Tips and Tricks for photography while Bikepacking and Bicycle Touring
Tout Terrain Adventure Team member Kyle Hughes spent much of 2019 on an expedition in South America on his Tout Terrain Tanami. Those of you who follow his instagram account @Kylehughesphoto know just how much talent he has for capturing environments, landscape, mountains and galaxies. Beyond his images, his texts are equally compelling, offering deep insight and reflection into each shot he takes. We caught up with Kyle to get some tips and tricks on touring with camera gear, learn how he captures some of these amazing photos, and find out why he does what he does.
What is the best type of camera for bicycle touring or bikepacking?
Many photographers will tell you that the best camera for any situation is the one you are comfortable using, and the one you use most often. Cell phones are great for capturing moments quickly (and chances are you have packed one anyway) while those interested in bringing along a dedicated camera have a many different formats and brands to choose from. Some compact cameras with zoom lenses such as the Sony RX series offer excellent image quality in smaller formats, but simply often cannot match the depth and and flexibility offered by interchangeable lens systems. When it comes to Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) and mirrorless cameras, those with smaller sensors and dedicated, smaller format lenses such such as Micro-four-thirds (MFT) or APS-C formats tend to be most popular with bicycle tourers and bikepackers. As mirrorless cameras become more commonplace, even full-frame cameras are a viable choice for bikepacking and touring since the bodies are smaller than their SLR counterparts.
Kyle: I have been using Fujifilm for the past 3 years, I used to be an avid Nikon user but with the quality and weight of the Fuji X series I would never look back. At the moment I am carrying a Fuji XT3 with a 55-200m lens and my beautiful 10-24mm lens. These are the 35mm equivalent to 110mm-400mm and 20-48mm in the 35mm format respictively. The majority of my photos (90%) are taken with the zoom lens, I love how it compacts the background and gives a realistic depth to my photos. My 10-24mm is mainly for my night shots and occasional landscapes when a subject isn’t in the frame.
While you can check out other online resources such as Bikepacking.com, the best approach to picking a camera system for bikepacking and touring is to visit your local specialist camera store and try out some different models in your hands to get a feel for feel the weight, size, and usability of a few different models.
How do you carry cameras and lenses on the bike?
Packing camera equipment on a bike can be a challenge, finding a balance between protecting the equipment and making it easily accessible. If unpacking your camera is a chore, chances are you will find yourself missing out on photo opportunities, or simply not enjoying the process. Many bikepackers and bicycle tourers use a handlebar bag for camera equipment. Unlike bikepacking frame bags, it keeps the sensitive equipment from knocking against the bike's hard frame tubing, and is within arm's reach at all times.
Kyle: Packing a camera is incredibly difficult on a bicycle, vibrations are a lenses worse enemy and sadly on a bike you will vibrate alot. I have lost two lenses and broken a camera sensor over the course of my journeys and this was mainly due to poor packing. After learning lessons the hard way, in my current setup the lenses have stayed safe with no major issues. I now put my two spare lenses in the sleeve of my down jacket and pack it at the bottom of the Ortlieb Ultimate6 handlebar bag. I then compact the down jacket down and place my camera (with the third lens connected) on top. This makes it a very tight fit within the handlebar bag, but results in minimal vibrations to the camera and lenses. I have been using this technique on sufraces ranging from singletrack trails to pavement for over 6,000km and the camera gear is still going strong!
What do you use for editing photos and videos on tour?
It is getting easier and easier to edit photos and videos on the road as cell phones, tablets and laptop hardware and software get more and more powerful, while their size and weight are continually decreasing. Mobile photo touch-up and editing apps like Google Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom are making these tasks a whole lot easier. Other modern camera features such as wireless image transfer mean fewer cables to haul around. While mobile is very accessible, bloggers, photographers, and filmmakers often carry laptops or powerful tablets for more flexibility and more creative control over their images. Experiment at home, build a workflow, and find the right combination of software and hardware to make this process fun!
Kyle: I carry a MacBook Pro, 15-inch. Sadly, I find it necessary for videos. If I only did photos I would carry something a lot smaller. I use Apple Final Cut Pro X for videos and Adobe Lightroom for my photos. My photos are very lightly touched up, the quality of the Fuji camera is exceptional. In Lightroom I just do basic edits (exposure/contrast/highlight/shadow) most of the time and I am happy with the look of my photos. I also carry 2 Terrabytes worth of SSD hard drive space so I can store videos/photos on the road. If I run out of space on the road I simply buy a USB hard drive, transfer everything over, and mail that hard drive home.
How do you charge electronics while touring or bikepacking?
If you are camping or on an extended bikepacking adventure or tour, it can be a challenge to keep your gear powered up, but new battery and charging technology and power efficient devices make are certainly making it easier. To charge while riding, Tout Terrain bikes are available with dynamo hubs from Shutter and Schmidt and power supplies from our in house brand Cinq. Many bikepackers and cycle tourers opt to combine a USB power supply such as the Plug III or Plug5 Plus with an external power bank such as the Smart Power Pack - this lets you charge up the power bank while riding, then keep your devices topped up on off the bike. Depending on your location, climate and bike setup, other technologies such as solar panels can also work as well as a power source.
