Shooting the Tour de France: An amateur’s perspective

“The tour, it’s like Crack isn’t it?” laughed the pro-photographer with the South African accent, before hopping on the motorbike to follow the peloton “Every year I say it’s my last time…but I keep coming back!”
Well I’ve never actually tried Crack, but thanks to the good folk at Cycling Tips and Exodus Travel I did get to see the tour this year, and while it’s pretty unlikely I’ll be able to afford to get back there any time soon, here are some things I learnt about taking photos at ‘Le Tour’.

Travel light…but not too light

The best way to get to a lot of the climbs and good vantage points to watch the race is to ride or walk. So whatever gear you want to take, you will be lugging with you on your back. On my first two days I carried just a 50mm prime and my Canon 550D. Which was good from a weight perspective…but made shooting a lot of things difficult. First of all, the 50mm being a prime lens means you can’t get a good spot by the roadside and then zoom out to get both the riders and the beautiful Alpine background…no, you need to step back a bit. Which means you are going to either have to shoot through a crowd (less than ideal) or shoot the riders quite tight (good to have, but you don’t want all of your shots to look like that).

Sagan tightening the straps for the descent
Sagan tightening the straps for the descent

So for the remainder of the time I carried the additional weight of the 17-55mm and pretty much shot everything on that. At the end of the day, riders on a road could be anywhere, so you need to be able to get wide enough to tell the story of where they are.

Geschke on his way to a stage win at Pra Loup
Geschke on his way to a stage win at Pra Loup

I didn’t take a 55-200mm lens on this trip…not because I didn’t want to…but because I don’t have one.

Use a motorbike.

All the pros get to use a motorbike…so why shouldn’t you? Well, because you’re not accredited so you couldn’t get access to the course…plus it costs too much…and let’s not forget helmet hair. But you will find that you can use the motorbikes in the tour to your own advantage by using them to set your shutter speed. Now if I learnt one thing from my time on the tour, it’s that professional cyclists go freaking fast…so you want to make sure that you have all your settings dialled in before they arrive. But if you’re an amateur like me, then you’ll have no idea what shutter speed you should be using. So I just experimented with different speeds and shot the motorbikes as they went past (there are quite a few that come through before the leaders arrive). If the motorbike looks sharp, then you can be quietly confident that the cyclists will be sharp when you shoot them.

Providing valuable info to fans, riders...and photographers
Providing valuable info to fans, riders…and photographers

You’re a photographer or a spectator…you can’t be both

It was embarrassing the number of times I thought there was still another big group of riders to come because I hadn’t seen the yellow jersey yet…only to go through my photos and realise ‘Oh…he came past five minutes ago…here’s a photo of it!’ Or I would be chatting to the guys I was watching the tour with and they would say ‘Did you see the look on Cav’s face on that climb?…he was suffering’ and I’d think, ‘Crap! That must have been while I was taking photos of the Colombian fans!’

These guys were having a good chat the whole way up the climb
These guys were having a good chat the whole way up the climb

You can try to occasionally just leave the camera in the bag and soak up the atmosphere…but deep down you just know that as soon as you don’t have the camera ready, Sagan will go past doing a wheelie…or a Yeti will attack the grupetto as it goes past. It’s just not worth that risk!

Don’t ‘spray and pray’

Nah just kidding, if you’re a professional or a purist, you can crap on about just focussing on taking one shot and really nailing it. But for you and I, when those riders go past, you are going to keep shooting until the cache is full. There’s no shame in that. After all, you’re the poor bastard who’s going to have to go through all of them later.
And sometimes as you’re shooting madly, the guy next to you will create a perfect frame through which to view the riders as they disappear into the distance…and you’ll look like a genius.

More good luck than good planning
More good luck than good planning

Don’t shoot the same shot every time.

I spent pretty much the whole time shooting and thinking ‘Well I’m just ripping of Kristof Ramon with that one…that one’s pretending to be Veeral…and look, I think I’m both Jered and Ashley Gruber in this one!’ In short, you’re remarkably unlikely to come up with a shot that’s never been done before. But by the same token you don’t want to come back with ‘Here are photos of 50 different riders, shot from the the same angle and with the exact same execution!’ So drag the shutter a little, focus on crowd not the riders, shoot tight, shoot wide, shoot portrait. Do whatever you can to make a shot that someone who doesn’t obsess over cycling will still want to look at.

'That's close enough'
‘That’s close enough’

TdF 2015_web-29

The peloton roll out of Modane
The peloton roll out of Modane

Do the boring stuff.

Load your photos every night. Tag them with metadata. Back them up to some sort of storage so that if the worst happens, they are in two (or ideally 3) places at once. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so spend the extra half hour to make sure it’s a story you can tell that doesn’t start with ‘I took this amazing series of photos, but then…’

A quick look to see who's coming
A quick look to see who’s coming

But above all just have fun. You’ll learn a lot just by being there, and if you end up with a pile of crap photos at the end, just hide them and tell people you were too engrossed in the experience of the ‘Le Tour’ to take any photos…they’ll never know any better.



