Monthly Archives: July 2012
I’ve done quite a bit of touring over the years, to and through a good many picturesque places, and one of my chief regrets in looking back is that I have so few of my own photos to show for it – and me a photographer by training. I’ve got no pictures of myself cycling through Zanzibar, only a few snapshots (somewhere) of a trek I made across Europe to Istanbul a few years back, nothing at all of riding through Wales along the Lôn Las Cymru (scenery-wise, the most beautiful tour I’ve ever taken) nor of following Hadrian’s Wall in the moody November mist and rain in 2009.
Even my big trip around Australia, which appeared as a three-part series in National Geographic, in which the magazine gave me a hundred rolls of film (and would have given me much more had I requested it) is fairly under-photographed, at least by me. The vast majority of the shooting for that trip was done by Ian Lloyd, a photographer National Geographic flew in to join me for a few days at a time, here and there along the ride (for that story see here). I shot some of it, to be sure, but I regret very much that I didn’t do more.
What I did do was mainly landscapes and people I met along the way; my own vision looking through the camera lens. There is nothing wrong with that, and much that is right, but of the couple thousand frames I shot over the course of that trip, there are none of me aboard my bicycle. I regret that. Looking back nowadays, when I typically return home from my daily rides each morning with the equivalent of five or so rolls of film shot of myself rolling along the seaside, through towns or out in the Sussex countryside, I marvel that I didn’t at least try to do some self-portrait style shooting while I was off by myself cycling in these exotic locales.
The thing was, I really didn’t know how to do this sort of thing very well. Self-timer photography isn’t the kind of thing that is generally taught, or ever even practiced much – certainly not journalistically which is where my background lies. For the most part a camera’s self-timer function is just seen as something you might use to snap group shots at parties or when you and the family are posing in front of tourist landmarks, and you can’t find a trustworthy-enough-looking passer-by to snap the picture for you.
The fact is, with a bit of practice and creative vision, the humble self-timer can be a very useful tool, especially and obviously for a solitary traveller, but also for couples and groups as well. And it needn’t be used for just static shots either, far from it – a world of dynamic possibilities awaits. Over the past nine months, in creating this blog, I’ve had a lot of practice with the ole self-timer function and in composing shots remotely and then putting myself in the picture. I have shot many thousands of frames and, I like to think, learned much about what works and what doesn’t. Along the way I’ve tested out a fair bit of lightweight camera gear that fits nicely in a handlebar bag and is easy to take along and operate on the road.
To be clear: all of the photos in this post – and indeed virtually all of the photos in this blog – were not only taken by me, but I am also the cyclist in the frame.
Travel photography is a lot of fun, especially when you are cycling. It isn’t hard to do, either, but it is not often explained or taught. This has all been stuff that I wish I had known about years ago. In fine blogging spirit, I’d like to share what I have learned with others. And so I am going to start an on-going series of posts about photography on the road, covering not just self-timer techniques but lighting and composition as well, stuff that I have found handy over the course of my career. I hope you’ll enjoy these posts, find them useful and, by the way, please do feel free to ask questions or suggest areas you’d like to see covered.For starters, let’s look at cameras – specifically compact cameras, which are easier than SLRs to tick in a bar bag and take along on a ride. We are lucky these days to be living in a digital age, free of the costs, hassles and uncertainties of using film. Back in the bad old days, you never knew what you had until it had been through the lab, perhaps days or weeks later if you were out in some remote location, and by then the opportunity to re-compose and re-shoot the scene was long gone. You also had to carry around a lot of weight in film, keep it cool (not easy in deserts or the tropics) and then of course stop and reload the camera every thirty-six (or twenty-four) frames, opening the back, risking exposure to dust, moisture or briny seaside air, and generally interrupting the creative flow – and all too often missing the prime moment while you are reloading.
Nowadays you can just blaze away all you like – ten rolls a hundred rolls, a thousand rolls, it doesn’t matter – and then press a button one the back of your camera and see what you’ve got, right there, immediately. And if you don’t like it, erase and shoot it again. And portable? Even mobile phones these days have astonishing capabilities for shooting pictures and video, beyond that of high-end SLRs only a few years ago. In general, though, if you are seriously looking to get great shots of your cycling tours, commutes or morning rides you’re better off with a dedicated camera and preferably one that shoots in RAW format.
When you shoot in jpeg the camera discards a lot of the data it collects and gives you what it believes to be a good general summation of the scene. It is nice, simple and it saves a lot of space on your card. When you shoot in RAW the camera retains everything – creating much bigger files, to be sure, but giving you far, far greater directorial control over the final product later on when you are back home and editing your pictures on screen. You can do so much more, have so any more options, if you have shot in RAW and have all that data to hand. Not every camera – especially not every compact camera, the most convenient size for tucking in a handlebar bag – shoots in RAW; you need to check.
Secondly, don’t be too swayed by big numbers in the megapixel category. Marketers, particularly at the budget end of the spectrum, like to make much of their product’s astounding number of megapixels, but more isn’t necessarily better. There are a host of other technical consideration to take into account, not least of which is a camera’s sensor and its ability to handle ‘noise’ – the digital graininess that can dull or spoil an otherwise nicely composed shot, especially ones taken in low light.
Finally, of course, for our purposes, you want one with a good self-timer mechanism. Nearly all cameras have them. Generally they give you a choice of either a two-second or ten-second delay after which the camera will fire a single frame. Ten seconds and one shot is all right, in its way, but it is limiting. Canon offers an interesting and unusual feature on quite a few of their compact models: a custom timer function that allows you to set your own delay of 1-10 seconds, 15 seconds, 20 seconds and 30 seconds, after which the camera will fire as many as 10 frames (you dial in the number).
This is a godsend if you are doing self-timer photography on a bicycle as it gives you plenty of time to get into the picture, and by shooting quite a few frame in a single go, you stand a better chance of putting yourself exactly where you want to be – something that can be particularly tricky in a motion shot, and may require quite a few ‘takes’. Canon is the only manufacturer that I am aware of that has this function on their cameras – it is rather unusual. To be clear, there may be others that offer this, but I am not aware of them. (As an aside here, a declaration of non-interest, let me add that although I use and like Canon cameras, and have for years, I am in no way affiliated with them or sponsored by them, unlike quite a few of my colleagues, and thus am free to praise or rubbish them at will and as I please.)
While it is possible to take an SLR on a cycling trek – I carried a Nikon SLR and three lenses around Australia! – a compact is far, far easier to manage, and with the quality and technology that is built into a lot of compacts these days, your image quality won’t be far off that of an SLR. Indeed for web purposes, Facebook, blogs etc, and modest sized prints you won’t really notice the difference. And with a zoom-style compact you will generally have a decent range of focal lengths and on some models built-in filters, such as the very handy neutral density – of which more later, in another post.
My personal cycling camera – the one that I take with me every day on my rides and which I have used to shoot the overwhelming majority of photographs on this site – is a Canon G11. This is a beautiful camera, and very near to ideal for cycling and touring uses, but is also fairly pricey as compacts go. I have also had my hands on and used their earlier G10 model and the more recent G12, as well as the exquisite, not quite so dear and oh-so-easy to tuck into a shirt pocket Canon Powershot S90 and S95.
As you can see, a hefty weighting towards Canon in my case, but there are plenty of other excellent compact cameras worthy of consideration and as for that aforementioned odd-but-very-nice custom self-timer facility – well, there are ways around that too, which I’ll be discussing in future posts. For those of you shopping around for a camera and looking for more in-depth reviews and comparisons, I recommend the Digital Photography Review site (see here). They review cameras right across the whole spectrum of makes, models, styles, price points and capabilities and their reviews are thorough and authoritative.
In my next post I’ll take a look at lightweight and portable means of supporting and steadying your camera for self-timer photography on the road – see here.
An old college friend of mine, a non-cyclist, who lives in the U.S. state of Connecticut e-mailed me over the weekend to say how much she had been enjoying the Olympic road cycling events – not so much the excitement of the race and tactics, nor even the colourful spectacle of so many brightly liveried cyclists spinning along the road, but the sheer beauty of the English landscape and those invitingly narrow leafy country lanes. We really are pretty lucky here in Britain, spoiled for choice in terms of beautiful places to ride, and although I am generally conscious of a sense of good fortune when I go out on my daily rides, there is still something wonderfully affirming in hearing it from others.
I wrote back saying – as I truly believe to be the case – that the pretty scenery she saw on TV wasn’t nearly the best. Prompted by my boast I took myself out to Bodiam Castle this morning, a beautiful 14th century ruin about an hour’s ride north of here. It is one of at least half a dozen fine old castles that lie within a day’s comfortable pedalling distance of where I live, what I like to think of as my embarrassment of riches. All of them are attractive in their various ways, but Bodiam is especially picturesque. It is the perfect mediaeval castle: a simple quadrilateral with four round crenulated towers, one at each corner, and of course a moat – the sort of thing every child draws when asked to draw a castle. It was built in 1385 by one Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a rather thuggish mercenary soldier and former knight of King Edward III’s who made his fortune by looting and pillaging France during the Hundred Years’ War.
Worried that the sorely provoked French might sneak across the Channel one night and pay him a little visit – for these were uncertain times – he sought and received royal permission to fortify his home at Bodiam, and being the kind of guy he was, Sir Edward did so on a grandiose scale – not even bothering with the old manor house that was there, instead building this beautifully landscaped mediaeval castle with a moat.
The French never came, but the English Civil War did 250 years later, and the holder of the castle by then, a fellow named John Towers, backed the losing Royalist side and had to sell off the stately pile to pay the hefty fines imposed on him by Parliament. All the costly fittings were stripped away and the castle left as a picturesque ruin right through Victorian times until it was finally bought by Lord Curzon in 1916. It was he who spruced it up – what was left of it, that is – and left it to the nation when he died in 1925. There’s not much to see inside the walls – it’s just a shell, really – but from the outside, when you ride up to it, you feel as though you’ve slipped into the frame of some romantic Victorian watercolour. The place still has that ‘picturesque ruin’ ambience to it, with its stately oak trees along the edge of the moat, banks of wildflowers, the ducks on the water and the schools of brightly coloured carp in it.
It was wreathed in chilly dawn mist when I caught my first glimpse of it’s ancient walls this morning. As I dismounted and walked my bicycle along the footpath around the moat I found myself thinking back to all the daydreamed adventures of my boyhood rides – and I felt a kind of jubilant vindication. And to think I can do it all again tomorrow.
Technology has been a bit of a mixed bag for me the past forty eight hours, with my web-host server crashing and putting my blog off-line for a couple of days, and my e-mail also going briefly on the fritz. Thankfully both are now restored and back in order. My apologies to those of you who attempted to visit my site and were unable to, and many thanks to those who e-mailed me to let me know (although I knew already as I hadn’t been able to get onto the site either!) It was very frustrating for me not to be able to put up an out-of-order sign. I felt helpless. Happily the web-host company I am with did a good job of fixing the bug and were very consultative throughout, with hourly updates, and so I knew how things were going even if I was not able to pass on the word to my readers. Again, my apologies.
But if technology seemed a big let down on the web-server and e-mail fronts the past couple of days, there was also a bright side. My iPad was working just fine and I discovered how pleasant it can be to sit out in the garden on a fine summery afternoon (within range of our wifi) and watch the men’s Olympic road cycling race on the BBC website. It would have been nicer still to have had the race conclude with a blinding Mark Cavendish sprint and a gold medal, but clearly it wasn’t to be. One drawback to being famously fast and a red-hot favourite is that you become a marked man. Nobody but his team mates were going to do anything that might benefit him in the least, and Team GB simply couldn’t control the race on their own.
Still, it was an exciting and visually pleasing race to watch, and to marvel at the speeds at which those guys were riding their bicycles down leafy English country lanes – almost like home turf for me! – while I sat there sitting in our garden, a cool drink at my elbow, with my iPad open like a book before me, streaming live coverage from the BBC. the wonder of it all. It went a long way to restoring my faith in the magic of modern technology, while the very pleasant bicycle rides I took each morning were splendid reminders of the assuredness of good old-fashioned pedal-driven 19th century simplicity.
I’ve had a lot of experience with various forms of touring tyres over the years, but narrower, sleeker road tyres are a fairly new field for me and when I ordered my Pegoretti a few years ago I was at a bit of a loss to know what kind of tyres to spec for it. I knew that Schwalbe Marathon Plusses, my old expedition touring stand-by, came narrow enough (25mm) to fit and so did Panaraer Paselas – a lightweight touring option I’ve used in the past and which I knew could be had in widths as narrow as 23mm.
Somehow though I shrank from the idea of putting touring tyres on my sparkly new Pegoretti. Having at last made my first foray into road bikes – and what a lovely foray it was! – I wanted to put some appropriate rubber on the rims. At the same time though, I didn’t want to be spending a lot of time sitting on the roadside with my beautiful new Pegoretti upended beside me while I patched up punctures or replaced tubes. My years of touring in remote places and on roads had given me a healthy distrust of skinny tyres and lightweight sporty tread. And so after a bit of research I decided to try the Continental Four Seasons GP – a slightly sturdier version of Conti’s famous GP4000 – in 25mm width.
