The Strathpuffer 24 hour mountainbike race has gained a reputation as one of the hardest races on the calendar and every year hundreds of racers pilgrimage north to test themselves against some of the finest Highland singletrack just near the little village of Contin, north of Inverness. Me, well I've never done it, never even fancied it; winters are for skiing and doing other wintery outdoor pursuits as well as squeezing in some winter miles on the road bike in preparation for the more "normal" racing events in the summer.
However, I do know lots of locals that enter and therefore decided to nip up the road, catch up with a few folks, and try my hand at capturing some racing pictures.
The weather running up to the event had been a long hard "proper" spell of winter; deep snow, sub zero temperatures and eventually a thaw and hard freeze - perfect! These puffers are known for their love of severe conditions and a nice thick coating of ice would keep all the masochists happy, especially those that had invested in ice tyres.
The forecast was for rain all day, which wasn't that inspiring for pics, but I packed waterproofs, warm clothes, plastic bags for everything, sarnies, a flask and even an umbrella. I knew the area well from competing in past "normal" races but had also done a reccé the day before to figure out parking off site (I was going to leave shortly after nightfall). Camera wise, it was my DSLR - a D300, a Nikon 50mm prime, a Tokina 11-16 wideangle, a flash, plus stand, a tripod, plus loads of spare batteries and what I thought was loads of memory (more on that later). Now that's not a lot of kit, but loaded in with the other stuff for a long, cold, wet day made for a fairly hefty pack weight. Van packed I was off at 8 am and parked up by 9.
It was great to meet racers I hadn't seen for ages, but I didn't take enough "people getting ready shots", probably because I still feel a bit self conscious hefting a big DSLR to my eye, maybe a friendly wee point and shoot or a longer lens to not be in their faces would be better? Before long the race was on, but I was already legging it up the hill to get into position, I had about 4k to go, all uphill, in full waterproofs and carrying the big rucksack. I eventually arrived at a likely looking spot, steam pouring off me and nicely damp inside my Goretex (might have well just worn a poly bag for all the breathability I was experiencing!) I set up on a nice icy, snowy patch, just in time to miss the leaders coming through - doh! By this time it was tipping down, so it was poly bags for the flash and camera, and a jury rigged shelter (umbrella wedged in tree) for me. I caught some images, then stripped everything down and again legged it back down the hill, accompanied by "Sharki" a friendly mtb'er, who was "pit-bitching" for the "minxgirls" Rebecca and Jo.
Second site, picked because it was one of the few places where riders appeared to be going a wee bit faster and I might get a few more dynamic shots. Problem here was the camera wouldn't fire the flash (using Nikons CLS system) where I really wanted it, hmmm. So a quick rethink, re-position and try again. Some of the quicker guys (and girls) looked "dynamic" but most were erring on the side of caution and just easing themselves round my supposedly fast corner. But, I was having fun trying different camera settings, manual focussing, panning, some shots worked some didn't - I wish the ones that worked had co-insided with the racers going fast and wearing bright coloured clothing!
Still not happy with capturing the feel of the event, I packed up and wandered off down the hill, discussing all things mountainbiking with Sharki. In the drizzle and fast fading light I decided to set up near a rock I hoped would yield some nice action shots. Bloody flash wouldn't fire where I wanted it to, funny it had the day before on the reccé, probably because the now melted snow had been acting as a reflector, bum, rejig and try again. Next problem was on the reccé there had been no vehicles or people hanging around, but now it was a busy wee corner and I couldn't get the shots I wanted, jeezo the pro's make it look so easy. Eventually I got a camera/flash/rock/backdrop that was "ok" and managed to snap some people I knew! At last... As it was virtually dark I tried some night long exposure rear curtain remote flash shots (errr, saw it on youtube - seemed like a good thing to try) but blow me if I wasn't almost out of memory - 10gb, I thought that'd be tons! So only a few shots left to try and capture the "feel" of the night-time change over.
Anyway, I was out of time now, not nearly enough time to get all the shots I wanted, but I said I'd be home at 7, so a quick jog to the van and scoot off down the A9.
Eager to see the images I worked into the wee small hours importing and quickly sorting through the keepers, the maybe's and the "oh bugger that didn't work": 300 files, 60 odd ok, of which there's probably 5 or 6 I really like. Unfortunately I didn't get the shots I really wanted; the atmosphere, the grit and grime, the emotion, or any really dynamic action shots. Ok, so it was rainy, grey and yeuchy, but I need to take loads more photos, not worry too much about the technical aspect, rather just try and see things more like a photographer. But, poly bags rock.