France vs Melbourne

Having returned from my recent jaunt to France, I’ve realised that there are some things that the French do very well…and some things that the French could learn from us. I’m quietly confident that they’re not listening to me, but here is my list anyway.

Things the French do better than us.


Now admittedly as you approach, drive through, or leave a town you will be met with a bewildering number of speed limit changes (they even put 30km/h signs in front of speed humps), but once you are out on the highway it’s 130km/h (or 110km/h if it’s raining). 130km/h! That really makes a difference on long journeys. Plus they don’t sit in the fast lane and hold other people up…no, they just sit in the lane that they’re comfortable with, and if they have to pass someone, they do and then move back into their lane.
Plus they pretty much all drive manual transmission, which means they actually have to pay attention when they’re driving. Chapeau France!


I had always thought of myself as relatively knowledgeable about cheese. I wasn’t scared of blue cheese, I’d cooked with Taleggio, I’d tried Rocquefort. But arriving in France made me realise just how much I didn’t know. Over here, Chevre is pretty much a one trick-pony (or goat as the case may be), but over there, there are dozens of types of Chevre. Not to mention sheep’s milk cheeses, local specialities like Neufchatel and a dazzling abundance of all of the cheeses you already knew. Best of all, everything I tried was delicious.

Cheese peddlers
Cheese peddlers

Drivers vs Cyclists

The French appear to have taken an unusual approach whereby the cyclists aren’t jerks, and the drivers aren’t arseholes…and in a complete surprise, the ‘Drivers vs cyclists’ problem is non-existent. The two groups just co-exist. All it really takes is people being willing to forego 10% of what they want in order to accommodate someone else…but unfortunately with our new found national sense of entitlement, any time we don’t get 100% of what we want is seen as a calamitous loss. So I can’t see this happening here any time soon.

Freewheeling through a town in the Alps
Freewheeling through a town in the Alps

Mountains and chateaus

One of the downsides to having a nomadic population up until about 1788, is that we didn’t have thousands of years of people constructing buildings to basically say to anyone who was looking ‘You want to know how I rich I am? I’m this rich…and I’m so French that I built this one for my mistress!’

Chateau Chenonceau

Also, as a photographer, you’re always struggling to frame a nice shot that has a good material in the foreground and background. But in France, if you’re in the Alps, then you only have to worry about getting the foreground right…as having those mountains in the background makes every shot a winner!

Just place flowers in the foreground...and voila!
Just place flowers in the foreground…and voila!

Things we do better in Melbourne


On our last day in France, as Katie and I sat drinking a cup of black, plunger coffee I said ‘You know, this really isn’t that bad’. But I now see that it was that bad…it’s just that over the course of two weeks my standards had fallen so substantially, that what previously would have been considered a ‘coffee flavoured hot beverage’ at best, was somehow being passed off as coffee.
Now I know that you seem to put 98% of your milk into cheese and butter, and so need subsist on long life milk…but come on France, even your espresso was crap! Stop using crappy little machines and get something that can actually extract a decent shot. Don’t leave the group head in the machine after you’ve made a coffee until the next customer arrives, and get the grind right so that it doesn’t just look like a cup of warm coke.
With that said La Pommetier and Le Petite Atelier, you will always have a warm place in my heart for the coffees you provided.

Coffee shot
Nectar of the Gods…not shot in France


Ok, so I am already on record in this blog as saying that I love your range of cheese. But cheese should be enjoyed in refined moderation. It should be like that person at a dinner party who knows how to drink just enough so that they’re interesting and entertaining…but not so much that they become a bore. France, you are currently like someone at a 21st birthday party, drinking wine from a funnel! For the love of God, show some restraint!
Every time I didn’t know what a menu item was, it was invariably cheese. I had a pizza that looked like it had been on fire and so someone had tried to put it out by smothering it in cheese. Another time, my entree turned out to be a pot full of cheese, with occasional bits of ham and some bread to dip in there. If you’re going to serve fondu, at least have the decency to admit that it’s fondu!


For the first week of my stay in France I was riding at least 80kms per day, up some of the steepest hills I’ve ever seen, and in 40+ degree temperatures. The breakfasts provided were, a selection of pastries (3 days) and a croissant, tub of yoghurt & container of stewed apple (4 days). Now this is OK as a breakfast, provided it is either Mother’s Day in 1994 or you’re a 3 month old. But not if you’re an adult who is hoping to get something done that day.

Delicious...but not a breakfast.
Delicious…but not a breakfast.


So there you have it. France has more things to recommend it…but Melbourne has better coffee. So let’s call it a draw.