I am so glad I did. It’s been nearly four years now – four seasons come to think of it, since I run the Pegoretti only in summer – and the tyres have performed beautifully. While I don’t care to tempt fate too much I can tell you that the sum total of punctures I have suffered in that time and many thousands of miles is less than one. The handling is great (although how they perform on wet and slippery roads is as yet a mystery to me as I never take the Pegoretti out in the rain!) They are not cheap tyres by any means, but given their reliability and durability – mine still have a lot of wear left in them – they come off as very economical, while the beautiful handling and the fact that I have enjoyed such uninterrupted continuity on my swift, sporty rides through the countryside these past four summers make them seem a bargain indeed.
I’ve always been a fan of Art Deco and as I sit here this morning, not long back from my ride, I find myself wondering why on earth I’d never stopped and tinkered around photographically with the very much Art Deco De La Warr Pavillion which sits along the Bexhill seafront – and which I pass virtually every morning. I’ve been aware of it of course. You can’t miss it. It is an imposing theatre and entertainment complex overlooking the seafront, built in 1935, and said by some to be the first significant Modernist structure in Britain.
Grand as it is though, a Bexhill landmark, its art deco stylishness had never really registered with me before this morning, when I was riding along the promenade with a bright orange sun coming up behind me and chanced to look up at its sleek glassy front, instead of out to sea, and found myself marvelling at it as though I was seeing it for the first time. And although I very much intended to put in a high mileage ride today, I found myself instead pulling over and digging out my tripod and cameras and getting to work and enjoying myself immensely.
As delightful as this discovery was, it was a little unsettling too – in an agreeable sort of way. I’ve always liked to think that my daily rides have given me a heightened sensibility to the landscapes and streetscapes around me, and that I know my little patch of Sussex like the back of my hand, but now I wonder. If something as big and stylish as this could have passed unnoticed in all my years of riding by, what other intriguing things are out there still? But then perhaps that is the joy of exploring the world by bicycle – the world is alwayus big and new and ripe for discovery.
Today was one of those inspirationally fine mornings, the sort we haven’t had nearly enough of this summer here in England, and so acting on a fair-weather impulse I veered inland when I went out for my ride and headed up into the Weald.
The term Weald, in case you’re not familiar with it, comes from an Old English word meaning ‘forest’, and back in the day the swathe of mediaeval forest separating Hastings from London, just sixty miles to the north, was about as dense and impenetrable as you could hope – or not hope – to find. In fact, until the railroads arrived in Victorian days most of the people who came to Hastings came here came by sea. Once the railroads arrived Hastings became a fashionable seaside resort, and the forests and ancient villages scattered up through the Weald were seen more as something beautiful and rustic and desirable – Kipling, for example, had his home down this way, a beautiful old manor house called Bateman’s which was (and is) located near a pretty little village called Burwash. And it was to Burwash I was heading this morning, following an old favourite route of mine that I haven’t taken for at least a year, up through Battle, Netherfield and Brightling, along narrow palsied lanes that meander through the woodlands.
I’ll have to do this more often. I’d forgotten how beautiful it is up this way. One of the things I like best about cycling in Sussex is that once you get off the main roads and disappear down its narrow tunnels of leaves, you feel as though you’ve stepped out of the 21st century and into some more picturesque era that you can frame in any way you please and with whatever takes your fancy; you’re off in a quaint old English world of your own making – one that’s coloured by your own idle fancies, the books you read, the paintings you’ve seen, the images you’ve formed in your mind. There is nothing quite like England for this sort of thing.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have ridden my bicycle in a great many pretty places around the world. I have rich memories of riding through the wild mountainous northern-style woods as a kid in New Hampshire, and later as an adult riding through the Ardennes in Belgium, the Black Forest in Germany and the Vienna Woods in Austria, but none of them has ever – not even my much-loved and fondly recalled New England – touched me in quite the same lyrical manner as my rides along these old sunken lanes and storybook forests in the Sussex Weald.
As a photographer I am in love with light, and never more so than when I am riding along the seafront on certain warm still mornings, as I was today, just before dawn, when the sea is like polished glass and shimmering with this intriguing metallic tint that seems to shift constantly between a kind of French aquamarine and robin’s egg blue. I can never quite make up my mind. It’s a fascinating colour, whatever you choose to call it, and very, very fleeting but it doesn’t photograph well – or not at all, really. It seems to be something my eyes can pick up, but which eludes the sensor on my camera every time.
