Here’s what it takes to capture the perfect mountain biking photograph

This story first appeared on BIKE. Words by Johnathon Weber.

This does not look like an image taken by someone having an allergic reaction. But that’s what photographer Bruno Long was struggling with on that January day on the flank of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

That, and the 13,000 feet of elevation he, rider Mike Hopkins and videographers Jordan Manley and Scott Secco — who were filming for “DreamRide 2” — had gained all too quickly from the dormant volcano’s base at sea level.

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Bruno Long had to deal with choking on a combination of volcanic gasses and dust to get this shot. Photo: Courtesy of Bruno Long/BIKE

The day started off with a failed shoot higher up on the mountain, where cold, howling winds made everything a challenge. As the team moved to lower elevations, they connected with a singletrack trail that looked promising — at least on Google Earth.

“It was in this total moonscape…very desolate, there wasn’t too much growing in the ground — just ash and rock, and this was mid-day too so there was pretty harsh light,” said Long.

Everyone involved could tell that the spot had potential, so they began waiting for the stars to align.

“We just hung out there for a good six or seven hours, just trying to find spots to shoot, walking around up and down the trail. We were still at 13,000 feet so you kind of move at a snail’s pace all day,” said Long. “You can’t run around, you can’t just go over there and do it super fast. It’s like you’re walking underwater or in molasses or something.”

Judging distances was also a challenge on the barren landscape and with the wind still howling, what little communication was possible had to be done with hand signals.

On top of it all, Long was having an allergic reaction that he chalks up to ‘vog,’ a type of smog created by a volcano that contains dust and gasses, and, in this case, can add a unique feature to landscape imagery. “I was sneezing, and coughing, and my eyes were super red and watery and I was dripping snot constantly out of my nose. It was making it super hard to shoot and I was just hating it. My camera was just covered in snot and dust and all sorts of stuff.”

With the sun getting lower, at least the volcano was becoming more photogenic, and the crew was firing on all cylinders, inspiring each other to keep pushing despite the heat, dust and vog.

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The Photo Annual cover of BIKE, in all of its glory. Photo: Courtesy of BIKE

At one point, having exhausted most of the spots he thought had potential, Long hiked up to the ridge visible in the right side of the photo. “I had been standing up there for a long time shooting and just remember watching the shadows from where I was standing creeping towards the trail and I was like, ‘Maybe I should go up and around and shoot when the shadow is just about on the trail.'”

Long began the slow grind over to the area he thought would offer the angle he was after. “I remember turning this corner and just being like, ‘Oh this looks pretty nice,’ just watching Mike, he started doing a couple runs and because it was so windy the dust was kicking up in the air and getting lit up.”

You can’t see it in the image, but Hopkins is charging into a loose corner, which Long says couldn’t be ridden very fast, though Hopkins was doing it anyway — and crashing frequently.

“That was probably one of the last moments where there was actually light still just on that little piece of trail,” said Long. With the bright clouds and vog in the background, Long had to ratchet down the exposure. “That’s what made it so dark everywhere else and gave it that super-dramatic effect,” he said.

Long knew right away that would be the best shot he’d get that day. “I would have been happier if I wasn’t having such problems with my nose and my throat. I think I remember just being like, ‘That’s sick, let’s keep shooting and get out of here.'”

Long is no stranger to the cover of BIKE. He says lessons learned from more senior photographers, like Sterling Lorence, help him find the right frames. “Somebody told me this a long time ago that when they used to work with Sterl, he would walk around and look at every angle and check out all these little spots … Just exhaust all the angles. If I hadn’t gone up on that ridge, I wouldn’t have seen the shadow moving across. I guess it’s just something I’ve learned over the years mdash; to go and suss it out, don’t just go with your first instinct.”

That, of course, is easier said than done while choking on vog at 13,000 feet.

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