Better Riding Through Pictures
FOUR TOP ATHLETES AND SHOOTERS DISCUSS HOW CAMERAS HAVE BECOME PART OF THEIR SPORT AND HOW YOU CAN USE TECHNOLOGY TO IMPROVE AS A RIDER, WIN AT SOCIAL MEDIA OR JUST HAVE MORE FUN
Four top athletes and shooters discuss how cameras have become part of their sport and how you can use technology to improve as a rider, win at social media or just have more fun
Aaron Chase was tired, hot, and hungry, and just wanted to get the ride over with.
“I was in the Smoky Mountains in Idaho, riding down this mountain. I was totally bonking on this 20-mile ride over relentless mountains. I didn’t eat enough or drink enough,” said Chase, a pro mountain bike rider, photographer and video producer. “It was survival mode.”
Just then, the entire mood of the ride changed. It was late in the day, approaching the magic hour of sunset, and the light in the sky was a warm golden colour. All of a sudden, Chase realized he was in the middle of something very special. “I was riding fast down this whooped-out trail in a field, and it was like big, tall wheat grass, and there were a dozen elk running with me. I had a camera mounted on my chest, and one on my helmet.”
This was exactly the kind of moment that makes for inspiring images of mountain biking – the stuff that Chase works hard to find and capture on camera. The light and landscape alone were strong, and then to have the elk running alongside Chase took everything about the experience to a whole new level. Or would have, were it not for a fatigue-induced mistake. “Neither camera was even powered on. I completely missed getting any footage of me riding through a pack of these beasts,” said Chase. “I watched the gold nugget slip right between my fingers and back into the river.”
From chasing podiums to pictures
Chase has been riding mountain bikes for nearly 20 years. His move to include photo and video work started in 2007 when he met Gopro founder Nick Woodman at Sea Otter. Woodman had a small 10' x 10' tent, inconspicuous among the other exhibitors. Woodman handed Chase a couple of early Gopro cameras and suggested he start messing around with them. “They weren’t very good, but when they worked, they were fun to use,” recalled Chase. “I liked the fact that they came along with me. I didn’t need anyone to come with me to film me.”
The typical workflow of having a photographer or video shooter join the rider to capture footage was being turned on its head by the burgeoning action-camera market. Chase quickly discovered that not only could he produce great images as the rider, the technology also changed the dynamic of racing. “I would go to an urban DH race, set up three cameras on me and do the race. It was then way more about what I did on the course, and how I captured that, than it was my race result. For me, it’s 10 times more enjoyable,” said Chase. Chase boasts an Instagram following of more than 44,000 (@aaronchase), where he shares what he refers to as the gold nuggets he collects while filming his adventures.
Video to boost your skills
Action cameras have also revolutionized how riders learn new skills on bikes. Norco trials rider Ryan Leech runs the Ryan Leech Connection, a series of skill and fitness courses aimed at helping riders improve their abilities. Cyclists have access to free courses, paid courses or everything through a monthly membership. Each of the video lessons is conceived, shot and edited by Leech, for whom the use of video as a teaching tool has come full circle.
“Initially, I got vhs tapes of European riders, and, of course, some early Hans Rey videos,” said Leech, who was in his teens when he watched “No Way” Rey performing his trails moves. “I’d watch them over and over in slow motion. I’d watch a certain specific skill and then go outside and practise.”
That practice paid off and Leech soon became an elite trials rider and in-demand instructor, travelling the world to put on trials shows and represent Norco. That led to involvement with the Rideguidetv show, in which Leech hosted a skills segment in each episode.
A little more than a decade ago, Leech created a video called “Mastering the Art of Trials.” Then, with reliable and accessible online video platforms available, Leech’s skill instruction really shifted gears. A yoga instructor, Leech created videos of the yoga sessions he led during the BC Bike Race, releasing those for purchase online. Later, he created the Connection with a wide array of topics that ranged from mental fitness to learning how to bunny hop. His videos have been accessed by more than 20,000 riders looking to up their game. “The 12 Ride Flat Pedal Challenge” alone has been viewed by more than 10,000 people.
Both through the Connection website, and communities on social media, Leech encourages clients to submit footage of their attempts to master new skills. Video review allows for better coaching. With the video capabilities of smartphones, no special equipment is required. Leech has found there are key tips that help clients get the best results when filming for feedback. “Often, riders will film their technique too close to the action. I won’t have the full scope of their preparation cycle, the move, the exit,” said Leech. “Slow motion can also be really useful. Side profile shots of the feature are much more helpful for feedback. Finally, when that video is posted, shorter clips are better than long drawn-out ones showing a bunch of different skills. A single skill can be captured in a 10- to 20-second clip.”
Shooting images: Part of an athlete’s job
The cycling industry has long used images to showcase not just the skill, but the lifestyle of riding. Social media has further focused the spotlight on athletes, providing the chance to look at a curated version of the day-to-day life of a professional. Emily Batty (@emilybatty1 on I nstagram, 151,000 followers) races cross country mountain bikes for Trek, and has twice represented Canada at the Olympics.
