Podium Café: Technical geekery first: what's in your camera bag at a typical race?
Balint Hamvas: I've experimented with different setups in the past few years and by trial and error, I've arrived at my perfect kit for shooting cross. I've got on me two Canon 1D MkII bodies, a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L and a Canon 28mm f/1.8 lens, plus two Canon 600EX-RT flashes with Manfrotto clamps and a ST-E3 radio controller. Plus spare batteries and small bottle of water.
PdC: Do you still use film at all, or are you totally digital?
BH: Film wouldn't be feasible anymore, I have to turn images around in just a few hours, plus the cost would be prohibitive.
However, every now and again I like to play with disposable cameras. They are good fun and once you're done with the roll, you have this sense of anticipation, that you have no idea what there is on that roll. That is very exciting, something you lose with digital.
PdC: Photography is painting with light - how difficult is it painting with the winter light of northern Europe?
BH: While sunny weather is great on a personal level, as I don't get wet and cold, ugly weather helps a lot to add drama to the photos. The races are very intense and very difficult for the riders and it's easier to show that when it's chucking it down and the wind almost blows the riders off the course.
Simply, bad weather works better for 'cross.
PdC: What would be your typical routine on race day? Do you walk the course in advance scouting out places to shoot from, or is it best to wait for the race to start and walk the circuit then?
BH: I try to get there as early as possible and I normally use the junior and U23 races to find good spots. One thing that you always need to bear in mind is that if something looks great during the juniors' race, it might look very different during the elite men's race: a certain angle might be blocked, it's more difficult to get there, etc.
Another thing that can be tricky is to let go of an angle or an idea. Sometimes I think I have this brilliant angle but, say, I got there too late in lap three. So I set things up for lap four. But then, for some reason, I'm not happy with those pictures and I stay for another lap. This time things look a lot better, but the flash missed rider X, so I need to stay there for another lap. And that's just a lot of time wasted. They normally do eight-to-ten laps, so standing at the same place for three laps is just stupid. Still, every now and again I fall for this mistake and find it hard to let go of that really awesome angle or idea.
PdC: Some of the courses don't change much year to year - is that a bit of a mixed blessing, you're familiar with the circuit from previous visits but pressed harder to look for new places to shoot from?
BH: Finding new angles can be tricky sometimes, but that's the fun part. The problem is when you need to balance clients' needs and your ambitions.
At courses, where there is an iconic section, like the cobbled climb at Koppenberg or the long, sandy stretch at Koksijde, it's very hard to find new angles and you can't really leave these bits out as clients need them.
But I painstakingly try to avoid taking photos from the same angles or positions.
PdC: What's your favourite course to cover?
BH: Asper-Gavere, Overijse and maybe Roubaix.
PdC: Dare I ask for your least favourite, or would you be running the risk of losing your photographer's accreditation if the organisers found out?
BH: I can list a number of races but then you never know. Hamme-Zogge is not an inspiring race course, it's one of those courses, which offer nothing but flat and muddy fields. It didn't used to be my favourite race. But then this year, there was a lot of mud and the sunshine created such wonderful light that I loved every moment of that race.
So you never know and courses can always surprise you and that is what I love about my job.
PdC: You've ridden 'cross yourself - do you sometimes wish you could swap your camera for a bike, or are you happy to stay mud free on race days now?
BH: Nah, I'm a shit cyclist. I mean I enjoy riding immensely but 'cross is so hard and if you haven't got the backup, bike cleaning can be tedious, so no, I'm not jealous at all. I stick to warm sportives during the summer.
PdC: The fans are important for all aspects of the sport of cycling, but would you say there is more engagement from 'cross fans, that as international as the scene is - taking you from Belgium to the Czech Republic to the United States to Italy - it's still very much a local, community-based part of the sport?
BH: Cyclocross, and cycling in general, is a blue-collar sport in Continental Europe, whilst it's more a white-collar sport in the UK and the US. For me, the biggest difference between the international and Belgian crowds were that the Belgians do the crazy cheering only for the top fifteen riders, especially Sven Nys, while crowds abroad cheer on most riders, which is nicer.
PdC: Cyclocross 2013/2014 - how's the season stacking up so far?
BH: I think it's been a terrific season so far. Though the last few weeks have certainly been dominated by Niels Albert and Sven Nys, the beginning of the season showed a lot more variety in terms of winners than previous seasons and that's definitely a good thing.
Also, a more diverse pool of winners might prepare the sport better for Sven Nys' not too distant retirement.
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Balint Hamvas is the author of Cyclocross 2011/2012 and Cyclocross 2012/2013 both published by CyclePhotos
Our thanks to Balint Hamvas for taking the time to participate in this interview.