SHOOT! A MTB stage race - Multi-day shooting

Words & Photos by Jacques Marais

If you want to put your digital photographic equipment to the ultimate test, the way to do it is to go and shoot the incredible Fedhealth Tour de Tuli. Dust. Heat. Major MTB wipe-outs. Minimal electricity. Elephant charges. Twenty-hour working days. And more dust.

Photo credit: Jacques Marais

This legendary four-day mountain biking tour traverses three countries along a route linking the shared border regions between South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. It was my first time shooting ‘The Tour’, but I had quite a good idea as to what to expect, as I knew some of the previous shooters well.
One of the challenges was that the only way to cover much of the course is on a mountain bike, which meant I had to ride my trusty Silverback Mercury while packing a full complement of Nikon gear in my backpack. Now, cranking elephant tracks through extreme sand with a heavy pack is not for the faint of heart and needs damn good planning to boot.

Gear selection is critical, to keep weight down without stifling creativity, but also from the point of view of having faith in the ability of your gear to survive a lethal cocktail of dust, heat and impact. Let’s just say both the Silverback and Nikon deserve a double thumbs up after coming through the rigours of Tour de Tuli with flying colours!

Image 1: Home Turf Advantage

The Action: The key factor that sets the Fedhealth Tour de Tuli apart from other mountain biking multi-day events is that it offers riders the option to immerse themselves in their surroundings. Here, competitors have an impromptu bicycle race with the Shashe villagers.

The Shot: Always take a long lens; it’s a weighty piece of kit, but offers viewpoints you can’t replicate. I sent the riders a few hundred metres down the road and let the action unfold …

The Technique: Nikon’s advanced predictive focusing is class-leading, allowing you to focus on composing your shot instead of worrying about tracking your subject.

The Specifications: 1/2000th sec @ f5.6; Nikon D700 + 80-400mm telephoto lens; ISO 320; WB Setting (Sunlight); AE Setting (0).

More Information:

Photo credit: Jacques Marais

Image 2: River Rumble

The Action: Position, position, position! Getting a good shot means you need to find a spot where action and scenery combine, and this technical drop into a dry river was it on Day 3.

The Shot: I positioned myself low down to outline the rider against the sky. This may have meant I looked like easy meat to passing predators, but guaranteed uncluttered composition.

The Technique: Two NIKON SB-910 flashes, connected to Pocket Wizard TT5 transceivers, are used to provide
bi-directional lighting with back-lighting from the sun.

The Specifications: 1/250th sec @ f8; Nikon D800 + 24-120 mm f3.5 lens; ISO 100; WB Setting (Auto); 2x Remote SB-910 units; AE Setting (-1).

More Information:

Image 3: Desert Cranking

The Action: Day 3 saw TdT riders hitting the arid baobab plains of southern Zimbabwe, with some stronger riders, including those from Super Group, setting the pace.

The Shot: Multi-day MTB stage races do have their perks, and the occasional chopper flip is one of them. The key tip here is to select a lens fast enough to avoid blur from rotor vibration.

The Technique: Scan ahead to make sure you don’t miss the good shots, and constantly communicate with your pilot to ensure he knows what you’re looking for.

The Specifications: 1/1250th sec @ f5.6; Nikon D800 + 24-120 mm zoom; ISO 160; WB Setting (Sunlight); AE Setting (0); No post-processing.

More Information:

Image 4: Boy with Ball

The Action: In Shashe Village, the riders from all the groups congregated to hand out soccer balls to the kids, and a large cheque to local authorities to be used in educating the children of the area, and instil a love of the wilderness in them.

The Shot: This boy had taken a break from excitedly playing with his new soccer ball, and I chatted to his dad to set up a shot against the powder-blue wall behind him.

The Technique: I used a single SB-910 flash unit to the right to light the scene, knowing the shadow against the wall would add balance to the image.

The Specifications: 1/160th sec @ f8; Nikon D800 with 16 mm f2.8 fish-eye lens; ISO – 100; WB Setting: Auto; AE Setting (-1); 1x SB-910 flash unit.

More Information:

Image 5: Tree Children

The Action: The barren landscape offers little respite from the harsh African sun in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and these kids were only too glad to find a spot in the shade to watch the TdT riders.

The Shot: The narrow depth of field on the long lens meant I tried two focal points; one on the kids and one on the riders. The former symbolises the ethos of Children in the Wilderness.

The Technique: This was relatively straightforward; all I did was use the ‘Active D-Lighting’ in-camera setting to improve my dynamic range to control highlights and harsh shadows.

The Specifications: 1/1600th sec @ f5.6; Nikon D700 with 80-400 mm telephoto lens; ISO – 200; WB Setting: Auto; AE Setting (0); no flash used.

More Information:

Image 5: Go Team, Go!

The Action: Excited children line the route near Shashe Village, cheering on the riders as they slug it out along the challenging route back to Maramani Camp.

The Shot: I got the kids to line up close to the road and shot from a low angle to make sure I included them and the riders in the frame.

The Technique: I only had time to set up 1 x SB-910 flash unit to beam light onto the riders, thus getting rid of the worst of the shadows.

The Specifications: 1/320th sec @ f4; Nikon D800 with 16 mm f2.8 fish-eye lens; ISO – 100; WB Setting: Auto; AE Setting (-1); 1x SB-910 flash unit.

More Information: