BEHIND THE SHUTTER
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU TOOK A PHOTO?
What do you know about the world of sports photography? Robert Conroy dived into the murky world of action photography to find out what drives some of the photographers he admires.
With the conclusion of the AMB Photograpy Awards this issue, many of you may have entered or at the least seen some of the many fantastic photos through voting. I’m also sure for many of you this may have been the first time you picked up a camera in competition.
Every professional photographer has a story, a path of learning and experience with the lens that is second to no other. They, like you, like me, have all had a start somewhere. My start came purely through mountain biking. Borrowing my father’s camera, a chance to capture friends and in a time of film, also a chance to see ourselves in action. Lessons in light and composition came from the likes of Gary Perkin, Sven Martin and Damian Breach through world-wide magazines.
So to lead you through your path through photography, I contacted two photographers about theirs. Their thoughts and approaches that have made their individual photographic work that you lock your eyes upon.
Name: Damian Breach Age: 45 Country: Australia Website: eskapee.com
What was your first exposure to photography? My earliest memories of photography (the love of photography) are looking at photos that my father has from the Vietnam war, and a youth spent admiring everything I saw in the National Geographic magazine.
What led you to pick up a camera? I have always been interested in photography from a viewer perspective and when I finally gave up racing mountain bikes I still wanted to be part of the sport I loved, so I decided to try and turn my love of looking at photos into a love of trying to capture them. I like to tell stories and think that photography has the power to do that.
What was your first camera? My first camera would have been a film camera
in my youth, something simple and most probably pretty cheap. When I finally decided to take it all seriously back in 2004 I got straight into digital with a Nikon D70.
What was the point you realised you were moving from an amateur to a professional photographer? I am not sure if I ever recognised a single point in time but from the very first photos I had published I have always ensured I got paid for my work - so maybe it was from the very beginning?
What was your first published shot or story? I think it was a ‘how-to’ with Jared Rando, maybe back in 2004?. Shot in Washington DC and in AMB (of course).
What do you love most about shooting mountain biking? Getting to be engaged with the sport I love. I consider myself a mountain biker first and a photographer second so being able to ride bikes and take photos is like heaven really.
Has your photography always been about mountain biking? No, it’s still not. I have to pay the bills and it’s a reality that I have to shoot other things to help bring some cash in. But my main love and passion will always be mountain biking as I am a mountain biker.
Which photographers have influenced you the most throughout your career? I’ll break this down into two areas: those who inspired me and my love of photography and those who inspired me to be a better photographer.
In the first camp is Ross Halfin and Keith Mulligan. Many of your readers many not know who they are but as teenager I spent hours staring at BMX and (Heavy) Metal magazines and it was always their images that meant the most to me. To this day, when I see one of their old photos I am taken right back to those emotions and the inspiration for wanting to shoot those same photos myself.
Now to the second part and those who really helped give me the confidence to be a better photographer. Gary Perkin, Sven Martin, and Shawn Spomer all had a part to play in what I am today. As a new kid on the scene they supported me, helped me, pushed me, gave me friendship, and overall showed me the light (pun very intended). I cannot thank them enough and they will always be dear to me - even if I am taking the piss out of them with little internet videos!
Who’s photography is exciting you the most at the moment? At the moment, probably Adrian Marcoux. He’s stepping outside the MTB photography box a little and his images are less boring to me. In a world of too many killer images on Instagram it’s the images that speak a little differently that get my attention at the moment.
As a rider do you find it easier to frame a photo? For sure, having an understanding of the sport helps to identify what “action” should be shot and timing - but the same will be for any sport. I don’t have a deep understanding of rock climbing, as an example, so I probably couldn’t shoot it as well a someone who’s part of the sport.
But to me, the most important part is about telling a story. Picture framing that tells the whole story as sometimes the action or the rider(s) is only part of the story.
You’ve spent a lot of time on the road with professional shooting obligations - where around the world is still on the list to photograph and ride? I tend to go to “safe” places. Places where the language, food, transport, security, are a little easier to manage. However, I yearn to go somewhere less safe and places like North Korea grab my attention as the danger of it all would be pretty exciting. I know that there isn’t any riding there (as we know it) but I want to hunt a story. I want to find a mountain biker(s) there and tell their stories.
You’ve always put together amazing stories through photos, really disassembling the scene and picking apart close up details. What’s your general approach to a shoot? I simply want to show the world as I see it. I tend not to plan too much and think I work better when I have to face whatever is in front of me at the time. Thinking on my feet helps the creative side - less control, in my mind, can equal more creativity. The only thing I like to have control over is the time of day. If your shadow isn’t at least equal to your own height then the light isn’t the best.
You seem to have mastered the DSLR selfie before the word selfie was ever a thing – how’d that come about? Ha - you have to be famous for something right :) I had always played around with it all when I started photography back in 2004 but there became a need as Revolution magazine gave myself and Tim Bardsley-Smith a head-to-head competition to do some “selfies”.
From there I further honed the technique and equipment and started doing it more and more to be self sufficient with photo shoots - especially when I did some bike/product testing. These days it’s more about travel photography and having the ability to shoot as needed if I cannot find locals to shoot with.
What should an amateur not overlook on the way up? Great photographers get good photos because they are out there in the right place at the right time. Make your own luck by making sure you’re in the right place at the right time.
Name: Michal Cervený Age: 31 Country: Prague, Czech Republic Website: michalcerveny.com
What was your first exposure to photography? Probably when I was a kid. The grandpa’s magic machine with lot of buttons and knobs that could freeze moments simply fascinated me. I always like to look on the photos and was interested about the process how they are being made. But I never thought It will be my job!
What was your first camera? It was one of the Sony digital compacts my family bought. I started getting more into, bought another semi-automatic one and when I was 21 or so and manage to save some money, I bought my first DSLR, Nikon D80.
What was the point you realised you were moving from an amateur to a professional photographer? Probably when I should be sitting in the university and instead of that I was in Australia for the first time of my life to take photos for Czech mountain bike website MTBS.cz. I realized that travel the world, take pictures and earn some money from that is pretty sick. First I changed my study plan of Marketing Communications to combined for the next school year, but then I quit anyway and started to work as a photographer on full time. My parents were not happy about that, but I always have their support.
What was your first published shot or story? I think it was a photo of Czech XC racer Jan Skarnitzl from one of the local races. There were other professional photographers but somehow the company, importer of Giro helmets, found my photo in a small website gallery and chose it because it was different. I got some small money, because I didn’t know what to charge, but I was happy.
What do you love most about shooting mountain biking? I love the combination of the sport, fun, freedom and the nature.
Has your photography always been about mountain biking? Yes. I always like to ride a bike and when I fell into photography, the combination of these two hobbies was a plain and easy thought. I’ve been doing a few hobby mountain bike races a year and once I decided to go just have a look and took my camera with instead of a bike.
Beside the mountain biking photography, in the offseason I’m doing photos for other commercial clients, mostly portrait, product or car stuff or I worked with Czech National Biathlon team.
Which photographers have influenced you the most throughout your career? It has to be Gary Perkin, the boss of the Mountain Bike World Cup photography from when I started to follow the scene and got to races a couple of years later. I love Gary’s unique style of photography, how he can capture the light and use it to have a nice clean photo and also how he can use the photography for story-telling.
And the second one is Michal Sváček, a Czech newspaper photographer and former cyclocross racer. With his very sensitive perception of light he makes awesome portraits and uses those skills for cycling photography as well. I remember when we met for the first time in Treviso 2008 at my first UCI Cyclocross Worlds, we were standing beside each other at the same spot, I was shooting all the shots around and he got just one shot, the perfect gold silhouette framed into another one. There I realised how differently you can see as a photographer.
Who’s photography is exciting you the most at the moment? At this time there are many great photographers out there! I love the work of my Czech colleague Dan Vojtčch, Christoph Laue, Jb Liautard, Kristof Ramon and many others...
What do you think is the most important thing in framing a photo? The most important thing is what is happening in the picture. When you capture a very special moment, you don’t have to have it in perfect composition. If not you should catch the viewer’s eye by the composition. Luckily, the bikes and the surrounding usually work very well together. I like clean, minimalistic photos, which sometimes helps.
Pro shooting life has you on the road a lot, often revisiting venues and locations. Does it ever become difficult to deliver a new photographic story? It’s more and more difficult every season. Because I work as mountain bike photographer for the UCI and do all the World Cup races, most of the venues and tracks are the same for years. And on those locations I have to challenge and force myself to find a fresh look and new angles to get a photos which are still good but different than previous years. I could call the XCO course of Albstadt World Cup in Germany a nightmare. The course there is so boring for photographs and the same for several years.
You capture some of the most amazing pan shots. What’s your secret? There is no secret about panshots, just to find a friendly spot and be lucky to have the shot sharp. For sure, a camera or lens with a stabiliser helps a lot. It’s fun to shoot pans, because it’s challenging and when you get a nice pan, it looks good as people are not used to see a movement like this by their naked eyes.
The heart and soul of your photography seems to be tied into cross-country racing. What is it that you love about photographing XCO racing? I like the essence of the top-level sport and XCO racing is the combination of nature as a playground and top-level endurance activity. It’s awesome to see and photograph from very close the world’s best riders who are fighting for an hour and half on the hard uphills and challenging technical downhills right after. That is what impresses me on this sport.
Obviously every up and comer wants to be a professional photographer. What in your opinion should an amateur not overlook on the way up? Time to time I get an email asking for advice how to be a professional photographer. I think it’s all about patience, trying to find you own style and creativity, and self-criticism. If someone has a talent it would take them less time and could be easier.