Lets get things started. Can you tell us about yourself and how you got into bikes?
I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa and although I've been living in the UK now for longer than I lived there, I still speak a bit funny. I've ridden bikes since I was a kid and used to ride my Raleigh Chopper in the local woods, which I guess is the root of my love of mountain biking. I grew up surfing more than biking, and I still love doing that but living inland I now ride bikes a lot more than I surf. Mountain biking has taken over the slot in my life that surfing used to fill; it becomes a way of life and something that you need to do to keep sane. There was a bumper sticker that I used to have on my car in South Africa that read, "Surfing is Living"
, and I guess that applies to mountain biking for me now. How and when did you get into photography?
I originally trained as a lawyer, but I made the switch to photography full time back in 1989 after taking a sabbatical and travelling around the world for nine months, surfing and mountain biking. I'd done a few bits for the emerging MTB press at the time and Tym Manley, the editor at Mountain Biking UK, was kind enough to ask me to do a feature while I was travelling. When I came back to the UK he, fortunately, kept commissioning me and I've been shooting features for MBUK magazine ever since. Over the years, I've shot for most of the industry at some point or another and I was lucky enough to be inducted into the UK Mountain Biking Hall of Fame in 2013. Are you self-taught or did you study photography?
Self-taught. I'd always been interested in photography, but didn't own an SLR until I started earning money as a lawyer. Once I bought that first Pentax, I was hooked and learnt through just going out and shooting, reading and asking lots of questions. At what point did you realise that this could be a job and how did your career path develop?
When I got back from my travels I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, other than I didn't really want to go back into law. I met a ski photographer, Tony McLaughlin, and we started a picture library together, selling his and a few other ski photographers’ collections and my emerging mountain bike pics. That has since evolved into Stockfile, which my wife Jill still manages with me today. While setting that up I started doing more and more for MBUK and the bike industry at large, and before I knew it I was a mountain bike photographer, something which didn't really exist as a career previously. What was the sport like when you first started shooting mountain bikes?
At the beginning, it was fairly low-key and underground, but it soon took off and grew like wildfire. It was an exciting time to be involved... Looking back, it was an amazing time and I feel privileged to have been there through that growth period in the 90's. The move from analogue to digital must have been a big one. Can you tell us a bit about that transition and how it impacted your life as a photographer?
Yeah, when digital first started to become usable and the prices headed towards affordable in the late 90's and early 00's, I thought I'd be one of the last to switch off the lights to the analogue room, so to speak. I loved shooting transparency; it was a tricky medium, not much exposure latitude and you kind of had to get things right. But it was hard to beat the feeling of looking at a sharp, well-exposed slide on a good lightbox. And of course, I'd invested a lot of time and money and learnt how to work with it. It was a while before the quality of digital got to equal that of film, but once it did, it outstripped it pretty quickly. I first dabbled with digital with a Canon EOS D60 in late 2002 and made the switch fully in 2004 with the 1DS.
It was a big learning curve as there was so much to deal with. With film we used to shoot however many rolls and drop them off at the lab, go for a coffee and come back a couple of hours later to pick up the results - no immediacy, but less time pressure. With digital you didn't have to go to the lab, but now you were the lab, with all the time and expense that involved. No more chilling out while the film was processed. No more going out socialising at night with the riders on work trips - back to the hotel room to download, process, edit, upload, backup, etc. It was both better and worse at the same time! Faster computers, bigger screens, colour management, new software and skills all meant a different workflow and stresses to the old analogue one. Would I go back to slide? Not willingly. Is digital better? Undoubtedly. It requires a different skill set and you can get away with not getting exposures spot on and fix them afterwards. It can make you that little bit lazier, but often that makes for more work in the long run. I still like looking at slides on a lightbox though; nothing will change that! You’ve shot some of the sports greats, past and present, but who sticks in your mind?
That's a tricky one. I've shot features with a lot of the better-known riders over the years, and most of them have been great to work with. The few that stand out the most, probably because I've worked more with them than others, are Rob Warner and Steve Peat on the downhill side, Hans Rey and Martyn Ashton on the trials side, and Grant ‘Chopper’ Fielder and John Cowan on the dirt jump side. And from the early MBUK days, riders such as Dave Hemming, Paul Hinton and Steve Worland were great too. They have always gone the extra mile to find interesting stuff to ride that makes the pictures worth doing. They and many others of course, but as I say, I've definitely done more with those guys over the years. Away from mountain biking, what else do you shoot and what would you like to?
When I first started I would shoot anything and everything, and I guess I've been lucky enough for a large part of my career to be busy enough with mountain biking to not have to do much else. I do shoot most other types of cycling as well of course - particularly road, but I've also done some BMX, commuting, leisure and even unicycling...
I've also shot a fair bit of other outdoor activity stuff over the years and was stoked to get to shoot a fair bit of surfing last year. What would I like to shoot? More of the same I guess! What’s been your most memorable trip and why?
That's a tough one! I used to do a couple of trips a year with MBUK to get a bunch of features shot at either end of the UK winter and we'd take a lot of the established riders like Warner and Peaty, Ashton and Hawyes and the then ‘team MBUK’ team riders. Those were always "interesting" and lots of “stuff” happened to make them memorable - far more than we have space for here. Quite often involving rental cars, hotels, and alcohol, though not all together... Not usually anyway! There was also a fair mix of breaking stuff and fires...
I was usually the one who had to sort out the mess, so they were definitely memorable! Mostly in a good way, but looking back, it didn't always feel that way at the time. I also used to travel a lot with Steve Worland and we definitely had some great trips together; Chamonix, the Pyrenees and Morocco spring to mind as being particularly good. We always fitted in a lot of good riding on those trips. But I guess one of the most memorable trips I did was when I covered the Iditabike for the first time - it was the most extreme conditions that I’d ever experienced... Alaska in the winter. And although I wasn't cycling and was on a snowmobile, it was still fairly hard work, riding one of those things for eight hours a day and camping out on the snow with basic equipment. I definitely had a few of those "what the heck am I doing here?" moments on that trip. Is there a photo you’ve taken that you’re particularly fond of?
There are a bunch over the years that I've been proud of, or that mean something to me and it’s hard to single one out really. I have pics of various riders that I loved shooting over the years that mean something to me; Steve Worland, Dave Hemming, Jason McRoy, Rob Warner, Steve Peat, Martyn Ashton, etc... The list goes on. But if I was cast away on that proverbial desert island and could only take one with me, it would probably be one that I took of my sons standing with their bikes on my local common. I think that's because I've ridden there so much over the years, the location is special to me and reminds me of so many good times, and of course because my sons are in it, it takes on an extra meaning. It's not the greatest picture I've ever taken, but it reminds me of so much. And the sun was shining that day too, which helps! What or who has inspired you over the years?
I've always been into surf photography. I used to love reading surfing magazines growing up and the pictures were always inspiring. So a lot of the photographers who were around at that time influenced me when I eventually started shooting mountain biking. Guys like Aaron Chang, Jeff Divine and Warren Bolster. Also, some of the ski photographers I worked with in the early picture library days were inspiring. My colleague, Tony McLaughlin taught me a lot actually and Mark Shapiro took some great pics.
As far as mountain bike photography is concerned, I think in the UK in the late 80's and early 90's we looked enviously at the Californian mags who seemed to have an unlimited supply of sunshine and blue skies... Guys like John Kerr and Steve Giberson were shooting the classic stuff back then. I think though that we learned to adapt to the challenging weather conditions here in the UK and sort of developed our own style as a result. In terms of race photography, I think Malcolm Fearon was out ahead of the pack in the 90's and influenced many of the race photographers who are doing great stuff at the World Cups these days. What do you think makes a good shot?
A shot can be good for a variety of reasons. Light, location, rider commitment and action all have a bearing - if you get a combination of all of those then you probably have a great shot. You can have someone 'pootling' along if the landscape and light are spectacular, and the rider can even be so small in the frame that you can't really tell what they're doing. In that case, the other stuff makes the shot good. Or you can have a rider doing something so committed, so radical, that the lighting and location can be incidental. Even if you have all of those, combining the photographer still has to add composition and timing to make the shot work. So I guess you can have a good shot including some of those factors, but a great shot will need most of them. Lets talk about gear. What would you take with you on standard riding shoot?
