our sights and we tracked him all the way in. His teammate just behind him began to celebrate by raising his arms in victory and some of the photographers keyed on him instead thinking he was in front. Bob got the shot of Gordon about 2 meters ahead of the line but clearly the victor. Mike Z was in position for a head on shot and caught Gordon just as he crossed the line showing the trailing field behind. At the moment just after the finish, almost every photographer is looking down “chimping” in the lcd view finder to of their digital camera to see the shot they got. Some of the local press are not happy, they locked on the celebrating teammate thus missing the true winner. It’s a good day for us, we got the best of both worlds the nice tight individual finisher and the wide angle showing the fans, racers and winner.
And with the end of the race, ends another great day…Not yet. After the post race candids, the podium shots and packing up, it’s off to compile the data, download it and ship it off the cycling publications. But we’ll save those details for another day. Now that we have another epic race in the books its time to see about getting paid, so we, like most photographers love to do, can buy that next ultra fast $4,500 camera…or maybe just pay off that credit card bill.
Is It Worth It?
Finally – I asked what they liked best and least about the job – here’s what Mike says:
“For me, the least rewarding thing are the long hours. The day of the race you start hours before race begins and typically I work straight (given the race) through to the next day, proofing, sorting, etc. There is very little sleep for about 2-3 day after the race.
The most rewarding is two fold. First, the relationships we build with the race, community, teams, etc. It’s awesome. Second, is seeing others expressions, or overhearing people when they see your work. How many times have I heard “amazing”. The best is when they have no idea I took the shot and you hear someone rave about the detail in the muscles, or sweat beading up, looks in the racers eyes, etc. I typically give a little grin to myself and a little psychological “pat on the back”
It’s a lot of work, a little pay but worth every minute. James Brown calls himself the hardest working man in show biz. I like to think of us as the hardest working photographers in cycling photography… we really try to cover ever inch and every detail.”
Shots from the Cap Tech Classic can be seen at Mike Zinski’s www.VASPhoto.com.
And check out Bob Badalucco at www.BBActionPhoto.com.