The Glass Menagerie.
The first thought that entered my mind as I woke up every day during the Tour de France is what lenses should we run today?
Unlike much action sports photography, shooting a 21-day bike race – on location, across varied types of terrain, in unpredictable weather conditions, with diverse client needs – means that the daily gear prep is a constant challenge and, well, a thrill.
And, ultimately, it all comes down to glass.
We spend much of our year in Europe working pro cycling events in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and France. And we’re no slouches when it comes to packing for a 6-week or 3-month work trip where gear replacement and repair is, to say the least, highly unlikely. So when you plan, and prep, and pack your gear the tendency is to overpack “just in case;” to imagine all likely scenarios, any wish-lists, each specific image that each kind of camera body and lens configuration will make possible.
And then, you come back to reality.
What we must always keep in mind is that we have a limited amount of space (in the rental car, in the hotel rooms, in the camera bags) and a limited budget with which to experiment. Over the years, Jim and I have used more and more rental gear from companies like LensProToGo so we can do just that – experiment and play around a bit. Because shooting an aggressive bike race on a steep climb, in the rain, in the Alps can be very different from capturing moments of exhaustion, intimate and spontaneous, as the riders cross the finish line.
When we planned for this year’s 100th Edition Tour de France, the first thing we did was evaluate the last couple of years – what gear did we pack, what did we use the most and how did it perform, what kind of images were we aiming for this year, how much did we expect to stick with what we know works versus trying something new. At an event like the Tour de France, there is little down-time and even less time to risk missing a shot. Experience, economy of movement, confidence in your POV, and agility / facility with your gear – these are, in our opinion, what can distinguish a good Tour from a great one.
On June 20th we packed our bags with our final gear package for the Tour, part practical and part splurge, just the right combination to feel like you might have something up your sleeve during those long days when creativity and inspiration wane after 16 days straight.
That’s where the glass menagerie is king.
You have the basics: wide angle, telephoto, zoom, prime. But the nuance comes in when you imagine the exact moments where each lens shines, where switching camera bodies makes a difference, when and where and why to use the flash, the perfect shot that results from switching to the 14mm from the 16mm at the last moment, almost without thinking.
So, for us it was a negotiation within ourselves to conjure up our “perfect gear kit” and set out on another epic adventure. Because when it comes to the Tour, the largest sporting event on the planet, it’s not just the athletes who are under pressure to perform.
Here’s what we brought:
(2x) Canon EOS-1D X
(2x) Canon EOS-5D mkiii
14mm f/2.8L II
50mm f/1.2L II
85mm f/1.2L II
Canon Zoom / Telephoto
(2x) 16-35mm f/2.8L II
24-70mm f/2.8L II
(2x) 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
300mm f/2.8L IS II
(2x) Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT
Quantum Turbo SC Battery Pack
(2x) Pocket Wizard Plus II
Along with, of course, a melange of other accessories and some video gear as well. We shot over 42,000 images in 5 weeks and 12 videos. Here are some of our favorites and why.
14mm f/2.8L II
It’s all about personal preference with a super wide aka “fisheye” lens. Some professionals use it religiously for sweeping hairpin action shots and lots of portraits. We typically use it judiciously for those moments that really warrant the extra perspective – an overhead start shot on the plaza in Montpellier, the race leaders cresting a fan-crowded corner on the ascent of the Alpe-d’Huez, or inside the media scrum, literally shot between the legs of a gendarme, after the stage winner collapsed on the ground in Annecy-Semnoz. The advantage of this lens is it provides the closest view to what the human eye is seeing with less distortion than the 8mm or 12mm lenses.
50mm f/1.2L II
One of our favorite lenses, the 50mm is amazing at capturing a velvety, shallow depth of field which accentuates key characteristics in the subject matter – whether it be a product detail, a candid portrait, or an action shot at just the right moment. This lens can be a challenge to shoot action images with – the way we shoot, and there are some misses – but when it hits, it reads like you are right there… in the scene.
85mm f/1.2L II
I fell in love with this lens during the 2012 Tour de France – although, you must know it’s limitations. Nearly impossible to shoot video on, unless it’s something barely moving; the [focal] throw is just too slow for action shots. But when it comes to detail shots and portraits there is hardly a match. The 85mm has a cinematic feel that few of our lenses offer, perhaps something closer to the quality of film rather than digital. And when it comes to the sensuality of bike racing, the 85 is a princess.
16-35mm f/2.8L II
The glass Queen. One of two of the most commonly used Canon lenses in sports photography, the 16-35mm is a staple. If we had to shoot action sports with only two lenses it would be this one and the 70-200mm, hands down. Not wide enough to be a “fisheye” look, this lens allows us to capture almost all of our foundational shots: tech features, environmental action, scenics, documentary-style shots, and close-up action. And when it comes to the post-race media scrum, there is no better glass to have in-hand than this one.
24-70mm f/2.8L II
While the 70-200mm is paramount as the telephoto lens in cycling and sport, it can sometimes be a smidge too remote. There are many moments where you need to creep in closer. Here, the 24-70mm shines – shorter telephoto range but with clarity and softness at once: an unexpected overhead capturing two local old-timers waiting for the race, Kreuziger racing against the clock during the time trial – literally shot from down in a roadside ditch, a spent Astana rider cooling down after a brutal climb up to Ax-3-Domaines, soapy drips falling from a Radioshack-Leopard team car after a long race day.
70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
Yep, here it is. The King of Glass. It’s nearly impossible to imagine shooting a bike race without this lens. Long shots, big scenics, straight-up action, close-up details, portraits, and finishes. This lens provides all the range in focal length you could desire, performing solidly in wildly varying light conditions, without losing its sharpness or speed in focusing.
It could quite possibly be the perfect lens.
300mm f/2.8L IS II
The 300mm might be one of the more misunderstood pieces of glass out there. It is the finish line lens, along with its cousins the 400, 500, etc. But, if you lug around this lens just for a few minutes on the line, you could be missing an opportunity these behemoth telephotos provide. Big-scale scenics, the perfect crisp finish, an almost unnaturally intimate moment caught from behind a fence, a subtle sunset after a long work day… when you least want to pick up the camera again.
Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT / Quantum Turbo SC Battery Pack
Finally, the flash. Some folks think it’s cheating. Some wouldn’t be caught without it. Us… we have a love-hate relationship with the flash. A necessary evil, an enigma, a savior. Call it what you will. Normally the flash is a fixer– when the light is poor, the shadows too harsh, a needed contrast against a dull or cluttered backdrop. I’ve come to the conclusion that the flash is an art-form, albeit a little Martha Graham. So, when you can do something really special with it – on a day, under the unrelenting sun, when you are tired, hungry, and lacking inspiration – in those moments the flash can be divine inspiration.
After 5 weeks of non-stop work, every day strapped in to your gear, scrambling up shaley mountainsides, in the heat and rain, after long nights editing in cramped hotel rooms with impossibly slow Euro WiFi – after all that, we still get giddy over a single shot and we relive every blessed micro-second that made it possible.
Thank you to LensProToGo and Think Tank Photo for their support in our endeavors. May they keep coming!