Shoot! An MTB Challenge Fantasti-Crank

Words & Photos: Jacques Marais |

Tsitsikamma rates a one of South Africa’s most gorgeous deep-forest destinations, and what better way to experience it than across the handlebars of your mountain bike?

Mountain bike races are a dime a dozen these days, but money cannot buy the tranquillity and exhilaration that comes packaged with the annual MERREL Tsitsikamma MTB Challenge. That is the beauty of both this race and the region: you can either bomb ballistic with the big dogs of trail or you can chill at the back of the pack, soaking up the unmatched serenity of this 'place of sparkling waters'.

Run from the popular Tsitsikamma Falls Adventure Centre near Storms River Village, riders can choose between 28 km, 40 km or 70km route options, with everything from forest, fynbos and coastal cranking to look forward to. This constantly changing scenery makes the Tsitsikamma MTB Challenge a pleasure to either shoot or ride, that’s for sure.

Knowing the route offers a distinct advantage if you’re a shooter, as there are a few key spots that always deliver kick-ass images. This goes for any event though, which is why you must always try to check out the race route beforehand. If you can’t, then use your instinct and be ready to shoot super-fast and from the hip!

For more info on the MERRELL Tsitsikamma MTB Challenge, check out

Image 1: Holy Trailing

The Action: About three quarters through the race, riders emerge from the pine plantations for a quick climb onto a gorgeous fynbos plateau. A helter-skelter dual-track leads them onto the final section of the route and towards the finish.
The Shot: I clambered onto a rock to get a higher viewpoint and then composed the image so that the rule of thirds kicked in. A flash on zoom powered in some light onto the rider, just to ensure he stood out from the foreground clutter.
The Technique: Oblique light from the climbing sun made for a hazy, washed out image, but I knew post-processing in Adobe Lightroom would enhance this effect with the right filter.
The Specifications: 1/800th sec @ f5.6; Nikon D600
+ 20 mm wide angle prime; ISO 100; WB Setting (Auto);
AE Setting (-1).
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Image 2: Forest Fantasy

The Action: A rider gets lost within the fragrant pine plantations lining much of the MERRELL Tsitsikamma MTB Challenge route. Some of the riding here can just as well have been in the forests of Europe.
The Technique: A long lens allows you to compress the scene, and I used the foreground trees to frame the shot and thus draw the eye to the lone rider. I had to push the ISO up as the light was relatively low, and stuck to Auto White Balance due to constantly shifting light.
The Specifications: 1/1,000th sec @ 5.6; Nikon D800 + 80 - 400 mm lens; ISO 250; WB Setting (Auto); No flash; AE Setting (0).
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Image 3: Empire of the Sun

The Action: Halfway through the race and riders are climbing into the welcome warmth of the rising sun. I ran behind this rider shooting low angle shots directly into the flare to create the contrasty feel, and then enhanced shadow detail in Lightroom.
The Shot: I’ve moved away from super-wide zooms for two reasons: firstly, there is a massive weight saving, and secondly, I do not get the ‘tall-head syndrome’ distortion so prevalent to the former lens set. There is still a place for the ‘ultras’ when used judiciously though.
The Technique: The combo of a low angle, in-the-moment action and shooting into the light source add drama to the image.
The Specifications: 1/160th sec @ f11; Nikon D600 + 20 mm prime; ISO 1.0; WB Setting (Sunlight); AE Setting (-1); Flash from on-camera SB-910.
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Image 4: Going Loopy

The Action: A sneaky little loop along the route did not make much sense to the riders, but delivered a fantastic photographic diversion. Riders had to detour through some stunning old tree giants, making for great shots.
The Shot: The shot really was a no-brainer … The tree to the right framed the rider (and also hid one of the wireless flash units), while the low shooting angle enhanced the looming forest feel surrounding the rider.
The Technique: Additional lighting was needed as the sun shone from the side and back. This would have rendered the rider as a silhouette, but for two Pocket Wizards on Gorilla Pods doing their magic.
The Specifications: 1/200th sec @ f4; Nikon D600 with 20 mm prime lens; ISO - 100; WB Setting: Auto; AE Setting (-1); 2 x SB-910 Flash Units driven by Pocket Wizards transceivers.
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