Monthly Archives: October 2012
Halloween today and I am still beset by goblins as I struggle with the mixed up parameters of this story I have been assigned to write, and once again my bicycle provided a welcome refuge as I headed over to Bexhill and out along the marshes by the light of a near-full moon. It was a perfect escape, a chance to exercise my imagination as much as my legs. The night air was fresh and bracing and wild, and the moon riding on a sea of cloud as I spun along this stretch of faded old Edwardian flats, where a couple of early risers had lights on in their rooms. It made me think of an illustration in an old Strand Magazine mystery and, feeling inspired, I paused to take this photo – and wished that the proverbial thousand words, so badly needed on the story awaiting on my desk, could be as easy as snapping this picture.
My bicycle provided a most welcome refuge this morning from some knotty narrative problems I am having to deal with in a story I am supposed to write – the proposed storyline (not one I dreamed up!) turns out not to be so, leaving me not only the messenger bearing bad news but the bunny who has to find a way to make the darn thing work anyway. And so for the past fortnight I have been turning myself inside out trying to thread together a lot of not just loose ends but ends that seem to have no obvious connection at all. It is a bit like someone giving you a Harry Potter Lego set and asking you to use the pieces to build a convincing looking Death Star from Star Wars; a real brain teaser.
In such circumstances my ride along the Bexhill seafront early this morning in cold mist and moonlight provided a much needed, much longed-for sense of release and escape, magic and a whiff of sweet simplicity.
Apologies for stepping outside of my cycling brief again, but I can’t resist putting in a shameless plug for this month’s National Geographic Magazine which has a feature on cheetahs by yours truly, a story that I have been working on for the past eighteen months and which took me to Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and the Middle East as well as to Cincinnati, Ohio, of all places where I was involved in an amazingly complex photo shoot to capture pin-sharp images of a cheetah running at full speed. It is a story that I am quite proud of, have lived with for what has seemed like ages and which I am very happy and relieved at long last to see in print.
One of the many truly great things about doing stories for National Geographic is how much you learn and the things you are privileged to see and do over the course of your assignment. The above photo was taken on what was literally my first morning on the Masai Mara, in Kenya, at the very beginning of my field work for this story in the spring of last year. Although I had been reading up on them for some time before I first flew to Kenya, until a few moments before this picture was snapped I had never before seen a cheetah in a wild.
That day I went out early in the morning, before dawn, with veteran wildlife photographer Frans Lanting to observe and photograph a young mother cheetah who had successfully raised seven cubs to near maturity – an astounding feat on wide-open East African grasslands where lions and hyenas would typically kill ninety per cent of cheetah cubs. These were nearly fully grown, about to become independent, and yet were full of kittenish curiosity, as I soon discovered when four of them quite unexpectedly hopped up on my truck, one thrusting his face directly into mine. To say it startled me would be an understatement. My driver called up to me not to worry; that cheetahs were no threat whatsoever and told me to enjoy what was a special and rare moment. As indeed it was. Once my blood pressure had descended back into the low-hundreds, I tossed my camera to my driver who snapped the above photo. Over the course of the morning I was able to take this photo of another cheetah posing for Frans Lanting who was filming from our other truck.
It was the first of many close encounters and captivating experiences I was to have with these beautiful and (sadly) increasingly rare cats over the succeeding months, the last being at Cincinnati during June when we spent a week filming five of the Cincinnati Zoo’s cheetahs running a course on a farm an hour north of the city. It was one of the most elaborate film shoots National Geographic Magazine has ever undertaken – and that is really saying something.
To get the desired shots a team of some of Hollywood’s finest action and stunt cinematographers were flown in, along with many tonnes of gear. A dolly track 120 metres long (about 400 feet) was set up along the length of the course. The idea was to have a set of high-speed cameras whizzing alongside the cheetahs, step for step, as they sprinted down the course – no easy matter since a cheetah can easily out-accelerate a Lamborghini. To keep the frames sharp and in focus, the track had to be silky smooth and dead level, and the timing had to be dead-on perfect. The course was lit with a 150,000 watt light – the big, monster lights used for lightning effects in movies – that we had suspended from a crane.
