Gravel Culture: Capturing your ride

Posted By Gravel Union On 13 November 2020

No matter what the genre, a good image has the power to metaphorically stop you in your tracks. Olly casts his photographers’ eye back over the Gravel Union’s Instagram feed for the past year – which ones were best received by the Gravel Union readership and why?

675 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image and shot in the Yorkshire Dales, UK

Capturing a still image that grabs the attention of a gravel-loving Instagram viewer is really hard. With so many millions popping up in our feeds, it’s easy for an audience to just swipe-swipe-swipe without ever finding something that really resonates with them.

During 2020 we’ve tried to develop the Gravel Union Instagram account into a showcase for fantastic, thought-provoking images. We’ve posted images from all over the world from Tajikistan to Tuscany and subjects varying from gravel events to gear to life’s essentials. Every image we post is viewed and critiqued (even if it’s sub-consciously) by our ever-growing band of followers. We’ve grown our following from less than 3000 at the start of 2020 to more than 13,000 followers by the end of 2020 – hopefully that’s a sign that we’re doing something right!

Photography, as with anything creative, is incredibly subjective and just because I like a particular image, it’s no guarantee that our readership will like it, but having posted 138 images so far this year, I’ve started to notice a pattern in what is popular and what’s not.

656 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image @orangetrike and taken in Northumberland, UK

The photos that I’ve featured in this article are the most popular so far this year – each of them have received 500 or more ‘likes’. While the number of ‘likes’ alone isn’t really an objective appraisal of whether the image is a good one (as to some extent this figure can be skewed by factors such as the number of followers that the photographer has, what hashtags were used, or even which day of the week the image is posted on), it does give us a simple way of comparing the images to each other.

Before I joined the esteemed ranks of Gravel Union, I worked as a photographer and filmmaker in the adventure travel industry and was fortunate enough to be paid to travel the world and capture images that were used essentially as adverts for a destination or an activity (or both). This experience helped me develop my own skills as a photographer, but also helped honed my editorial skills when looking through a mountain of images to find the one the really ‘pops’! My job as the editor is to try and find images which first and foremost inspire you as the reader.

656 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image and taken near his home in the Netherlands

While every photographer develops their own style, there are some key features which pretty much all of them will consider when capturing an image:

• Light – The single most important characteristic to consider when taking a photo. If the light is flat/dull or harsh/bright it’s exceptionally difficult to create an image that will really stand out to the viewer
• Composition – Should the image be shot in portrait or landscape orientation? How does the background/activity all fit together? What perspective are you going to shoot from? How much of the image do you want to have in focus? All of this is often done subconsciously by the photographer, but there are in theory a set of ‘rules’ to help with this process
• Subject – What is the subject matter? If it’s a gravel cyclist, how fast are they moving/how close to you are they? If it’s a landscape, what should you focus on? If it’s a bit of kit, how can you best capture it?
• Colour – What colours can you see when you visualise the scene in front of you? If they’re washed out can you use textures instead to give the image some more ‘wow’ factor?

What’s interesting about the most popular of the Gravel Union collection in 2020 is the similarities (and the differences) between the shots.

Most photographers would argue that the quality of the light in an image is the single most important factor to consider – it’s more important than the cost (or the brand) of the camera that you shot the image on - it’s often more critical than the actual content of the image - a mundane object beautifully lit will often be captivating, whereas a beautiful scene under dull, uninspiring lighting will remain dull and uninspiring. Each viewer will perceive the quality of light in an image differently and it won’t always affect people in the same way, but if I was going to give any advice, I would always say look for ‘wow’ light in your shots. Interestingly though, in my view at least, only half of the images in our top twelve had light that really ‘pops’

546 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image and taken near his home in the Netherlands

Of our top rated images displayed in this article, all of them have very well defined leading lines – a visual ‘trick’ often included in the structure of the image to persuade the viewer’s eyes to ‘travel’ around the image and to linger on the details in the shot. In images taken in an outdoor setting, the leading line will take your eye through the picture towards the centre of the image and when the audience viewing the image are cyclists, leading lines might help enhance the feeling of involvement in the image (and make us actually want to be there).

537 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image @simon.taulelle in the Jura mountains, France.

Eight out of the top eleven shots from 2020 have a rider (or riders) in the shot. Riders are useful to give a sense of scale to the scenery and from an inspirational/aspirational perspective, potentially help give the viewer the motivation to go and try it for themselves. In the image above the body position of the respective riders gives a good impression of the gradient of the road (something that is notoriously difficult to capture) and the amount of bikepacking luggage the riders are carrying instantly generates the idea that they are on aa adventure.

532 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image @AbbyHolder and taken in Northumberland, UK

In the image above (which unusually features me in front of the camera, rather than behind it), there are a number of factors which give it some visual ‘oomph’. There are leading lines which take your eyes the image, dramatic lighting (from a combination of stormy skies and reflected light from the pale colour of the sandstone bedrock) and mix of textures from the foliage, surface of the trail and the rocky outcrops forming a boundary to both the trail and the image. As a general rule, I would try and feature riders wearing bright colours (although I try and avoid high-vis clothing in images as they can tend to look cheap/low quality), but in the majority of the most liked shots, the riders are in dark clothing – this works well when there is sufficient contrast with the background, such as the image above.

519 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image @ShimanoGravel in the Flanders region of Belgium.

Images of an empty section of gravel trail (or a route where a gravel bike would be ideal) have proved to be consistently popular in our Instagram feed in 2020, but not many have made the top eleven. The most successful of the riderless shots are either beautifully lit or have either an interesting perspective (such as this one of the infamous Paterberg climb in the Flanders region of Belgium, where the ground-level point of view really helps enhance the steepness of the gradient and the texture/size/shape of the cobbles). The light in this shot is very dull and flat, but the low perspective and the texture of the stone, as well the shallow depth of field (so only the section of the image nearer the camera is in focus) help generate lots of ‘wow’ factor.

516 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image @orangetrike and taken in Friedrichshafen, Germany.

A combination of beautiful light and vibrant colours will give an image enough ‘pop’ to help make it appealing to our viewers, even when the trail featured in the image is quite tame looking. This shot was taken early in the morning close to the location of the Eurobike exhibition in Germany and the forest was clinging onto the last traces of early morning autumnal mist. Low light from the side was streaming through the foliage and bouncing off the mist giving a dramatic effect.

509 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image @koppel_bikeshop and taken close to their workshop in Holland

The image above demonstrates a number of different techniques to give it the ‘wow factor’ – it’s shot from a low point of view which gives it visual interest, there are leading lines to take your eye on a journey around the image and it’s got a very simple palette of colours. The leading rider, dressed in dark colours, could be at risk of merging with the background, but the low perspective helps the rider stand out across the pale blue sky. The image is very minimal and features quite a stark looking landscape – this might risk the image looking monotonous, but in this case, it gives it some real drama.

507 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image @TristanCardew for @TheServiceCourse and taken on the Port d'Aula on the Spanish/French border

This image is proof that just because the photo editor loves an image, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be popular with the viewers! This is by far my favourite gravel riding image of 2020. It makes me want to be there riding that trail right this minute. The combination of early morning light, low lying mist in the valley, beautiful colours and silhouetted rider, combined with the majestic scenery and the real sense of challenge and adventure really blew my socks off! But, judging by the fairly lowly score on the “likes” it didn’t do it for as many of you as I would have expected.

500 likes (on 11/11/2020) Image @GijsBruinsma on the trails close to his home in the Netherlands.

Last, but not least, an image submitted by Gijs Bruinsma, who is one of the 2020 Shimano Gravel Alliance riders. We tasked them with submitting one image and a maximum of one hundred words of text to sum up what they had been up to during the summer of 2020. This image shouldn’t really work! It’s shot from eye level and the light is quite flat and dull, but there’s something about it that won your hearts (and your likes). There are some great leading lines which take you into the centre of the image. The rider’s jersey is pale enough to contrast well against the dark background and the almost monochrome colours help to focus your eye on the trail and the texture of the trees. Of the images in this selection, this isn’t one of my favourites (sorry Gijs!), but it obviously resonated with the audience and has made the shortlist of most liked image of the year.

A wise old photographer once said that the best camera you can ever have is the one you have with you. The images in this selection have been taken on a wide variety of kit – everything from smartphones to super expensive pro-level DSLRs. Ultimately what matters isn’t the type of camera, or what focal length the photographer used, or whether they shot in RAW or in fact anything about the technical side at all.

What matters is that the photographer used their eyes to identify a potential image, took whatever camera they had with them at the time, pointed it in the right direction and hit the shutter button. The single best way to improve your photography when out on your gravel bike is to look around more. Don’t stare at the trail in front of you. Stop once in a while and use your vision to convert the scene in front of you to an image that captures it perfectly.

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