A couple of months back I was involved in my biggest, most complicated shoot to date. And in the next few days the results will be hitting newsstands throughout the UK. What Mountain Bike's annual Bike of the Year issue will be on sale in early May and features 54 pages of my images, plus my first ever gatefold cover (that's a cover that folds out to a double page spread, in plain English).
You can see a video teaser of the issue here... if you look closely, there's even a couple of shots showing me in action. Er, so to speak.
Here's the story behind a few of the pictures:
Nikon D3, 14-24mm f/2.8, 1/250sec f/10 @ ISO200, two radio slaves
The cover turned out to be a large logistical and technical hurdle that only resolved itself on the last shooting day. The concept of a double page spread running on the cover got us all excited, but once we started to thrash out the details it became clear that it wouldn't be as simple as simply keeping my camera in landscape format and sticking the rider on one side of the frame.
For starters the publishers wanted as many riders in the shot as possible. We had up to ten available, but I quickly ruled out using all of them as impractical and visually cluttered. We settled on five or six as a target.
The main part of the cover also had to look like a 'normal' What Mountain Bike cover - no concessions to the gatefold format. If you were to put a rider on the left hand side of the frame in a dps shot you'd normally expect them to be riding from right to left, but that would put the chainset on the wrong side - and cover images normally work best with the rider moving left to right, because that's the way your eye scans text. With the rider moving left to right, the corner would have to be a tight one to allow the riders on the foldout section to decrease in size as they moved away from the camera.
Finally, I couldn't decide whether to attempt a simultaneous shot of all five or six riders on the trail at one time, or the superficially far more ambitious option of shooting them all separately.
With time running out and only one potential location that ticked most of the right boxes, the reality of large rocks and the difficulty of ensuring each rider was in the right place at the right time - plus very strong, low sidelighting necessitating the use of two flashes to light each rider - made the decision for me. I'd shoot each rider separately, keeping my camera position as consistent as possible and moving the lights as necessary.
Shooting close in with a 14mm lens and trying to ensure that everything slotted into the right place to allow for cover furniture, it's not as easy as it sounds. But the end result isn't bad at all, is exactly what I intended and couldn't have been achieved if I'd shot it in real time. Although there is a mistake in the comping (which was expertly carried out by WMB's resident prepress gurus) which you might be able to see if you look closely...
Nikon D3, 14-24mm f/2.8, 1/320sec f/11 @ ISO200, four radio slaves
Last year I nearly threw all my teddies out of the pram while trying to persuade a dozen bikes to stand upright on the shores of a shallow lake. This year I was told we had double the number of bikes. What could possibly go wrong?
Some handy rocks and tussocky grass reduced the likelihood of the domino effect, but I was shooting against the clock to avoid the strong backlighting from introducing shot-reducing flare. Faced with very strong contrast and not enough lights, I put the camera on a tripod and quickly shot multiple versions while a handy assistant (or 'voice activated light stand', to borrow Joe McNally's terminology) pointed a spare flash at various underlit parts of the scene. Blend the resulting versions in Photoshop, and the contrast issue is neatly resolved. And not a single teddy bear was harmed in the making of this photo.
Nikon D3, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/200sec f/10 @ ISO200, two radio slaves
The four best runner-up bikes needed their own double page spread, so I found this handy location with bike-propping rocks in the foreground and snow-frosted peaks behind. Who'd have guessed it's actually in a carpark?
Nikon D300, 10.5mm f/2.8, 1/250sec f/10 @ ISO200
Mind you, taking pictures in a carpark does have its downsides, as we discovered when a coach party disgorged in the midst of our shoot and proceeded to pose amongst the bikes...
Nikon D3, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/160sec f/8 @ ISO200, two radio slaves
Sometimes you really do only have one crack at the shot. High up on Snowdon's Ranger Path (just before banks of snow made our way impassable), Guy rolled this rocky chute for me in front of the mountain's snow-covered ridgeline. Just after taking the shot his front wheel caught a rock and folded under him, sending Guy ten feet down the trail and pitching the bike on top of him. He was unhurt but unsurprisingly unwilling to be bitten twice.
Nikon D3, 14-24mm f/2.8, 1/125sec f/16 @ ISO200
Lens of the week was undoubtedly the 14-24mm, which spent much of its time racked all the way out to its widest setting. The bulbous front element means it's a fine weather only lens choice, but when the sun's shining it's rapidly becoming my favourite lens. For this double page spread opener I wanted to include a sense of movement through the landscape, so I dropped the shutter speed and concentrated on panning accurately to keep the riders sharp and introduce a hint of background blur.
Nikon D3, 14-24mm f/2.8, 1/400sec f/6.3 @ ISO200
On the way down the mountain after our successful cover shoot, i found myself working frantically to get a few more shots in the bag before the sun dipped below the mountains. To get this shot I broke one of my own cardinal rules: I put the camera on continuous high and squeezed off a handful of shots at 9fps. Students on my photo courses will know I'm not a fan of hosing down in order to get the shot, but in this case I knew I had perhaps a minute at most to get it in the can. Sometimes needs must.
Nikon D3, 14-24mm f/2.8, 1/500sec f/8 @ ISO200
And on a bizarre footnote... on a return visit to the area this week I discovered this 'for sale' sign near the foot of Snowdon. As far as I'm aware the mountain itself isn't for sale, but if you've got some spare change down the back of the sofa it looks as though you could buy yourself some prime (organic) tussocky grass...