Mud, SWEAT & GEARS
Nathan Hughes battled the elements to bag some winning shots at the Scottish leg of the Mountain Bike World Cup
Ankle-deep in mud and holding what’s left of an umbrella down by my waist to fend off the sideways rain, I think about where to head for my next shot and how much more of this my Nikon D4 can take.
Fort William, in the Scottish Highlands, has hosted a round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup for the last 14 years, but never did mother nature bare her teeth quite like this year. In June, we were treated to some of the most hostile conditions in the history of the event, high up on Aonoch Mor in the Nevis Range.
The Fort William leg is the second round of a seven-round World Cup series, and it’s all about downhill mountain biking. Some 200 athletes battle it out, attacking steep and extremely rugged terrain in a three- to six-minute time trial on full-suspension bikes.
Although the locations are scenic, even at the best of times capturing the shots is no Sunday stroll. With subjects approaching at speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour, and often in the depths of a mountain forest, you need to nail the perfect exposure and precise focusing with the minimum of hesitation. Over a four-day race weekend there’s a lot of pressure to shoot the top riders who often arrive unexpectedly, riding past only a handful of times. We photographers are often left to wait like snipers, lying on our bellies in the mud. Just being there isn’t enough in such a small industry, however; to get ahead, you need to be creative if you want to outshine your rivals and deliver the shots no-one else is taking.
Hard day’s night
The challenges don’t end on the mountain. Once you’re back at the hotel and showered, hair-drying the contents of your camera bag, the real work begins, and you need to start editing the best of 1500+ images for the news sites and the cycling brands you have your contracts with. The midnight oil burns long into the early hours.
When shooting the World Cup you often have to contend with low light, but you still need high shutter speeds, with a minimum of 1/800 sec for shooting head-on, so strong ISO performance is essential. My D4 takes care of this, while my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 has the range to adapt to most shooting positions, with superb weather-proofing to boot. To show off the aggressive terrain/beautiful landscapes, I always have a 16mm f/2.8 in my pack, but my weapon of choice would have to be the 300mm f/2.8. Used correctly, its stunning sharpness is contrasted by amazing bokeh that ends up becoming pretty addictive.
So what was my stand-out shot from the Fort William event? After high winds forced the gondola to close for the whole of Saturday, we needed some decent weather. The lifts opened at 6am for first practice and with just three hours sleep I was back on the mountain in less-than-perfect conditions, totally drained and worrying whether my camera had been aired long enough in a bowl of uncooked rice the night before. Thankfully, for the finals the weather took pity on us, and the huge crowds were treated to some brilliant race action. My best shot came with the final few riders. As the favourite, Troy Brosnan, came into view at full speed, he went into a huge tuck to cut wind resistance before the final jump. My 300mm held focus through the whole sequence, hanging on until the very last minute when the rider almost filled the frame with his mud-coated goggles. There’s definitely plenty to complain about in this job, but it’s moments like this which bring you back for more… SeemoreofNathan’sworkon Instagram:@nathhughesphoto The shot of the weekend – it made all the mud worth it! Here, the red poles lead the eye straight to the rider Wider shots of the crowds can help to add context Know your newsworthy racers – those shots will be most in demand