Kyle: I used to just carry 4 batteries with me that was more then enough to keep my camera working when filming/photographing for close to a week. However I managed to buy a small lightweight battery charger on amazon that charges my batteries through USB. So now with 2 batteries and my battery pack/solar panel I am able to keep my camera going infinitely.
How can I take better pictures while touring or bikepacking?
If you are not already an expert photographer (and even if you are), it is well with considering taking a photography course before going on tour. Photographers will tell you that technique is more important than the equipment you use, so investing in your skills can have a much bigger payoff than shelling out for more megapixels or fancy lenses. Below, Kyle gives us his top tips on how he manages to capture such dynamic and powerful images:
Get off the bike!
Kyle: My best advice would be to get off your bike when you want to take a photo. I have taken so many photos with my legs over the frame of my bike and 99% of these photos get deleted. I know after a long day riding and you have good momentum it is really hard to motivate yourself to stop. If you do stop please don’t just take a quick photo because it will generally be a waste of time. Stop, park your bike, walk around, and compose your shot. It’ll take a few minutes extra but you’ll come away with a more memorable snap.
Follow the "Rule of Thirds"
Kyle: It is a core principle - I always think of photos in thirds. Setup your viewfinder, or create imaginary lines on your photo in thirds either side to side, top to bottom or corner to corner try to look at each section as a separate photo. If all three thirds aren’t interesting the photo will most likely be ok/average at best. If you feel like each part has something interesting going on it is a photo worth taking. Take your time to compose your photos with this in mind: the more you focus on this you’ll realise how your photography skills will slowly improve as you try to seek out more interesting compositions. I never take a photo anymore if I don’t feel that each one of my thirds tell its own story.
Stay away from Auto mode
Kyle: From a technical perspective, I recommend taking your camera off of auto mode and shooting in Aperture Priority mode. It is basically the same as auto mode but you have control the depth of field of your shot. The sensors in today's digital cameras are so advanced that they will reliably select an appropriate shutter speed according to your aperture. It gives you so much control of you shots but doesn’t hinder quality. I shoot 90% of the time in Aperture priority, its only in low light situations or occasionally for shots with moving water, birds etc where I switch to Manual mode to control the shutter speed.
Kyle: Another tip is take your time to pack your camera properly - if you rush it you’ll likely regret it. I've rushed to pack my camera many times and when I have, that is when something goes wrong. I was once cruising downhill at over 40km/hr and I hit a stone - my front handlebar pack opened and my camera fell out. MiraculouslyI caught it by the strap before it hit the ground, but in doing so I almost lost control of the bike in the process. Everything ended up ok, but I could have had a very grave accident, lost my camera, or both. This was purely because I didn’t take an extra 10 seconds to pack my camera properly.
Behind the lens: capturing memories by bike
Do you have any favourite photos?
Kyle: I have so many memories that when melded together bring the beauty of Bicycle touring together. However I have selected four photos that represent four separate memories that were important to me while cycling through Bolivia.
Even though I am unaware of how the tradition started; for many years cyclists have been stripping off their clothes and riding along the Salar de Uyuni butt naked. When I first started researching into my trip across South America I noticed it was a part of the journey for many others. In the back of my mind I knew when and if I ever made it to the Salar I would do the same. It is freeing to be in a place that is so open yet with an intense feeling of solitude making it a uniquely surreal experience. I stripped off, embraced the slight wind on my skin and could feel the sun reflecting off the infinite white surface. After packing my clothes in my pack rack I awkwardly sat on my saddle and peddled around trying not to sit with all my weight for obvious reasons. After about 4km I decided it was time to dress up again; due to my British white skin. I knew it was best to cover up in this high UV basin. A short lived, interesting experience but I can say I haven’t ridden naked since! The days on the Salar de Uyuni were sweltering, long and monotonous but it is such a unique experience that when riding my mind would wander off as I looked onto the never ending horizon. Gazing forward and never having to look at where to position my tyres I was given the chance to truly think, it was the most meditative experience I’ve had on my bicycle. I came off the Salar refreshed and lighter however just a little more sunburnt.
Camping under a Full Moon
I often ponder on nights by myself about how much I have changed mentally over the passed year and a half. This night was a special one as it was the first time I camped above 4500 meters. It was a distant dream to ride at altitude and subject my body to the lack of oxygen and freezing nights. I read numerous blogs about how people struggled and I believe I had set my mind for failure before I even started. My mind was riddled with worries about how my body would react but it was something I knew I needed to try. We forget human beings are capable of a lot more than we think. This night I was sitting outside my tent in the brisk air breathing normally with zero signs of altitude sickness. I felt normal and completely in control of the situation, so why was I so worried before this? I sat there contemplating why and the only answer I came up with was that I was afraid of the unknown, more especially afraid of embracing the unknown by myself. That fear was now gone, I had achieved something I hadn’t done before however small it seems to me now before it seemed impossible.
My favorite ride to date must still be Paso Sico. You get to cross the Andes on a Mars like landscape and then drop down from 4800 meters down to the driest desert in the world, Atacama. Over the three days one car and two trucks passed me, its remotely beautiful and you feel distant even though half the route is pavement. This photo was taken on my final morning leaving the Piedras Rojas a famous site that tourists solemnly get buses from San Pedro to come marvel at due to the distance. Previously you could walk on the lake but the whole area now has restricted access as people were damaging the unique rock structures here. I wanted to use my drone for this photo to try capture how solitary such a beautiful place is even though it is next to a paved road. An absolute beauty to camp next to and see how the setting sun changes the colours of the lake.
A Unique Sunrise
When camping I never set alarms, it’s a beautiful thing to be awoken naturally by sunlight. However some mornings are special, and this was one of them. As my alarm went off at 4am I could feel the condensation of my breathe melding with the freezing cold air. My body was dead asleep in the warmth of my sleeping bag and my mind was telling me to drift off back to sleep. I put on most of my clothes in the ‘warmth’ of my tent before opening the tent and embracing the frosty morning outside. The night sky shone bright above my shivering body as I clumsily tried to pull my tent apart, my hands freezing at the touch of the tent poles. I managed to pack everything on my bike quite haphazardly, knowing that it was only 10km to the entrance of the Salar I would sort it out properly once the sun rose and I had control over my body again. I rode towards my destination; I had heard from the locals that there was still water at this entrance to the Salar and I was eager to catch sunrise on an eternal mirror. After about 7km the sun was slowly rising on the other end of the horizon, I wanted to snap the wavy sandy road as a contrast to the flat never ending Salar so I stopped and reached behind for my tripod which wasn’t there. My tripod is always tied onto my rack pack with two bungee cords but due to my rushed packing I obviously didn’t secure itbcorrectly and it was laying somewhere between me and my camping spot. I was dismayed knowing that the sun was rising and time was short I turned around and searched for my tripod. After 2km I found it lying in a rivet, quickly securing it properly to the back of my bike I hurtled my bike quickly towards my goal. I entered the unmanned gate to the Salar the sky had turned pinkish now and I could see the still water reflecting it as it changed colours. As I rode I looked for a shot to compose this moment, set up my tripod (which was still there!) and managed to part the water with my tyres just as the sun started glaring in my face.
How do you take such epic "selfies" ?
Kyle: I put myself in photos mainly to give scale to the photo but also to tell a story, my story. I really enjoy landscape photography but the more you travel around these incredible parts of the world every landscape starts to become saturated with each other. Its a blessing and curse. By adding myself into a photo I create my own moment in that landscape. It takes a bit of effort to set up the tripod/camera and at times riding back and forth to get the right frame however I have never regretted doing it. It also gives a bit of purpose to my day; when you are riding 6-10 hours on average a day my camera breaks are my time to stop and appreciate the environment around me. I take time to compose my shot and enjoy what I would have otherwise ridden by, it’s always a nice break to the day. Just don’t think I do it for every photo opportunity, I stop probably twice a day on average, and if I see a composition I love and I’m tired or I have already stopped recently; I convince myself the photo isn’t worth it. I do believe the hardest thing about it all is carrying a tripod, the weight and burden on the bike is notable especially after 17,000km’s. I am one of very few cyclists I have met that carry a full sized tripod however I am also one of few that is able to get the same angles/composition I can due to it. I will always carry a full size tripod as I have since day one.
Isn't it a lot of work to do astrophotography late at night?
Kyle: I am lucky that I don’t suffer from the cold like many others. Maybe it’s my African blood or the whole "no brain no pain" thing, but I walk around in shorts even below freezing. I wear socks and sandals to ride in the snow and I sleep in a summer sleeping bag even at 5000m above sea level. Without much discomfort I find myself loitering around after dark when most people are in their sleeping bags trying to warm up. This gives me the opportunity to catch sunsets, and experiment during the night with astrophotography. When I setup camp at the end of the day, I first take into account weather/ground conditiones, then I try to position my tent in a way that makes the composition of a night shot more practical/beautiful. It is something I think of constantly when I arrive somewhere but I would never position my camp in a way that would affect my sleep. I rarely do sunrise shots because even though I stay up late, I appreciate sleep more then anything, and I like to wake up naturally when my body is ready. The only time I do sunrise shots is when I know it’ll be worth it. I have a great internal alarm clock - I have only set an alarm five times in the past year and that was just so I wouldn't miss a flight!
What motivates your photography while on tour?
Kyle: I have never been much of a writer, my mind is mathematically wired. To record memorable moments in words takes time and effort and I never feel like its does actual justice to the moment. A photo however captures what my minds eye sees and whenever I look at a photo from even 3 years ago I can remember the exact emotion I had at the moment. It jogs my memory far stronger then my written word ever would and for that reason my photos are my journal. If I was asked about how I felt on the 23rd of January in 2018 I could easily head to my Lightrooom catalague and give you detailed description of how my day was, probably down to what I ate that day. For me photography and composition has a lot to do with maths, whenever I compose a photo I’m looking at the photo in separate geometrical shapes to try compose a compelling photo throughout the whole frame. It's my way of sharing my story for myself and others.