If I'm riding, I try to pack down to a manageable amount, which isn't always that easy! I guess it depends on how far I have to ride. I've got a few different LowePro bags that work pretty well for riding compared to the bags I used to lug around. I mostly use the Flipside Sport 20L AW for everyday use, and its pretty comfortable for most purposes. Depending on how much gear I've got in it I can ride a fair distance with it on.
I've been using Canon cameras and lenses for a long time now. It's not the smallest or the lightest, but the 1DmkIV is a great body for action pics and that's what I use most of the time. With a basic lens setup comprising the 70-200mm f2.8 and the 16-35 f2.8 both of which are L series lenses, that’s what I would take with me as a minimum. Usually, I'll stick a small lightweight 50mm lens in there too to cover any mid range shots. And sometimes the 15mm as well, but I wouldn't ride with the 300mm 2.8 - it's just too big and heavy.
Depending on what I'm shooting, I may need to carry lighting as well, and most of the time I'll try to put that in a separate bag and get one of the riders to carry it for me! Usually, that will be a couple of Canon Speedlights and a Quantum Q-flash, with 3 tripods to mount them on and 3 Pocket Wizard Plus III's to fire them, plus an additional Pocket Wizard Flex TT1 to trigger them. That whole lot can weigh as much as the camera bag. I tailor the flash setup according to what I'm shooting, who I have to help carry and how far we're going. I may take only one or two Speedlights if we need to go lighter, or none at all, depending on what I'm shooting.
I also have the LowePro Photo Sport BP 300 AW II, which is a lighter, smaller and slimmer bag for longer rides. I can get the basic kit in that and its more comfortable for riding, but it's fiddlier to work out of. So you have to work out where the compromise is, there is no one perfect setup. I guess to go lighter I'd probably need to change camera systems and maybe in the future I'll have a look at some of the smaller lighter setups, but for now I'm pretty happy with the Canon gear I use. What advice would you give an aspiring photographer looking to break into mountain bike media?
Shoot as much as you can and learn from your mistakes. Back in the film days, it was harder, particularly with slide film. You had to get the exposure pretty much spot on, no salvaging a pic in post when you mess up! And you couldn't see until you got the film back from the lab if it was good or bad, so that focused the mind a bit. Plus it was expensive. So no excuses with digital, just get out there and shoot. But make sure you analyse what you've done so that you can learn from your mistakes and push yourself to improve next time. Don't be scared to try things - new techniques, difficult shots, unusual viewpoints, etc. And if you are lucky enough to get paid to do a shoot, don't give your work away, it's very hard to increase prices once you're established as someone who does things for free or for a low price. And something that's increasingly difficult these days; don't give away the intellectual property rights to your pics. Keep copyright where you can... If you don't understand this aspect of the law, look it up! It's a tough way to make a living these days, though! Having seen how mountain biking and photography has developed over the years, where do you see it going in the future?
Better in both cases I think? Bikes have got lighter and better, and probably better value over the years as well. There's a certain nostalgia for some of the classic 90's bikes, but as the components and geometry have improved, the bikes have just become more consistent and I'm certainly happier on my modern Giant 29'er than anything I had before. Hopefully, wheel sizes will settle down, shifting and braking will continue to get better and we'll all be able to buy a bike that suits most of what we do for a reasonable price with a single chainring on the front and 11 or 12 gears at the back.
Cameras and lenses have improved, and will continue to do so hopefully, although prices of top end pro digital cameras are much higher than their analogue equivalents used to be. I think we don't need more megapixels than we're currently using - the recent improvements have been more to do with how the camera performs in low light, or in a wider range of lighting, and the quality of the files rather than the size of the files. Lenses will probably now have to catch up with the sensors and hopefully the systems will get smaller and lighter. I guess anything is possible, all be it at a cost. Delivering optimum product at an affordable price is always the challenge! I know more photographers are starting to work with smaller and lighter mirrorless systems and maybe that’s the way things will go, at least where you need to ride a lot anyway. Awesome stuff, thanks Steve!
Pinkbike // Steve Behr
Web // stockfile.co.uk
Instagram // @SteveBehr0
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