Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Bicycle Photographer

Heather McGrath
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of working with Heather McGrath - a woman whose excellent photos have graced many a magazine page and gallery wall. Those who love bicycles might also recognise her work from framebuilders' websites and cycling blogs: In recent years Heather has made quite a name for herself as a bicycle photographer. 

In the course of running this blog and plunging deeper into the bicycle industry, I have thought about the relationship between cycling and photography. Many seem to get into photography as a result of riding their bikes. Perhaps it starts with wanting to photograph the scenery they encounter on a ride, or the bike itself. Over time taking pictures becomes a hobby and the rider's photography skills improve, sometimes to the point where they turn professional. Another scenario is where an established professional photographer becomes a cyclist, thereafter focusing largely on bicycles and cycling. Either way, bicycle photographers are almost invariably cyclists themselves. They have to be, to truly understand how to capture the defining characteristics of our beloved two wheel machines, as well as of those who ride them and make them. And Heather - as a daily cyclist, friend to local framebuilders and owner of a handbuilt bike - certainly understands all this. Ever wonder what being a pro bicycle photographer entails? I post a brief conversation with Heather below.

Heather McGrath
You describe yourself as an editorial photographer. In your own words, what does that mean? 

I get hired mostly by magazines. But ad agencies hire me as well.

Roughly what portion of your projects would you say are bike-related?

A good portion. I have been very fortunate in this. I always marketed work that was directly related to my life. I just kept shooting for myself and the things I loved, and assignments started following. The bike industry has responded very well to my eye.

Do you recall who was your first bicycle industry client, or what was your first bike-related photo shoot?

My first shoot that got me anywhere was just of my friends who lived in LA at the time. I came out with my Mamiya 67 and just hung out and shot a few frames. Some of the shots ended up on my first promo which lead to my first assignment with Bicycling Magazine a couple years later.

Heather McGrath
Do you get to travel for work? What sort of places have you recently traveled to?

I do. I have been flown to California, DC, Oregon, Austin, etc., for clients. I also travel alot for myself in pursuit of more photos for my portfolio. I actually just came back from a 7 week backpacking trip to the Netherlands, Croatia, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. I am going to start marketing these photos to travel companies and hopefully get more work there.

You've mentioned that for years you did not have a car and carried your photo equipment by bike. Can you describe your setup?

Thank god I have a strong back! Usually I just have my Bailey Works bag with a little subdivider in it with the body and two lenses. I don't light usually so I can travel light. But one time before zipcar existed I had a big shoot about 8 miles from my house. It was a big magazine and I was super nervous and of course it was about to rain right before I was about to leave. So there was no time to take the bus or anything. I packed up my huge Lowepro Trekker 2 bag which is supposed to be waterproof. I overpacked with lights and stuff I really didn't need because I was nervous. I threw in an extra set of clothes. attached a stand to one side of the bag and tripod on the other. And of course the downpour starts while I was en route. Like completely soaked to the underwear. And when I got to the house It had just stopped and this poor family had to open their doors to a girl who looked like a drowned rat with about 20lbs of gear on her asking to use the bathroom before we shot...

Heather McGrath's Geekhouse
You own a beautiful handbuilt bicycle by Geekhouse. What made you decide to get a custom bike? Did you give the builder criteria as far as what you wanted in a bike? 

Geekhouse wanted to make me a bike that was going to be a part of their NAHBS show bikes that year. Together we brainstormed ideas and colors. We all wanted something really classic looking. And my most important request was no toe overlap. I love track frames but I was sick of the toe overlap. A lot of the details of the bike were a surprise from the boys. They wouldn't even let me see it until it was completely done. I was there first curved fork and Brad made me my own monogram on the handlebars. I honestly think about how much I love that bike every time I ride it. I would never buy another bike that is not fitted to me.

[Note: See studio shots of Heather's bike here. Also: The basket pictured here does not actually live on the bike, just a joke.]

Heather McGrath
Are there any special challenges for you in photographing bikes compared to other types of photo shoots? 

The hardest thing I have faced is keeping my shot in focus. I have all manual focus Zeiss lenses usually kept at f2.8 or lower and I'm often shooting motion or riding with the subject and have to have both hands on the camera and just look through the eyepiece to even see where I am going!  You have to be able to stay on your bike, not hit anything, keep a good frame, and keep the person sharp! But I like these challenges. So I see it more as fun than torture. Another good story was when I was shooting the Lucus Brunelle shot for Bicycling Magazine. I had my assistant riding me around the city on a moped. I had no feet pedals, and makeshift belt keeping me and brad back to back. I just held on with my thighs and kept my feet in the air! We did this for about 2 hours. and the whole time manual focusing everything while we zipped in-between lanes of traffic at full speed. Luckily I grew up riding dirt bikes so I had no fear in any of this. We got really lucky though at the last shot when we found the police car that Lucas could skitch on. The police never looked over and it was hands down the best shot of the day!

Any advice for amateur bicycle photographers considering venturing into paid work? Do you think a formal education in photography is essential? 

You don't need a formal education. I almost dropped out of my own photo school. I had already been a professional retoucher and a graphic designer before I decided to be a photographer, so I came into the industry already knowing the back end. But because of those skills I was able to keep retouching for ad campaigns while I was working on my photography career. Eventually I didn't need to retouch anymore. My suggestion is to sacrifice your social life while you work on your skills. Assist as many other people as you can. And shoot what you love. That's how I got here and I am very grateful.

Heather McGrath
Having worked with Heather, I would describe her approach to photography as intuitive, fluid and thorough - focused on staging lively and realistic scenarios which can then be captured as still images. Heather uses both film and digital equipment. She prefers to ride fixed gear, and usually rides in her regular clothing and shoes, using pedals with toe straps. She commutes by bike around Boston, using her car when needed to transport props and large equipment. Whether working in her studio in Boston's South End or on location, Heather is good, really good at what she does. And her taste in bikes is none too shabby either.

36 comments:

  1. I like the leather frame purse she has on her bike. I have seen camping burners being transported that way. Is it as custom as the rest of the bicycle ?

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    1. Here is a close-up. It's a Billykirk bike pouch (their wesbite)

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    2. Thank you :)
      Here is the Campeur model I was referring to: http://www.spiritburner.com/fusion/showtopic.php?tid/13692/

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    3. Oh my, that is pretty neat - thanks for the link!

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  2. "And Heather - as a daily cyclist, friend to local framebuilders and owner of a handbuilt bike - certainly understands all this. Ever wonder what being a pro bicycle photographer entails?"

    So, how does it feel like to meet your double? There is even a certain amount of physical resemblance! :p

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    1. Ha. We don't actually resemble each other in person, though I guess the pictures can make it seem like it.

      As a photographer H comes from a different background than I, and works at a different level of professionalism. But I find that nearly everyone who photographs bikes has what you quoted in common. Cyclists can always spot the ads or magazine pics taken by non-cyclists.

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  3. The title is a bit misleading. She's a lot more than a bicycle photographer!

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  4. Looks like an artist who understands the language of both image making and bicycles!

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  5. It's plain common sense that a product photographer should have an intimate understanding of the product he or she shoots, or use the services of a consultant. For some reason this principle does not apply to bikes. I see bikes used in lifestyle ads with glaring mistakes in how they are put together... fork backwards, brakes disconnected, seat too low, model pretends to ride with no pedals attached... A shame they do not use the services of specialists.

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    1. It is pretty funny to see those things. But I wonder whether it really happens more with bikes than other products, as opposed to cyclists just noticing it more when it comes to bikes.

      For instance, I've even seen cameras "used" in impossible ways by models in staged shots, and you would think the person shooting would know better. It is possible they simply don't think it matters, considering the target audience.

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    2. Well i doubt it's about using a specialist, but more about using someone with half a brain. I mean i doubt there is anyone out there that doesn't realise a bike needs pedals in order to work. There are an awful lot of people that actually ride their bikes with the saddle too low though.

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  6. talk about a dream job!

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  7. This is so wonderful. Thank you for all the questions!!!

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    1. Thanks Heather for indulging me and for a great day at your studio : )

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  8. Bikes are about movement, she gets that though they are plenty of staged shots in her CV; 'tis the nature of the beast.

