Monthly Archives: September 2012
Autumn is well and truly here with a snap in the air and a light frost forming on the grasses along the roadside on my ride across the marshes and over to Pevensey this morning. What caught my fancy though, as I pedalled along, wasn’t the autumnal chill but the glorious haunting spectacle of a Blue Moon hanging in the hard, clear skies to the west. It wasn’t actually blue, of course; it was a brilliant creamy white – the term ‘Blue Moon’ being a colloquial term for a second full moon in a calendar month. The next one won’t be until July of 2015. (Astronomers and almanac editors, by the way, have a slightly stricter definition, a Blue Moon in their eyes being the fourth full moon in a single season.)
Whatever the term or definition, the luminous Blue moon this morning cast a lovely glow over the countryside. This, coupled with the touch of frost in the air, and the thick ground mist over the marshes, and the twinkling lights of Eastbourne off in the distance made for a wonderfully evocative ride. I wanted to capture the sense of being out in it, all alone, miles from home, while the rest of the world was sleeping. And so with apologies for the blurring, colour casts and blown highlights, here’s a glimpse of a ride through the marshes by the light of a Blue Moon.
For some time now I have wanted to find a way of photographing – in a cycling sort of way – the ruins of the old Hastings fun pier, which forms a key part of the visual backdrop to my daily rides along the seafront. Until a few days ago, though, I could never really get a handle on it. I have tried shooting it from various distances and angles, from along the red-and-white chequered promenade as I approached from the east, and looking back from Hastings Old Town, but none of these attempts ever really came off; none of them captured the moodiness and desolation of the ruined pier, a 140 year-old landmark which was destroyed in an arson attack on Halloween a couple of years ago.
About a week ago I began taking closer notice of the old iron gates that guard the entrance. For most of the length they were covered with construction placards and warning signs to keep off and keep out, but there was a stretch that was clear. An idea began to form in the back of my brain. Remember, I wanted to shoot these melancholy ruins with a bicycle in frame, not just as evocative ruins; to illustrate an aspect of my daily rides along the seafront. I pulled over and ‘cased’ the area in passing on a couple of occasions this week, studying perspectives and angles and taking a few practice shots and giving thought to how I wanted to capture the elusive image I had in mind.
This morning I went for it. I picked my clothes out with care – dark stuff only – and packed along a regular sized tripod in a knapsack. I timed my ride to arrive there a quarter of an hour before sunrise, when there was plenty of ambient light but not so much I couldn’t shoot at a very low shutter speed. With the tripod set up so that the camera was pointed square-on to the gates, I set the camera’s ISO to 80, used an aperture of 7.1 and a shutter speed of a sixth of a second, with the flash synchronised to a slow shutter speed. I wanted to create a sense of mystery, a ghost rider if you will, spinning past the old Victorian gates with the flash catching on the reflective sidewalls of the tyres and some shiny bits on the bike but as little else as possible. Using a wireless shutter trigger I made quite a few passes, working fast against the swiftly changing light, and trying to get the composition and lighting just right. It was quite a juggling act, doing it on my own as I was, but I was really pleased with the result – another for the scrapbook of my daily rides.
Bicycles are works of art, kinetic sculptures that literally and metaphorically transport us, and provide those of us who get about on two wheels, and identify ourselves as cyclists, with a means of personal artistic expression. Tourers, road bikes, hybrids, mixtes, MBT, porteurs, audax, whatever the breed, whatever the livery and choice of components, the look and style of bicycles we chose for ourselves says something about us, our own styles and aspirations, and the heady, often complex relationship we have with bicycles and cycling. Small wonder then that we like to take photographs of our bikes, trying to capture that image that is worth those thousand ungraspable words.
It is not always easy though.
Too often what we end up with are snapshots, pleasing in their record-the-moment way yet also vaguely unsatisfying, too. We know what is was we wanted to express: beauty, muscularity of design, efficiency, speed, grace, freedom, a sense of aerial liberation, maybe the romance of the open road, all the complicated things that excited us about cycling and bicycles and that bicycle in particular. We can kind of see what we had in mind, a reminder of these things at any rate, but somehow as an expression the images just seem to miss the mark. To be honest, they always will. Even art has its limitations, let alone artists. But there are ways of seeing and photographing that bring you closer to saying what you want to say. For what it’s worth I have put together a few thoughts and hopefully useful suggestions based on my own experience – many thousand frames by now – of photographing my bicycles. (I have already put together a short series of tips on photographing yourself aboard your bicycle here and here, and here, and here)
For starters, consider your backdrop. So many times I see photographs of what appear to be splendid bicycles – someone’s pride-and-joy – but set against some ugly bit of pebbledash or homely brick, or even propped up against the washer-drying in the laundry room with a scattering of bunched socks on the floor. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with any of this – a carbon-fibre or hand-made steel beauty juxtaposed with a Hills Hoist in a suburban backyard could have kind of a raffish Polaroid appeal if set out properly and well lit – for the most part these things just seem hasty and ill-considered; someone taking a snapshot, not making a photograph. Give some thought to the entirety of the picture, not merely the presence of the bicycle.
Human eyes and sensibilities have an uncanny way of editing out those bits of minutiae that are of no interest to us in a picture, and never more so than when we are looking through a camera view-finder and composing an image. Our thoughts and focus are on the object of interest – in this case a bicycle – and so we literally don’t see the washing machine or the dirty socks or the drab ugliness of the pebbledash wall. The camera’s sensor, however, is very unemotional. It doesn’t care. It sees and records every last little thing. And alas, so do we, later on when we view the photograph and marvel that it somehow doesn’t live up to the excitement we felt when looking through the viewfinder and triggering the shutter. The picture didn’t come out well, we tell ourselves.
The trick is to step back, figuratively, and view the scene dispassionately, as the camera sees it. Get rid of the extraneous clutter or find a different backdrop altogether. Consider the colour and brightness, texture and tone of your backdrop and measure it against the colour of your bike. Look for differences in tone or contrast: a light-coloured frame in sharp focus lifted out against a sombre and slightly out of focus background, for example, can draw the eye immediately to the bike – which is the thing you want your viewer to focus on Simply. Get rid of everything that doesn’t pull its weight in the image you want to make.
And add stuff that does. Forget the garage door as a backdrop – take the bike to a setting that will create an appropriate bit of ambience, a backdrop that hints at your relationship with cycling or your aspirations for your bicycle. In the two bicycle photos I have posted here, one is of my dream bicycle, a lightweight classic lugged-steel tourer that I had been forming in my minds eye for many years before I finally commissioned the frame to be built a year ago. For that one I took it to a shingle beach and shot it with the sunrise sparkling on its shiny rims, hubs, and drivetrain – and metered on that. What I wanted was something dreamlike and evocative, a sense of escape and longing.
The other shot is of my old expedition tourer which now sees service as my winter bike. Since I go out every morning at 4:30 or so, and am generally riding by the light of the moon or stars, I wanted something that represented that, and hinted too at a sense of location and so I set up this shot early one morning by an old Edwardian kiosk along the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea – something I pass by almost every day.
Whether I achieved what I was looking for with either of these photographs is not really for me to say, other than that I was – and am – happy with the results. The thing is, there are endless possibilities for setting up a shot of your bicycle in ways that can express your own particular style and relationship with your bicycle.
