I’m often asked what type of camera gear I used during my year shooting Argyle Armada. Here’s the down-low on cameras, computers, and a few other essentials:
Cameras: One Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and one Canon EOS 1D Mark II N camera body. These are digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Heavy, fast, and tough.
Nikon or Canon? It doesn’t matter. Both companies make extraordinary cameras. If you are debating Canon vs Nikon, try them both and go with what feels most intuitive and comfortable in your hands. Keep in mind that once you start buying lenses, you are locked into that particular brand.
Lenses: When telling a story, I try to express one of two things: context or emotion. That is, the circumstances surrounding any one moment in time, and how those circumstances affect the subject. Wide-angle lenses provide the former, telephotos the latter. As a result, the two lenses I used most frequently in Argyle Armada are a wide angle zoom, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L and a mid-range telephoto zoom, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L EF IS.
I kept the telephoto on one camera body and the wide angle on the other, saving me from having to switch lenses. This photo of Norwegian Thor Hushovd fans on the Col du Galibier in the French Alps shows how the 16-35mm captures context.
For most of the year I was travelling and shooting without an assistant, so I tried to pack light; if it wouldn’t fit in my trusty, tough ThinkTank Airport International, then I left it behind. That means I often did not bring one of my favorite lenses, the luminous Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS. (My other fav is the Canon 85mm f/1.2L, but more on that later.) This photo of Dave Zabriskie at the Tour of California from page 82 of Argyle Armada is with the 300mm.
Instead, I got extra telephoto reach without the weight of another big lens by popping a Canon 1.4x EF Extender on the 70-200. Extenders, also known as doublers, increase the telescopic effect of a zoom or fixed-focal length lens. Besides saving me from shlepping the 300mm lens, using a doubler, especially when shooting from a motorcycle, was more practical. Here’s a shot of Tom Peterson with Peter Stetina in the background with the 70-200/1.4x extender set up.
Note that the 1.4x extender cuts the 70-200’s lowest aperture down to f/4 from f/2.8. However, with the Canon Mark IV, I could easily counter this loss of lens speed by upping my ISO to 800, 1000 or even 1600, keeping my shutter speed high enough to freeze action without any noticeable loss of image quality. Nothing wrong with grabbing a bit more f/4 depth of field, either.
Other lenses in my regular rotation were the Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye and the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS. And if you look closely at chapter eight on Québec and Montréal, you’ll find an image I shot with an architectural lens I brought to Canada for kicks, the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L tilt shift.
My favorite lens for shooting podium awards is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L. This portrait lens is not the fastest in terms of focusing speed, but it delivers otherworldly backgrounds and exquisite detail. Here are shots of Ryder Hesjedal and Thor Hushovd with the 85mm.
If you like the look of the 85mm f/1.2 but can’t spare the (significant) dough, consider a 50mm f/1.4. It gives a similar feel at a fraction of the cost. I use Hoya or B+W UV filters to protect my lenses. It’s easier and safer to wipe mud off a filter than the lens element itself.
Flashes: Bringing in multiple light sources adds depth and dimensionality to photos, and I’m a big believer in busting out the strobes when I can. I travelled with three Canon 580EX flashes and a set of PocketWizard FlexTT5 and PocketWizard MiniTT1 radio slaves. Those slaves triggered the three-light setups you’ll find at the Tour of Spain on page 143 (note the rim light on Heinrich Haussler) and in the shot of Dan Lloyd in Colorado on page 132. Here’s a three-strobe lit photo of Andy Schleck in Colorado’s Garden of the Gods. With the sun, that’s four light sources bringing every spoke, corner and curve to life.
This shot of Christophe Le Mével at the Vuelta uses three strobes and the 15mm fisheye lens. You’ll find it in the book on page 148.
I also constantly used my Canon OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord. That widget allows you to got the strobe off your camera, which pushes your photography outside the realm of deer-in-headlights snapshots. I used the off camera shoe cord for the image of Ryder Hesjedal in Canada on page 167 of Argyle Armada.
Light modifiers: Light modifiers change the quality of light coming from a flash or the sun. My most-used strobe light modifiers were a Sto-Fen Omni Bounce and LumiQuest SoftBox III. The small, compact Sto-Fen diffuses harsh flash output, while the larger LumiQuest delivers a nice soft light and is sized perfectly to light faces with an appealing light fall-off. For this photo at the start of a Vuelta a España stage in Astorga, I used the LumiQuest Softbox III with the off camera cord to light 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre’s face.
In my suitcase I also carried a reflector disc, collapsable white shoot-through umbrella, and a Manfrotto portable light stand. Additionally, I had two 6″ bungie ball tie downs and a Manfrotto justin clamp on hand for affixing flashes and umbrellas to just about anything. If I were to pare things down even more, I’d just travel with the reflector.
Other accessories: When shooting races, I strapped on a ThinkTank Pro Speed Belt equipped with the following pouches: Lens Changer 75 Pop Down for the 70-200mm or 24-105mm zoom, Lens Changer 50 for the 16-35mm zoom or the 15mm fisheye, R U Thirsty for a water bottle or extra lens, Strobe Stuff for a flash and diffuser, and Speed Changer for batteries, pens, notepad, business cards, Olympus digital voice recorder, lens cloth, Clif Bars, and a Seagate 1TB external hard drive. The ThinkTank belt frees you to work all day without carrying a camera bag.
I also relied on two Black Rapid camera straps. I prefer these to standard over-the-shoulder straps because they allow you to push the camera behind your back. And unlike a standard strap, it is impossible for these to slide off your shoulder.
For rainy days, I used a ThinkTank Hydrophobia and carried a small chamois to keep the gear sort of dry. Sometimes, however, rain comes when you don’t expect it, and days like the one below fried four strobes over the course of the year. (That’s why I have insurance.) In fact, because my strobes were dead and drowned, some photos in Argyle Armada are shot with available light in situations where I would normally blaze away with 580EXes. You’ve got to roll with circumstances.
Black gaffer’s tape was another essential. The day you go out to shoot without it is the day you need it. I also carry a sensor cleaning kit; it’s a royal pain editing out dust spots in post-processing, and sensors get dirty quick in the dust up of 200 cyclists and a thundering follow caravan of vehicles.
Juicing up: Cameras, flashes, phones, voice recorders, laptops and all the gizmos that make 21st-century journalism possible require nightly recharging. I travelled with a six-outlet power strip and used a travel plug adapter to plug the strip into a power receptacle wherever I was staying (often the only free outlet being in the bathroom, placed conveniently above running water.) This allowed me to charge my collection of electronics from a single outlet. I stored the tangle of chargers and cords in a ThinkTank Cable Management 50 organizer.
Computer and software: I travelled with a 15″ MacBook Pro loaded with Adobe Lightroom for my image editing and asset management tasks. I carried the MacBook in a ThinkTank Artificial Intelligence laptop bag, which slides nicely into a stretchy pocket on the front of the Airport International for transport through terminals, train stations and press rooms.
I shot all the images in RAW format and converted to DNG when importing into Lightroom. The images you see in Argyle Armada went through an additional process in Adobe Photoshop; conversion from DNG to TIFF and from the ProPhoto RGB color space to the printer-friendly CMYK color space. What with soft-proofing the CMYK images, that was a mountain of work; I did not sleep much during the final month of image prep and output.
During many races I was also shooting for clients who needed images quickly. In those cases, I would record RAW images to one memory card and JPGs to the other (the Canon Mark IV and Mark II N have two card slots). While Lightroom was grinding through the RAW-to-DNG conversion process, I could simultaneously grab the JPGs from the other card and FTP them to my clients without any editing or image conversions.
Clothes: Take a look at the photo above and you’ll note my two most important clothing items: a floppy hat to cover your ears and sturdy, waterproof boots to protect your feet. It’s amazing how happy you can remain in cold and wet if your feet are dry and the hat is keeping water off your face and viewfinder. And of course, the hat is a hands-free, cancer-foiling sunbrella. Boots also protect your ankles and allow you to move confidently in mud, brush, dirt and gravel without having to step gingerly or worry about spending the day in sopping socks.
Ready for disaster: I started every day with the assumption that all my gear would be stolen. But that didn’t stress me out, because every night I would back up all my images from the laptop to two Seagate 1TB external hard drives. One remained with me in my Speed Changer pouch or jacket pocket all day, and the other stayed in the car or wherever I happened to be stashing my luggage. In sum, while on the road I always had all my images backed up to three hard drives stored in two or three physical locations.
Upon returning to my office in California, I would make three more backups of my images: one on my Mac Pro desktop hard drive, one on a RAID array, and one on a 3TB external hard drive I stored offsite in case my office was burglarized or burned down.
It sounds like a lot of redundancy founded on pessimism, but my worst nightmare was to spend a year shooting images for the book, then have them all disappear because of theft or fire. This never happened, but I slept soundly knowing I could move on without pause if it did! While in the field, having backups also frees you to focus on shooting and observing rather than fretting over whether your gear will be there at day’s end. If it’s gone, you still have your work and your project stays on track. You can’t control thieves, but you can manage your response to their destruction.
Getting around: Especially in countries like Belgium, where road networks are as intricate as lung capillaries, my Garmin nüvi 2450 with European maps (downloaded separately) was critical. And no, Garmin didn’t give me the nüvi–I bought it from Amazon in the US. When you arrive in Europe, just change the country setting on the GPS and off you go toward your nearest slip road. I also bought Michelin maps in advance for whatever area of Europe I happened to be travelling. (They cost about 7 Euros in Europe, but it can be hard to find them on the road.) You can try the cheaper maps for sale in tourist shops and gas stations, but in my experience, you will regret it; Michelin maps are the best.
The Words: I wrote Argyle Armada with the Mac word processing program Pages, and saved the files to a Dropbox folder. I also stored my nearly 150 hours of digital interview recordings on Dropbox. Keeping the files on Dropbox ensured that I could carry on writing the Argyle Armada story without a hitch if my laptop were ever stolen.
If you have more questions about my setup, please get in touch.
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