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Graham Watson has honed his skill of photographing cycling for over 30 years. His typical season runs from January through October, photographing races all over the world. Graham's photos are so grabbing, that Lance Armstrong recruited him to produce the imagery for one of his books. He is also very active on Twitter.
We were able to catch up with the cycling photographer between races, to pick his brain about the industry, and about becoming a successful photographer.
B&H: What led you to a career in photography, especially your specializing in Cycling? What about cycling photography inspires you? Some photographers say you should specialize in one area, others say be versatile. Your thoughts? Any tips for someone wanting to break into cycling photography, or sports photography in general?
Graham: I was working in a London studio at the age of 16, and could not afford the train fare into town, as my wage back then was the equivalent of $12 per week. So I bought a bicycle and rode the trip into town and back, got into cycling for sport, raced at a very low level, then saw the Tour de France in 1977. That visit presented me with a new career and adventure, and as simple as it sounds, that's how it all started. I entered a photo of Eddy Merckx from the '77 Tour in a magazine competition, and won—it sort of opened a door for me.
I tell people I was in the right place at the right time. I had an awful lot of luck then, and since then as well. Back then I started doing general sports photography, but cycling photography was the one that won through, and since 1983 I have not photographed anything else but cycling. I agree it is best to at least try and be versatile, but at the same time, the best photography will come from a guy who mixes the two obsessions—in this case photography and cycling (and travelling, which is a major attraction and motivation too). These days it is getting very hard to break into professional photography of any kind; digital cameras and the internet have changed the whole industry, with prices down, and going further down. But a good photographer will always have work. He just has to be extra competitive, and try to improve his work each and every day.
B&H: You shoot quite often from the back of a moving motorcycle. Was that hard to learn? What lens do you use most often? Any tricks to maintain focus?
Graham: It was a bit scary at first, but it's been my life for over 30 years, so I don't even think about it anymore. It's actually quite comfortable and stable on most motorbikes, no worse than sitting on a narrow chair in an office, really. My most-used lens from the motorbike is the 70-200mm—it covers a lot of distances, and is robust, easy to work with, and not too light. Light lenses absorb more vibrations from the bike.
B&H: You probably shoot thousands of images a year. Can you share with us, in a nutshell, what archiving system you use?
Graham: I have a database of all my work—both digital, from today's era, and scanned-in slides from the older era. My clients come in and download what they want, when they want it. I upload to an FTP each day, and the server does the rest. But I also keep all my digital files on a series of external hard-drives, one per year really, about 2TB of space per year, these days. My slides, after scanning, are also stored on external hard drives.
B&H: Basically, you’re traveling all over the world from January through October. Any tips for photographers who have assignments in foreign countries, or are vacationing in unfamiliar territories?
Graham: Enjoy the travelling, and the challenges and problems that come with that travelling—they'll be the best years of your life! You have to take care to guard your gear when travelling. I tend to carry mine in a Lowepro backpack, a big one, but it is not obviously carrying cameras. I cover up any branding like Nikon, Canon, etc., to conceal what is in the bag. Having a backpack with wheels hints at having something valuable, so I only use a backpack with no wheels. I try to look like a tourist, not a businessman, and who knows what he or she is doing!
B&H: You’ve done a book with Lance Armstrong. What was that like?
Graham: It was probably the 'book' highlight of my career, as Lance is a very special guy to work with, as well as being someone very famous and popular. He had a huge interest in which pictures were used, and even how they were used, and let me a little closer into his life to make sure I got some exclusive "off the bike" shots to go with so many action images. It has been about seven years since the last edition was printed (in 2005), but I still remember the fun we had. He has done a superb book with Liz Kreutz more recently, and I can sense she had the same kind of fun that I did in 2003. It was very hard work, all the same, but very, very rewarding—and I don't just mean the money.
B&H: You have an awesome website that contains much more than just photographs. You have videos, as well as race updates, and an online store where you sell posters, calendars, and even sublimated jerseys with your photos. How do you find the time to maintain the site? Many photographers have the artistic skills, but lack the so called business sense. Was there someone or something that led to your marketing skills?
Graham: I have yet to shoot video, but I will one day. My site was an idea I started with an American friend in 1998, before Lance made his comeback from cancer. We had no idea how much his success would lift our site, but it opened the possibilities to produce so much product back then—Lance's fans were also from outside the sport, so they kind of walked into an Aladdin's cave and wanted to buy more and more stuff. The business behind it was based more on a lucky coincidence of Lance winning seven Tours, than on any pure business sense from anyone I worked with.
I now maintain most of the site myself, with a bit of help from a few technicians, my girlfriend, and some nice software "for idiots" like myself. It takes an awful lot of work, on top of an awful lot of photography work. But it's a pleasure to have the site, as I know how much the fans of cycling enjoy coming to it. And of course, our merchandise and imagery goes far beyond just Lance—it encompasses scenery shots from races all over the world.
B&H: You also write a monthly column in Cycle Sport Magazine. I love to read the insights you give every month. Did the magazine approach you, or did you suggest it to them? Do you have any writing background, and has that helped your career reach an even higher level?
Graham: The Cycle Sport column was the idea of a guy named Tim Grady, who owns a company called World Cycling Productions, in Minneapolis. He asked me to write a column, as he knew my interests in cycling went beyond just taking photos all day long. It was quite a shock to suddenly realize how much one knew about a whole range of subjects within the sport and photography—like travel, eating, wines and politics, as well as having an expert observer's view of the sport. I had written a few books before I got the column up and running, but this was a different challenge—and a pleasure at the same time. Most photographers can only make a name for themselves as photographers, but having had the chance to also pen a few choice words has helped my career along nicely, no denying that. People relate to you differently if they have seen beyond the camera, so I've been lucky twice in my career!
B&H: Can you tell us what’s typically in your camera bag?
Graham: Two Nikon D3s bodies, 16mm fisheye, 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm lenses, plus a 1.7 extender. Also, an SB800 flash. I'll also hide a 200-400mm zoom lens in my checked-in baggage; it just about fits into the motorcycle pannier, and is my favorite lens of all—great for finish shots! If weight is a problem, I'll happily leave a few pairs of underwear behind to take this great lens with me!
B&H: You have over 20,000 followers on twitter. Any tips or suggestions for photographers on using social media channels to promote their business or connect with potential clients? Any time-management tips for younger photographers?
Graham: I use twitter, as it is a great tool to combine with my photography and travel, and I use it primarily to entertain people, as well as entertain myself. I don't take anything much in life too seriously, so I do like twitter. No Facebook, no other social networking; my time is too precious. And I'd advise anyone trying to make it as a photographer to do just that, before wasting away hours on social networks. It is generally felt that having your images on Facebook debases your work, and I suppose twitter could be perceived as doing the same. But if you are already established, you don't really need to post images on Facebook anyway. Whichever networking one does, there are literally millions of other folks also posting images on that system. I'd still recommend building a website to showcase your images, to keep away from the mass users of social networks, to isolate your work from the masses, and promote it within the photographic industry. I'm lucky that my work is seen across several spectrums—cycling and photography—and that social networking is used to a minimum...
B&H: Anything special coming up you’d like to share with our readers?
Graham: Nothing on the near horizon—travelling, photographing, writing, and maintaining the commercial side of my business is a 24/7 job. But I still have a few ambitions I want to pursue, and in this ever-changing world of technology, I know plenty of opportunities are waiting along the way...
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio