Photography on Two Wheels
In the last decade there has been a steady and increasing number of people traveling by bicycle. At the same time, it is needless to say that there has been a massive growing number of aspiring photographers. However, there are not many people who are both, professional photographers and cycle travelers. For different reasons, mainly pragmatic ones, serious photography does not seem to be popular among cycle travelers; after all, not every one is willing to put the extra energy it takes to produce fine images, when what you are already doing all day is draining every single bit of energy you have. On the other hand, a bicycle does not seem to have much appeal as means of transportation to serious photographers loaded with heavy and expensive geat. However, over the years I have been able to make this combination of passions not only absolutely possible but totally worthwhile. In this article, I will go about explaining how it all comes together and most importantly, why both, in fact, complement each other perfectly.
When you travel the world using public transport, you generally move from one point of interest to the next. You travel from place A to B to C and so on, over a relatively short period of time, each letter usually representing a landmark within the places you are visiting where you are most likely rubbing shoulders with thousands of other tourists/photographers. During the transition, you see the world outside out of a window happening at a pace that is faster than what your brain is actually able to absorb. If you travel during day, you are lucky enough to get at least a quick overall idea of how everything looks in that world that does not involve landmarks; if you travel by night, then you miss it altogether.
Having your own transportation helps a lot. It makes you independent, and that gives you the ability to stop whenever you want along the way, for as long as you want. However, the vehicle you have will condition significantly your behavior and with any motored vehicle you will most likely still end up repeating a slight variation (even if much better than being dependent) of the 'A to B to C ... ' pattern. This, with the very noticeable added costs of fuel and the mechanical complexities that comes with them. That is where the bicycle comes into place to offer its unique qualities.
The bicycle’s slow pace gives you the time you need to appreciate the roads you travel on a different and deeper level. The very nature of it allows you to fully immerse yourself in your journey. While your traveling experience might still be going from 'A to B...' the magic does not lie in 'A and/or B' alone anymore but in the new long transition between them. This has several implications.
The first one is that you get to develop a true understanding of the culture you are in, because now, not only you spend several days or even months experiencing daily life in it, but you also start to see parts of it that you wouldn’t if you limited yourself to its mere tourist attractions. You start coming across the authentic, the traditional, the originally local customs that have not been altered or distorted by the effects of other interests, like mass tourism. The second one, is that during all those days you spend cycling from place to place, your body necessarily make you stop several times along the way to take breaks to recover. You stop in small towns, villages unmarked in maps, service stations, remote settlements, as well as in nature itself. Therefore, you start developing a very intimate relationship with the local people you find on your way. Suddenly, you are now dealing with the authentic part of a culture and the environment surrounding it, rather than facing touts all the time approaching you out of interest in emptying your pockets.
But here's the most important: when local people see you passing by on your fully loaded bicycle, you trigger a myriad of feelings in them that range from innocent curiosity and amusement to surprise and perplexity or even pity and compassion. Whatever the case is, you get the genuine empathy and the added treatment that somebody passing by on a super Toyota Landcruiser or a BMW motorbike certainly wouldn’t get, at least not as easily. Most of the time, people will be willing to give you shelter, food, protection and care. They will also be willing to share stories, ask you things and open their hearts to you. On the other hand, when you are far from people, out in the wild, you have all the nature to yourself. You get to explore around as much as you wish at your own pace. You camp in unimaginable places where you can fully grasp the intensity and beauty of the natural world.
Finally, the last but no less important details: It is good for you! You’ll be fitter and stronger, both physically and mentally, than you have ever imagined. Plus, feeling healthy as a real athlete feels damn good even if that was not your original purpose, just as it was never for me. Also, the bicycle, opposite to say, a motorbike, 97% of the time can be fixed by yourself on the spot when something breaks without the need for towing or expensive parts or qualified repairs. It also allows you to get to places virtually unreachable by any other motored vehicle. And on top of it all, you’ll like this last one: it is cheap, as in dirt cheap. You use your body to move, your tent or the hospitality of others to sleep, you self-cater for food or eat somewhere when you are invited. If money is an issue, you can spend so little that you can go on and on for ages.