Perhaps it’s the contrast with the warmer bright hues in the sunrise sky, or some difficulty with the colour balance, I don’t know. Maybe it’s me. Maybe the camera picks it up precisely as it really is, and when I see it later, divorced from the sea-blown freshness of the moment, pedalling along the promenade, free and happy, I lose whatever train of thought or subliminal memories and boyhood associations were inspiring me at the moment and making my imagination transform the colour into something special and unique to me and my eyes. Whatever it is, this beautiful evanescent shade was colouring the sea again this morning. Once again I tried to capture it – and once again fell short.
It had to happen sooner or later, I suppose – the doughty old Thorn expedition bike that over the past thirteen years has carried me to Zanzibar and Istanbul, and the length and breadth of Britain and over many, many thousands of miles along the leafy lanes of Sussex and Kent would finally come down with an ailment that couldn’t be quite so readily fixed with just a simple tyre patch or new set of brake blocks. The right crank failed, or, to be more specific, the aging threads holding the aged and battered Shimano bear-trap pedal in place seemed finally to have crumbled away, leaving me with a dangerously loose and unstable pedal and (grudgingly, for safety’s sake) a three-mile walk home.
It could have been much worse. Fortunately for me I was riding along the seafront at Bexhill when it happened, not fifteen miles further away at Herstmonceux where I had been only an hour earlier. If I was grateful it waited until I was only a couple miles from home, I was also a bit flummoxed as well. I’ve never had any sort of mechanical issue I couldn’t repair on the spot – certainly never something as major as a failed crank. But then I’ve never had a bicycle with anything like the mileage this one has, a good 80,000 to 85,000 miles. At least. And hard miles at that. And virtually everything on it is original (other than the usual consumable items like tyres, brake blocks, chains, cassettes and bar tape). I’d been rather proud of that, perhaps even a bit complacent and smug – the way we middle-aged codgers tend to be sometimes about our own fitness and abilities as well.
In retrospect, of course, it seems pretty obvious that I should have seen something like this coming – if not the crank, then perhaps a corroded drop-out or a sudden nasty grinding noising telling me the bearing races in the grubby old high-mileage hubs were well and truly shot. And I suppose in the back of my mind I had been expecting something – but not right away. Not in my face like this, not so… immediate. But age and deterioration isn’t the procrastinator that I am. Things wear out and although I’ve been trying not to notice, my beloved old expedition bike is showing its age – and so am I come to think of it. I turn fifty four in a fortnight. Maybe this is a sort of vicarious wake up call – time to shed the excess weight and ease up on the rich cheeses and caffeine.
For now though I am in the market for a new square-taper touring crank, and the bottom bracket to go with it, and like any good cardiac Catholic I find myself thinking I might want to go over the rest of the old bike the next fine day that comes along, and take a long hard look, and see what else I need to change.
A couple of years ago Dario Pegoretti was one of six independent frame builders whose works were exhibited as pieces of fine art in New York’s Museum of Art and Design – the others in the group being Sacha White, Jeff Jones, Peter Weigle, Mike Flanigan and Richard Sachs. In all, twenty bikes were on display. They ranged in style from racing bikes to mountain bikes, cyclo-cross, commuters, tourers and randonneurs but they all had one thing in common; they were all beautiful, hand-made pieces richly deserving of their place in an art gallery. They were, and are, indisputably ‘art’.
I am lucky enough to own a Pegoretti – one of his made-to-order Luiginos, a retro-classic road bike he designed and built as his tribute to the great Italian builders of the 1960s, most particularly his own father-in-law Luigino Milani of Verona. I’ve got one of the original ones with the double box crown which, I’ve been told, is no longer available. I particularly like this feature, with its very Italian ‘Buonasera Signorina’ engraved on its face, and in my general babying of this beautiful road bike I usually take good care to keep it shiny and clean.
I’ve had the bike out on the road the past couple of days and as I was wheeling it back into the shed this morning I happened to glance at the crown and noticed that it was getting kind of gritty and grubby, in need of a clean. I frowned at this and yet I stayed my hand and reached for my camera instead, because there was an element of truth and honesty and beauty in this road grime that appealed to me. This bicycle is a piece of fine art, yes. But it is functional art as well, a kinetic sculpture. It was built to be used, to spin down country lanes and along city streets in exactly the sort of manner I’d been using it, not hung on the walls of an art gallery. Dario Pegoretti said as much himself, many times, of his frames. And so I saw in the grime on the crown this morning an expression of that, and thought it worth of a photograph.