Jim and Iri are photographers from Brake Through Media who followed the 2014 Tour de France as it snaked its 3,663 km route from Leeds to Paris in July.
As one of the greatest sporting spectacles in existence, the Tour de France could be considered a photophilic dream. Shooting the Tour is like shooting the Olympics, a Himalayan pilgrimage, and a travelling circus all rolled into one. It’s a perfect synthesis of 100-year-old tradition, European culture, diverse geography, political agendas, and merry amusements – all bound together by ferocious athletic competition.
Read on for an exclusive, in-depth report of what it was like to photograph this monumental cycling event.
How did you both get into shooting cycling?
Not that everyone’s career is linear but, ironically, neither one of us started a profession in photography first coming to discover our niche genre second. Jim and I both had previous careers in our respective areas of expertise: Jim in endurance sports and myself in food and wine.
Coming from a long background in bike racing – Jim had been a junior racer in the L.A. area in the 80’s (as a contemporary of Lance Armstrong), he competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic trials, and then raced as a domestic professional for several years.
After he retired from racing in his mid-twenties, he owned a bike shop, was a sports director for a professional continental team, started a custom cycling apparel company, and eventually found his way into producing video around major cycling events. He never rode the Tour de France but cycling was in his DNA.
My path was perhaps a bit more circular in that I studied fine art and photography as a youth but instead became a chef and eventually a food stylist. The notion of being a starving artist had little appeal for me in my late teens and I was already smitten with the culinary arts from years of being glued to episodes of Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet.
I proceeded to find work as a chef, pastry chef, bartender, caterer, private chef, cooking school instructor, food stylist for magazines, books, and TV, and finally as a culinary producer on cooking shows. Although I had worked with many photographers over the years, I never really considered becoming one.
When Jim and I met, I was working on a colleague’s documentary film about a cycling team as a field producer at a bike race in California. Over the next year we formed a new enterprise together focused on producing video in sport, food, and wine. With tightening client budgets and the surge of new technology in DSLRs we eventually added photography to our repertoire.
Our business model has now evolved into more of a boutique photo agency with just a sprinkling of video mixed in. The Tour de France is just one of the many races we cover throughout the year; but it is the most revered, both athletically and photographically. And we’re happy to consider ourselves part of that core group that follows it each season.
What camera gear do you bring with you and why? How do you pack/carry it?
Our rule of thumb is to travel light – although light is a relative term. Having previously been based around TV and video, our current camera kit is fairly slimmed down. The major influencers in how we build our kit now are about efficiency and location. When you are shooting a bike race, or action sports in general, there isn’t any time to change lenses when the riders are approaching at 50km/hr. So, you need extra bodies to handle the lenses and everything needs to handle the speed of action. Quick and responsive bodies and lenses are a must.
Our staples are four bodies: (2x) Canon 1D X, (2x) Canon 5D mkiii, and Canon lenses: (2x) Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II, Canon 50mm f/1.2, (2x) Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, and a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS II.
The Canon 1DX ’s are ideal sports bodies because of their high burst rate and durability. We still use the Canon 5D mkiii ’s because of our video needs and the headphone jack is invaluable for monitoring audio. A mix of tele lenses and wide angle is critical in cycling as well because of the types of shots you’re getting – long approaches, big scenics, hairpin corners, close-ups and details, and finish line shots.
You also need options for all the various scenarios you’ll be in over the course of 3 weeks. We have our go-to lenses (above) but we always add in a few that can mix up our perspective and force us to be more creative.
In the past we’ve used the Canon 85mm f/1.2L which is a gloriously velvety lens for portraits and sexy bike detail shots. But it’s a very slow focus and quite heavy so this year we switched it up and have been using the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro.
The macro has been perfect for really capturing minute bike details and for some superb portraits that feel a little more intimate and textural than what we can get on the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 or the Canon 50mm f/1.2. We also frequently bring the Canon 14mm f/2.8L II but we don’t overuse it. It’s main purpose for us are super-wide scenics, aggressive switchbacks, and inside the media scrum at the finish line.
The accessories we pack include: (2x) Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites, (2x) Quantum Turbo SC Battery Packs, (2x) PocketWizard Plus III, CF card readers, camera batteries plus extras, rechargeable AAs, assorted battery chargers, cables, extra cables, Black Rapid camera straps, extra Canon straps, a joby gorillapod, clamps (2X), and a small lighting reflector.
Our gear has to stand up to the elements – we are working outside in all different terrain, on the roadside, on a rocky mountainside, in snow, in rain. And we’re often on the road for 3-8 weeks at a time. There is little chance for replacement of gear when things go wrong… or go missing. Something as simple as a lost cable can become a major hurdle in Europe where professional camera stores are rare and overnighting something can turn into a logistical blackhole. While our “kit” is an ever-evolving cache, it now has a definitive form to it. We spend about 240 days a year on the road and while we love to try new things, we now stick to these basics that have been put through the ringer.
We pack everything into 3 ThinkTank Photo camera bags – “Airport Roller Derby” compact roller, a “StreetWalker HardDrive” backpack, and “CityWalker 30” padded messenger bag – all of which we carry-on when flying. We have a few extra camera bags we use when we do larger video projects.
What essential non-camera gear do you bring with you?
We basically travel with everything we’ll need over the month or two. We pack our passports, portable hard drives, several mifi devices – unlocked and locked for various countries – because internet connection is the largest single hindrance to working abroad, a GPS updated with global maps, a mophie battery pack, notebooks to keep track of all our projects, clients, deliverables, and timelines, multiple USB thumb drives, a European power strip, a collection of European power adapters, an extra phone, lots of chamois, portable radio scanner for following the race, gloves, neck gators, extra CF and SD cards, earphones, and an arsenal of rain gear both for us and for the gear.
Any special preparation re. your gear?
We try to get our gear serviced every couple of months for basic cleaning and minor issues. That’s if we get home with enough time to send it in to CPS. We’re fairly vigilant about cleaning our gear each night – dust, grit, rain, and champagne spray from the podium all need to be cleaned off regularly.
We use UV filters religiously and lens hoods, more to protect the glass than against sun flare. The finish line in particular can be a brutal place for expensive camera gear as you can get quite jostled around in the frenetic media scrum. And, of course, there are the unfortunate trips, falls, and slips among absent-minded spectators or on uneven terrain.
What’s on your wish list for camera gear if money was no object, and why?
We’re hoping to upgrade this coming year to four Canon 1D X ’s and to keep only one of the Canon 5D mkiii ’s as a back-up. Although great bodies, the mkiii’s can’t handle the high bursts and need buffering time – this can sometimes mean a dreaded missed shot. The Canon 1DX ’s also have much better seals so their performance in heavy rain and dust clouds is superior. We’re also pining for another super-tele, perhaps a Canon 500mm f/4, because sometimes the Canon 300mm f/2.8 is just not enough.
How do you operate on the day with all your gear?
Bike races are the antithesis of stadium sports. As a photographer, you are very much a fluid part of the entire moving machine. You’re either working on a motorbike with a pilot or working by car, leap-frogging the race to intersect it numerous times throughout the day.
At the start and finish you also need to be mobile and agile so your gear must always be something you can carry. We each carry any extra gear we need on us – extra lenses, batteries, Quantum, etc. Jim uses a ThinkTank belt and pouches and I’m trying out something for the first time, the Newswear Chestvest for women. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the past I’ve used a camera sling shoulder bag and a waist pack but they both presented issues with back pain.
How do you transfer/store all the photos you take? Describe your post processing workflow.
On a normal race day we’ll each shoot between 700-2200 frames, depending on the course profile and the type of race it is. We ingest the RAWs into Lightroom 5 and do a first pass which eliminates about half. The next two passes are more refined where we separate into different client collections and personal favorites for social media and/or portfolio work. We do all of our post-production edit directly in LR.
On a rare occasion we’ve had to use Photoshop for touch-ups but that’s really only been for our other lifestyle work. We store all the RAWs on hard drives and export our daily galleries to various client folders within our dropbox configuration. We fill hard drives pretty quickly as we’ll shoot for 25 days straight at races like the Tour; but compared to shooting video it’s much less storage that’s needed.
What are the unique challenges of photographing the Tour de France and how do you overcome these?
The Tour de France is a category of race called a Grand Tour, a 21-day stage race plus 2 pre-race presentation days and 2 “rest days” or off-course days. That’s 25 days without a break. There are three Grand Tours in road cycling. They are equally intense and equally grueling.
Shooting bike racing in general can be arduous. The days are long, sometimes 16 hours long. You might be in the blistering sun and humidity or in freezing rain and wind or snow. Grand Tours are like that for almost a month, day in and day out.
The work and travel fatigue can take a toll on your mental energy, focus, and creativity. Staying sharp and keeping yourself inspired are two of the biggest challenges. Other “invisible” challenges are finding time to do laundry, maintaining some fashion of decent nutrition, and keeping up with other non-Tour work. Those that are successful all agree that discipline, stamina, and adhering to a personal system of organization are integral to maintaining sanity on a Grand Tour. It has much less to do with being a good photographer than it has to do with being a mindful businessperson.
Another unique challenge in cycling is redundancy. Since there are extremely accomplished and established photographers that make up the core group, any new person trying to break in will have a hard time carving out a space and clients for themselves. We observed this right away since we started in video first. We knew that we would never be able to create business for ourselves if we merely did what everyone else was already doing and doing well. We had to provide something unique.
While we do shoot the race itself, we also focused our creativity on capturing the event as a whole. Our approach was more about showing the athletes behind the scenes, after the race, their process, the team staff, the spectators, the scenery, what the Tour looks like, feels like, and how you experience it if you are really there. This became our niche and gave us a way of getting our footing. In some ways this is probably true of many creative genres but in cycling photography there is just such a limited playing field that it is felt all the more acutely.
Have you had any near misses? Any funny/interesting stories whilst on the Tour?
We have so many ridiculous and dreadful stories of being on Tour that we can’t keep up. We’ve nearly run out of gas a few times in the French countryside. We once got a flat tire just before getting to the finish and missed the finale. We’ve had accidents on mountainsides and we’ve fallen off motorbikes. We’ve been hurt, had bronchitis and pneumonia, had camera bodies fail, had hotel cancellations at midnight in the middle of nowhere. We’ve been lost without GPS signal and no cellular service. We’ve had fights on Tour. We’ve had food poisoning, near hypothermia, heat exhaustion, and migraines. I was once almost kicked off the Tour. A day I’ll never forget.
And we’ve had great stories too, amazing stories. Met amazing people. There are too many to recount. That’s really what the Tour is about – experience. All the people, places, vistas, happenstance, lucky accidents, and moments that we all share together on Tour. It’s a priceless endless adventure.
What advice do you have for a photographer wanting to get into cycling photography?
If you are a working photographer wanting to get into cycling or most action sports, prepare yourself first for the pay cut. It’s not highly lucrative and many people don’t make it past a year or two. Especially in cycling. It’s a highly competitive, relatively small field. And like many endurance sports, it’s uber niche work. So understanding the sport itself is essential.
I had a steep learning curve when I started working with Jim and it’s paid off. Many of the pro photographers in cycling raced at one point themselves, even as amateurs. Breaking-in can be done but get to know the challenges in advance. And love the sport with a passion that can’t be explained because you’ll need that to overcome the challenges.
If you can do that, then we say “Allez Allez!”
If you have any questions for Jim and Iri about their time photographing the 2014 Tour de France or about a career in cycling photography in general, be sure to leave a comment.