The latest in our series of 20 questions with…features ace UK lens man Seb Rogers.
With more than 12 years experience and over 100 covers to his name, Seb is one of the world’s best regarded pro bike photographers. He’s been there pretty much from the beginning of the UK bike publication scene and you’ve probably not only stared in awe at his biking pictures in your fave mags over the years but also read his articles and tests as well, in publications such as MBUK, Mountain Bike World and What Mountain Bike to name but a few. So, for a different perspective on the bike world, Retrobike asks….
1) Retrobike: Hi Seb, what are you up to at the mo?
Seb Rogers: Several things at once, which is about par for the course! I’ve got the usual magazine bike test and cover shoots to juggle, my website to update (yes, I know it’s long overdue) and a potential trip to California to try and sort out. Oh, and I should probably get round to doing some invoicing and looking at my tax return, too. It’s all glamour, y’know.
2) RB: To many, you’ve got the dream job, freelance editorial photographer for bike publications. Do you feel like that about what you do for a living? Are you living your dream?
SR: To a large extent yes. But one of the things I’ve learnt over the last decade-and-a-bit of freelancing is that there’s no such thing as the perfect job – not even one that combines two of the things I like most in the whole world, bikes and photography. I still have to pay the mortgage like everyone else and I’ve found, ironically, that you can sometimes have too much of a good thing. Being so completely immersed in bikes and photography has actually also encouraged me to explore other interests, like sailing. I seem to need some variety to keep me sane. But having said all that, I wouldn’t change what I do for the world. As jobs go, it rocks!
3) RB: Having been there from the beginning of the UK mtb publication scene, do you have a personal favourite era or magazine? Any one publication where it was just ‘good times’?
SR: Like a lot of riders who remember it, I look back rather fondly at the Mountain Bike World era. It survived just a year. But actually, when I take my rose tinted specs off, it wasn’t nearly as good as we thought it was at the time. And, although I’ll probably take some flak for this, I always enjoyed shooting for MBUK back in the day. The daft features were huge fun and, I think, a useful counterpoint to the poe-faced seriousness of the race scene at the time. Top Gear nicked all their best ideas from MBUK, you know…
4) RB: The professional photographic world seems to be suffering badly in the current climate, but the bike industry seems to be getting stronger, how has that affected you?
SR: It’s enabled me to keep working! Mountain biking seems to be doing OK and road riding is enjoying a resurgence. It’s all good, and I’ve enjoyed the occasional foray into the world of skinny tyred bikes over the past year or so.
5) RB: With the accessibility that digital photography has created for the amateur and budding photo enthusiast, have you found your side of the business become as fiercely competitive as many have in other walks of the imaging and editorial industries? Or is it (cycling photography) niche enough that it is well served by the few of you that have established yourselves?
SR: Honestly? It’s been a struggle to survive. Most of my competition now is from relative newcomers to the industry. None of them remember film, first British serial rights contracts or, for the most part, have any experience of running a small business over a number of years. Many don’t use photography as their primary source of income. It’s hard to compete against people who are treating their photography as a well-paid hobby. But I still here, still love (nearly) every minute and I ain’t going away anytime soon! I seem to have carved out a niche as the slightly grumpy, time- served go-to guy for the difficult jobs.
And that suits me fine. Well, apart from the grumpy bit…
6) RB: I remember, maybe 20+ years ago us both being into photography and riding mountain bikes out of the same LBS, at what point did you decide to combine the two and get into cycling photography? And was that a natural decision?
SR: I got bored working in bike shops, so I used to fill my spare time dreaming up ideas for the bike mags. Then I started actually writing some of them down… then I started phoning the editor… and at some point it became obvious what I ought to do. It took me a few years to figure out how to actually make it pay, though. But my perseverance paid off and I got my first paying commission while I was still a bike shop manager.
7) RB: Do you have any one biking picture that you personally like irrespective of it’s popularity or reproduction?
SR: There’s a favourite shot of mine of Jo Burt on the South Downs from 1997 or so. It was a blustery, stormy day and we were out to shoot a feature (which, come to think of it, never made it into print). There was a sudden gap in the clouds with one of those ‘hand of God’ shafts of light, and I remember just shouting at Jo to ride up the hill. Now!
Deep blue sky, thundery clouds, shaft of light, Jo and signpost silhouetted against the whole lot. I only got the one shot before the light changed and the moment had gone. Ever since then that signpost became known as ‘Seb’s signpost’. It rotted away about five years ago and they replaced it with a much smaller one that isn’t nearly as photogenic.
8 ) RB: Do you still have that lovely purple and blue fade Yo Eddy that popped up in WMB here and there, with RC36 on it IIRC? If so, fancy selling it?
SR: I’ve still got it, although it was lovingly resprayed in 1998 in a deep metallic burgundy as the original paint job had become quite stone chipped etc. I could be tempted to part with it…
9) RB: Ok, all important question…The Retrobike Cake-o-meter has flagged you up as a fruitcake kind of a chap….what’s your baked preference?
SR: Does sticky toffee pudding count? If not, I’ll have an apple and cinnamon muffin.
10) RB: having been a snapper that’s been through the digital switchover, is there anything you miss about the film days? Or have mega pixels been a blessing that you’re happy to not look back from?
SR: I hated making the switch because I couldn’t see what was wrong with film and the new gear was (and still is, at the pro level) so damn expensive. And for the first year or two I was on the fence, struggling a bit with cameras that didn’t quite deliver the image quality I wanted and with software that frankly wasn’t up to the task of shunting gigabytes of raw files around. But it’s all settled down now and I wouldn’t part with my D3 (and my copies of Photo Mechanic and Bibble) for anything.
11) RB: Do you miss anodized Purple?
SR: No. Not even a little bit.
12) RB: How are your photographic courses going? Aren’t you training potential competitors? Or is it a ploy to show them all it’s actually not as glamorous as it sounds standing about for hours in the freezing cold and wet with 20kg on your back, a sun setting fast and a deadline looming faster?
SR: The photo courses have been selling out for several years now, and I’ve actually had to turn quite a few people away this year because I’ve decided to take a break from the UK courses – although they’ll probably be back in 2011. I did worry about whether I was training potential competitors, but I honestly believe if you’re going to make it as a pro you don’t need my help to do it. Surviving as a pro is more about personality, perseverance, negotiating skills and a whole bunch of other stuff that I certainly can’t teach. The courses are a lot of fun, though, and I’m constantly amazed at the creativity and ingenuity on display.
13) RB: Do you still get out cycling for personal pleasure? Or are you usually (thankfully) being commissioned to ride as it were?
SR: I don’t ride just for the sake of riding nearly as much as I’d like to, which is one of the downsides of the job. On the other hand, when I do get to go out without the camera I’m a whole lot faster without an angry monkey’s worth of gear on my back!
14) RB: Do you carry a camera everywhere? Always?
SR: No. I enjoy looking for the sake of seeing, too. It’s not always about putting a rectangle around things.
15) RB: I seem to remember you being a Nikon man. For all those inquisitive image makers out there, tell us what’s in your bag on a typical day shoot…
SR: Nikon D3, 16mm fisheye, 14-24mm or 17-35mm (depending on whether the forecast is dry or not – the 14-24′s front element is too exposed if it’s a damp day), 80-200mm and two flashes with tripods and Pocket Wizards. Or thereabouts. I’ve got a whole pile of gear – including a huge 200mm f/2, which I’ve nicknamed the flowerpot on account of its girth and weight – which mostly stays at home. But it’s actually quite useful sometimes to be able to pull out, say, an 85mm f/1.4 for a specific purpose instead of relying on the same ol’ 80-200mm f/2.8. The details do matter, and every bit of kit I own has a purpose.
16) RB: Any simple rules or advice you live by for budding lens people out there that would like to improve their biking shots?
SR: Learn to pan accurately. Don’t rely on AF (or auto exposure, for that matter). Plan the shot. Be hyper critical of your own results. And have fun!
17) RB: Who are your personal photographic influences? Bike photography or not.
SR: Ernst Haas and Franco Fontana. I like simple, bold compositions.
Oh, and Don McCullin because he’s just incredible. I met him once, though I was too tongue-tied to say much and he didn’t seem too inclined to engage in small talk either…
18) RB: Is the influence of video creeping into bike photography like it has in news and current event photography? How do you feel about that?
Exciting? Ugly? Indifferent?
SR: Yes, a bit. Visually I think it can be very exciting, and I’ve enjoyed dabbling with video. Creating a narrative with moving images and sound is a logical extension of shooting magazine features, but from a pro’s perspective the difficulty is that there isn’t usually the budget to make it viable. Video’s here to stay and I think we’ll see more crossover, but the myth that you can simply take a video- enabled dSLR and shoot a video while you’re doing stills is just that – a myth.
Good video is like good stills – it should be treated with respect, not as an afterthought.
19) RB: Have you branched out into bike films? If not, is it something you’d consider?
SR: Only in terms of entering the Kendal Mountain Film Festival film-making marathon a couple of times (you get 48 hours to shoot and edit a short film. It’s an absolutely huge adrenalin rush!). I’ve wanted to get involved in it for a few years, but finding the time and the funding – which are really two sides of the same coin – just hasn’t happened. I wouldn’t rule anything out, though.
20) RB: What does tomorrow hold for you?
SR: Literally, a quiet day in the office making phone calls and doing some invoicing. Figuratively, continuing to find new ways to capture the joy of riding a bike off the beaten path. If I can’t inspire people to put down their magazine and go out for a ride, it’s time for me to find another job!