London-Surrey Cycle 2011

This weekend, Sunday the 14th of August, the test run for one of the 2012 Cycling events ran through where I live and down into Surrey and back. As such, I thought it was the perfect time to take the Mark III out and put it to use doing one of the things that it was designed to do. Namely take action shots of sports as they happen. I knew the event was due to leave the Mall at around 9am and foolishly assumed that it would get to Richmond Bridge at around ten. I was there, camera in hand, only to be told by a very helpful man in a day-glo jacket who was working for the Olympics that I'd missed them by over half and hour and they had, by now, made a decent dent in the route to Surrey. Seeing that I was disheartened, he pointed out if I walked up to Richmond Park, I could catch them on the return journey. I quickly decided that, as I'd made the effort (even though ill) to get out and see this, that I would make the further effort to climb Richmond Hill with my equipment and wait for the cyclists to arrive in the park. This was my first lesson in Sports Photography: Know the timings, when the athletes are going to be in your sights and don't just guess.

I had reconfigured by Kata 3N1 (read the review here) into the diagonal sling configuration, thinking quick access to my lenses would be important. I discovered quickly that this configuration is fine for short distances, but the fully loaded back dragging on one shoulder was unpleasant. Good to know, saves me making the same mistake when I take it to Nepal.

I arrived at Richmond Park about about ten twenty and quickly found out that the riders were not due until about midday. I had two choices. Head off for a coffee somewhere and come back closer to the time or spend an hour and a half standing in one place. Coffee was appealing. Very appealing. However, I had a prime location because I was so early. I was on the front, at a

railing at a corner (Richmond Gate Entrance). My shots would be of the cyclists as they took the corner and so I'd get a really good view of them. That made my decision. It is the second half of the first lesson, if you don't know the timings, then early is better, and you just have to be patient.

Any photographer knows the location is vital and perhaps more so in sport than in many other fields because everything else is out of your control. Lighting can change in an instant, there are no do-overs or re-posings. The Olympics committee would no doubt turn a deaf ear to my requests to have the cyclicts come back and do the corner again, but this time with me three feet to the left..... It is one of the most high pressure photographic gigs to do professionally because aside from the required patience of waiting whilst maintaining enough of a focus to keep track of the race and be ready, you have one or two seconds to take the shot you need. You have to get a good dramatic shot of the leader. No one cares about the middle of the pack unless something tragic happens. A shot of the middle might make a good filler shot, a sea of swarming faces chasing the best but not yet reaching that level of performance, but the money shot is the leader, doing something dramatic; taking a corner, mid-fall, pumping their arms in victory, juggling oranges because their lead is insurmountable,something that is striking. A morning of waiting comes down to a second to take the perfect photo. You need to trust yourself here and know that you know when to push the button. In preparation, I'd suggest you keep checking the lighting and focusing settings regularly whilst you are hanging around. A sudden dark cloud can turn a 1/500th of a second shutter speed into a 1/80th which may well render your target an impressionistic blur, so when you have that leader in your sights all you need to consider is composition, focus, shutter speed white-balance, all of that should have been managed already.

Whilst waiting, I found that people would try and get to the front and push in between you if you were at a railing. People with children and the elderly in particular seem to feel that even though they are late they should still get the best views. (in fairness, we photographers are a pushy bunch too...)

Another lesson I took from this, is that Twitter is a huge help for tracking these events. Far more use than traditional media. Find out what hashtag is being used and track progress by following excited tweets of fans. In this case it was #cycleclassic and I was able to track progress down into Surrey around Box Hill twice, back through Ester and across Hampton Palace Bridge, so I was ready when they came into Richmond Park. I've only recently, with the London Riots, seen the true value of Twitter and its impressing me more and more. Though the infestation of Justin Bieber fans is unfortunate.

Suddenly, the mood changed. It was time. An announcer car sped through the corner.

There were three batches of cyclists. The first was just a three or four in between two groups of cars. I got a couple of nice images of these guys cornering (Named Group Leaders). There was then a minute or two before the second group arrived, A couple of cyclists in the front, (Named Second Batch Leaders). The third image (named Mark Cavendish) was of the rest of the second group as they all barrelled around the corner and it is this image that contains the shot of Mark Cavendish, who was obviously saving his strength. It is unfortunate that he is out of focus, but by focus had been the centre of the group as I was not trying to isolate any particular rider. The fourth attached image (Named Third Batch Leaders) is of the leaders of the final group, with my final image being the very last cyclist of the day(Named Last Place), trailing behind the safety van that was looking after the second group of riders.

The final thing I learned whilst doing this as I sat down to review is that I have no idea who any of these people I have photographed are.... Which is a bit of a problem. Having seen a photograph of Mark Cavendish, and compared it to my shots I can work out that he is not in the initial shot I took of the cyclists before the first batch of cars, nor is he one of the leaders of the second batch, but I have caught him, mid camera within a sea of other cyclists. I still don't know who my other subjects are however.

Top Sporting Tips

  • Check the schedule ahead of time.
  • Get there early.
  • Stake out your position and defend it.
  • Keep checking the conditions and your settings
  • Make use of twitter
  • Know something of the players/participants/athletes

The full set of images can been seen on flicker in the London-Surrey Cycle Classic set, and for a first attempt I am extremely happy with the results.