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photograph by Tommy Chandler | riding by Dustin Schaad | Truckee, CA

A couple months ago I met mountain bike photographer Tommy Chandler and was blown away by his portfolio of rad MTB shots. I asked Tommy to talk about his photography and MTB background and he even shared some great tips for aspiring mountain bike photogs. Here’s what he had to say.

How did you get started in mountain bike photography?

Well, I’ve been taking/making photos since high school when I learned the old school method of shooting black and white manually and then developing and printing my own stuff, and continued through college but never actually got a degree in photography. Decided I really wanted to be a photographer while living in Mammoth Lakes after college. At this point I’ve been selling my pictures for about 13 years now and am currently the Photo Editor and Staff Photographer at Backcountry.com. About a year and a half ago when (Backcountry) got into the bike biz, I began shooting MTB. I’ve been into mountain biking for almost 20 years, but never really was shooting it much. So, I just started getting out with friends or co-workers who were good riders and got after it. I found that the better a rider was (especially in FR or DH), the better the images would be. I studied other MTB photographers and magazines and made sure that I was creating images that could hold up against the ones I liked.

What makes a good mountain bike photo?

I don’t think there’s any one thing, but I like a photo that tells a story from a different, unique perspective. From a technical standpoint, creative use of light makes a difference, sharp and well exposed is crucial most of the time, and choosing an interesting subject and location also play into it.

How does being a mountain biker yourself help you take rad shots?

Well, first of all it gives you a good grasp of what is core to the MTB experience. For example, if you are trying to appeal to a hard core rider, you can’t have an entry-level bike with reflectors in the image, so knowing the sport and what’s cool and not cool is important. I’ve been around the sport long enough and have had a chance to sample it all, from XC to DH, so I think I get it and that is for sure important if your pics are going to be authentic.

Who are your best subjects?

So far Dustin Schaad has been a great rider to work with. He’s got mad skills on a bike, rides hard and sends some pretty gnarly stuff. More importantly though is his stoke to work with the photographer to get a great shot. If there’s a feature that is really cool and worth shooting, he’ll session it over and over, no questions asked. Together we’ve nailed lots of great shots in just a few days. I’ve also gotten some good stuff with my buddy Dave Gibson, and the pro skier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa. Sage is a veteran in front of the camera as a skier, and is a strong rider as well, so he gets it.

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photograph by Tommy Chandler | riding by Dustin Schaad | Truckee, CA

How important is having the right equipment?

I think this one is relative. For sure you need a good at least a pro-sumer camera, which if you know how to use it you can create great publishable images. Good glass is really where you should invest. Pro level gear is just that – pro level. (It’s typically) more durable, weather sealed, better image quality, faster, smarter, etc. If you can afford it and are making money off the images you shoot, then by all means get the best stuff you can buy. But also realize going into debt for a D3 or 1Ds level camera is foolish if you aren’t making money off the photos you take with that camera. Something like the Canon 7D or the Nikon D300s are good starting points.

With that said I really don’t think you need super nice camera gear to make memorable images. Just a creative mind.

What are some of your most memorable photo shoots? Favorite shots?

Well, for MTB that would probably be a trip I did last summer to Truckee with Dustin. The FR trails we rode and shot were amazing and the jumps were pretty cool. I don’t have a lot of big bike experience but he made these jumps look so easy I thought I could hit them. I did go for one creek gap at the end of the day and cased it (not enough speed) but it was still fun and made me want to do it more. The next day we did an epic ride on the Tahoe Rim Trail which was for sure one of the most fun rides I’ve been on. The photos from this trip are some of my best mountain biking photos.

Favorite place to shoot?

I love shooting anywhere there is great light, cool terrain, and a model who is stoked to help me make great pictures.

Tips for aspiring MTB photographers?

Shoot a lot, find the right people to shoot with if you are hoping to get published, and edit your work ruthlessly. Take your best shots and put them side by side with some established pro’s best work and be honest with yourself about how they stand up. With that said, keep even some lesser photos and take pictures of your friends, lots of them as even if they aren’t “sellable” or whatever, you’ll be glad you have them in 30 years for your own historical record. One regret I have with my picture taking is not shooting my family and friends enough because I didn’t think they were sellable pictures. That type of stuff means so much more as a document of your life.

Oh yeah, if you wanna be a pro, make the decision and commit. The photo business is very difficult and it takes talent, drive and creativity to make it happen. I myself wonder sometimes if I have what takes but so far it’s worked for me. I never take it for granted that there will always be work for me in the photo world and i’m working hard to keep the dream alive.

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