Photography / Tips and Solutions

Travel Photography by Bike: Spinning Southward

Bike touring is one of the most rewarding modes of travel. It puts you out there in the spaces between the tourist destination and guidebook recommendations. It’s raw and authentic where the miles are earned one pedal stroke at a time. The terrain and memories stack up slowly into a deeply satisfying narrative.

I’ve seen many places from a bike saddle, but the one trip that stands astride the top are the large slices of Central and South America I rode with Mike and John Logsdon on their tour of the Pan-American Highway, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina—a trip of roughly 13,000 miles. I set out to join them as their photographer, and a trip of that scale required some serious thought to both cycling and camera gear.


Mike and John Logsdon descend the Argentine side of Los Caracoles Pass ("Snails Pass").
On the Chilean side lies the ski resort, Ski Portillo.
 

The brothers were riding to raise awareness and money for the National Brain Tumor Foundation, in honor and memory of their mother, Jean Logsdon, who passed away from a brain tumor and was a big proponent of adventure travel and education. I joined the team, along with a videographer, and biked with them through Central America and later through Argentina.

Packing/Prep

I’ve been an avid cyclist for a long time and was excited for a long bike tour but, if I couldn’t keep pace on the bike, I wouldn’t be doing much shooting. So my physical ability and cycling equipment was the first and foremost consideration, even before camera gear. Prior to the trip, I built up some training mileage and refined my cycling and camping gear.


John Logsdon and Nateon Ajello unload bike trailers from a boat after taking a ride from Sierpe to 
Playa Colorada, in Costa Rica. The group detoured from the Pan-American, by boat, 
through the mangrove marshes on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica to bike through the Osa Peninsula, 
one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world.
 

This was a self-supported trip, so we would be hauling everything we needed throughout the trip. It was critical that every piece of gear be essential. We brought lightweight camping gear, replacement parts such as chains and spokes, and two changes of clothes—one set for biking and one set for off the bike. All of this was carried in a B.O.B. Yak trailer. These trailers have a single wheel and hook into the rear hub of the bike with a special quick-release skewer.

A method I like for expedition packing is to lay out everything I’d like to take and then strip away items that are nonessential. After refining my cycling and camping gear, I had an idea of how much weight I would be hauling and how much room I had left for camera gear.

Nateon Ajello, Mike Logsdon, Wouter Tas, and John Logsdon discuss lodging plans in front
of the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of León after arriving in León, Nicaragua, for the evening.
 

In addition to weight and space, I needed to think about durability and dependability with the gear I was bringing. I couldn’t count on getting any supplies along the way and, if anything broke, it would only be an unnecessary burden. We would not be scouting locations and shooting in pre-determined lighting conditions. I would be shooting in a reportage/photojournalism style, often while riding.

It’s as important to be very familiar with your gear as it is to have the right gear. This trip was early in my career and I didn’t have access to everything I wanted, but I was able to put together a setup that was efficient, and durable for a wide range of shooting conditions. For trips like this, it’s essential to have a camera system that is easily manageable and quick to use.


John and Mike Logsdon cycling through the upper Rio Mendoza valley after crossing over the
Andes from Chile. Anconcogua, the highest mountain in the New World, is just north of this valley.
 

Having a camera system that is pared down and doesn’t attract a lot of attention is also a security benefit and less intrusive to a scene. Security was primarily a matter of having a set of eyes on the gear at all times. We didn’t worry much about getting jumped and robbed, though we did hear stories about it happening, and I did my best to avoid bringing unwanted attention.  


Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED Lens
 

I’m a big fan of shooting with fixed focal length lenses—a 35mm prime is my favorite. Your mind’s eye begins to look for shots with the same field of view as the lens. Prime lenses also tend to be smaller, lighter, and have better optics with larger apertures than similarly priced zoom lenses. Your legs become the zoom when using a prime lens and this, unfortunately, is the one downside of bike touring. You are tied to your bike, so to speak, and I shot a lot while riding. So, while I favor prime lenses, I did bring a more versatile Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens to cover a range of focal lengths that I could reach while riding.


Joby UltraFit Sling Strap For Men
 

I use a top-loading camera case mounted to the chest for skiing, hiking, etc., which works well, but is not ideal on the bike, as your are bent over. Most of the time I slung the camera around my neck and shoulders and kept it tight—a Joby Ultra-Fit Sling Strap worked well for this. With the camera on me, I was immediately ready to capture whatever was happening when we stopped, as well.

John and Mike Logsdon re-entering the mountains from the 
Patagonian Steppe, on Hwy 237, on the way to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. 
I scrambled up some cliffs next to the road for this vantage point.

While on the bike, I was constantly looking for changes in topography and vantage points from which to shoot. A few times we came across a scene that was compelling enough for me to stop and have the rest of the team ride by at the right spot in the frame. The team was cooperative but this was something I rarely did, since it would slow the whole trip down.


Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED Lens
 

I added a Nikon 70-300mm zoom to the kit and it worked well when our cycling paces would spread out.  I could pull over quickly to isolate one of the riders in the distance as they crested a hill or arced around a long turn with the landscape looming behind them.

I brought along my first DSLR, a Nikon D70, as well as a Nikon N80 35mm film camera for backup. Current and more pro-level cameras offer a fantastic amount of sealed weather resistance and that is a blessing on a trip like this, where we encountered plenty of dust and rain. I also brought cleaning equipment—lens cloths, a lens pen, and an air pump.


Lowepro Pro Runner 300 AW Backpack
 

All of the camera equipment was stored in a small Lowepro MiniTrekker AW backpack, which has been replaced with the Lowepro Pro Runner 300 AW backpack. It was strapped on top of the roll-top dry bag in the bike trailer. It was the last thing I packed in the morning and remained accessible throughout the day. Only food and water were more accessible. The LowePro has a built-in rain cover that I could pull over the pack if the weather looked poor. This also became my daypack when we were traveling off of the bikes.

I brought along several extra batteries and was judicious about reviewing photos. I kept the LCD screen off by default when shooting in order to maximize battery life. We often camped for the night and couldn’t count on having electricity to charge our devices every night, but did stop in towns often enough that battery power was never an issue. At times, I would plug in the charger during a lunch stop. Having a charger that can charge multiple batteries while you sleep is a good idea. A small solar panel could also work atop the trailers to charge as you ride.

Mike Logsdon pedals up a hill en route to Montevideo, Costa Rica.
 

Knowing that we would be traveling through remote terrain along rough roads, I wanted to keep my setup and workflow as minimal as possible. I decided against trying to do any editing on the road. Nateon, our filmmaker, did bring a laptop for editing his video footage, but it succumbed to the rough conditions of the roads and became dead weight.

For a backup/storage system I used a Jobo for storing images, but other portable stand-alone storage systems are available now. A solid-state storage device was indispensable, as it meant I didn’t need to bring a laptop and wouldn’t need to use precious battery life deleting photos. Editing was handled back in the studio upon return.

With this amount of weight, we would cover roughly 60 miles on a good day. That amount of effort felt equivalent to a 100-mile day without any weight. Food breaks and rest days were cherished. We moved south along our route bit by bit and, while the days themselves often didn’t seem extraordinary, we would reminisce at night about the previous weeks and months and truly feel the making of a “trip of a lifetime.” Bad directions, washed-out bridges, and roadside fruit stands became legendary. The depth of connection to culture, terrain, and one another from the saddle of a bike cannot be overstated.

Wouter Tas, a Belgian cyclist also covering the Pan-American Highway, joins Mike and 
John Logsdon at a roadside fruitstand, in Nicaragua, as cattle are driven down the road. Roadside 
food stands were welcomed rest stops during the hot days cycling in Central America.

We spent hot, humid days in Central America, camped next to a landfill behind a gas station outside of Panama City, and cooked Argentinian beef on the grill of our BoB trailers during a cold winter night under the stars in Patagonia. We traded stories with locals of all types and even fellow cyclists on their own tour of the Pan-American Highway. Film I shot on the N80 got wet in Central America (it was uncovered during a sudden rainstorm), a bag was stolen, and I had tendonitis in my knee while in Argentina, but these were all minor setbacks to a great tour.


John Logsdon cycling through a sudden rain storm in Costa Rica, near Puerto Cortes.