Bicycles are off course a sum of their parts, and these individual parts can be interesting and beautiful in their own right. Again, as with whole-bicycle shots, look at your composition. Use depth of field to blur the backdrop and draw the viewer’s eye to the object you’ve kept in sharp focus, and want them to see and appreciate. This is done, if you’re not familiar with the workings of your camera’s lenses, by using a wider-open f-stop, say f1.8 or f2 or even f2.8. The wider open the lens (the smaller the number) the narrower your depth of field, and the greater the degree of blur in the background (called bokeh in photographer’s vernacular, after the Japanese term for blurring the background in a painting)
Portrait photographers do this all the time – which is why specialty portrait lenses have f-stops as low as f1.2 – and what are you doing here but taking portraits of your bike – the lugged stem, the seat-stays, the head-tube badge, the pedals, the brakes, the chainrings, whatever. Bicycles can be visually complicated when you get close up – all that chain-driven mechanical stuff, and cable-drawn brakes and derailleur mechanisms, and foreshortened angles in the frame. Take things one at a time, and give a bit of thought to perspective. Make these shiny bits interesting and attractive, ideally as interesting and attractive to the new-to-the-scene viewer as they are to you. I have included here a study on pedals I made in black-and-white. Something about old-style flat pedals fascinates me – they are like a magic step, filled with latent possibility, and so I tried to capture that sense of magic with a series of images.
A note for anyone photographing componentry on their bike: a work stand is very helpful. With the bike on a stand you can experiment with different angles and perspectives and depths of field. I have found, for example, that the shadowy depths of our back garden, where the chestnut tree casts it shade, can provide a pleasing bit of contrast with the shiny bits on a bike, especially when blurred with a narrow depth-of-field setting on the lens.
I hope some of these thoughts are useful. I’d love to see some of your results.
Here are a few more of mine:
All the wind and chilly torrential rain this past week has underscored one of the great and often pointed-to drawbacks to relying on bicycles for your primary transportation – you’re going to get cold and wet. To be sure, if you’re out riding a bicycle in these sorts of conditions you’re going to be much more under the weather, so to speak, than if you were sitting in some warm dry sedan, purling through traffic listening to a jazzy Miles Davis number and keeping time to the steady throp-throp-throp of the windscreen wipers. Even so, ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ are pretty strong terms. Experience has shown me that if you kit yourself out sensibly you needn’t be miserable out there, even on the rainiest of days. In fact, over the years I have had some very enjoyable rides in the rain.
Just the other day in fact, when I was riding home from the recording studio in Robertsbridge I found myself caught in a sudden cloudburst as I was coming along the A2100 into Battle. The sun was still shining through a break in the clouds and the big rain drops sparkled like diamonds, forming a continuous series of tiny arching rainbows over that kept receding in front of me so that I was riding towards them, or into them, for several captivating minutes. It was magic. Who would want to be cocooned in a car speeding along at forty miles an hour and miss that?
One thing is certain though: if you’re truly going to rely on a bicycle for year-round transport a good weatherproof jacket is essential. I deliberately used the word ‘weatherproof’ rather than ‘waterproof’, because for the most part when you get into the genuinely waterproof end of the spectrum you are also going to be looking at either a lot of money or a fair bit of heat build-up and condensation which can render you hot and sweaty on the bike, and damp and chilly when you arrive at your destination. Waterproof and breathable hasn’t really been achieved yet, despite all the advances in fabric technology and the marketing bumf that goes with it.
Obviously some fabrics and designs are better than others and as a rule the nearer you get to this elusive balance the more money you are going to have to shell out. This can get prohibitively expensive with some top-of-the-range jackets costing £400 or more – although if you keep an eye out for sales you can save heaps. Bear in mind, too, when reading reviews for weatherproof cycling jackets that we all have different metabolisms and a jacket that might keep me feeling cool and fresh as I pedal along might be a boil-in-the-bag nightmare to you. Whatever the fabric or design, though, try to get a jacket with pit zips. Cycling even at a moderate pace generates a fair bit of body heat and pit zips are wonderful mechanisms for letting this excess heat escape before it makes you sweaty. By this same token, unless you are racing, looser-fitting jackets are better than road-cut designs simply because they are roomier and the air can circulate inside.
Weatherproof over-trousers can be another useful (optional?) thing to have in your wardrobe, the three-quarter length ones being rather better at keeping you from becoming overheated. I tend not to worry about my shorts getting wet as a rule, at least not on my morning pleasure rides, but if I am out touring and going to be in the saddle all day, or (thinking back) when I used to commute to work and didn’t relish the prospect of putting on damp shorts at the end of the day, a pair of weatherproof over-trousers can be pretty handy. Ditto overshoes – those stretchy Neoprene things that slip over your cycling shoes. Nobody likes wearing wet shoes, let alone putting on a pair at the end of the day as you start your homeward ride, and a pair of these can save you from that unpleasantness. They will also keep your feet that bit warmer in the winter. Add a pair of weatherproof gloves (see some reviews here) and you’ve pretty well completed your armoury.
None of these accoutrements needs to cost the earth, especially if you are just starting out using your bicycle as about-town transport or commuting to work, although if you are adopting the bicycle in a big, lifestyle sort of way it will certainly pay to invest in some better quality gear as you go along, tried and tested to your own metabolism and personal circumstances. My own personal wet-weather gear set-up, figured out and invested in over the years, is a Gore Fusion jacket, Endura eVent three-quarter length over trousers, Endura MBT overshoes (now tatty and much in need of replacement) and a pair of Assos Early Winter 851 gloves. Gird myself with these and I can set out on a ride in the rainiest of weather feeling snug and self-reliant and revelling in that fierce satisfying sense of independence that comes from being out and about, a host in yourself, meeting nature on its own terms – to say nothing of chasing rainbows.
As a journalist I’ve often thought I had a great face for radio and a wonderful voice for print, and so it was with trepidation and a little bashfulness that I found agreeing to a request by the powers-that-be at National Geographic to read aloud a story of mine for a podcast to go along with the story’s publication in the November issue. Nat Geo’s multi-media people located a recording studio here in Sussex, in Robertsbridge, only about twelve miles or so from my home, and booked me in for an afternoon session.
Naturally I rode my bicycle to get out there. The weather wasn’t the best, being windy and gusty with sudden cold hard showers, but by and large it was a pleasant ride, if something of a novelty for me to be pedalling through traffic along busy roads on a weekday afternoon. What I liked best about this outing though was reprising the old satisfaction of using my bicycle for work, as a proper tool so to speak, which along with the daytime traffic was also something of a novelty for me these days.
I used to commute on my bicycle all the time, back when I was living in Melbourne and working for The Sunday Age newspaper, and I loved it. That was then. Working from home as I do these days, there is no need to commute, and my ‘away’ work is generally so far away that going there by bicycle is impractical. Consequently my rides have been purely for pleasure, out at dawn with the road to myself and the world still asleep. But this afternoon’s twelve-mile jaunt out to Robertsbridge, and the twelve-mile return through the gauntlet of rainy rush-hour traffic along Battle Road and the A2100, was just the ticket for reviving old memories and brushing up the old survival skills. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it, what a buzz it could be.
Today’s the big day – the autumnal equinox, that moment in time when the tilt of the earth’s axis is level with the plane of the sun, whose rays should be shining vertically over the equator at noon. What this means in non-astronomical terms is that for those of us in the northern hemisphere summer is well and truly gone, autumn is here in strength and the long slide into winter darkness has begun. Days and nights are now of roughly equal length, give or take, depending on your latitude, but from here on in, until the mid-winter solstice, the balance will be changing in favour of longer colder, darker, nights.
For those of us of the cycling persuasion, especially commuters and those of us who like to go out for long early morning (or late evening) rides, it is no longer possible to kid yourself that you can get by without lights – or at least that you won’t soon need them. It is time to pick up some new AA or AAA batteries for the blinking LED lights, front and rear; dig out the rechargeable headlamp set from the back of the closet if you’re going to be riding darkened lanes, or set up the dynamo hub if you are that way inclined.
To mark the equinox this year I bought myself a new half-watt Smart Superflash taillight to supplement the aging, but still brilliant, Cateye 1100 taillight on my also aging but brilliant Thorn. I have read a lot of good things about the brightness and visibility of Smart lights and although I have no reason whatever to be dissatisfied with my older model Cateye, I thought I would try out one of the new-fangled ones. You can’t be too well-lit on the roads these days; I’d as soon look like a county fair. What lights do you use, front or rear, and how many?
Winter bikes certainly don’t have it easy. As I sat on the train this morning, with my old Thorn eXp I found myself passing the time looking over its very hard-used, high-mileage components and wishing I had the means to give the bike the makeover it deserves after all these years (13) and miles (well over 80,000). I was taking the train to Tunbridge Wells, to a bicycle shop there called Wildside where I hoped to have the threads on the drive side crank repaired. Some weeks ago now on my morning ride along the Bexhill seafront the pedal came loose on that side, the threads having apparently been stripped.
Just how the threads came to be stripped remains something of a mystery, although I suspect a great deal of the blame can be sheeted home to a certain bicycle shop in Islington, since they were the last ones to have had the pedals off and I already know, from painful experience, that the mediaeval workmanship they performed on the bike when they gave it their gold-star service was dangerously bad.
This ghastly servicing was some time ago, though, and so I bear some degree of responsibility for 1) not checking that the goof ball they had tinkering on my bike put the pedals on properly and 2) not taking the pedals off myself in the intervening period and re-greasing the threads as one should do every year. Had I done so I feel certain I would have spotted the problem and remedied it. I didn’t and evidently have been riding around on pedals that were either cross-threaded or had been installed with no grease on the threads which in turn over the course of the seasons and through a process of electrolyses allows the aluminium crank and the steel spindle of the pedal to ‘weld’ themselves together and seize. Whatever the reason, the threads were ripped right out of the crank.
Although I had bought a new replacement crank I was loath to get rid of my old Shimano crank from the late 1990s, a cold forged aluminium beauty made for square tapered bottom brackets in the days when things were built to last. So as a last ditch effort I called up Wildside in Tunbridge Wells, about whom I had heard good things, and asked their guy if he could get the pedal out and re-thread the crank with a helicoil – something I am simply not equipped at home to do. He said they’d give it a go. I took it up there and – bingo! He sorted it. The good old original pedal is on the good old original crank, and the whole seems good for another few years. Alas, not so my old Suntour cantilever brakes, whose spring on the right front arm snapped leaving the brake pad pressed against the rim. I have spares here at home and can fix this, but as I cast appraising eyes over the rest of the components – too tinged with rust and grime for my liking, and with nobody to blame for that but me, I find myself itching to take it all to pieces, strip it down, replace the old rusty drop-outs, have it re-sprayed with a jaunty new livery and build it up again, respectfully, lovingly, with the components it deserves after so many years of long faithful service – but alas, there is no money and no time, and as autumn closes in and the rains come one more, I will be calling upon it once more to carry me through another English winter.
Being out on the road as much as I am, I’ve seen my share of bone-headed plays on bicycles – cyclists shooting through busy intersections against the lights, undertaking heavy goods vehicles that may or may not be about to turn left, and spinning along misty streets in the pre-dawn grey wearing sombre clothes and not a single light or reflector – but seldom have I seen anything more exuberantly bone-headed than the little tableau I witnessed this morning from my kitchen sink as I cleaned out my coffee pot, post-ride.
As I glanced out the window I saw a grey-haired old man – and how he came to be old, I’ll never understand – spinning along the footpath at a brisk rate, bareheaded on a ratty hybrid, one hand on the handlebars and a cigarette dangling lazily in the other. Distracted by an urge to draw on his cigarette, he hit a tree-root lump in the pavement and the whole bike did a somersault with him on it, mid puff. It was the damnedest thing. It was positively cartoonish. The aerial display ended with the guy sprawled on the pavement, the bike on top of him. I stepped out to see if he was okay, but he was already on his feet, a bit scuffed up and scraped and moving rather stiffly but clearly keen to get on his way. First things first though: he fired up another smoke to replace the one he mashed out on the pavement, then he slung his leg over the saddle and set off down the footpath once more, steering one handed, cigarette in the other, dangling by his side, just as before. It takes all kinds to make a world, doesn’t it?