I find myself attempting to be a photographer, yet again.
I mean, I have always self-identified as a photographer, but the final 15-plus-years of my journalism career was spent either as a photo editor or a photo director. And I’ve been out of the journalism game going on seven years.
I bounced out of journalism and found myself firmly entrenched in the bicycle industry, first as the Creative Director at inGamba Tours and now as the Marketing Director for Kali Protectives.
The journey back to making photographs on a regular basis has been a long and equipment lust fueled journey. I can’t tell you how much time this old man has spent pouring over youtube videos, Pinkbike posts and attempting to find any tidbit of information available hidden deep in Google searches. The myriad of different ways to search “bikes, bicycles, mountain bikes cycling” paired with “how-to, photo, photography, photographs, cameras, lens” is not only mostly fruitless and soul crushing, but also shockingly revealing about how many youtubers and would be professional photographers are confused about what “helpful” means.
I started with trying to shoot photographs out the window of the inGamba “team” car or to run to the car whenever we stopped to try and capture some of those “off-the-bike” moments.
But this just led to frustration, as I never seemed to have the camera handy when inspiration struck. The other thing “professional” bicycle photographs never tell you is most of the time there is nothing to photograph. I found myself, even in the Italian Dolomites struggling to make interesting photographs for most of the ride, as the epic shooting spots are actually few and far between.
I know. I know. This sounds like whining and can’t possibly be true. But take from an old man photographer who has photographed or photo edited the SuperBowl, Kentucky Derby, World Series, the War in Iraq, NCAA Finals, etc… As Henri Cartier Bresson once said, and I paraphrase, “One must milk the cow quite a bit to make a little cheese.”
This retaliation led me to realize I needed a camera with me at all times, if I were to have any chance at all of making the photographs I was interested in making.
So I strapped my historic Canon 5D Mark III to my back with a 24-70mm f2.8 to my back and hit the road. Sadly, this was an unmitigated disaster for a number of unforeseen reasons. First, I am not fitted enough to race ahead of a fast moving group ride (and yes, I know Jered Gruber is and this is part of my love/hate relationship with him). Secondly, because of the weight of that box it swings around like a teenager in the mosh pit at a punk show. And finally, the number of days the really great photos didn’t present themselves, having the 5D swinging around took all the fun out of the journey.
The 5D went back in the bag and out came the wallet. I took some well intended advice and started with the purchase of an Sony RX100, but me and the “professional” point-n-shoot camera never really got on. Sure, if everything went just right the files looked fine enough and it offered plenty of “tricks,” including a super sharp lens and a pretty impressive zoom. The thing is the experience is shit. It’s not fun. It’s not enjoyable. It’s not the journey I’m interested in. Pulling the camera out, turning it on and stabbing at the shutter button while messing with the zoom switch just takes all the photographer out of the photography for me.
So next up was a Fujifilm X-T1. Now we were onto something. The X-T1 was small in stature, but had all the buttons and dials of my youth. It looked like a camera, felt like a camera and functioned like I expected a camera to function.
At about the same time I received a “bicycle rider” camera strap as a gift from a friend. It was the original Mettle strap everyone backed on Kickstarter. And with that I had an “actual” camera I could double strap to my back. I was back in business.
The only problem was the files were “good enough,” but nowhere as nice as the files out of my Canon cameras. This is, of course, in my opinion. But this once again took some of the joy out of photography for me. I had spent my life being a photography “snob/critic/editor/tastemaker” and here I was trying to shoot photographs with an inferior tool. I believe part of the problem is my love of making interesting photographs in what others would call “terrible” light. When the light was “beautiful” the X-T1 was delightful, but when the light turned “shitty” the camera was not up to the task.
Fast forward to today and I can honestly say I think I’ve reached camera nirvana. No longer do I wax eloquently about the glory days of shooting with my Nikon F4, a Nikkor 180mm f2.8 and a 24mm f2. Nor do I wish I could transport back to walking the street of San Francisco with my Leica M6 with a 35mm and my M3 with a 21mm asph.
I’ve run through almost all of the X-T iterations and now my “everyday carry” regardless of which bike I am on is a X-T4 and a 16mm f2.8 lens held to my back by a PS Bagworks Rider Strap. You will also find a Chrome Industries Doubletrack Feedbag or an Outer Shell Drawstring Handlebar Bag with a Fujifilm 16-55mm zoom strapped to my bars.
This setup is both amazing and frustrating, as with all things camera, depending on the situation.
If I am going on an actual photoshoot, I most often switch back to my Canon DSLRs. I just feel much more comfortable using “longer” glass on the “bigger” cameras. I have used and do use the Canon converter on my X-T4 and the photos are surprisingly sharp, with great color and contrast, but the experience leaves something to be desired.
So the journey continues. The balance between “making a photograph” and “taking a picture” continues to gnaw at my younger ethical photojournalism self. Is the destination what is most important or is the journey where the good things happen. What is real and what is fantasy and if every bike ride and bike rider looks like a postcard then am I really telling the story of cycling. If everyone in every photograph is wearing the perfect length sock and riding with the perfect form then am I really contributing to the historical record or am I just throwing more wood on the proverbial bullshit visual fire?
I’m off to continue my journey and I’ll leave the final word to Michael J. Fox: