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.



Tour de France and the ‘Ultimate Job’ with Cycling Tips

Growing up, my Mum had a word for someone who was particularly lucky; ‘tinny’. If the right cards came up in a game of 500 more than a couple of times, you were ‘tinny’, if you got more than one prize in the Cup sweep, you were ‘tinny’, win a raffle you were ‘tinny’. It was a term often applied to my younger brother…but not to me. I’m a very lucky guy…but just not in a ‘Hey you just won a prize’ way. So I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty freaking surprised when I found that I was one half of the winning team in the Cycling Tips Ultimate Job competion. So now instead of staying up to ungodly hours of the morning listening to the dulcet tones of Phil and Rod and watching the French countryside try to outdo itself in a ‘which area looks the most like a fairytale’ competition…I’m actually going to be over there watching it live…and begrudgingly reporting back to you about it.

So how does it feel?

About 5 years ago I suddenly came to the crushing realisation, that I was never actually going to own a Porsche 911. For some unfathomable reason I had spent the preceding 35 years thinking that seeing as I really liked these cars…I was clearly going to one day own one. Then I suddenly realised that ‘Oh wait…that car costs more than our house did when we bought it, and has fewer bedrooms!’ Similarly last year I came to the realisation that with 3 kids under the age of 10, by the time I could afford to get everyone over to France to see Le Tour (let alone tackle some of the famed climbs) I was going to be too old and fat to actually do it. So to be suddenly told that I will actually be following the tour, on a bike and taking photos and videos is pretty amazing. But at the same time it’s a bit like someone giving me an owl as a present…sure, I’ve always wanted one…but I never really expected to get one, so now what the hell am I going to do with it?!!

Hopes and fears

Let’s start with the fears…because most people come to the internet in order to feel that at least someone out there is more worried than them.

Riding in the Alps- I’m sure most of us had an experience when we were teenagers of drinking waaay too much of an alcoholic beverage (usually a spirit), and then vomiting, and then spending the next five years feeling as though we were going to vomit every time we smelled that drink or even thought about it (Sambuca, I’m looking at you!) Basically your body says ‘Well that was freaking horrible…let’s never do that again’. Well after doing an Ironman earlier this year, I think it’s fair to say that for the last 6 months I have felt about as keen to hop back on my bike and go for a hard ride as I have been to give birth to a chair. So the prospect of suddenly reacquainting myself with cycling via a series of mythically steep hills is not filling me with confidence.

The internet- While I’m more than happy to put my musings online for my normal audience (love you Mum and Dad)…it’s quite another thing to be putting stuff up to a world of internet experts. I’ve seen content that I’ve really liked get ripped to shreds in the comments section. I’ve seen videos that would have taken ages to create, and photos that would have taken a lot of skill to pull off dismissed so cavalierly that it almost made me weep for whoever had created it, and I know that regardless of how many nice things people say about something I’ve done, it’s the person who has a go at me that really stays with me.

My hopes are thankfully a lot less angsty.

Zero responsibility- I won’t have any kids to look after, I won’t have a 9-5 to go to, and at the end of the day, no-one who reads Cycling Tips will be any worse off if my content sucks, because Lord only knows there is enough other content for them to enjoy. So all I have to do is ride, eat, sleep, take photos, make videos and write stories. Which is more than just the ‘Ultimate Job’ it’s pretty much the ‘Ultimate Life’.

Le Tour- I get to watch the tour during daylight hours. I get to see all these guys I’ve only ever seen on TV, in real life. I get to shudder when I realise how fast they actually go…and chuckle when I realise how skinny their arms really are. I get to travel to a country where cyclist aren’t treated like an unwelcome hindrance. I get to ride up hills that until now have only been spikes on an SBS course map or footage from a Sufferfest video. And I will get to see my travel companion Riley’s face fall further and further as he realises that my ‘fluent French’ is in fact just what I learnt from Pepe Le Pew as a child (look out black cats who have had some white paint fall on them!!).

For all of this I’m eternally grateful, and I can’t wait to get over there, soak it all up…and hopefully distill some of it back to you. If there are things that you would like me to talk about, then please let me know. But if you are reading or viewing any of my content for the time that we’re over there, I only ask that you remember that old saying ‘If you haven’t got anything nice to say…you’re going to feel right at home on the internet.’