The filming itself was done with a $300,000 Phantom Flex cinema camera, shooting 1200 frames per second, with the stills photography being done with three synchronized Canon D1X cameras each firing their full-burst 12 frames per second each throughout the run. It was a lot of costly glass to have mounted on a little sled that would go rocketing down a track along side a sprinting cheetah.
You might think with all this gear, top Hollywood talent (people whose action-filming CVs included the Bond movies among others), coupled with National Geographic’s finest photographers including the editor-in-chief, five generally cooperative cheetahs and the good offices of the Cincinnati Zoo’s highly experienced cheetah handlers that we were on a dead certainty. Far from it.
For three days in a sweltering Ohio Valley heat wave we tried and tried to get the shots, but the damned timing eluded us. Getting the sled to run at the precise pace as the cheetah, so the cat stayed in-frame, was mind-bogglingly tricky, relying on so many variables – not least of which was the mood of whichever cat happened to be doing the run. And since these incredible high-speed sprints take a lot out of the cheetahs, physically, each was allowed to do only a couple of runs per day. And so for us, every run mattered and a run in which the camera stayed just in front of the cheetah, or tantalisingly behind, with just tail and hindquarters in-frame, was a heartbreak. To be sure, there were some exhilarating runs, even if they weren’t captured on the Phantom. Among the best was when an 11 year-old female cheetah named Sarah shattered the existing record (her own) for the fastest timed hundred metres ever recorded by anything on legs – 5.95 seconds from a standing start, hitting a top speed of 61mph along the way. I know. I was the guy holding the radar gun.
With practice, over the course of the week coordination between cheetah, cheetah handler and the film crews improved. When the cheetahs were released, to chase the fluffy dog toy that was being used as a lure, the film crew and technicians became more adept at calculating when to fire-off the sled with the cameras. By the Friday evening, with the shoot about to conclude, it could be said that some decent footage was obtained. But then there was that one magic last run when to the surprise of everyone, everything clicked, every last little detail. The results were jaw-dropping.
You can read – and see – it all here
I hope you will enjoy it.
What a pleasure it was to set forth in daylight this morning, thanks in part to my sleeping in a little later than usual, but mostly because the clocks went back an hour last night to good old standard time. Being the early rise I am, I’ve never been a big fan of Daylights Saving Time. I’ve never been able to find a ready use for the ‘extra’ hour of daylight in the evening, whereas having the sun come up bright and (very) early in summer would be delightful.
But now we are back to the standard day, time and our clocks reconciled to the sun’s real position in the sky. It peeked above the horizon at a more uplifting 6:44 this morning instead of the nearly quarter to eight it had been rising, and which had me doing most of my rides lately by the light of my headlamp. It won’t last long. We are at the point in the calendar when the slide towards winter darkness really starts to accelerate, but for now at least it was nice once more to be pedalling along the seafront in the raking light of sunrise.
Being late on the scene, as ever, in the world of fashion and pop culture it should come as no surprise that I discovered this fox-and-hounds photo-shoot magazine advertisement for Brooks saddles only yesterday. It was shot last year by photographer Frank Herholdt in Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire, a beautiful piece of ancient woodland where Robin Hood and parts of some of the Harry Potter films were shot. According to a making-of video (here) the shoot took more than a month to plan and involved a team of assistants, stylists, lighting technicians, two models, a smoke machine, a pack of hounds and a three-year-old tamed female fox named Sorrel.
The idea was to convey a sense of Englishness and upper class tradition but with a raffish modern twist, as the two very proper English cyclists (who somehow, and totally illogically, happen to have been pedalling their road bikes through a pathless ancient wood) dismount and (very properly) rescue a fox from a pursuing pack of hounds. It is a whimsical scene and very well photographed, but taken with Brook’s expanding line of incredibly expensive tweedy, shooting-estate style cycling apparel it does leave you kind of wondering what is going on in the minds of the marketing guys there, where they see Brooks in the market these days and who they think the next generation of Brooks saddle users are going to be.