At this point in time where there are millions of potential photographers out there, traveling like you all over the world, the chances of photographing something unique become harder and harder. Famous places have been, and are being photographed billions of times under pretty much every conceivable atmospheric and/or social condition. While visiting the renowned landmarks of the world may be beautiful enough to make it worthwhile, your chances as a photographer to convey something original about them and provoke any impact are ever so limited, let alone avoiding clichés. After all, what are the odds of getting a unique shot of something like the Taj Mahal these days? As a photographer of this day and age, the need to stay out of the mainstream is the key to rediscover the world and to start finding original beauty in places away from the shot-to-exhaustion tourist attractions. Even remote, hard-to-get-to tribes, like those in the Omo Valley, have already been photographed ad-nauseam (while being awfully corrupted by its influence) and made an attraction themselves; by now, even these have become tourist attractions in their own way.
Given this irreversible state of affairs that will only grow worse, makes it even more relevant, now more than ever, to find beauty and interest somewhere else, in those places that very few people find interesting. It is along those long and neglected stretches between landmarks that you slowly transit with your bicycle, where the magic still remains pretty much untouched and ignored, offering unlimited photographic opportunities. On your slow-paced bicycle you have them all for yourself, right there waiting for you.
The nuts and bolts
So now you decided to cycle the world but also intend to produce professional quality imagery, what to do then? I could go on for hours about how to choose a bicycle and the related gear: bike components, racks, panniers, camping gear, etc but I will leave that for another article. In this occasion, I will limit myself to comment on what affects the photographer directly.
Here are the most important things I have learned:
You want to be able to easily reach your camera. This is critical. Most photographic opportunities arise develop right around you at any time while you are riding. You want to be able to quickly access your camera, and get it ready to shoot in no time. Many times, you might not even need to get off your bicycle to shoot. The more you separate yourself from your camera, the less likely you are to stop and take the necessary time it takes to pull it out from wherever you dug it. The whole process of photographing will slow you down so much that it will become a hassle and as a consequence you will end up missing plenty of opportunities. Remember, cycling itself takes away most of your energy already.
You want to keep the weight you carry as low as possible. The average long-hauler carries an average of 45-55kg (99-120lb) and that is not including food and water. Your photography gear goes on top of all that, adding the extra weight others save. While this is fine for a flat road made of smooth tarmac, it exponentially increases the challenge when you are cycling a remote, moon-like dirt road up a 5000+mts (16.400ft) pass on the Tibetan plateau, and chances are, a flat dreamy road will only account for a tiny fraction of your whole trip. Choose your gear carefully. Every GRAM counts.
Don’t cut corners on panniers. Get the best: Ortlieb, Vaude, MSX, they all offer top-of-the-line waterproof, dust proof, tear-resistant panniers (I choose Ortlieb). They are essential to keep your gear safe and dry and greatly reduce the risk of damaging your equipment.
Whether you want to cycle the world or not, the choice of gear should always be the result of a thorough and honest assessment of one's own artistic needs and photographic aspirations. This choice is, or should be personal. Nobody can tell you what's best for you and what works for me may not work for you. That being said, as photographers, we live in very auspicious times. The vast array of gear available to us to perform our work is simply overwhelming. From the incredibly powerful cameras on our mobile phones today, to the state-of-the-art engineering in top-of-the-line DSLR's, from a technology standpoint, we have pretty much no excuses at all to produce bad photos anymore. Your problem will not be to find good, competent gear, but something that truly fits and adjusts to you. So, given this privileged situation, generally speaking these are the things that I think everyone should ask oneself first, at the time of choosing gear (mind you, these considerations apply to anyone and are not cycle-traveling specific)
How much time and effort are you willing to put into photography and becoming a photographer?
How truly serious I am about becoming a photographer that produces serious results?
How important is photography in your life (and in your trip) ? Is it a hobby and you want it to stay that way? or, is it something I will actively work on to take to the next level?
What do I want to use my photos for?. What will their final use be most of the time? Are they mostly for sharing on social networks or do you expect to print them poster size to hang on a football stadium?
What will the main output of your images be? Print (small, medium, big, huge), put on sale on Stock agencies, wall-projector, 4K tv, mobile phones?
An honest answers to all of these, will get you closer to the right choice. Once you go through them, you could fall within three main groups:
Chill-out: You want as great quality photos as possible but leave most of the responsibility to the camera. Your main output is Social Media, FB, IG, Blogger, etc.
I care: You are determined to take beautiful photos and actively work on improving your results along your way. It is a goal in itself but your life will not revolve around it. Aside from Social Media, you want to print your beautiful photos back home or show them large on your TV.
