9 Things I learned while shooting from the back of a motorcycle — The Tour of California
This post is dedicated to those photographers out there who on occasion "fake it, till you make it".
#1 - DO NOT Sit Backward
Contrary to popular belief (or just my own) photographers don’t sit reverse on the motorbike to make images during the race. After I suggested this backward theory to my driver, he politely corrected me, hinting that the best photos are often made off the bike. The bike is simply a way to get around the course faster than everybody else.
#2 - Not All Helmets Are Created Equal
I don't ride motorcycles, so I found helmet shopping to be quite interesting, because you make your choice based on "how much do I like my face?". Once I realized I do indeed like my face, I went with the full face helmet. I got home, threw it on to show my girlfriend and realized I couldn't get my camera up to my eye because of the added protection. With receipt in hand, I returned to the store and got the only helmet that works — the café racer helmet.
#3 - Dress For Hitting The Pavement
Here's the thing about helmets and riding clothes. They don't really matter until they matter. Like I said: I don't ride motorcycles, don't own riding gear, and didn’t plan on making the investment. Instead, I opted for jeans and long sleeve layers. If I were to make a career out of this, I would want the riding kit. Laying a bike down on the pavement is inevitable. Having said that, one of the most famous cycling photographers in the world wore a short sleeve shirt most days.
#4 - Simplify Your Kit
Bring two bodies: one equipped with a 24-70mm and an on-camera flash, the other a 70-200mm. I also kept a 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 in a small hip bag. No need for anything else, you would have a hell of a time swapping lenses on-the-go. My choice was the Nikon D850 with a Nikon 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 and a Profoto A1 shot though the magnetic dome diffuser. The flash provides a really nice quality fill when shooting midday during a bike race. My second body was a Nikon D4s with a Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8.
#5 - You Get Close, Very Close
When the race bottlenecks at the bottom of a tight and steep climb, you may find yourself nearly bumping elbows with riders in the peloton. Definetly do not elbow anybody, but do continue shooting!
#6 - Plan Ahead
Research the route on Google Street View to get an idea of any specific shots you might want. Realize that aside from the actual cycling race, the photo motorbikes are in a race of their own. Many photographers share a similar creative eye and “getting the shot" might be difficult if your fellow photographer has already zoomed ahead of the race to poach the best spot. It's also worth chatting with your driver prior to the race to develop a plan and to hear their recommendations. They’re often better versed on the route than you.
#7 - Watch Key Players
A professional stage race is chaotic and it's not always obvious how the race is developing even when you are on a motorcycle right in it. Do your research and know the difference between a GC contender and a sprint finisher. This will help you decide on which rider to focus on during each stage. Once you know who the heavy hitters are, you must get into position. All motorbikes are cleared out with 10k to go and as the race approaches that mark all of the photo-bikes will be cycling through jockeying for position. The race officials have the final say on who gets to be where for how long, but sometimes you just get lucky.
#8 - It's Not ALL About The Riders
Cycling fans come from all over to watch races. They spend hours driving, walking, and biking just to see their favorite riders pass for a split second. Don't forget these people. They're the other, often comical, half to the bike race.
#9 - Shoot Something For Yourself
Every shoot requires you to create images curtailed for your client. Naturally that’s the priority, but don't forget about what you enjoy shooting. Be sure to capture images that keep you psyched and inspired! If you like cycling, spandex, or just me go ahead and click over here to check out my full edit from from the 2018 Tour of California.