The first round of the 2018 Canadian Rally Championship is now over. Rallye Perce Neige ran in Maniwaki, Quebec the first weekend of February, and I was part of the official series media contingent sent to cover it. Up until last year, Perce Neige was the only proper winter rally in the Canadian Championship series. Now, Big White Winter Rally bookends the series, but Perce Neige is still known for brutal conditions, long stages (Kitigan Zibi is 40 km, and the total event has 233 km of racing), and a very long day. As media, I found myself on the first stage of the day by 7:30 in the morning, and finally sat down for dinner after the podium at 12:30 am the next day. Single day rallies are notorious for starting early and finishing late, and Perce Neige is pretty epic in that regard.
Part of the challenge of photographing any rally involves sorting out the logistics of getting around, being in position at the correct time, and staying safe while doing all of this. Many of the stages used this year are repeats but this time the organizers shuffled the order of a few stages in the morning and changed the direction of Kitigan Zibi, in order to shorten the amount of transit driving the teams needed to do. The knock on effect of this is that I had less time to move from stage to stage since once car “00” drives through a stage, the route is considered “hot” and traffic is no longer allowed. Typically, media need to be in position as much as an hour before car “0”, and with the shorter transit times involved, doing this was more difficult than last year. It is never possible to photograph every stage. Some stages have transit times of just a few minutes, so by the time you are free to leave your position the next stage has already been raced. Knowing where to go and what stages are important is a matter of experience and, to a degree, luck. Safety is paramount. Because of these factors, it is important to conduct your own “recce”, usually the day before the race, when you drive the stages yourself in order to find your best spots. When I do this, I track my time and my distance driven in order to determine if my movement plan is feasible. This movement plan needs to be submitted to the marshal for the rally. This holds me accountable, and provides them with a document indicating where I will be, and when.
Still, be ready to make adjustments and improvise. I had planned on photographing EC1, EC3, and EC5. EC5 was the second pass of Blue Sea, but it was converted to a transit stage because on EC2 (the first pass of Blue Sea), Nick Laverdiere and Vince Trudel cut a telephone pole in half with their car when they slid wide on a long left hander at full speed. That also put them out of the rally.
“Crazy” Leo speeding through a corner on the “Marie Anne” spectator stage.
Working in the Cold
Rallye Perce Neige happens in North/Central Quebec. On the first stage of the day, the temperature gauge in my car showed -31 degrees C. At this temperature, camera equipment can encounter problems. Lithium ion batteries deliver a lot of power in a small package, but they do not handle cold as well as older lead acid technology. The Nikon D810 is better than most when dealing with cold temperatures, but I still made sure to have extra batteries. I also kept them warm throughout the day by storing them in the chest pocket of the fleece I wore under my parka. Batteries that are stored in sub zero temperatures will lose power even when they are not used. While it is possible to get away with poor battery storage technique, anything can happen in a rally. Stages get delayed. Cars go off, medical emergencies happen, and radio communications break down. Be prepared for this.
Be careful when bringing your gear in from the cold. At Rallye Perce Neige, there was a heated tent in the Service Park provided by Subaru. Some of the in town stages are tantalizingly close to hotels, or fast food restaurants. It is tempting to quickly duck in and grab a coffee and poach the free wifi, but if you do this and open your cold camera bag, the warm air in the restaurant will condense on the cold surfaces, potentially causing problems. When you go back outside this condensation will freeze leaving you with an frosty, icy mess. Deal with this problem by putting your camera in a sealed plastic bag before you enter a warm area. That way, the camera can warm up without the humidity condensing on it.
For larger batteries, like strobe batteries, you may not have pockets large enough to store them. In those cases, I use two pairs of socks. The first pair fits over the battery, and the second pair fits over the first pair. Between the two pairs of socks I place hand warmers. The first sock prevents the hand warmer from touching the battery directly. I find that this system works well enough to enable me to shoot long into the night stages. The alternative is to use lead acid batteries, the same technology used in a car battery, but these types of batteries are quite heavy and may not be suitable for using on stages when you have to hike in several kilometers in order to get to your position. It is not always possible to park your car near your position.
