Sunday was the day of the Brighton leg of the World Naked Bike Ride. Brighton has considerable history in this endeavour and despite the last three years being hampered by less than clement weather, we expected and got a very decent turn out. One aim of the ride is to increase motorist’s awareness of the fragility of cyclists on the roads, and a more effective way of achieving this noble outcome I cannot imagine!
To the photography. I tried a completely different approach this year, rather than docuenting the event and hoping to get a few decent pictures, my aim was to get one shot that epitomised the Brighton ride. In so doing I sacrificed variety in favour of what I hoped would be a better ‘hit rate’. It had to be light hearted, exuberant and happy, I wanted to make people smile. This much I knew. In addition, I wanted it to have a context, i.e.. to show Brighton recognisably and to grab the attention in a way that precluded a documentary approach.
Having decided on the outcome, I made some further decisions about the way that I would achieve it. From the technical perspective, I figured a wide angled shot from low down would give me dramatic pictures that would stay the right side of decent as knees and thighs would mostly obscure the vulnerable areas. Having made that decision, then I knew that if I wanted to feature the sky I would have to use HDR based tone mapping in order to bring the detail out of the silhouettes I would get by exposing for the sky. I knew that because the ride was in motion, I could not rely on bracketing to give me detail in both sky and riders and I suspected that if I exposed for the riders I would be left with a blown out sky from which it would be impossible to retrieve the detail. I did consider using flash, but decided against as I didn’t want to blind the riders and cause a painful accident!
Setting the camera to automatic I pre-focused the lens to the distance I hoped the riders heads would be at. The photographs were taken using a wide angle Canon 17-40mm f4 L lens, held at kerb height on the very edge of the kerb, about a foot from the wheels of the bicycles. I set the camera to P mode as I knew I wouldn’t have time to fine tune the settings if the sun went behind a cloud. This allowed me to make eye contact with the cyclists in the hope they would respond positively to the camera.
I scouted the route and decided that the place that best suited my aims was on Western road, at the top of Brunswick Place, looking towards the sea. That gave the classic Brighton architecture prominence in the shot. I set up my position about half an hour before the riders were due, tried a few practice shots on unsuspecting passers by to work out the angle and focal length and settled down to wait.
The outcome was exactly what I had anticipated. I got a reasonable degree of interaction with the riders, and out of about twenty shots, at least four perfectly usable one. Gratifyingly, the shot I posted on Flickr has been featured by the Japanese web magazine Gigazine in their picture feature on the World Naked Bike Ride, which has resulted in over a thousand hits a day on three consecutive days this week. I’ll never make a glamour photographer, but the experience does prove the effectiveness of ‘trailing’ previous photographs on Flickr – the new viewers are casting their attention to the Shanghai shots and even the American architectural shots preceding the naked bike ride.
I think this experience has proved beyond doubt to me that when I really compose a shot ahead of time, the outcome is generally more reliable than shoots that rely on spontaneity alone. There is a place for both approaches, but I’ve been very considered about my photography for the last couple of months, the US and China trips had pretty severe time constraints so I planned meticulously. I think its paid off.