    I like your instapix more so than those of the blog.

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  9. Heather I couldn't be more proud. Guess who P.S. Dad

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  10. Great to see assertive, creative, positive women like Heather in the bicycle industry. More features like this please!

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  11. Living the dream... not in the ironic sense though - what a great way to pay the bills.

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  12. Followed the link you provided to her site. Really like her portfolio pics. Thanks.

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  13. It's great to see someone apparently making it in professional photography--as intoxicating as this level of photography can be, the industry has basically collapsed as a way of making a living. C'est la vie.

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    1. I'm interested in how you mean that exactly. My impression is that it has collapsed in some ways, expanded in others.

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    2. I think the rise of both digital photography and well as digital use of final images has opened up the industry a lot. The overall demand for photographic work has probably gone up, but the expected cost (and pay) has dropped significantly. Adding to this is a shift to paying based on final use of images rather than paying for a photographer's time and expertise. I think it's all been a tough transition for a lot of established shooters. There's still plenty to do out there, but like a lot of industries, you have to hustle a lot more and can't expect steady, predictable incomes as much as in the past.

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    3. I was thinking beyond the digital/film distinction, but more stylistically. My impression is that the aesthetic in demand now is very different from what was in demand a couple of decades ago, and that a good portion of those who leave the industry today do so because they can't adapt to the change. They may have experience and technical proficiency, but nonetheless they can't create the pictures clients want.

      From what I have seen, it is very possible to make a decent living as a photographer today - particularly if you are willing to do weddings, and personal photo-documentation types of projects, for which there has never been such demand as now. Commercial stuff is more competitive and it's hard to get your foot in the door.

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    4. "particularly if you are willing to do weddings", I suspect that's a big red line for a lot of people ;)

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    5. Definitely. It's physically hard labor, it's high risk, and it gets little respect within the industry. But work is work, and it's great practice for other types of photography. I've done it a few times. Harder than a 200K brevet for sure.

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    6. V, I was referring mainly to the creative process for still photography in commercial work shifting from image capture to post-production.

      A whole range of work that used to require not only vision but skill can be accomplished by an admin with a camera--the vision happens later in Photoshop (Capture still rules some market sectors, but fewer and fewer). The balance of payments have shifted accordingly--day rates have been dropping for years, even for wedding photographers.

      Digital is also so much easier to shoot well than film that there's now a narrower range between gifted photographers and advanced amateurs--which also changes the economics.

      Image quality needs to be higher for print than it does for virtual display, which also lowers the value of virtuoso photography and related economics. The decline in magazines has taken away a wide range of well-paying editorial work.

      The most successful still photographers in major markets, not that long ago, were earning in seven figures/annum. That is only true for a handful of photographers today.

      I also wonder if still is becoming less vital as a medium of expression. There appears to be a groundswell of talent heading from still to video, maybe in part due to what technology allows and in part because the returns are better.

      Apologies for the digression from cycling.

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  14. Lol thanks for making her explain what an editorial photographer is! Ive always wondered what that means.

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  15. That's so awesome! Getting to do what you love for a living no matter what it is is a dream, but especially photography.

    Jillian - http://epic-thread.blogspot.com

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  16. Out of curiosity why is it that many photographers paint out or tape over the brand name on their cameras prism housings?

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    1. Could be a number of reasons. Some don't want it to look like they are using expensive equipment, if they work in areas where getting robbed is a danger. Others don't want to show brand affiliation

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    2. It's just something that seems to be more common on your side of the pond. I suppose it's a little like when 'brassing' (enamel and plating worn off) on cameras was a sign of a pro, because the camera was a well used tool rather than a toy that someone used for family snaps. Although the brand affiliation is probably why Canon have a bigger market share in the consumer market than the other brands, just because people see "pro's" using Canon branded kit at the sides of sports fields.

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    3. Actually I first saw the practice in England, a photographer I knew in London.

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  17. its out of safety. Someone may notice that its a $5000 camera and might jump you for it.

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  18. and just a side note: it has nothing to do with the brand. I mean I have a canon camera with a mamiya strap, not for the brand but just because it was the only one i had laying around.

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