Even lenses and tripods will freeze up. Fluid pan heads on video cameras can get slushy, and zoom and focus rings on lenses can become really stiff. For lenses, a lens coat works well. You can tape heat packs to pan heads to keep them moving well.
Antoine L’Estage and Alan Ockwell at the 2017 Rallye Perce Neige
There is probably no “right” or definitive way to photograph a rally. What focal length you use and what camera settings you choose depends on what the shot is and what you want to achieve. Personally, I find high shutter speed photos dull and uninteresting. The exception to that is when the car is traveling directly towards you. Obviously, this is a long focal length shot (be careful and give yourself room), and a high shutter speed will freeze action without having obvious wheel movement also frozen. For nearly everything else I shoot, I use slower shutter speeds and pan through the movement of the car. This adds a dynamic aspect to the shot, blurs the wheels, and lets dust and snow billow into clouds behind the car. Flying rocks will appear blurred as well. For Rallye Perce Neige, I generally positioned myself on the inside of corners, and panned cars as they slid by. There were very few safe opportunities to photograph cars head on, and so this was not a consideration for me. Canadian rally is often in heavily wooded areas so this is often the case. Rocky Mountain Rally and Pacific Forest Rally do offer some longer sight lines and if you are there you are welcome to experiment.
Simon Vincent and Hubert Gaudreau screaming through EC1. 1/160 sec
People of Rallye Perce Neige
For me, rally is about more than just cars. I make it a point to visit the service park during at least one of the short service breaks and also to the start of a stage’s ATC (Arrival Time Control)). This gives me an opportunity to photograph service crews working frantically to fix cars, and to photograph drivers and co-drivers up close, while they check tire pressure or talk to other teams. It puts a personal spin on racing. Rally is quite unique in this regard, since in most other motorsport events you are separated from the action by barricades and fences. This has become a priority for me. The nice thing about shooting these areas is that you do not need to enter the stage and thus are not really bound by restrictions imposed by the “one hour before car ‘0’” rule.
Crazy Leo waiting at EC6
All systems go!
I hope that some of this proves useful to photographers looking at getting into photographing rally. It is challenging, but very much worth it. Thanks for reading!
I’ve been using Fjallraven products for many years now. I’ve come to rely on the Arctic Fox for bulletproof construction, features that I need, and performance that keeps up with me. I’ve been an expedition photographer for more than ten years and in that time I’ve amassed a fairly substantial pile of Fjallraven gear. One of my pairs of Keb hiking trousers has been to nearly 30 countries with me. They have been waxed, beaten by rocks and sun, drenched in sweat, covered in dust, mud and snow, and they look pretty much like the day I bought them. My Keb jacket is pretty much the same; absolutely love the hood on that piece!
The main thing I’ve been missing in my closet was a proper winter parka. Deep cold adventures to the Arctic, where the temperature can plummet to below -40 Celsius or further, had previously required a carefully layered approach with fleeces, down jackets, and shells. I was never really happy with the way that worked out. A few years ago when I became a photographer for the Canadian Rally Championship I started photographing events in the northern parts of Quebec in the dead of winter. In rally, you stand around a lot as a photographer, sometimes for hours. If the weather is truly severe, that can be harsh and even dangerous.
It was time for a proper parka. I’ve had my eye on a Fjallraven Arktis Parka for a long time now, and thankfully Altitude Sports has them in stock. Mine came in Uncle Blue colour, and in size small. If you’re on the fence about the sizing of the Arktis, I would say that they run a bit on the large side. Fjallraven is always very generous with the sleeve length, and on my frame (6’ 155lbs), a size small leaves me plenty of room to add a fleece and a medium mid layer without any problem. The length is such that it comes down to the middle of my thigh, which is perfect.
Despite being a parka, the mobility is excellent.
Things like pockets aside, the main concern when you decide you want a parka is how well it will keep you warm. On the second day of owning it, I decided to take a long hike very early in the morning during a cold snap in Eastern Canada where the windchill was down near -40 degrees Celsius. Wearing just a fleece under it, I was quite comfortable. It took me a bit of fiddling before I realized that there were good drawstrings inside of the parka that sealed in warm air, and getting used to a hood that awesome also required some effort. The hood is cavernous. It is fully insulated, and lined with a synthetic fur that is detachable if you want to sacrifice a bit of warmth and wind protection for better visibility. When it is completely zipped up, it’s often hard to tell that there is anyone inside the coat. While walking on that day, I kept thinking back to my time exploring Norway’s Arctic a few years ago via dogsled. I remembered crouching on the back of my sled trying to shield myself from the wind, and kept wishing that I had the Arktis at that time. The hood sure would have been welcome.
Deep pockets galore. Note the zipper pulls on the pockets behind the chest pockets, which are easy to grab with gloves on.
Arktis Bulk versus Dexterity
With extreme cold comes bulk. It’s hard to escape the fact that in the winter, you normally have nearly no dexterity for things like small zipper pulls and tiny bits of velcro. Thankfully, the Fjallraven Arktis has none of that. Zippers come with huge pulls that are easily gripped with mittens, and the cuffs present on the sleeves are massive. Pockets have huge flaps that are easily opened.
Speaking of pockets, I am stoked to say that the pockets on the jacket all fall either above or below my exact waist line. This means that I can wear a pack with a hip belt or bend over to do things, without having pockets either get in the way or be rendered useless. I have railed against pockets that end up under my hip belt for years, and so this is an amazing feature to me.
As a final note on features, I want to touch on the fabrics used. Down is an excellent insulator, but in order for it to work it needs to be kept dry. The inside of the jacket is lined with a very nice soft material that is not itchy, and the outside is Fjallraven’s ubiquitous G-1000 and G-1000 Lite materials, which grace so many of my other Fjallraven products. Not only are they tough, but they can be made even more weatherproof by waxing it to increase water protection. My other G-1000 garments still look like new, and I am confident that the Arktis will also, for years to come.
Sleeve logo close up
G-1000 or G-1000 Lite throughout. Really durable material.
I finally own the parka I have needed for years now. I fully expect it to become the piece of gear I reach for every time I need to feel completely protected from winter’s extremes, where I am in Canada or somewhere else in the world. The first rally of 2018 is in a week, in Northern Quebec. I am very much looking forward to it.
The last month has been weird. I had a pretty slow Spring, and it seems that all of a sudden people are calling me and suddenly I am pretty booked up for photo work. It took a long time for that to happen, and I will be honest here, there were times when I really doubted myself and thought that I was doing the wrong thing. That may very well still be the case, but for now the day is pretty bright. I have learned, a long time ago, to not really talk about potential successes until they are certain, but I am generally pleased at how things are going. There are cool things on the horizon.
Nine months ago, I decided to get out of tech and IT nearly completely. It was burning me out, I was unhappy, and I was making everyone around me pretty miserable too. I’ve been pursuing photography as a career choice for nearly 12 years now. I’ve had exhibitions, I’ve been published in magazines, and I have received grant funding to hone my craft. I’ve invested a lot of time, money, and sweat into this. And it has been a hard slog. The work was slow in coming, I heard ‘no’ a lot, but gradually things have improved. I’ve even been invited in to speak to classes of graduating photographers, presumably to help encourage them and let them know that it is actually possible to pay your bills with a camera. I was pretty blunt. I stayed optimistic, but did not sugar coat anything. I sold my last car to finance travel in order to build a portfolio. I told them about 20 hour road trips to get to rallies. Sleeping in the back seat in -20C because I didn’t want to spend money on a hotel. Noodles for days. Doing a whole lot of work for free, not because I thought my work wasn’t worth anything but because I needed to get my name out there.
About to spend the night in my car, for Rally of the Tall Pines in late November
So I worked for it. But really, that shouldn’t be news. That’s true for any endeavor that is basically self-propelled. If you want an office job, or a job with benefits, or regular hours, I bet you can find one of those pretty easily. If you’re still reading this, I bet you don’t want that though. You want to do your own thing. To be creative. You’re following your dream. Yes? Yes! Then get out there. Peter McKinnon, a photographer, cinematographer, and YouTuber I recommend you check out, had a video a little while ago where he says something similar. I wasn’t going to write this, and then I watched his video and decided to. His stuff is the bomb, and his advice is on point.
