Photographing the Tour de France with the Leica Monochrom
If I told you I was going to photograph the iconic finish of the famous cycling race, the Tour de France, in Paris, you would naturally start to envision the types of photographs I might take. Like a high speed photograph of the moment when the winner crossed the finish with his hands thrust up in victory. The sort of photograph that could be put on the cover of an illustrated sports magazine and sold on newsstands around the world. A photograph that a few die-hard fans, sponsors, and probably the athlete themselves, would ever want to own or hang on a wall.
That's what you'd think if I told you I went to photograph the Tour de France.
Now if I also told you that I photographed the Tour de France with the Leica M Monochrom - a camera that only takes black and white photographs, and is not remotely close to the type of camera used to take the magazine cover images I described a moment ago - you'd think I was crazy (stupid).
Not only am I crazy (stupid), but I actually chose this camera to photograph the race.... On purpose. Right. While every other serious photographer is wielding a serious dSLR with a 70-200mm zoom and maybe a monopod, I'm shooting a small, manual focus camera that maybe shoots 2 frames per second..... In black and white.
What the hell was I thinking? For starters, without press credentials, there was no way I was going to get into a location that would offer the type of images illustrated sports magazines would want. Second, even if I took those glaring sharp images with creat color and detail, who is ever going to look at them? And third, I like to make art, and taking "serious" photographs of the race wasn't the sort of artistic look I wanted. So I set out with the goal of making artistic and creative images of the race. I wanted to make photographs that were completely unlike anything else that anyone else would shoot that day......
Before selecting the camera I would shoot for the race, I conceptualized the images I might want to make. I started by looking at past photographs of the Tour finish in Paris; most of which were the high-speed action shots that I wasn't looking to emulate. I then started to research locations and the race setup. The peloton of the Tour de France will do 10 laps along the Champ de Elysees as part of the ceremonial finish, so I knew I wanted a chance to photograph the riders as they ran that circuit. Why?
If you have never watched a professional bike race, then watch the following video clip, which was filmed on my iPhone, to understand how fast this race whizzes past.
Now imagine trying to get dozens of artistic and creative shots, with different focal lengths and effects, in that short window of time. Not happening. My only chance to build a mass of different photographs was to get 10 laps of them. I also read that lining up on Rue de Rivoili was a great spot for spectating, as it wasn't hard to get a spot along the barricades. The only variable was security - with the recent string of terrorist attacks in Paris, I knew the French Gendarmerie would be all over the place. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't find a lot of information about what areas of the route would be open to spectators..... I suspect it wasn't published widely to prevent any ill-intentioned persons from using the same information for less noble causes. As anticipated, the Gendarmerie had blocked off Rue do Rivoili on the park side - an area that used to be a great spot to spectate from because it was in the shade!
Anyway, back to the decision process..... If I had 10 laps to photograph the riders, then a slower camera could suffice to capture the action. And I knew the images would ultimately be presented in black and white to neutralize the bright colors of the race. Teams and sponsors cover the riders in an array of vibrant colors and bold designs to attract the attention of viewers, and I didn't want these designs to overpower the underlying theme of my images..... Motion.
When I really sat down to think about it, the motion of the race is what I wanted to capture. The riders whip around at speeds in excess of 30MPH and create a whooshing sensation as you stand along the spectating route. The tempo and speed are what make this race so impressive; hundreds of men going full speed inches apart from each other and with the grace and poise to make it look easy. That's what I wanted to capture.
I decided that it came down to either the Leica Q or the Leica Monochrom for this task. The Q images could convert to black and white, and its auto focus and faster shooting speed might be handy. But I also liked the idea of shooting some images at 50mm, and ultimately opted for the camera with interchangeable lenses. And, I would be doing some street and night photographs during the remainder of my weekend in Paris.
I packed two lenses to photograph the Tour: the Leica 35mm Summarit f/2.4 and the Leica 50mm Summicron f/2.0 (1983 Made in Canada edition!). The Leica EVF-2, a spare battery and some memory cards rounded out the kit. Lightweight, easy, and no frills. We also packed some cold drinks and snacks, as the plan was to watch the women's race and Tour de France caravan (a parade of sponsors) before the men entered the circuit. It was going to be a long, hot day, but we were ready (except the sun screen, doh).
Access to the route was very tightly controlled. Security inspected all bags closely - to the point they opened my wallet and flipped through it. Cool, and thank you to all the French security forces who made the race safe and enjoyable. I got to an open spot in the barricade right as the women started to come through for their first laps as part of their race, called "La Course".
The women's race was a great chance to get dialed in for camera settings and configuration, and gave me a chance to work on my timing for panning shots. The women riders mostly preferred to be in the center of the road, or the opposite side; later I'd find myself wishing the men would do the same as they got too close at points!
As the ladies entered their last lap of La Course, it was clear something was afoul. Each team has a set of cars carrying the team director, mechanics, and spare bikes that follows the riders. If a rider has an issue, they can drop back in the peloton to their team car and get service (there is also a neutral service car that will help everyone.... But you might not like the equipment they give you). As the women entered lap 10, we could see the team cars at the back of the race suddenly stopped. A friend of mine watching the race on broadcast TV texted me the verdict- a big crash just happened with a bunch of riders caught up. On that last lap there were several different crashes, leaving the peloton in battered shape as they passed for the last time. Those riders who had been caught in an accident, many of whom had bandages and torn jerseys to show for it, finished their last lap at a more relaxed and casual pace as their chance to win in front of the Arc de Triumph passed. The crowd was wonderful, cheering extra hard for these battered women who fought to finish; as a photographer I was appreciative that the slower pace gave me a chance to get some different images.