Among their offerings now is the Elder Street cycling jacket made of ‘fine water-repellent Fox Brothers tweed’, created by John Boultbee & Son and named after the street where bespoke tailor Timothy Everest has his atelier. Such a jacket, we are told, is a staple of every British wardrobe, but at nearly £600 I am afraid it will be a while before it becomes a staple in mine (but then again, of course, I am not British so perhaps it doesn’t matter).
Six hundred quid for the blazer though is a mere snip compared with Brook’s Gentleman’s Criterion Cycling Jacket, designed by Timothy Everest himself. This is a trenchcoat style affair, made of fine Ventile cotton and lined with fox tweed, and cut for a cyclist’s use and can be had for a mere £801.20. A ladies version is available for the same price.
For those caught out in a sudden shower there is always the Oxford rain cape, made by John Boultbee & Son and an absolute steal for a throwaway £184.
Throw in the £400 Barbican leather shoulder bag, and a £330 Islington rucksack and a Cornwall handlebar bag at £295 (and which weight 1700 grams!) and you are starting to talk some real money, at least to those of us among the great unwashed. And you begin to wonder if somebody at Brooks isn’t losing sight of the forest for the trees. Who is buying this stuff? Perhaps the astonished look on the fox’s face isn’t purely due to the approach of the hounds.
I’ve always loved black-and-white photography. Like most photographers of my generation, it’s where my roots are. To this day I hold fond memories of studying photography at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, back in the late 1970s – spending hot nights roving Central Avenue when it was still a living stretch of old U.S. Route 66, all cafes and pawn shops, auto courts and curio dealers, my Nikon loaded with Tri-X, trying to capture the beat of the city’s restless neon-lit rhythms and then later on playing around with the results, for many happy hours, in the university’s darkroom. It was such fun. I miss those days.
It is a long, long way in space and time from Albuquerque in the Seventies to a faded English seaside town on the Sussex coast in 2012 but with autumn fast advancing towards winter, and my rides unfolding in darkness each morning, I am finding myself reprising some of my old Central Avenue-Route 66 pleasures and shooting more black-and-white – or rather, developing more black-and-white, for this is the digital age when you just shoot what you like and make up your mind later on whether it’s to be colour or monochrome.
And lately when I return from my rides I find myself tilting towards monochrome. There is just something about night-lit scenes that makes me want to process them in black-and-white. Not only does the medium capture eloquently the mood and mystery of being abroad after hours, it also – on a practical level – masks a host of awkward lighting problems, such as the sickly and unappealing yellows of street lamps and other garish colour shifts. To be sure, you can fix most of these white balance and noise issues in Lightroom, but how much simpler and cleaner and truer it is to click the black-and-white toggle and find yourself seeing the scenes as they were when you were imagining them at the time – all shape and shadow, mood and mystery, the loneliness, simplicity and solemnity of night without the distortion of colour.
When you ride a lot at night or in the dark of early morning, you naturally want to see and be seen and so you spend a lot of time and money getting decent lights – powerful headlamps to illuminate the road in front of you, and dazzling LED beacons to indicate your presence to anyone coming up from behind. It is easy to overlook the importance of reflective material – be it the shinny little tabs on the heels of your cycling shoes or the reflective sidewalls on your tyres. Added together they can make a surprising difference to how well you show up in other people’s headlights – especially side-on.
I never realized how light-catching even the smallest tit-bits of reflective material could be until I began doing low-light photography for this blog and tinkering with the flash on my camera. It can be kind of irritating sometimes. As a rule I wear a Hi-Vis reflective vest when I am riding at night but since it looks so glaring and hideous in pictures I generally take it off when I am modelling for my own photography. And that works well visually for pictures taken the subdued light along the promenade or the soft spill of a streetlamp, but when I introduce a flash I am reminded of the more subtle reflective qualities of my clothes and bike.
In the photograph above I am wearing a black Rapha softshell jacket and bluish-grey Shimano MBT cycling shoes – nothing remotely suggestive of Hi-Vis if you were to see it in daylight. Yet in the harsh light of a flash (set low) on a small compact camera I appear all lit up. The reflective qualities of the sidewalls on the Schwalbe Marathon tyres I’ve known about and used artistically in photographs in the past (see here and here), but the efficacy of invisible-by-day reflective touches on my black Rapha softshell and the heel reflectors on the shoes came as an interesting surprise. To be sure, I wouldn’t and don’t rely on these subtle touches, but it’s nice to know they are there.
The run of pea soup fogs along the coast this week has made me grateful for the powerful German-made headlamp I have on my bicycle – a two-year-old Lupine Betty 7 that can throw out as much as 1850 lumens on its high-beam setting. It was considered an absurdly bright light when I bought it, and for which I paid damned good money. German engineering doesn’t come cheap. And up to a few years ago, if you wanted a headlamp powerful enough to see by on darkened country lanes you had to be prepared to pay.
Since then though, and thanks to some sweeping advances in LED technology, the market has been awash with cheap, insanely bright lights from China and the Far East, some of them throwing out a claimed 3000+ lumens and available by mail order for a fraction of the price I paid for my Lupine Betty. A powerful headlight can be had these days for as little as £30.
I am not really quite sure what to make of all this. I have absolutely no buyer’s remorse over the several hundred pounds I spent on my Lupine headlamp. The build quality, reliability, burn times, light spread and colour are absolutely superb. The lamp itself is small, lightweight and supremely easy to put on and take off the handlebars. How the performance of my costly light would stack up against some of the cheap Far Eastern imports – most particularly the Magicshines, whose name keeps popping up in internet forums – I can only guess, not being inclined to go out and spend the money to see.
My sense is that I would notice the difference straight away, most particularly in build quality and solidity of feel. And probably, over time, at least judging by the reviews I have read, I’d notice a difference in durability and reliability as well. They do seem to have a reputation for failing and fizzling, and requiring replacement every couple of years. As for sheer brightness, well, I suspect both my Lupine and the Magicshine would be able to raise a sparkle on a cat’s eye a thousand metres away whatever their stated lumen output – and both would be handy to have on your handlebars on such mornings as these.
So which is the better deal? Are brightness, cheapness and disposability the ultimate determining factors? I don’t know. I like having nice things. I like being able to keep and use them for years, and I like their pleasing heft in my hand when I pick them up. It is like that solid, reassuring ker-chunk of a door on a well-made automobile. On the other hand I can appreciate a bargain as well as the next man, and like the fact that in 2012 powerful headlamps can be had for a song, unlike the bad old days when I first took to commuting twenty years ago. What’s more, the availability of cheap bright headlamps is vital if the bicycle is ever to fill its potential as a viable year-round means of transport. For my part I have certainly noticed the difference in the past couple of years. Although I bemoan the number of Darwin Award-candidates who go riding around on foggy nights with no lights or reflectives at all, I have equally seen a lot more cyclists with usefully bright headlamps mounted on their bars. And that can only be a good thing.
I love it when I peek through the curtains at half-past four in the morning and see dense fog swirling around the halo-ed streetlights on our road. And I know that as soon as I get on my bicycle I’m going to head straight down to the seafront, where the fog will be thickest and the sense of mood and mystery the greatest. There is something richly satisfying about riding along the promenade of a faded old English seaside town in a cool night fog, hearing that evocative wash of waves over shingle, and seeing the line of ghostly streetlights receding into the mists ahead. It is every old movie ever made. It takes me out of my drab work-a-day existence and for a pleasant hour or so I am a passer-by in a world of late-night intrigue and glamorous danger.