If you bang away at photography – or anything – long enough, things will happen for you. Recently I described the sensation sort of like creating ripples in an ocean. Eventually those ripples reach other things and interact with them. Then those ripples reflect back and eventually reach you again, if you’ve banged away at the water hard enough. Be persistent, be patient, drive hard at it every day, and good things will happen. Ask questions to people who have gone before you. They probably had a learning curve at one point and might be able to make your own less steep. Say “thank you” even if you hear “no”. “No” rarely means “never”. It usually means “Not right now”. Play the long game. Develop friendships with other creatives or people you would like to work with. I just finished a commercial shoot for the owner of a local business that I’ve known for years now. I hang my work in the establishment. I drink coffee there. We shoot the shit all the time. It’s great. And you know, I was pretty happy with that.
I think Bob Ross said it best. You know Bob, he’s the awesome dude who painted happy little clouds and big trees on PBS for years. He was once asked if he was ever satisfied with a painting he’d done. I remember him stopping in mid brush stroke and looking straight at the camera. “Never be satisfied,” he said. “Be happy with your work, but the day you’re satisfied is the day you may as well stop painting.”
So be happy. Be the person that everyone wants to work with because you’re a nice person be with. No one wants to work with an asshole no matter how good they are.
Things work out. Believe in yourself. And then push harder.
I recently had an opportunity to take a look at the Photoshop workflows for landscape photos by Sleeklens, a company from Denmark that creates premium actions to help facilitate the process of creating final production-ready images.
Installation was very simple. The zip file that I was sent contained a single Photoshop ATN file that I could install on my Windows laptop by just double clicking on it. Photoshop will automatically import the actions and make them available for you. There is also a set of workflows for Lightroom. I did not try these because I do not use Lightroom. If you decide to work with these workflows in Photoshop only, bear in mind that at this point you will have already exported your RAW file out of whatever RAW converter you are using. It is getting harder for me to justify Photoshop as a last step for my landscape work because I find that I can do nearly everything I want in my RAW converter, but there are still times when I rely on Photoshop to get the job done.
I think that what I like most about the Sleeklens workflows is that most of the resulting modifications made to images are stored in grouped adjustment layers This means that the workflows can serve as starting points for more work. They can act as a creativity booster. One notable exception to this is the “BASE Good place to start” workflow. When it’s finished, you’re left with just your background layer and modifications have been made. It would be nice to be able to adjust the individual steps in this case too. I think that the “BASE Standard” workflow could be renamed, as I am not certain what Standard means in this case. These are tiny quibbles and did not affect me that much. I also did receive some Photoshop messages about certain commands (like Set) not being available at times. This didn’t seem to prevent the workflow from running to completion, but I wanted to mention it anyway.
I think my favorite workflows in the entire set were found in the TONE section. Colour grading, or “toning” images is really one of the biggest hot ticket things right now, and certain applications of images really benefit from having a certain look, or tone, to them. In this set, and for landscape images, I think the one I liked best was the Cinematic Tone workflow. It created a pretty punchy image with lots of contrast and nice colour balance. From that point, it’s easy to make finishing tweaks and get to something that is really pleasing to look at. There are even workflows for sharpening and exporting your images out to various formats, and they include dialogs that will prompt you for the size you need. This is very cool.
Overall, I found that the set of workflow actions provided in this set could act as an interesting foundation for further image enhancement. My biggest wish is that some of the actions included either ways to create luminosity masks, or ways to have them automatically generated to work only on highlights, or shadows. Creating luminosity masks for things like exposure blending or image compositing is a staple of many landscape photographer’s work. Being able to create masks quickly would be an asset here.
The Sleeklens Workflow panel showing just some of the available workflows provided.
