Earlier this year - in July, in fact, at the height of what passes for summer on this windswept island of ours - I got the call from the guys at What Mountain Bike to shoot their annual Bike of the Year feature. These shoots are always full-on but big fun, and the results - spread over a big chunk of the mag - make the effort worthwhile.
Over the years various formats have been tried. None of them are particularly easy to shoot, involving as they do at least one van crammed to the roof with bikes, a number of different locations, several riders, variable weather and a brief that'll happily cover several pages. But the past two years - 2009 and 2010 - we attempted the impossible, shooting the whole thing in less than five consecutive days at the tail end of a British winter, in two of the wettest and wildest places the UK has to offer, the Lake District and Snowdonia.
Amazingly, on both occasions, we not only pulled it off but lucked out with no rain and plenty of big, blue skies with sunshine to match.
So this year we thought we'd stack the odds in our favour. Fewer bikes (a mere 10), and a shift to mid-summer to guarantee decent weather.
British summers are rarely predictable, beyond being predictably unpredictable. And this July proved to be no exception. Day one of our allotted five days in the Lake District (yep, back there again, but in completely different locations from 2009) dawned grey, cold and variously damp or soaking. Here's art ed Robin on the fellside, complete with improvised headgear:
Nikon D300, 50-150mm f/2.8, 1/400sec f/5.6 @ ISO800
Now it's fair to say that Robin feels the cold a bit more than most, but even so... the weather was pretty shocking. Having seen the forecast for the week I'd come prepared with extra ziplock bags for my flashes and triggers, towels for me and the camera and head-to-toe Goretex. I'd even had to shell out for a new 12-24mm for the D300, my D3 having decided to stop cooperating with any of my older non AF-G lenses (in other words, anything that had an aperture ring) and a packed shooting schedule having conspired to ensure I didn't have time to get it fixed. With only the 14-24mm capable of providing me with a wide enough wide, I couldn't chance waving its huge front element around in mid-summer Lakeland inclemency. Not that the lens would've minded, but the rain drops on the front wouldn't have let me get any pics.
So I started the week £600 down. And rather damp.
Still, the upside of all the Atlantic front-driven meterological activity was some intermittenly stunning light. I made the most of it.
Nikon D300, 50-150mm f/2.8, 1/500sec f/4.5 @ ISO200
Over the next couple of days I dragged our motley and mostly enthusiastic crew up an unrideable pass or two, in search of action shots of all 10 of the team's top bikes of the year that would stand out. It's fair to say that I've never gone to so much effort to get bike test pics, though you'd probably have to be a trail-spotting anorak to work out how far we went to get the shots. Not pictured in this shot, for example, is the hour-and-a-half push and carry it took to get there (or the exposed drop to the rider's right):
Nikon D300, 12-24mm f/4, 1/100sec f/9 @ ISO400, two radio slaves
The final shot of the shoot was the now traditional group pack shot. As with most relativley complicated pictures, getting to that final 1/320sec takes an awful lot longer than you might think. We needed to be able to arrange all 10 bikes so that they'd all be visible on the page, with room for captions. There needed to be some dramatic scenery in the background, and space for a headline and copy. Oh, and the bikes preferably shouldn't run across the gutter in the middle of the page.
Arranging everything is a matter of starting somewhere (usually at the front) and then building from there. At which point Robin normally has a look, makes a few pertinent suggestions... and we take half of the shot apart and put it back together again in a different order. Just to add to the complication, the flat lighting on our chosen day wasn't making my life any easier. I wanted to side or rim light every bike, but with just two flashes and the bikes spread over a large area that wasn't going to be simple.
In the end, with the camera on a tripod and a trusty helper to move lights around, I shot a dozen or so separate exposures and blended around half a dozen of them in Photoshop to come up with the final result. It's subtle, but every bike is lit.
Nikon D3, 14-24mm f/2.8, 1/320sec f/7.1 @ ISO200, multiple radio slaves / blended exposure
And here's a time-lapse of the set being broken down after we had the shot (with apologies for the shonky video edit, which has left a big slug of black at the end. Don't bother waiting... there's no hidden surprise).
What are we going to do next year? I have no idea. But I'm hoping we can go back to blue skies, sunshine and dusty trails...