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.



2 thoughts on “Shooting the Tour de France: An amateur’s perspective”

  1. So, I live in ignorant bliss about many things, but maybe you dispel my ignorance just a little. Every year I glance at the Tour De France and every year I think ‘where are the tandem bikes?’. I mean twice the pedaling power and only the same amount of wind resistance – surely a bicycle for two has got to go faster? And other endurance sports like rowing have multiple people in the one boat. So why isn’t it so Dr. Chris?

    1. OK first of all, thank you for the Julius Sumner Miller reference that will have left all readers under the age of 40 baffled.
      Your question is a good one, and the answer is that the Tour de France is not a group of athletes all striving to reach the finish line…it is a group of athletes all desperately trying to get away from each other so that they can have some peace and quiet. It just so happens that every day they end up at the finish line, but that is coincidental, the real aim is to hit the front and not have to make small talk with any other riders. As such, a tandem would be a freaking nightmare. 6 hours of ‘Are you still pedalling?’ ‘Why did you have to wear that cycling kit? Now I’ve got to look at all day!’ ‘Are we there yet?’ would be simply unbearable, and as such has been banned by the UCI.
      Hope this helps.

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