When you’re out in the mountains, or touring a city, or anyway going around spotting locations and snapping pictures there is always that much terrain you can cover without sleeping out in the open or in an hotel.
This is really frustrating considering that most good locations, especially in the mountains, are often miles away from places you can reach with your car. And even if you got a nice all-terrain vehicle you have to know the paths pretty well to not get stuck in some rut or in a place in which you cannot turn around.
This means that a sizable portion of your day will be spent first driving then hiking / walking, instead of photographing. Add to this the constraints of finding the right light (i.e. getting at the location you want to photograph at a specific hour), and then the range will be limited even further.
If I don’t find something to photograph along the way, and the path is not too steep, on foot in a day I can usually cover a maximum of 15-20Km / 9-12 miles before having to turn around for the return trip.
This is extremely annoying, and while there is nothing wrong in revisiting the same places over and over (on the contrary, it is extremely useful for artistic purposes) at the same time this can easily lead you to boredom and to putting the camera down for a while.
There is a simple solution, though. And compared with the prices of the gear we usually lust after it is a pretty cheap one too. Well, everything is cheap compared with some of those prices!
A well made mountain bike (or road / hybrid bike, if you are more of a city guy) will take you anywhere in relative comfort, and will dramatically extend the amount of terrain you can cover in a single day. Dramatically here means that, without steep hills in the way and once you get fit enough, you can cover as much as 160Km / 100 miles IN A SINGLE DAY and usually at least 80-100Km / 50-60 miles. There is also a lot of people out there touring the U.S.A., Europe, Asia, Australia on bikes racking up thousand and thousand of miles for months on end.
Just for reference, going often at a leisurely (read: sloooooow) pace to be able to spot interesting scenes I usually cover around 30Km / 19 miles in a couple hours (on reasonably flat or undulated terrain). When the gradient steepens the game get tough, but it is still doable and, in the worst possible case*, you can always step down the bike and push; after all you’re not competing in the Tour de France!
*Where I live the differences in altitude are often extreme: in just 10-15Km / 6-10 miles a road can get you from 200 to 1400 meters / 650 to 4600 feet or more. This can happen at sea level as well, because here in Calabria the mountains practically dip their toes in the sea along almost the whole coast.
Bonus point 1: especially when I’m out scouting a new location, it may happen that some of the best views are from a stretch of road on which there is absolutely no place to safely stop a car, not even for a few minutes (typically on a bridge or a causeway). This is no problem at all with a bike: just toss it up on the margin of the road, on a piece of grass or over the guardrail and you’re good to go.
Bonus point 2: you can adapt a small tripod head to the handlebars (or buy one pre-made). While not a substitute for a proper tripod, it will make possible going out ultra-light when you are not in the mood for carrying a lot of gear or maybe are just evaluating the potential of a place.
Note: above I said a “well made” bike. This means avoiding like the plague the cheap models sold in malls. These might barely be fine for use on flat tarmac (and even then, the experience will not be so comfortable and the bike will not last all that long), but for paths and cross-country they can be downright dangerous. Imagine what would happen if riding on a rough path out of nowhere one of the bike weldings should snap… Or what *will* happen when you’ll try to brake in wet conditions with your cheap steel wheels (hint: nothing, and you’ll become really intimate with a tree). You get the idea.
So, to ride in style and comfort this is what a bike-riding photographer will need:
1) A bike (duh!)
A mountain bike (landscape guys), or an hybrid / road one (cityscapers and street shooters). Pretty much anything from 450-500 euro will do. Obviously the more you spend the more you get, as always.
- If you plan to use it only in cities go for no suspension at all (and you might find something good as low as 350€).
- If you plan to limit yourself to normal paths peek one with just a (good) front suspension, a.k.a. “hardtail”.
- If you plan to ride it on rough paths or on no paths at all spend a bit more, and get a full suspended model (front and rear); your butt will thank you, and you will ride safer too. But if you can’t spend more then get the best hardtail you can afford, instead of a cheap-o dual suspension.
- If you, like me, have a car with a small trunk and worst still live in a building with a tiny elevator consider buying (for a bit more) a good full size folding bike like one of the Montague series. I own a Swissbike X50, but probably the best for price-performance ratio is the Paratrooper. For a small car trunk you can get away without having to spend more on a folding just removing both wheels from the bike (buy one with quick-releases) or using a car rack, but fitting a bike in a small elevator (important if you plan to use it also on your normal schedule) it is quite a bit more tricky.
“Cro-Mo” frames are made of steel, while the “6***” and “7***” are aluminum. Steel ones are usually heavier, but better for long touristic trips (steel is easy to weld in a pinch, aluminum is not). Both kind of frames are fine for every other use, but like I said before avoid at all costs steel wheels: they weight too much, are cheap, and on them the brakes simply don’t have enough friction to be able to stop you.
About brakes: good V-brakes are powerful enough, but if you have the dough spring for disk brakes; they are more powerful and much better in wet weather.
Keep your tires inflated at the correct pressure value to reduce the pedaling effort (it is written on the outside of each tyre). If you use your mountain bike only on tarmac, make yourself a huge favor and change those knobby tires for slick (treadless) ones. And check that the arrows on the side of each tyre match the direction in which the tyre is actually rolling.
Try to peek a bike weighting less than 10-11Kg / 22-24lbs (road) or 13-14Kg / 28-30lbs (if suspended) to actually enjoy the experience, otherwise you’ll think you’re trying to move a rock. Once bought the bike, learn how to correctly set the height of your saddle and stem, and to make basic repairs like mending a tube (Youtube as always is your friend).
2) A few safety items for the bike
At the very minimum you will need to carry:
- A couple of tyre levers
- A multitool with Allen keys (and if possible Philips and flat screwdrivers)
- A spare tube or two
- A few adhesive patches for inner tubes
- A chain splitter tool
- One or two Powerlinks of the correct size for your chain
- A mini pump
You could certainly carry more, especially on a multi-day trip, but with the stuff above you will be covered for pretty much anything. You can buy the whole kit for much less than 50€.*
*Naturally you will have to bring along a bit of money and the stuff you usually carry hiking as well, like mobile phone, map, knife, etc. if heading for the wilderness
3) A few safety items for you
You will need:
- Water: in cycling you are the engine, and to keep you cool you will have to be well hydrated
- Food: energy bar and / or gels are great, light, tasty and can give you just the boost you badly needed
- Gloves: if you should fall you will avoid scraping the palms of your hands on rocks or tarmac
- Glasses: sunglasses or clear impact-resistant glasses are great to avoid bugs and pebbles flying straight into your eyes
- A rain / wind jacket: even when the sun is shining going fast downhill can cool you to the bones!
All of the above you can have it for more or less 10€, with the exception of the rain jacket. The cheap ones do not breath, and you end up steaming inside them like a wonton dumpling.
The good ones are in Gore-Tex™ and, even if they can cost quite a bit, last an eternity if well looked after and let you enjoy your day. For a cheap breathable option look for military Gore-Tex™ jackets; they may be come only in camo and be not quite streamlined for maximum aerodynamic effect, but usually don’t cost a mint (30-50€).
4) An helmet
This is a really important item. But, honestly, I’m lazy and when I’m out spotting pictures I go slow anyway, so I carry one just when I ride for fun (read: fast) or on really rough terrain, otherwise I don’t bother. Not the safest choice, but anyone has to decide for himself where to draw the line between safety and comfort. I tend to run pretty hot, so in my book comfort wins; your mileage may vary, as they say.
This in the mountains; if you ride in a city, with all the cars, just get an helmet and use it. From 10 to hundreds of euro, depending on design and comfort. But keep in mind that as long it is CE approved even the 10€ model should adequately protect your head anyway. Discard it after an impact, and change it every few years regardless.
5) A saddle
There is a strong possibility that whatever bike you choose the saddle will not be comfortable enough for you. The right saddle depends from the width of your hip bones, so it is an extremely personal choice. Again, from 10 to hundreds of euro, but probably worth spending between 20 and 40€. Don’t skimp on this, is the difference between enjoying the ride and cursing your bycicle all the way.
Leather saddles (Brooks and the likes) are supposedly the best because they conform to your body shape with usage, but that will happen only after at least 800 Km / 500 miles of riding them.
6) A rack (optional)
If your bike came with a rack, or if you buy one, you can then mount the backpack (and the tripod*) on it and avoid having your back sweating like the proverbial pig. There is even a more elegant solution: the so called panniers, bike bags that clip onto the rack sides. Not indispensable, but nice (especially on roads, less so on dirty tracks) because they lower your center of gravity making the bike easier to control.
*Without a rack you can carry the tripod strapped to the top tube.
That’s all you need. For the cost of a cheap lens you will be able to shoot thousands of pictures more, get fitter and discover hundreds of new places. I’d call this a really good investment.