I’ve always had a thing for motorbikes. I got my bike licence before I could drive a car. Which caused a lot of fun when I was learning as the instructor’s car was a Leyland Mini. Apparently one is supposed to slow down for corners, even if the Mini romps them.
So, I liked bikes and I had a camera – what fun we could have! I had no interest in static bikes; nice to look at but boring. What I wanted was bikes in motion. Being the only one in my group who rode a bike meant that I either photographed other people or rode my bike without pictures. There was a huge roundabout near where we lived with a piece of hilly land inside. This became the local dirt track. There may have been a few lads with proper off-road bikes but the majority of us rode mopeds and stepthrus. I offer as a serious contender that the Honda 50 stepthru is brilliant off road: easy to control, centrifugal clutch and light enough to pick up or climb out from beneath. If there were two of you, you could lift them over gates and fences too.
Then it was commuting to work with two of us taking turns to ride or be pillion. Proper motorbikes, though, not the stepthru. Boredom as the pillion got the better of me and I started taking pictures from the back seat.
Then I discovered trials. Not that the cops caught up with me, but riding bikes off road over tricky obstacle courses. And not just any trials: classic trials. Modern trials bikes are so amazingly capable that they can be ridden up vertical cliffs and made to jump over gaps or obstacles. Fantastic to watch but it lacks a little in the gladitorial sense. Watching an old codger on an older bike wrestle it up a muddy bank when you can be close enough to hear their mutterings is sport made large.
Trials really need flash as they are usually held in the wet months and can be under trees. This requires some practice and skill, not just to avoid dazzling the rider but to get the exposure right for a dark thing against a dark background in a dark place. And while trials is all about low-speed control and balance, they can occasionally put on a spurt of speed. Then you could be contending with losing the background or having ghost images of the bike and rider. With film I was pretty much dependant on an automatic flashgun and the forgiving nature of colour print or mono. It would have been nice to have the flash sync on the second shutter curtain, but I had only heard of this being done by special camera modifications.
But I persevered, taking snaps, dodging errant bikes and occasionally helping retrieve the bike or rider out of holes or down from trees. I dropped out of it for a while when life got in the way and then some years later fancied going to see a local trial up in the Dales. Only this time I was digital. What a difference! My lens was an autofocus wide to standard zoom. My flashgun could talk to the camera to agree what the exposure was going to be. I could fire the flash on the second shutter curtain. I was like a pig in poo. OK, so the camera was only APS-C, so half the sensor size of my previous 35mm frame. (And microscopic compared to the time I shot a trial on medium format.) And yet, that weeny little sensor could resolve the engine numbers on the bikes. I’ve never had that with film. Chimping the shots meant that I could fiddle with the flash to ambient ratio to get some detail in the shadows without giving the riders a tan. Better yet, I didn’t have to change films in the rain or dust. Yay for digital!
In between watching the wobblers I continued to shoot road bikes. I did a shoot for the local bike club where they ferried me between corners on a series of bendy roads and then rode back along the route so that I could get action shots. It was a popular spot for local riders, so in the middle of shooting the sensible IAM riders an unknown loony came through, pulled a huge stoppie and then came back in the opposite direction on the back wheel. Respect!
I was given tickets to the Grand Prix at Silverstone as a present. I’d been to Silverstone before and tried to shoot on film. The results were variable, even if I did get a picture of Barry Sheen on an MV Agusta. The main problem was having a long enough lens. If I was close enough to get a reasonably-sized image I was shooting through the fence. If I stood up the banking to see over the fence, the bike became a small dot in the frame. So next time round I went digital. The joy of using an APS-C camera of course is that it has a crop sensor, so it makes your lenses longer. That and my choice of camera, which will take almost any lens made for an SLR or bigger.
So I loaded up with every long lens and medium format lens I owned. The medium format long lenses are perfect for this: I get 1.5x the focal length, a fairly wide aperture and I’m only using the central and sharpest bit of the glass. I couldn’t afford a 270mm f2.8 if I had to buy a real one, let alone the bigger combinations of lenses and teleconverters I was playing with. I also brought one of my few good ideas – a monopod with a plastic V attached to the top. You can set the lens in the notch and get decent steadiness without it stopping you from panning the shot. So compared to last time I could stand in the tiered public area by the hairpin and shoot over the top of the fence.
I know that the professional sports photographers use lenses that cost more than my car and can see that the moon landing was real. But I am the bunny of happiness when I can repurpose some Russian medium format kit and a forked stick.
What’s not to like?