EXCLUSIVE: Behind the Lens with Neil Gardner
February 20, 2013
If you’ve raced DH in Christchurch or the South Island over the last few years, you’ve probably seen Neil and his cool wide brimmed hat as you scream past.
Christchurch based Neil Gardner shoots for a website called nzsnaps.com.
Since an injury forced Neil out of playing the NZ Masters Ultimate Frisbee team at the 2006 World Champs in Perth and into shooting for the event, he’s been upgrading gear, traveling nationally and internationally (Vancouver, Prague and Japan for the three Ultimate worlds events since Perth) and generally having a great time shooting.
Neil says “I would love to travel to a world champs downhill round – although it would have to meet me halfway perhaps – when’s it next in Aussie or here?”
How many cameras/lenses do you have in your quiver? Do you have a favourite?
My current camera bag is scary. Despite buying 95% of my stuff secondhand, it’s quite an investment. I have two DSLR camera bodies – a Canon 1d3 and 1d4. They are pro bodies with amazing autofocus and speed (10 frames/second) and they can stand the rain and dust that shooting MTB often brings. I have close to a full set of Canon 2.8L glass – a 300/F2.8L IS, 70-200/F2.8, 24-70/F2.8 and a 17-40F4L.
I also have a Sigma 15mm Fisheye which is a huge amount of fun and a Tamron 90mm Macro. Add a couple of flashes and some radio triggers and that can see me carrying 15KG or more around. I rarely take out my full kit anymore though – it’s just getting too heavy! I also have a couple of small point and shoot cameras but don’t use them for sports. I now have a couple of GoPros as well but they are for strapping to my Lotus 7 replica when I go for blats or to track days.
I’ve upgraded through a lot of Canon cameras… 10D, 30D, 1D, 1D2, 1Ds2, and 5D – usually keeping 2 at a time. My favourite camera would have to be my current 1d4 and my favourite lens is the 70-200F2.8L. That is unless I am in a situation to use the 300/2.8L. It’s not always a suitable lens but every time I use it I forget the weight and the limitations of a fixed focal length – it produces the most stunning images.
Most frequently used camera?
Hands down the 1d4. Sometimes when shooting field events (Ultimate Frisbee mostly) I will dual wield both bodies (one with the 300, the other with the 70-200) but that is a recipe for bad back so I usually have the 1d3 sitting around as a backup. The 1d4 has no weaknesses so I use it all the time.
Favourite subject/s to shoot?
I don’t like shooting landscapes. It’s odd – I thought that’s what I would use a camera for most when I got one but it turns out I love shooting people and sports. With MTB my favourite approach is to shoot under tree cover if I can so the background is filled with something dark. I use a remote flash whenever possible as it adds a huge pop to the images if used well.
Often the helmets can make the face of a rider just a dark shadow and that is something I don’t like – I love catching emotions and expressions. Wide eyes and gritted teeth do it for me.
Outside of MTB, my main passion is Ultimate and I’ve traveled for numerous worlds and international tournaments. I used to play at a high level and love the culture and people involved – Ultimate is my favourite subject.
Photoshop or no Photoshop?
My use of Photoshop itself is very very limited, but I do shoot in RAW and that means I need to process them all to JPG. When I do this I freely admit I can take a pretty extreme approach to contrast, saturation and shadow recovery. I also often put a gradient across skies to recover some cloud details if the sky is blown out. I don’t mind the use of photoshop at all and I firmly believe that to get the best results you should use whatever tools are at your disposal. This isn’t school and I am not shooting for a news agency – there aren’t any rules – go nuts!
Best piece of advice to budding video/ photographers?
Ask questions, experiment and whenever you can, keep the sun to your back. Frequently my decision about where to shoot will be dictated by where the sun is; Is it behind a cloud? Is it in front of me? Is it lighting up the riders face? Photography is about wrangling light and the sun is usually the only light you have to use – it won’t move for you so you have to work around it. Of course you can bring your own mini-suns as well which I do to give me more options.
Another piece of advice I like to give is be daring. Don’t always take the safe shot and don’t take the same photo of everyone riding past at the same spot. Move around, change your settings, try things! I have missed many crashes because the camera is set for a creative shot rather than a nice fast shutter speed.
Who do you usually shoot and who have you shot for?
I shoot almost exclusively for myself and it’s not my day job so I don’t have to go chasing work. I have had images featured in newspapers as well as numerous books and magazines here and overseas. The only time I have really been engaged on a professional basis was for the World Ultimate champs last year in Japan.
How do you think you set yourself apart in this digital age where everyone’s a photographer and go pros are rife?
It’s not the gear. Sure, great gear makes it easier, but good gear does NOT guarantee good results. I think about my shots, the light, the reflections, what’s in the background (NEVER SHOOT WITH PORTA-LOOS IN THE BACKGROUND!), whether the AF system will be able to lock on to the rider with them coming out from behind a tree, are the shadows going to make the face dark? And so on. There is way too many elements of a photo that other photographers don’t always think about. And then there is the processing and the displaying and so on. I think about every step of the process.
Your favourite photo/video taken by someone else (and why)?
My favourite photo (mine or from someone else) changes all the time so instead I’ll choose a photographer. Lee Howell is a local Christchurch based full time professional photographer and his work is STUNNING. Lees work at http://leehowell.com/ (including some MTB Stuff). Lee first opened my eyes to the importance of the dynamics in an image. I was shooting some drifting around 1/400 or 1/250 shutter speeds. Lee noticed this and encouraged me to just try shooting slower, and slower. Then this happened (below) – and I understood.
Check out Neil’s work at nzsnaps.com and Facebook
Neil has also written a three part guide to shooting Ultimate Frisbee – a lot of the advice applies to shooting other sports as well – check out part one here:
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