 

In planning my next bike/photography trip, I am thinking about the Sony A7 II system, for its compact size and outstanding image quality. In addition to LowePro, F-Stop makes excellent camera bags and their ICU system can be placed inside other bags. With any gear, the most important thing is to know its advantages and disadvantages so that you can make the most of what you have.

Sony Alpha a7II Mirrorless Digital Camera

One of the most profound lessons of the trip was how rewarding the small, seemingly insignificant moments can be in out-of-the-way places that won’t ever make it into a guidebook. Photographically, I was fixated on capturing the epic, defining bicycle-touring shot and I spent a lot of effort pursuing that shot. Since that early tour, I’ve developed an eye for seeing the personality in people and place and small moments that can tell the larger story. The big picture is out there, but so are more subtle moments that give intimacy and authenticity to that bigger picture.


Mike Logsdon after crossing the border from Honduras into Nicaragua at sunset.
 

Since traveling by bike across Central and South America with the Spinning Southward crew, Blake Gordon has continued his work in photography. He attended the Eddie Adams Workshop and pursued an MFA in Design at the University of Texas, focusing on Land Art. His worked has been recognized by PDN’s Photo Annual, Picture of the Year International (POYi) and by the National Academy of Arts & Sciences. He regularly shoots for The Nature Conservancy, among other editorial and commercial clients. Gordon now lives in Carbondale, CO, and spends his free time ski-mountaineering.   


Blake Gordon

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Blake....What a thrilling story!!! I'm an American ex-pat and have been in China for five years. The most impactful and memorable moments for me have been precisely as you describe here: "....how rewarding the small, seemingly insignificant moments can be in out-of-the-way places that won't ever make it into a guidebook"; "...subtle moments that give intimacy and authenticity to that bigger picture". It is a true compliment to you that you have an appreciation and recognition for such moments.

Thank you for sharing this fascinating article!

Thanks Tom!

Also, the folks at Defiant Pack makes some great bike touring specific bags. Looking forward to another bike tour.

Excelent story, pictures and personal learning experience!!

As your final description of the "little moments that don´t make it to the guide book". It´s almost always the little moments, isnt it?

I have been blessed being from Argentina and live in Chile so I know many of the places you mention. In fact I have crossed from Chile to Mendoza 30 times the last couple of years. And not once left my camera at home. You cannot get tired of the views.

I am thinking of doing someting like you have done in the famous" Ruta40" in Argentina,riding a motorcycle. And your short article has given me basic and important clues about the mindset for a trip of this kind.

Thank you for sharing

Raul

Muchas gracias Raul...Suerte en "la cuarenta"....su propio diarios de motocicleta!

A wonderful story, Blake!  What an adventure!  What made you decide to use a backpack and trailer, rather than panniers?  I see the advantages of detachability and somewhat higher capacity, but seem like the backpack's continual weight directly on your body, and its high center of gravity and inertia would be very tiring and destabilizing. 

Thanks for this article on photography by bicycle -- a subject that has largely been missing from photography literature.  As with backpacking weight/bulk is the major issue for those of us that insist on highest image quality.  I normally use Canon 5D Mark 3; the Sony A 7 II would reduce weight, but considering the cost of that totally new system, it would be a major financial decision.  I've also seen talk of Sony's DSC-RX100M series as a single-camera/lens solution, esp for street photography, but it lacks flexibility (28-70mm equiv) and only has 1" sensor.  But shoots RAW, high ISO, and apparently good IQ and noise control for the size. 

Thanks for the input Craig, I couldn't agree more about the dearth of photography by/from bicycle. I'll reach out to Blake about your question.

Hi Craig-

The backpack was stored on top of the bike trailer. It was primarily a way to store my camera gear and have it accessible when I was off the bike. I may have ridden with it on my back during a short stretch, but I don't recall.

I think panniers are a good option, but we just happen to use a trailer. I think there are pros/cons to each, but both work well.

Excellent read..... HOOK'EM!

Thanks Johnny Boyd!

Blake, Thanks for your inspiring and informative account.

i just completed my first extended trail ride - the Great Allegheny Passage - and am encouraged to press on further, well-equipped and prepared, thanks to your advice.

Bon chance for your next adventure,

Jack Ciak

"Have camera, will travel"