Photographer: You are aiming for serious professional results at the highest quality possible. You are committed to it and it is a big part of your journey. You want and expect to sell your work through all Media outlets like newspapers, magazines, stock, tv, etc
Now let's get specific
-Camera body (cycle-traveling specific)
Regardless of what group you fall in. These are the most important considerations:
Professional-grade cameras are extremely well-built and weather sealed. They are designed to resist all sorts of weather conditions, high impact and vibrations. They also offer, far and beyond, the best image quality you can get and the body ergonomics and direct control to settings are invaluable. On the flip side, they are very expensive, heavy and clunky.
Mid-level grade cameras, including mirrorless options, still fare pretty well as far as resistance go but a lot more attention to their care and protection has to be payed. Camera operation is not as comfortable, having to access a lot of their settings via long complicated menus. This is very uncomfortable in the wild.
Compacts and mobiles are very fragile and break easily. If you go with them, make sure you obsess about keeping them safe, away from dust, water and humidity, not to mention not to drop them while you are cycling.
Photographer group : When it comes to me, after years of serious dedication to explore photography, I have been able to identify and answer each of the questions above. I clearly fall within the last group. As such, I want no compromises. I focus primarily on environmental portraiture and secondarily on landscapes. From experience and understanding of my artistic direction, I know I find myself shooting very often in situations where low-light performance is critical. I am also a hardcore traveler exploring extremely remote regions in very rough conditions so I need strong gear to resist it all. My body of choice is the Nikon D800 and previous to that, the D700, which I think strikes the right balance between exceptional image quality, size and weight. I can vouch for these, as I have put them through incredible challenges and they both delivered under the worst circumstances imaginable and still work. My galleries are a testament to them.
Aside from this, I carry a GoPro Hero camera. Now I'm on the Hero 4 Silver model, which is an extraordinary almost indestructible little camera for recording your adventure.
I care group: I would definitely skip all the consumer and mid-range DSLR options and go straight for the fantastic mirrorless options we've got these days. These are incredibly powerful cameras with excellent image quality and the top of the line models are all professionally built. If you are willing to compromise a bit of comfort in operability and give up a bit of low-light performance, this is the way to go. In return, you will be rewarded with a much lighter traveling kit while still dwelling in DSLR quality. Fine examples are: Fuji XT and X-Pro, Panasonic GX8 / 85, Olympus O-MD and Sony A6300. Bear in mind that while much lighter, these are NOT pocket cameras. You've got the best advice and reviews of all these and many more at Thom Hogan's Sans Mirror
NOTE: As of now, technology has evolved so much, that I am myself considering changing my pro DSLR gear for these mirrorless alternatives.
Chill-out group. I would ignore all pocket camera options straight away, that range is dead for good. I would either go for a mirrorless option choosing the smaller versions of the examples above or I'd go with a high-end mobile phone. If you want to fork out the ridiculous amount of money for an Iphone or a Google Pixel, go for it. After all, their cameras are indeed incredible and they are water resistant. If you are not a fan of paying an absurd mark-up just mostly for a brand's name, I highly recommend One Plus, which in my opinion is the best bang for the buck out there. I shoot a lot with it myself when I don't feel like carrying my awfully heavy DSLR. Make sure you have a very good case for either of them and protect them obsessively from falling.
The lens choice also comes down to personal choice and should vary according to your artistic vision, how much flexibility you want to have and how much weight you are willing to cope with when cycling. Zoom lenses are the obvious choice when it comes to flexibility but they add significant size and weight to your kit. Primes are a great top-quality, lighter and smaller alternative. However, they force you to move a lot more and most importantly, switch lenses frequently. This is something you don't always want to do e.g under heavy rain in the tropics, a sandstorm in the Sahara just to name a couple. Whether you choose one, or many, it's up to you. Bear in mind that the widest the focal length range a zoom covers, the poorer its optical quality and the slower (high f stop) it is.
As I opted for no compromises, and I confidently know that I grow very strong both physically and mentally while cycling, weight is not much of an issue for me. So I bite the bullet and carry with me a full set of professional lenses to cover me from the widest wide angle to the longest telephoto within what's reasonable. My lens kit includes:
Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8
Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8
Nikkor 70-200 mm f4
Nikkor 50 mm f1.4