If you’re a photographer who wants to be able to run a Photoshop workflow to get you most of the way to your final image, and you want a set of workflows that are specifically designed for landscape images, then the Sleeklens set might be just the thing for you. I don’t think that I’d ever give up full control over my images to any workflow, but that isn’t the point here. All in all, a pretty nice set. If you’re interested in learning more, please visit their website at https://sleeklens.com/product/landscape-adventure-photoshop-actions/. Sleeklens also offers some Lightroom Tutorials, and even a Professional Photo Editing Service if that’s more your thing. Finally, they also offer Photoshop Actions for other types of images as well.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you below.
The weekend of Canada Day 2016 found me in the Gaspé part of Quebec, as part of the official media contingent for the Rallye-Baie-des-Chaleurs, one of the races in the Canadian Rally Championship series. I was really stoked to be part of this, and drove up on Canada Day through all sorts of festive traffic in New Brunswick on my way to Quebec.
Mostly, I wanted to write about what worked for me, what didn’t work, and what I think I want to do differently next time. The next rally for me will be Défi in Montpellier in September, and I am already thinking about what sorts of things I want to accomplish.
Before photography, though, I need to mention my food and water situation. Mainly, the lack of it. I seem to perpetually underestimate my food consumption when I do one of these. Next time, more food in the car. A man can’t live on delicious hotdogs alone. Well, I guess a man can, but still. I was filling water bottles out of streams and rivers between cars, which worked well. Next time, large jugs in the car. This just seems so dumb on my part. I am an expedition photographer, so you’d think I’d know this by now.
Photographically, I think what I did worked out well. The Nikon and Phase One IQ250 always perform exceptionally well. There are times when I wish I had not traded frames per second for dynamic range, but when you get it right, it’s oh so sweet. There are other times when a bit more reach would have been nice, but I think you get the reach you need by being patient. I think I prefer being a bit short than not being able to zoom out when I need to.
One of the teams up from Mexico throwing up a ton of gravel in the first stage.
I brought a fish eye but didn’t use it much. In fact, I didn’t use a wide angle much at all, except for a bit of night time work with the 24-70/2.8. I think next time I will bring even more radio triggers and set up some extra cameras. Jaanus Ree does some cool stuff with laser triggers that sounds intriguing. There were some other photographers shooting video through a variety of means, and that’s something I want to explore as well. The sound is what I really think makes rally ‘rally’, and perhaps an external recorder with an omnidirectional microphone would work well.
The ground was really wet on the weekend, so shots I took during the rally proper didn’t have that cool dust factor. The day before, during the shakedown, it was hot and dry. Better!
Night time photography is always hard. It is exceptionally so during rally because of a number of factors. First, you are inevitably shooting at high ISO. A big sensor helps. If you are shooting at a car driving towards you, you will have a difficult time using autofocus because the glare will make your lens hunt. You can get around this in a number of ways. One is to shoot creatively. Use strobes to illuminate the car as it goes by, instead of shooting head on. I also like shooting the rears of the cars as they go by, because then you get tail lights, and the lit foreground from the car headlights. It makes for a cool shot. For focusing, I usually put my lens into manual focus. Pre-focus for a set distance with a respectable depth of field, and then trap shoot when the car passes through it.
Joel Levac and Stéphanie Lewis, who won the event, ripping it up the first evening.
This would have been a tough shot for me using autofocus, so I prefocus on the ground and wait until the MINI was in the spot. Pretty happy with this one.
Next time, more remote strobes! I want to do cooler stuff, outside of line of sight.
I had a blast doing this. I have a ton of respect for people involved in rally. There’s just so much dedication involved. The demand for concentration from drivers and co-pilots, and the relentless work ethic from team crews to keep cars on the track. Insanity, and so awesome. I already have my media accreditation for Defi and can’t wait.
My second article for Live Out There’s blog is now ready for your enjoyment. The theme is travel preparedness, with a slant towards how to prepare for hiking when possible emergencies happen. A quick preview:
For me, in particular, I’ve developed a passion for adventure traveling. The more remote, the more wild, the better. But travel in general does require preparation, and there are at least a few basic things that everyone should be aware of when you decide to go somewhere. Staying healthy on the road is a good thing, and accidents and problems do occasionally occur. Being spontaneous and having fun is important, but it is good to plan ahead, especially if you want to be outdoors.
