Le Tour De France 2016.

Just how good can action sports photos be with entry level kit?

Working at Calumet, we can get spoiled with the range of cameras and lenses we see and get to try each day, every piece of equipment for every occasion or situation is available through our stores. However, I decided to try a little bit of an experiment on a recent trip I made, posing myself the question – Can a first time sports photographer get great results with entry-level equipment?

Outside Calumet I’m a sports fan, but I’ve never tried my hand at sports photography which I’ve always considered a great skill requiring a creative eye and lightning quick reaction. Recently, I got to realise a near-lifelong ambition to attend Le Tour De France on the final stage on L’Avenue De Champs Elysées, and rather than worry about travelling around Paris for a few days with a Nikon D5 or a Canon EOS 1D X Mark II which are both well known for their action shot specialism I packed my own old faithful Nikon D3100 (now superseded by the D3200 and D3300). Lightweight and relatively inexpensive, she’s never let me down and a joy to travel with. I also took the 18-55mm kit lens and a very affordable Nikon 55-200mm F4-5.6G AF-S DX lens. Over 4 days, these 2 lenses would provide me with all the focal lengths I would need, but would I get great images?

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Getting ready

Part of my preparation included reading Calumet’s sports photography guide, a handy source to clarify what settings I would benefit from the most and set the camera up the night before knowing that the race would be set against a hot and sunny Parisian backdrop. By the time the peloton arrived late in the afternoon, the light was changing quite often as the bright sun would suddenly be hidden behind dark clouds. Here, I must confess that I decided quit my manual settings and selected “sport” on the dial to let the camera help me out, and yes, I feel a bit of a cheat.

Learning on the go – reviewing images

From my seat in “une tribune” on Place de la Concorde I started to plan in my head the kind of shots I was hoping to capture and set about taking photographs of my surroundings and the publicity carnival that precedes the race called La Caravane, which was useful practice.

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Firstly, I pictured the peloton turning onto the square but I didn’t want to clutter my photographs with sponsor messages or policemen so I trained my lens squarely across the barriers on the road and ended up with a heavy to the left image that didn’t match my expectations.

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With the Eiffel Tower in the distance to my left, I thought that a stream of road bikes with the most iconic of Parisian images behind them would also make for a winning image, however I was wrong again.

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At the end of first of eight circuits a review of images I’d taken of Stage 21 so far was valuable in learning from my mistakes (although I would make many more). Seeing some of the crowd had moved closer to the road’s edge I decided to take a risk and join them to see what difference that would make.

Taking a risk

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Close enough to the race? I was putting myself one cobblestone crash away from danger, but sure to get unobstructed views as the race came by for the second circuit. Watching the big screen across the road I was as prepared as possible for the leaders to hit the corner.

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And just as ready for the “poursuivants”.

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Including the yellow jersey!

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It was difficult to not be “Snap-Happy” and just hope that some of my photos would turn out OK, so I kept telling myself to be patient until I could see the image I wanted in the viewfinder. This attitude worked, as I captured my favourite photo of the day, featuring some of my family’s favourite team – Direct Energie.

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After 2 circuits at the edge, I retreated back to my grandstand, from where I witnessed some dangerous behaviour from other photographers who were taking much bigger risks to get race shots. One photographer broke open the barriers to place their compact system camera on the road for low-level images. Fortunately, an agent de police saw this happen and hastily got the black and yellow blocks reattached before the race leaders arrived again seconds later.

Until the end of the race, I would content myself with the view from my seat in the shade. This meant some good photos were spoiled with uninvited guests with phones creeping in.

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So, for my first attempt at cycling photography I’m not disappointed. For using entry-level equipment I’m personally very pleased with my hit rate, which is better than I anticipated. Much of my first time success is down to composition which I picked up on the go and some beginners’ luck. OK, I know I’m not going to be reaching the front page of L’Équipe any time soon, but I got a taste for sports photography and enjoyed the excitement of waiting for that moment of action. I definitely want to have another try and would look to use Calumet Rental for fast and powerful equipment to see how my results differ. Who knows, I might even have a future with these guys…

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Tips for the best experience

If you find yourself as fortunate to get the opportunity to photograph Le Tour in Paris, here’s some thoughts I’d like to share with you to maximise your experience.

Pare down what you take and do not take a big bag
Security is heightened in France and this is not likely to change in the immediate future and on this Sunday I went through 3 checkpoints where my bag was searched. The first policeman I encountered would not let me through because my bag was too big. I was using a tidy-sized Nikon system bag (storing my kit) inside a beach style bag with a few bits and pieces. To rectify this, I put my camera over my shoulder and used this empty space for my wallet, sunglasses, passport and invitation. I had to throw away a bottle of water and the remainder of my sunscreen. Voilà, I was then allowed through. Don’t risk being turned away and only take the essentials.

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La Course – A chance to practice
For a few years, there’s been a ladies race earlier in the afternoon on the Champs Elysées. Get there early and shoot La Course too. It’s just as exciting as the men’s race.

The Mavic Car – Another chance to practice
The neutral service car is just ahead of the race and the same speed. I have my fair share of photographs of the yellow Mavic car which I used to get my focus and composition in place before the peloton reached my viewfinder!

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The Best GC Rider
It’s natural to want to capture the race leader at the top of the General Classification, as the 3-week tour is normally “won” by the time Le Tour reaches Paris. Luckily he’s easy to spot – he’s the guy in yellow! Be patient, eyes open and get ready to see yellow. It’s not as difficult as you might think.

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Enjoy the race
Unless you’re there purely for photography reasons, do put down your camera and take in some of the race. I’m happy to have watched Team Sky form their line-up together towards the finish line, and not from behind a viewfinder. Although, this camaraderie made me a little misty eyed that a viewfinder would have been a bit blurred!

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Set the scene
It’s more than the race. Capture your day and surroundings, they’re great memories.

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Hang around
After the race, stay for a while. Unless you have special privileges you won’t get close to the presentation podium, but you can get closer to the team buses and cyclists returning to their support teams. It’s another chance for scene setting photographs.

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Always be prepared
I wasn’t ready to photograph an up close Richie Porte, and I only caught the back of Geraint Thomas – although both cases could be as a result of fangirling! However, I did catch some lovely candid moments of 3 of the Movistar team about to cycle into Samuel Dumoulin and more AG2R La Mondiale fun. I too had a lot of fun at this special annual event and the next time I will know what to expect and aim for greater results.

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