Bikes & Photography: Light and Memory

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of articles on the intersection of Bikes & Photography. 

A rider on a fully-loaded fat tire bike heads down a rough, muddy dirt road toward steep snow-covered mountains.

LIGHT AND MEMORY 

Words and photos by Logan Watts

I first started taking photos in college. I won’t mention when that was, but I’ll tell you there was no such thing as a digital camera at that point in time. My first exposure to photography involved the entire process: shooting with a manual rangefinder, developing my own film, and printing with an enlarger in the dark room. It was a painstaking experience at first, but I fell in love with it. I eagerly studied the works of contemporary art photographers and shot solely in black and white. I ended up minoring in photography and integrating it into my sculpture major thesis project. But after school, when I had to face the “real” world and a pile of student loan debt, I completely abandoned the camera.

Fast forwarding several years, I received a 1-megapixel Canon PowerShot pocket camera for Christmas just before my partner and I set out on a multi-month backpacking trip through Thailand, India, Nepal, Tibet, and China. I spent the entire trip fiddling with that tiny camera, trying to record the incredible scenes, landscapes, and people so we could remember all of the special moments and places. It was that process of being behind the viewfinder while traveling that got me hooked again. But I was still out of my element…

Far below, on a winding gravel road through rough, broken countryside, a rider takes a break and rests on their bicycle.

A bikepacker rides out of a shadowy forest gravel road into a brightly lit clearing.

Equipment Failures and Successes

After that trip, I was a little disenchanted with digital photography. I realized all of the pictures I had captured on the journey were unusable for anything other than viewing on a small screen. When they were printed or otherwise enlarged, most of them were fuzzy or just didn’t translate well. There were a few gems, but the process felt unnatural to me. I tried a couple of more advanced digital cameras over the following years but I always struggled to connect with the camera. It wasn’t until I picked up a Fujifilm X100 that I really became comfortable with shooting again, and it ultimately helped me regain my passion for photography. Its controls and dials were similar to the old rangefinder I had. I could easily adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to make it all work together on the fly. In retrospect, I think that’s the most important thing to strive for with equipment—finding a camera system that you’re comfortable with and that makes you want to get out and shoot.

Seen through the spines of a cactus, a mountain bike with bikepacking kit lays on a red dirt trail through mesa country.

A bicyclist rides into the hazy distance on a narrow, meandering trail across a flat landscape covered in small rocks.

As it so happens, the X100 also made a great on-the-bike companion. It’s small, light, and has a very versatile fixed 35 mm equivalent lens, which is perfect for shooting general documentation, landscape, and travel narrative photography. I still use the X100 on day rides and short trips, and I highly recommend it. That said, in 2015, I added a full-frame DSLR to my toolkit. I needed the option of having multiple focal lengths for a variety of subjects. But, in sticking to my roots, I still use prime lenses (fixed focal length lenses), almost exclusively. I like them for their speed, sharpness, and pristine colors, as well as the fact that they keep you honest and make you move around to get the shot.

A triptych of portraits from Zambia include a man on a bicycle, a man with rifle slung, and man in stocking cap.

Aside from general travel documentation, the other subjects and situations that drove me to a multiple focal length kit had to do with capturing riders (mainly my riding companion, Virginia) within various landscapes. A long lens compresses the landscape and creates subject separation, and a wide lens captures both the subject and its surroundings. Unfortunately, with prime lenses it’s not as easy as that. I usually limit myself to bringing only two along on longer trips—after all, I’m carrying them on a loaded bicycle—which always leads to the struggle of deciding which two. The most common pairings that I find myself rolling out with are a 35 and 85, or a 35 and 135, depending on what and where I’m shooting. This combo allows for a lot of options that meet my preferred style.

A group of Mongolian children stand with the author’s bike, smiling and flashing the peace sign for the photograph.

A child in Zambia smiles for a portrait while holding the blade end of a crude metal knife.

On the grassy Mongolian steppes, two men and a child pose for a portrait on two horses.

As for carrying a camera and lenses, I’ve tried a lot of different bags, holsters, slings, straps, and everything else you can imagine. The best solutions—and the only ones I run with now—are a small backpack or a large hip pack. I’ve killed a couple expensive DSLR bodies by carrying the camera on the bike. The vibrations of dirt roads and trails take their toll on this type of equipment.

Moments in Time

I’d like to tell you that I have a particular subject matter that’s my specialty or focus, but I really don’t. While on a bikepacking trip, or just working on content for Bikepacking.com, I shoot a bit of everything—from analytical product shots to slightly more expressive bike compositions; from still portraits of people I meet when travelling to action shots of riders on bikes within the landscape; and from calculated close-ups to off-the-cuff street photography. I love it all. I suppose that when I revisit my photographs from over the years, some of my favorites are probably the ones of people that I’ve met and connected with along the way. Traveling by bicycle puts you on a more atypical trajectory than other forms of travel, so you find yourself in places you otherwise wouldn’t. And the pace of it allows you to interact with the people you pass and the landscape around you. As a result, you often find yourself in some pretty unique situations. From sharing a meal in Morocco to racing children in Zambia, I’ve been privileged to be immersed in some amazing places alongside a lot of amazingly warm people. The photos I most appreciate are the ones that transport me back to those places and put me, once again, in the company of the friends I’ve met.

Children run alongside Virginia as she rides down a rough dirt road in Zambia.

In morning light, a rider on a simple bicycle rides on a city street past an old wooden gate and a pastel blue wall.

A young girl stands next to 2 bicycles outside her home on small farm in Cuba.

The other photos I’m drawn to are those that seem to capture a place in time using light as the defining principle, which is the other driving force in my photography—quality of light. I often find myself chasing light and trying to place myself in a particular location at the ideal time of day to look for that perfect photo that freezes a beautiful moment in time. It’s almost an Achilles’ heel for me to be honest, as I find myself shooting less when the light “just isn’t right” for the images I like to capture. Just after dawn and before dusk are the obvious magical periods, but there are also specific moments on a trip that visually define the passage of time, be it the clouds growing before a storm, a mountain shrouded in clouds, last shadows in a city, or hazy light that brings out colors. Trying to compose and freeze those fleeting and perfect visual moments in time is a big part of it for me.

Virginia rides past a horse-drawn wagon pulling a load of cut green grass down a wide dirt road in Cuba.

A loaded bikepacking bicycle rests against a lit up self-service gas pump at dusk.

A boy in Cuba walks past an ornate metal fence bearing a photograph of Fidel Castro in early morning light.

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ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: LOGAN WATTS

Logan Watts is a writer and photographer living in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. After ditching his career as a graphic designer in 2012, Logan started a blog to document his first long-distance bike tour through Mexico and Central America. It has since evolved into what is now BIKEPACKING.com. Find more of Logan's words and photos there...

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PREVIOUS POSTS IN OUR BIKES & PHOTOGRAPHY SERIES...

Bikes & Photography: Capturing Moments

Bikes and Photography: Taking Pictures 

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Fatbike Gravel Guest Blogger Mountain Biking Road Skills Touring Travel

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