Cycling the World as a Photographer
By Nicolas Marino
In the last decade there has been a steady and increasing number of people traveling by bicycle. At the same time, it is needless to say that there has been a massive growing number of aspiring photographers. However, there are not many people who are both, photographers and cycle travelers. For some reasons, mainly pragmatic ones, serious photography does not seem to be popular among cycle travelers, neither does a bicycle seem to have much appeal to serious photographers as means of transport. But over the years I have made this combination of passions not only absolutely possible but totally worth it. In this article, I will go about explaining how it all comes together and most importantly, why both actually perfectly complement each other.
When you travel the world using public transport you will get to see all the places of interest that you want to be visit. You will be traveling from place A to B to C to Z (possibly with thousands of other visitors) overnight or in a day. Fair enough, but when you have your own transportation, you are independent and that gives you the ability to stop whenever you want on the way, for as long as you want. However, depending on the kind of vehicle you have, it will condition significantly your behavior and with a motored vehicle you will most likely still end up repeating the same A to B to C pattern, with the added costs of fuel and mechanical complexities. That is where the bicycle comes into place to offer its unique qualities.
The bicycle's slow pace gives you the time you need to appreciate the roads you travel on a different and deeper level; with it, you fully immerse yourself in your journey because the traveling experience is not about place A or B anymore but the experience becomes the transition between them; now, the magic lies between A and B and not in A or B exclusively. This has several implications. The first one is that you get to develop a true understanding of the culture you are in, because not only you spend several days or even months experiencing daily life in it but you are also seeing parts of it that you wouldn't if you limited yourself to its mere tourist attractions. You start seeing the authentic, the traditional, the originally local customs not being altered or distorted by the effects of other interests like mass tourism. The second one, is that during all those days you spend cycling from place to place, the slow pace and effort necessarily make you stop several times along the way, in small towns, villages, settlements as well as in nature itself, thus, you start developing a very intimate relationship with the local people and blend within the most authentic of the culture and the environment surrounding them. When local people see you passing by on your bicycle, you trigger a myriad of feelings in them that range from curiosity and amusement to surprise and perplexity and even to pity and compassion. Whatever the case is, you get the empathy and the treatment that somebody passing by on a super Toyota Landcruiser or a BMW motorbike certainly wouldn't. Most of the time, people will be willing to give you shelter, food and care and will be willing to share stories, ask you things and open their hearts to you. On the other hand, when you are far from people, you have all the nature for yourself and you get to explore around as much as you wish. Aside of all this, it is healthy! You'll be fitter and stronger than ever and it feels good! Also, the bicycle, opposite to say, a motorbike, 95% of the time can be fixed by you on the spot. It also allows you to get to places unreachable by any other motored vehicle and on top of it all, you'll like this last one: it is CHEAP, such a dirt cheap way of traveling.
At this point in time where there are millions of photographers traveling like you all over the world , the chances of photographing something unique become more and more scarce. Famous places have been and are being photographed billions of times and while visiting them will always be beautiful, your chances as a photographer to convey something original about them and provoke any impact are ever so limited, let alone avoiding cliches. After all, what are the odds of getting a unique shot of something like the Taj Mahal these days? As a photographer of this century, the need to stay out of the mainstream is the key to rediscover the world and to start finding original beauty in places away from the shot-to-exhaustion tourist attractions. Even remote, hard-to-get-to tribes have already been photographed and made an attraction themselves; by now, even these have become tourist attractions in their own way. But the way in between these places, even more so if they are remote, still remains pretty much untouched and ignored, offering unlimited photographic opportunities, and on your slow-paced bicycle you have them all for yourself, right there waiting for you.
The nuts and bolts
So you decided to cycle and still intend to produce professional quality imagery, what to do then? I could go on for hours about how to choose a bicycle and the related gear: carriers, paniers, camping gear, etc but I will limit myself to comment on what affects the photographer directly.
The most important things I have learned:
– You want to be able to easily reach your camera. This is critical. Most photographic opportunities show up right by your side when you are riding. You need to stop and be able to quickly and most importantly comfortably access your camera to shoot. Many times you don't even get off your bicycle to shoot.
– You want to keep your gear weight low. The average long-hauler carries an average of 50-60kg (that is not including food and water) While this is fine for a flat road with a smooth tarmac, it can exponentially increase the challenge when you are cycling up a remote moon-like dirt road up a 5000+mts pass on the Tibetan plateau. Choose your gear carefully. Every GRAM counts.
– Don't cut corners on paniers. Get the best: Ortlieb and Vaude, both offer top-of-the-line waterproof, tear-resistant paniers. Essential to keep your gear safe and dry. Compression plastic bags are also important for deserts and dusty roads where sand grain can easily get inside.
The choice of gear will always be up to the photographer and will depend on his/her photography. I focus primarily on environmental portraiture and secondarily on landscapes, and I also choose my gear depending on the length of the trips. Regardless of the brand you choose, your gear should be professional-grade while being as light as possible, built to resist all sorts of weather and road conditions. This includes the occasional impacts and vibrations that will inevitably happen. A camera that has outstanding high ISO capabilities is essential for remote regions where light inside is dim. My choice is a Nikon D700 (and more recently the D800) because it achieves the perfect balance between the factors described above.
Lenses and accessories
For a short trip: 0 to 3 months. In these trips, since you can carry less stuff you can afford taking more flexible photography gear like big heavy zooms, but don't abuse it! Remember, every GRAM counts!
Lenses: Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 – 24-70 f2.8 and 70-300 VR. Flash: 1 SB-600 + Shoot-through umbrella. GoPro Hero2 3 spare batteries. CPL. 70 GB in memory cards
For long-hauls: 6 months to several years. A long trip will compromise flexibility. On a long trip and in a remote region, extra food and water alone can easily add up to 10kg to 15kg to the average weight you carry. That's when you'll start feeling like throwing away your $2,000 bulky zooms as if they were paper tissues.
Lenses: Nikkor 16-35 f4 OR 20 mm f2.8 + 50mm f1.4G + 85mm f1.4D ( I consider a f1.8 configuration to go even lighter) Flash: 1 SB-600 + 24” softbox Ultrabook 13.3” laptop + WD passport 1TB GoPro, Hero2 3 spare batteries. CPL. 70 GB in memory cards
Cables and chargers all go in the big paniers. No need to access them during the day.
Tripod: this one is a hard choice. Carrying a good sturdy tripod+ballhead is out of the question and carrying a light tripod will many times prove to be useless. Still, I decided to take one because I love shooting stars when I camp. I carry a very light Manfrotto 732CY + 484RC2 ballhead. It's very compact and light. A little wind will make it useless but with no wind and patience it does the job even holding the big zooms.
As I said, it is essential to have quick access to everything. For this, I always carry the camera + one lens inside a Lowe Pro Outback 100 bag that instead of carrying it around my waist to which it is designed for, I hang it across my chest and carry it on my back. This bag will fit the camera + one pro zoom lens and it allows me to quickly grab it, shoot, put it back and keep cycling.
For the rest, I have made a “DIY” modification to the inside of the handlebar panier. I grabbed the pads of my mini-trekker bag and arranged them in a way that will fit two pro zoom lenses + the
flash, protecting them for shock and reducing the vibrations of dirt roads. Bear in mind that the bag specs say it can hold up to 3kg. It can, but even if you reach 3kg, it's a bit too much, so what I do is to place my tent on top of the front carrier in a way that lets the handlebar panier rest on it (see photo above). Having everything in there allows me to swap lenses super fast and not even having to get off my bike either.
The tripod is tied together with the dry bag at the back so It can also be easily accessed.
Make no mistake and don't fall for the extreme comfort trap. While you can cycle carrying the camera hanging across your chest outside the bag, and this, most of the time will be safe, falls do happen, and by that I mean, you falling. When you fall, the first thing that hits the ground, followed by you on top of it with all your weight, is your camera! It has happened to me and you can destroy all your gear. Put your camera in your bag! - Never ever forget to push the buttons of your handlebar paniers all the way until they click, especially when getting off your bike. The cover isn't strong enough to hold the lenses inside. If the bike falls, like when a sudden gust of wind in Tibet blew my bicycle away, I ended up with my two pro zoom lenses crashing on a ditch 3mts bellow.
They happen all the time and very often.
It can be the landscape you are cycling through that day
It can be the people that inhabit the regions you transit
It can be the family that take you in for the night and feed you
It can be the nomads in the blizzard at 4300mts high
It can be the passing-by proud camel herder
It can be the idyllic place where you camp alone in the middle of nowhere
Everything happens on the way, and there is so much to see that very few people have photographed before.
The main one: time. You need time to do this, the pace is slow and the more you cycle the more you will love to go slow, and your 15 days holiday break from work won't really take you very far. Many times you will reach a spectacular place at the worst time of the day when the high sun will kill the beauty of an otherwise spectacular photo, so if you really want to take that shot, you'll probably have to decide whether to hang in there doing nothing until the golden hour when by that time, you won't be able to continue cycling. Many times a lovely family in a remote village will invite you to stay indefinitely. So time flies by and you lose notion of it. It's the photographer's dream!
A subjective drawback is: cycling traveling is not for anyone, at times, it can be a physically and mainly mentally exhausting experience, it sometimes drains every bit of energy and it takes a lot of mental strength to get over the adversity you face. You are constantly put to test. Sometimes it gets so cruel that even in the most spectacular places you will not feel like pulling out the camera and you will give up photography in situations that not being so exhausted you wouldn't. However, the good news is that the body and the mind never stop getting stronger so the chances of that happening are also increasingly scarce, even non-existent.
This is a shaky video of my last year's journey where you can appreciate some of the wonders and difficulties of traveling by bicycle, in this case remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau.
Traveling by bicycle is possibly the most suitable way for a serious photographer that is looking to go beyond in search of unique places and subjects while enjoying the experience of truly living out there in the field. It gives amazing flexibility and total independence, without the hassles and the huge cost of a motored vehicle, while allowing you to fully immerse yourself into and be part of the culture you visit and its environment.