My exhibit titled “Worlds Apart” has been running at Gallery 78 for nearly three weeks now, and I could not be more pleased with how things have gone so far. The opening night on the 29th of April blew me away. I was completely unprepared for the amount of support from the community.
I had an article in the Daily Gleaner the previous day about the opening, and “Shift” on CBC Radio had a spot with me leading up to the artist talk at the Gallery that I gave on May 15th, which went over really well. I was also stunned to find out that the Canadian Art Foundation named the show a “must-see” for the first week of May.
The show runs until May 22nd, and I continue to be humbled by the feedback I have received here. Thanks so much to all.
I am stoked to mention that my first article for Live Out There’s blog is now live! The article is about my recent trip to Montenegro, and specifically, Durmitor National Park. Check it out, and enjoy the photos. A quick preview:
The Republic of Montenegro is one of six countries that made up the former Yugoslavia. It’s rugged and covered with mountainous terrain. Not so long ago, I had the opportunity to visit Durmitor National Park, situated in the Northwestern part of the country. The goal was to hike and climb Bobotov Kuk, the highest peak at 2553 meters, in the massif that is Durmitor itself.
About five years ago, I went into the Radical Edge gear shop in Fredericton, New Brunswick, looking for a new pair of hiking boots. I tried on several pairs of boots, debated things, and ultimately settled on a pair of Salomon Quest 4D GTX boots that I immediately started wearing everywhere.
And I mean everywhere. I lived in these boots. I broke them in a few weeks before my first trip to Iceland in 2011 and from that point on we were best friends. Inseparable. Every single expedition I did between 2011 and now, except for some winter ones in the Arctic, have been in those boots. They have protected me, softened my footsteps, kept me dry, and caught me when by all rights I should have tripped and fallen.
Well, there was that one time. I did go to Corsica in 2012 and wore a pair of trail runners on the plane. Air France lost my luggage and I ended up doing the GR20 without my buddies, and I paid dearly for it. Without getting too far into it, let’s just agree that tent repair tape does a horrible job at blister prevention.
But now, after thousands of kilometres of use, they are showing their age, and it was time to pick up a new pair. So, I marched right in to where it all began and bought the exact same boot. No questions asked. And now that I write this while wearing my new boots I can tell that this is the start of another long and beautiful friendship.
My old friends with my new friends
No one asked me to write this. I’m just doing it because I think that my old pair deserve some recognition one last time.
A friend of mine once wrote a post on Facebook about why some gear costs so much. “It’s worth it, that’s why”, was the reply. I don’t remember what I spent on those original boots, but I’m pretty sure that I got my money’s worth. Heck, if I worked out my cost per day use, I bet Salomon owes me money.
“It’s a pair of boots, who cares?” I hear, already. Yeah, maybe. But I’ll be damned if I can find it in me to relegate them to some back closet. They’ll stick around, or else maybe I’ll donate them to a local charity. There’s life in them yet, of that I am sure. Perhaps they will help some other soul find new adventures.
Enjoying the view on the Laugavegurinn in Iceland
The top of Cerro el Calar in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain
I am super stoked about this, because it is a legitimate big deal for me. On April 29th, at Gallery 78 in Fredericton, I will have a gallery show opening that will run from April 29 until May 22. The title of the show is “Worlds Apart”, and will feature photographic work from some of my recent expeditions to Scandinavia, Patagonia, the former Yugoslavia, and Central America. The opening will run from 5 pm until 7 pm on April 29th, so feel free to come by and say hello.
On May 15th at 2 pm, also at Gallery 78, I will be giving an artist talk where I will discuss what motivates me as a photographer, the sort of photographing I like to do, and who and what some of my influences are. I’ll pepper the talk with ridiculous travel stories, perhaps involving dog slegs in the Arctic, and an old Serbian guy yelling at me while climbing a mountain.