It was like glitter had been thrown on the climb—shiny, bright bikes and multicolored jerseys sparkling between mileposts on Las Flores Canyon Road outside Malibu, California, while the Rally Cycling professional Continental cycling team warmed up at spring training camp. On assignment to document the start of the team’s season, I spent some time with them on the well-worn roads of Southern California, in their natural environment, where they feel most at home.
Their season starts here, in a team camp. They build a base, getting strong for the races later in the year, and for new members, they get to know each other. After the first long ride together, the team split up into two rental houses near Channel Islands Beach to eat and recover. When the director of the team retreated to his Buick LeSabre wagon, I jumped in the back, hoping to hear a good story or two.
Team photo opportunities are typically the same: a posed group shot under terrible hotel conference room lighting (or on the lawn outside the hotel) and some shots along the road from the team car. That means that most photographers miss the opportunity to capture the athletes in their relaxed state or in ways that differ from traditional team photos. This happens not only in cycling, but in baseball and football and any other sport where athletes are often presented to the media. The “official” shots often don’t encompass the outdoor environments in which the people compete.
The secret to good environmental portrait work of athletes (or anyone else who enjoys being outside) is to connect to them, become familiar with them, and let them know through words and actions that you’re there to make them look good.
For a cycling team, the team manager is the access point—he’s the staff sergeant of the team. Old pro bike racers often switch to running a team when they retire from racing, and are like punk band members who stayed out on tour after the crowds faded. What I learned from Rally Cycling’s manager Eric Wohlberg is how to relax when surrounded by chaos. Even a training ride is hectic, much less a race. Restoring his old Buick is how he keeps calm despite all the chaos, and his soundtrack is The Blazing Elwoods. Knowing how important the vintage car is to him, my portrait of him took shape with that framed as the backdrop.
For the shoot of Wohlberg, I waited for the “golden hour,” and with natural, low light, used a Sony a7S II with a Rokinon 35mm T1.5 Cine. A cine lens is designed for video work, and I brought it because of the video footage I’d grab during the shoot.
The Rokinon’s focus and aperture control rings are geared and smooth for pulling focus on film, but worked well for an intimate still, as we drove to the beach and back. I noticed setting sunlight filtering through the tinted windshield and his profile as he fiddled with the dashboard Jesus and a CD. The car, and what was in it, was clearly important to him, and I wanted a portrait of it, too, because he spends so much time off the bike here.
Finding significant pieces of people’s lives is important for an environmental portrait. For the assignment, I had a shot list and riffed in between these bullet points:
• Guy with a looming mountain
• Racer in the middle of a road
• Mechanic working late
• Winding coastal road
• Espresso, farmhouse breakfast
• Bikes lined up
• Peloton strung out
• Lonely climb
• Sunset/sunrise, up early, riding late
The central coast of California, with its flat valleys, sunny beaches and soaring climbs, is a perfect location to use the large scale of nature to tell a photojournalistic story. A typical cycling magazine portrait of a team would have a shot from the car with a rolling peloton, speeding along Highway 1 to and from Malibu. To capture this, you need a trusty driver, a strong camera strap around your neck and parkour skills to hang out the side of the car sideways, looking backward, while the driver holds onto your belt. While composing, it’s important to listen for “Traffic!” or “Dog!” Besides the acrobatic flexibility and dexterity skills, I relied on Continuous Eye AF and Focus Peaking to let me know when I’d focused my shot. Unfortunately, required photos for a bicycle outlet don’t capture the individualism of the athletes, which is the most important thing about them. They have punched out of the day jobs we have, dedicating themselves to a sport and giving us something to daydream about.
Earlier in the day, I met the rest of the team as they assembled to get kitted up and pick out their bikes. And then I met the mechanics, who keep it all running smoothly. These guys are like line cooks and chefs, behind the scenes of a Michelin star restaurant. You don’t need to know how hard they work, just that it all comes together in front of you. It’s not their job to speak to the media, and in this instance, a compact camera with a short lens worked nicely, because the large telephotos that racers are used to seeing intimidate those not used to being on camera.
If you ever get time to shoot behind-the-scenes staffers, like the mechanics, they appreciate the attention, and often deliver a more candid view of a sport saturated with shooters at the podium or on the field, and they can be your best access point to the athletes. If the team chef or mechanic likes you, that goes a long way.
Remember that athletes are used to posing because they’re really marketing representatives for their sponsors and teams—literally, walking billboards. So, if you get a chance to photograph an athlete, be kind and ask them to do what you want, and don’t be afraid to ask, unless they’re competing.
Understanding that athletes are like actors helps me take their photos, because I understand the characterizations of the characters they play and the stage they’re on. In their environment, doing what they’re really good at is when the most candid and comfortable photos happen.
If you encourage them to share a story and not just pose for a picture, perhaps while sitting in the back of an old Buick or standing with their prized possession, you’ll likely get a much more interesting shot of that real person behind the athlete’s mask. Finally, as it was explained to me by a photographer who started developing film in their basement compared to my digital-only experience, the camera is a magical light-capturing box. What changes my mind about locations and scenes is the natural light, especially, with cameras released in the past two years that practically see in the dark.
Yes, I got the required shots and got the job done, but like a playlist, I know I can shuffle them up, depending on what Mother Nature decides to share with me.
DL Byron is the publisher of Bike Hugger, BikeHugger.com. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @bikehugger.