30 Years Behind The Lens
In the world of professional mountain biking, you have athletes who ride bikes for a living, and you have the people behind the scenes who make that life possible. Photographer John Gibson is one of those people. He started taking a camera on his mountain bike rides nearly 30 years ago. In the years since then, he’s been shooting the world’s best mountain bikers in spectacular locations all over the world. Gibson picked out some of his favorite photos to share with the readers of MBA, then sat down to tell us more about himself and his work.
Full name: John Gibson
Birthplace: Terrace, British Columbia, Canada
Current home: Bow Valley, Alberta
MBA: How and when did you get interested in mountain biking?
Gibson: I started out as a cross-country runner but always had a bicycle from a young age. I got interested in road biking as a teenager and became obsessed with bike touring, and, at the age of 18, did a bike tour from Jasper, Alberta, Canada, to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. When the late ’80s rolled around, my road biking friends were starting to ride mountain bikes, so I got one too.
MBA: When did you start shooting mountain bike photos?
Gibson: I started bringing my camera along on mountain bike rides in 1989. I would wrap my camera in a beach towel and put it in a small hiking pack. Back in those days, there were no mobile phones; you took pictures with real cameras with film.
MBA: How did your professional career happen?
Gibson: After photo school I became a newspaper and wire-service photographer in Calgary from 1987–1996. I shot photos of all the pro sports in Calgary, and shot the 1988 Winter Olympics for the Canada Olympic Association. There was a lot going on before and after the Olympics, and I shot all of those winter sports for Agence France Presse (AFP) wire service. I did shoot some road cycling events in that period and really enjoyed the culture surrounding those riders and their spirit.
In 1994 my girlfriend picked up a copy of Bike magazine. She said I should try shooting some photos like what we saw in that magazine, and so I started doing that.
MBA: How did you get your first mountain bike photos published?
Gibson: In 1994 I drove to California to visit a friend, but my big goal was to meet David Reddick, the photo editor at Bike magazine. I brought along a portfolio of photos in a leather-bound book and arranged a meeting. Dave looked through my book and invited me to submit some photos. Right after that meeting, I drove to Vail, Colorado, for the World Mountain Bike Championships and met some of the riders and photographers and tried to figure out how the whole scene worked. After that I started getting my photos published in various magazines around the world. I had already been shooting professionally for seven years, so I was not a rookie, but I still had lots to learn. And today, I still try to learn something new every time I head out the door.
MBA: What else were you doing back then?
Gibson: I took a two-year commercial photography course from 1985–’87 at NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Photography) in Edmonton, Alberta. It was all film, and it was learning how to shoot product in the studio—portraits, food, industrial-style photos—that sort of thing. And, it was all medium-format cameras and shooting with a 4×5-inch-view camera. We would process all our black-and-white film in the first year, and the second year we shot color film. We printed our pictures in the darkroom. It was technically very demanding, and about half of our class didn’t make it through. Shooting film, processing film and printing film; it was pretty intense! My two years studying commercial photography actually provided a good foundation to be a newspaper shooter, as I learned how to shoot everything that you see in a newspaper. On my own time, I would shoot sports just for fun and quickly learned I enjoyed taking pictures of people doing sports the most.
MBA: How many years have you been shooting mountain bikers professionally?
Gibson: I quit my job as a news shooter in 1996 and have been shooting photos of people riding their bikes ever since—so 22 years. I guess I’ve been paying my bills as a photographer for 31 years total.
MBA: What are some of your favorite places when it comes to shooting mountain bike photos?
Gibson: The province of British Columbia is great. Every little town in B.C. has a mountain bike trail network now. It’s phenomenal. And, if you look at the rider list at any event, it’s full of riders from that province. Believe me, B.C. has much more to offer than Whistler, but another place high on my list would be New Zealand.
MBA: Who are some of your favorite riders?
Gibson: Having John Cowan and Darren Berrecloth along on photo shoots in the past always meant that things were going to get done! Both could build big jumps and motivate other people around them to be their best. Not just the other riders, either. Both Claw [Berrecloth] and Cowan came up with great ideas for the photographers along for the ride. When both these guys built jumps, they had photography in mind. For me, these two guys are mint.
MBA: Who are some of your other favorite riders from over the years?
Gibson: That’s gonna be a long list! I spend a lot of time in Nelson, B.C. and have shot photos of some of the riders there for many years. I started shooting with Kurt Sorge when he was 16 years old, and now he’s a three-time Rampage winner! Other Nelson guys who are great are Alex Volokhov, Garett Buehler, Robbie Bourdon, the Schwartz brothers, Travis Hauck, Renan Gallagher, Lewis Seagram—there’s a whole crew. Other standout guys whom I’ve shot with would be Andreu and Lluis Lacondeguy, Graham Agassiz, Brett Tippie, Paul Basagoitia, Geoff Kabush, Cam Zink, the McCaul brothers, Nick Quinn, Brandon Semenuk—I better stop, but the list goes on. Sorry if your name isn’t here.
“Back in 2001,” says Gibson, “I shipped off to Kamloops to shoot for New World Disorder. There was a new rider on the rise and a new style of riding. Josh Bender had his second date with the Jah Drop, a huge jump that he’d tried before with no success. The weather turned cloudy and windy, so our movie shoot was shut down. Somehow I ended up sharing a hotel room with Josh for that week, and he spent the entire time doing push-ups and sit-ups and relaxing in the hotel pool. There was a porthole to look into this pool and Bender gave me this shot, and I always thought it showed his personality. When the clouds cleared, he hit the Jah Drop, crashed and broke his bike frame. That shoot was over and we all carried on.”
MBA: What’s your favorite thing about shooting mountain bike photos?
Gibson: It’s a challenge. You are often shooting a fast-moving subject in challenging terrain and lighting conditions. It’s also a great way to meet people with common goals and ideas. I could never hit a jump like Andreu Lacondeguy—far from it—but I feel like I have a lot in common with these young guys who hit big jumps. We all have a love of the outdoors, and the feeling of just riding a bike is a common thread that we all share.
MBA: What other kinds of subjects do you like to shoot?
Gibson: I mostly shoot photos of people riding their bikes, but sometimes shoot winter sports for clients outside of the bike industry.
MBA: What’s the biggest challenge in being a professional mountain bike photographer?
Gibson: Trying to get photos that really stand out and look different.
MBA: What other kinds of things do you like to photograph?
Gibson: Fat biking! I mean, fat bikers are the rollerbladers of the bike world, but you know, it’s awesome. I was a skeptic at first, like all crusty bike riders, but when the snow is perfect and you’re all alone in the woods on a winter day, it’s great. Last year I snuck up on a lynx, and to see an animal like that in the wild is a rare treat. And, I did it on a winter fat bike ride.
MBA: What’s the hardest part about your job?
Gibson: Being a bike photographer can be very physically demanding. Of course, it’s pretty mellow when you drive to a dirt jump somewhere and walk 50 feet from your truck and just start firing off photos of the best bike rider in the world. That’s the easy part. But sometimes I pedal a long way to get the shot with a heavy camera pack. That’s hard!
MBA: What’s your current camera?
Gibson: A Canon 1DX and Canon 5D are my one and two right now.
MBA: What are your favorite lenses?
Gibson: My 300 f2.8 and 8–15mm f4 fisheye zoom. But really, when I look at the stats, most of my photos are shot with the 70–200 f2.8 zoom.
MBA: If you could give aspiring photographers three tips to help them get better photos of mountain biking, what would you tell them?
Gibson: 1) Shoot with the best riders you can find.
2) Wait for the good light late in the day, or get up early and shoot in the first 45 minutes of the day. Before the sun comes up or after the sun goes down is also a good time to go for it. If it’s cloudy, you get even light all day long, so that can be great too.
3) Don’t get too discouraged too easily. Good photography is hard. Try to learn from your mistakes, or you will repeat those same mistakes sometime down the road.
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