At the conclusion of the women's race, we had several hours before the men would arrive. To fill the time, the Tour organizers arrange for the Caravan to pass. The Caravan is basically a sponsor parade. Each of the major race sponsors has floats with people dancing and singing. See the Tour elsewhere in France and the Caravan will throw out treats and freebies to spectators. But by the time they reach Paris, there are no more freebies to be had. Thankfully the Vittal float, which is for the official bottled water provider of the Tour, had "freebie" water sprayers to help cool the crowd. I could have asked them to pass a few more times.
Now all of this probably sounds like there was a lot of action to photograph, but that was hardly the case. There were hours of nothingness, followed by a flash 10 seconds of racing, followed by 10 minutes of waiting before the race came whipping past again for another 10 seconds. The street became rather crowded as the race approached, and since we had secured a space along the barricade, there was no choice but to stay and bake in the sun. At points we'd sit on the ground cramped into awkward positions and on the hot asphalt just to give our feet a short reprieve. I don't say any of this in an attempt to elicit sympathy - I had the time of my life - but getting these photos wasn't just a show-up-and-aim-affair, it required dedication and a lot of patience for 10 seconds of shooting opportunity.
Speaking of, let's get back to the photography. As I mentioned earlier, I brought two lenses for this shoot, but started with the 35mm Summarit for the women's race. In my pre-visualization of the images I wanted to make, I determined that I would be using slow shutter speeds to create the blur that viewers would associate with the motion of the race. Unfortunately, it was so sunny that with the base ISO of 320 on the Leica Monochrom, I had to shoot at apertures between f/11-16 to create shutter speeds in the 1/90th of a second range. While I might have preferred a shallower depth of field before I started shooting, not knowing exactly where the cyclists would line up on the roadway made a wider depth of field ultimately more favorable. At f/11-16, I could guarantee that the entire roadway was in focus, so I just had to be attentive to the timing and panning of my camera. Easier said than done!
As the riders would pass on their laps, I had a few minutes to review the images from the last lap to evaluate and make changes before they came around again. By the end of the women's race I had some images that looked like definite "keepers" on the LCD screen; more importantly, I felt dialed in for when the men would come through in a few hours.
Unfortunately, the sun and clouds felt like changing pretty significantly in that time. The women raced around 1:30pm, when the sun was directly overhead and very bright, but the men came through in the 6:30pm hour, so the light had faded and wasn't as harsh. As a result, all the settings I had dialed in earlier were completely moot! I ended up shooting at an ISO around 1600 to give me shutter speeds in that 1/90th range. But as I reviewed the images after that first lap, I had a lot more blur than when I'd used that same shutter speed with the women. Apparently the men are going even faster than the women and a shutter speed of 1/125-250th was more appropriate for getting the same level of blur. I'm sure some math geek can translate shutter speed (at the same aperture) to the speed of the bikers.... It probably involves terms like "square root" and "differential equation." Feel free to comment if you feel like doing some math.
After a few laps at 35mm, I switched to the Summicron 50mm with the idea of getting more close-up shots of the riders. Bad plan. Well not really, abstract is abstract, but there is too much shutter lag with the Monochrom to really try and frame and shoot like that. Using the 50mm turned into 'spray and pray' shooting, which I really hate, so I returned to the 35mm focal length for the remaining laps.
I found that shooting the high speed action of the Tour de France caused me to ditch some of my normal photographic techniques. Most notably is that I did a lot of chimping (checking my work on the LCD screen) - I would NOT recommend trying to shoot an event like this with a camera like the Leica M-D that doesn't have an LCD screen, unless you have balls of steel. I also spent less time framing each shot.... Okay, I spent no time framing. I would make decisions before each lap about my shooting objective for the next lap and would stick to it. Am I shooting them head on as they approach? Panning as they pass? Shooting their shadows and tires? Once I decided on the objective for that lap, I would do some test framing, but mostly hoped to get lucky!
Considering I brought a cricket bat to a baseball game with the Leica Monochrom, it performed surprisingly well; however, I attribute the success I had not to the camera, but to the pre-visualization and knowing what I wanted before I clicked the shutter. The Monochrom isn't the tool for getting that home run magazine cover finish line image, so don't try to use it as such. I wanted to bunt for a base hit, and I was able to use the camera to achieve that result. For all intensive purposes, I had to fight the Leica Monochrom to get these photographs. It's a camera that forces you to slow down. It's a camera designed for thoughtful and deliberate photography, not haphazard and reckless shooting. But it is possible to shoot the Monochrom with such abandon, and the result is stunning.
Would I bring the Leica Q next time? I'm not sure. I would have had a completely different shooting experience, and probably would have tried to get different images. For instance, I would have probably tried to get more blurring of the uniforms and jerseys to create images with a colorful smear. I wouldn't have gotten these photographs.
Overall, I am thrilled with these results - they are the abstract fine art photographs that I set out wanting to create. There isn't too much emphasis on the individuals of the race, rather these photographs capture the spirit of the race. The Tour de France has been running for over 100 years - it's a race that has (and will continue) to inspire millions around the world. Cycling is one of the most popular personal activities, and the photographs I made could easily hang on the wall of a cycling enthusiast who wants to capture the underlying spirit of their sport....... Motion.