Scotland on a Mountain Bike
I’ve just got back from a superb week mountain biking in Scotland. Obviously in this blog I’m going to concentrate on photographic aspects but I should start by paying tribute to Tom Hutton who set the whole thing up. Tom is a fellow outdoor writer and photographer and for many years one of his gigs has been as Routes Editor for mbr magazine, so he knows more great trails to ride across more of the UK than almost anyone else. Lately, however, he has been re-inventing himself as a mountain bike guide and the ‘Ultimate Scotland Road Trip’ was planned partly as a way of completing the launch of this new venture.
A couple more credits: as second guide Tom brought along Jay Mulvey from MudTrek Mountain Bike Breaks, another excellent rider and good companion on the trails. And none of it would have been possible without our minibus and driver, Graham Draper of BikeBus Adventures (that’s a Facebook link as the website appears to be currently under reconstruction). Graham is also a skilled rider although it wasn’t possible for him to ride with us every day as drop-off and pick-up points were sometimes widely separated.
And thanks to the rest of the group too: Nik, Paul, Jeroen, Mark, Becky, Fiona and Anne. There was a range of skill and fitness levels but everyone was very supportive of each other. And as a photographer I was very glad that I could at least keep pace with most people – the whole essence of mountain bike photography is having to get ahead of people to shoot as they ride past, and then chase, catch up and do it all again.
On magazine assignments or commercial shoots, all the riders are effectively there as models and have a job to do. If the photographer needs them to ride a section of trail several times, or needs some people to hold flashguns while someone else rides, that’s part of the deal. They may help with carrying extra bits of kit, too.
In this case, however, seven people had paid to come on this trip as a holiday. That, and the fact that several of the days turned out to be pretty long anyway, meant that I needed, most of the time, to get my shots without disruption or delay to other riders. At most I might leave a snack/lunch stop a few moments ahead of the rest, or ask someone just to hang on a few seconds while I got sorted, but there was very little in the way of actually setting up shots or asking anyone to ‘do that bit again’.
With the foregoing in mind, I didn’t need to carry a vast amount of gear, and with some big days on the bike I was very glad not to have to. And I really don’t think I missed much by not having a fisheye lens or a 300mm. I’m a believer in keeping it simple anyway; I think when you look at the subject and the setting should speak for themselves. I’m turned off by images where the first impression you get is ‘oh, look, remote flash’ or ‘monster lens’.
I took two DSLRs with me, but only ever carried one at a time. I had my trusty Nikon D600 – perhaps not the most ‘pro-spec’ of Nikon’s FX (full-frame) cameras but nice and light, with a 24–85mm lens as standard. I also had a D7200, as I was in process of writing an Expanded Guide. This is currently Nikon’s top DX-format camera; I paired it with a Sigma 18–125mm lens. This doesn’t give quite such a wide view as the 24mm on the D600, but there’s over double the reach at the longer end. I also had a couple of extra lenses – a 14mm Sigma and 70–200mm f.4 NIkon. In the end I never toted the Nikon tele on a day out but I did take the 14mm with me a couple of times. Changing lenses is another thing that takes up time but in those majestic Scottish landscapes the wide-angle was really needed at times. I also had some remote flash kit which I used a couple of times.
To carry camera and any additional gizmos, as well as general riding kit, food, drink, etc, I used my LowePro Photo Sport 200 AW, which has a handy side-access compartment for the camera. See photo above (in this case with a Nikon D5300). This pack has been in the LowePro range for years – I’ve had mine at least six. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, would seem to apply here.
As to actual photography, one of the most important aspects of shooting in places you haven't been before is maintaining a kind of continual appraisal of the picture opportunities. This includes having eyes in the back of your head! Clearly on more technical sections of trail the focus has to narrow, but of course technical sections make for interesting riding shots so the appraisal still goes on even if it’s as a background process.
Anyway, here are just a few of my favourite shots from the trip, with brief thoughts on each.
Becky Nokes on the descent into Glen Tilt, Day 2
Nikon D600, 52mm, ISO 400, 1/400, f/5.6
There wasn't much sun to be seen on the first couple of days but on this long (near enough 50km) and remote ride I thought the misty conditions enhanced the epic feel. What caught my eye here was the way the trail pointed into the valley we were heading for. I stopped and let Becky go ahead and took several shots, but this one, where she's right at the intersection of the lines, stood out. I really like using tiny figures in big landscapes but the placement has to be just right.
Becky Nokes starting the descent to Achnashellach, Day 4
Nikon D600, 52mm, ISO 200, 1/500, f/5.6
This was, by general agreement, a superb descent. For me it was the best of the week and one of the best I’ve ever done – continually pushing the limits of the comfort zone without throwing up too many horrors. But this shot is more about the general feeling and atmosphere than any particular technical difficulty. In terms of photographic technicality, it’s pretty much nailed, with a wideish aperture for shallow depth of field so the background is slightly soft while the rider is pin-sharp. But I think what really makes it is Becky's complete focus on the trail ahead.
Jeroen Hoek on the descent from Bealach na Lice, Day 4; Beinn Damh behind
Nikon D600, 66mm, ISO 200, 1/320, f/11
This is an exception to the general rule that there were no set-up shots. While we were re-assembling the team and having a rest at the bealach, this superb light was calling to me and superfit Dutchman Jeroen was happy to ride down the first section of the descent and back up. It takes some processing in Lightroom to bring out the tones in such contrasty lighting and I may yet have another play with this image.
Paul Collins on the final descent to Torridon, Day 4; Beinn Alligin in the distance
Nikon D600, 46mm, ISO 200, 1/200, f/8
It’s getting well on into the evening here (about 6.30pm) and the descent isn’t done yet. This may not have been quite how Tom planned the day but it certainly played into my hands as far as photos were concerned. The light was just gorgeous. Paul’s green helmet certainly stood out in the shots!
Jeroen Hoek, Lochain Stratha Mhoir, Skye, Day 6
Nikon D7200, 20mm, ISO 200, 1/250, f/8
Our last day didn’t start particularly promisingly, with repeated pushes through peaty hollows breaking up any rhythm in the riding. When Jeroen decided to give his bike an impromptu wash, I saw the chance for a shot that would say something a bit different about the trip and about the nature of riding in wilder parts of Scotland. “This is not a trail centre,” as people said more than once.
Nik Wadge, above Kilmarie, Skye, Day 6
Nikon D7200, 24mm, ISO 200, 1/800, f/7.1
There isn’t anything particularly remarkable about this shot – nice background, fast shutter-speed to freeze the movement, and so on. One point I would make is that I got fairly low, sitting in the heather – a low viewpoint makes the rider more prominent as they appear against the sky. And it was very helpful of Nik to pop his front wheel up just here!
Nik Wadge, Anne Strafford, Mark Bale, Jay Mulvey, Fiona Vaughan, Jeroen Hoek,