A Historical view on cycle touring and photography.

Choosing a camera for that tour in France...

Snap! Photography and Cycling.

Note - This is a very old article (as you'll realise the minute you start reading it) because it is almost all based around 35mm photography! It's amazing to think that it sounds like it was written 50 years ago and yet was current just 15 years ago - the pace of progress. As it stands it's of historical interest I hope and for the few fanatics still into 'real' photography it's still all true!

Taking photographs to record a great days cycling, the passing of the countryside on a grand tour, stupid pics of your friends doing stupid things or even pics of the remains of your bike after some blind motorist has pulled out in front of you mean that cameras and bikes are often found together. The thing is that cycling photo's may seem simple, but require special thought as to what camera to use - let me explain.

A few years back I was cycling along a canal tow path when I felt like a bit of music (Led Zep if you're wondering) so leaving my rather nice "Walkman" in the front bag I wired myself for sound... The result was a horrible warbling which only stopped when I did. The "Walkman", which could stand jogging, was being shaken to death in my frontbag. Putting it on my hip solved the problem. This shows what a savage beating a camera will have to endure if it is carried on the bike rather than on your body. On another occasion I found myself at the top of the Tormalet, nearly 7000 feet, heavy mist and near freezing temperatures. I took a few rather poor pictures then hurtled off down the mountainside, fifteen minutes later I arrived at the bottom, 4000 feet below having hit 50 mph, and a couple of potholes on the way down. It was blazing sunshine, temperature in the high twenties and of course dry. Amazingly the camera survived to record the scene.. It's this combination of terrible vibration and big pressure, temperature and humidity changes that makes the frontbag of a bike about the most hostile environment any camera can endure. So with this in mind you need to decide what you want your camera to do.

Basically if you want holiday snaps to remind you of what happened then you can't do better than a disposable camera. They cost little more than a film, are so simple there's nothing to break, and if they do give up the ghost they're not a great loss. Very cheap compacts on the other hand always seem to let in light, or the flash breaks, or something else goes wrong - don't bother.

If you like to take more adventurous photo's then a modern 35mm compact is a good move. Carry it on your body if you can and be prepared for it to fail. As I've said it's a hard life for a camera, and a compact, often with autofocus, zoom and flash, is quite a complicated item relying on a lot of electronics, and electronics don't like getting shaken about or being damp. My wife uses an Olympus Mju Zoom and I'm very impressed with it. It's very small and light, well made, "weatherproof" (whatever that means...) and has a useful zoom range of 35-90 mm. It's kept going through a couple of tours which would put it top of my list for this reason alone. I carry a Minox compact, 35 mm, the size of a packet of cigarettes and has a 35mm lens better than anything other than a top SLR's, it takes amazing pictures. It has also proved itself over many tours to be well nigh indestructible. It is the lightest smallest 35 mm camera in the world, but is a fiddle to use, no autofocus, no flash, auto shutter only - you need to set aperture manually, so it is a bit specialist for snaps. It also costs as much as a decent SLR, but if you want a compact that fits in a shirt pocket and will produce slides sharp enough to be blown up to A4 size then you haven't much choice.

If you are seriously into photography, and especially if you intend to have pictures published then a good SLR (single lens reflex) is the only answer. The choice of superb zooms and top quality fixed focal length lenses give the photographer huge scope. The down side is that they are heavy and bulky so you need to carry them in a front bag. Modern SLR's are also massively complicated, packed with electronics and every widget imaginable. This makes them vulnerable, and very expensive to repair. My personal choice is to go back in time to the clockwork era. Quality SLR's from 15 to 20 years ago are much tougher than their modern equivalent. They rely on batteries only for metering and their clockwork is much less susceptible to humidity/vibration and temperature change. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that second hand they're plentiful and cheap so if the worst does happen it won't break the bank. The most suitable of the crop are the compact SLR's that began to appear in the 1970's. Olympus started the ball rolling with their OM1, a gorgeous little camera, dwarfed by today's electronic marvels, and yet built to professional standards in a tough brass case. It's a delight to use, obviously manual only, but soon this ceases to be a problem, and often you find yourself using the meter as a guide only due to lighting conditions - something that makes you wonder how many "automatic" wonders expose correctly. It's one quirk is that the shutter speeds are located round the lens throat, something you either love or hate, but can get used to. A couple of years later Pentax responded with the MX, almost a copy, but with conventional controls and a full information viewfinder. It is even smaller than an OM1, obviously as a marketing point, but the difference is undetectable. Both are very common second hand and fetch about 130 pounds in Britain for an example in new condition - I wouldn't use anything else and my own choice was an MX I bought new 18 years ago and which has never needed so much as a service despite a very hard life. Nick Crane, of "Journey to the Centre of the Earth", and "Bikes up Killimanjaru" fame said an MX was the only camera he'd ever found that survived in a frontbag.

So the choice is wide, consider what you want your camera to do and choose accordingly, just don't expect it to last forever...