Sponsored by Red Bull, and with a keen sense of how to connect with her audience, Batty runs a feed that is an illustration of not only her training and race program, but also her interest in cars, fashion and travel.
While the images are mostly shot and managed by Batty’s husband and coach, Adam Morka, the two collaborate on what sort of images to create. “We try to hit some key messages: inspiration and information, whether it be bike tech or training talk,” said Morka. “Posting photos that don’t directly stick on those key topics won’t resonate as well with the audience.”
The pair don’t typically scout locations for photos, but do put more planning into photos that show the lifestyle off the bike. Morka brings his camera on training rides, and the two look for good places to shoot as they ride. “Being aware of your setting is important in finding good places to shoot,” said Morka. “Taking a few photos during training doesn’t interfere with performance, so we will stop whenever we see something great.” The pair keep their eyes peeled for beautiful scenery, and try to shoot just after dawn or before sunset – the magic hours when daylight takes on a special quality.
Good images alone won’t suffice for Morka and Batty. They are also mindful of their key messages and concepts when they write captions. Overt mentions of sponsors can turn off fans, so being creative in placing product to be less obtrusive can help soften the messaging.
Photo and video tips from riders
Morka is a self-taught photographer who started as a hobbyist, and still considers himself in that light, though his photos no doubt contribute to the business side of the team. “Start with learning some of the basic stuff to do with framing and composition, making sure your subject is the focal point,” said Morka. “The more you’re shooting, the more you can learn. Taking the step to shooting in manual will also help you balance shutter speed, aperture and iso.”
“Video review allows for better coaching.”
Post production editing of photos is also critical. Morka has found that spending a few minutes using Adobe Lightroom or iphoto to clean up an image and adjust saturation, contrast and exposure can take a photo from good to great. Once an image is ready, Morka and Batty ensure it is posted between 8 and 9 a.m., a time of day that seems to best engage with their audience.
“We always try to get ahead of ourselves and catalogue a few images,” said Morka, who wants to make sure they have a few extras on hand to share. “You can go back to old images, so long as you caption them appropriately.”
Morka relies on Sony cameras and lenses for his photography. Batty describes Morka as a bit of a gear junkie, a title Morka doesn’t entirely agree with, but admits he has a wide selection of equipment. His most common weapon of choice is a mirrorless Sony a7r II camera with a 24–70 mm f/2.0 lens. The camera connects directly to his phone, so there’s no need for a laptop to download, process and post images.
Before Morka, Leech or Chase turn on their cameras, they make sure they know the goal of an image or video, which is key for success. “Having some sort of intention before a ride is important, and having that match a rider’s needs on a given day is also important,” said Leech. “Though sometimes a rider just needs to go and burn off some stress, without the distraction of technology.”
Leech has a bag full of action cameras and a wide assortment of mounts to ensure he can get an angle that best shows a part of a skill he’s trying to teach. He does all the shooting and editing himself because he hasn’t yet found an editor he can trust to use the right shot at the right time in the correct way.
Chase echoes the concept of picking days to just ride, and often will do a big portion of a ride without having cameras mounted and running. Chase tends to stop before downhill sections to set up his cameras. If by the bottom, he’s found no “nuggets,” the clips get erased.
As with riding skill, inspiration comes through dedicated practice. Batty and Morka will spend downtime looking through Instagram accounts for examples of cool photos. Chase does the same and will screen capture the most compelling examples. He also has a Pinterest account to which he saves location images that inspire him.
“I might see a trail by a waterfall and think how cool it would be with a bike on that trail,” said Chase, who now has a catalogue of location ideas he can pull out when meeting with sponsors. That approach has been part of what has led to the development of a new series with Red Bull called Mtnmods, which Chase describes as a diy freeride show. Complete with the #Mtnmods hashtag, the show is all about finding cool ways to develop and ride fun features that viewers can recreate at home.
Just as the visuals inspire others to ride, the process of shooting and producing photos and videos is one more reason to ride for Morka, Chase and Leech. “I went out for a ride the other day with a buddy. We did a hike-a-bike up to the top of a peak. Typically, we want to be turning cranks and not pushing the bike, but I assured him, ‘Once we get up there, it will be super cool because it’s like this exposed slickrock on top of a mountain in New Hampshire,’” said Chase.
“We ended up spending an hour riding around up there, shooting photos, exploring, checking things out before we ever hopped on a trail to ride down,” said Chase. “My buddy commented how cool it is to ride something other than trail, to ride all the rocks up top instead of just riding the trail ahead. It brings you back to how you got started in biking really.”
Aaron Chase ensures all angles are covered opposite right Chase’s Gopro kit
right Chase manages to get angles not possible with conventional gear
below Chase gets aquainted with Gopro’s drone
top Leech’s very expensive and protective propeller beanie
centre Leech’s filming kit
Leech performs a bunny hop
left Ryan Leech and Thomas Vanderham teach riders how to jump
photos Emily Batty top right
Batty in selfie mode with Adam Morka behind, and in front of, the lens