Almost as soon as there was a bike, there was a camera. Even as a teenager, as the miles traveled increased, the desire to record and return with something was as strong as the urge to ride itself. I was going new places and seeing new sights that just had to be remembered and shared. After the bike and the panniers, the next accessory was the handlebar bag to carry the camera. The perfect bag was found mid-tour in `75, and was purchased on the spot. I went through a handful of bikes and SLR cameras in the first 30 years, shooting thousands of slides along the way. I finally switched to mostly prints after Tyler and Justin were born. And then of course, along came digital photography to change everything.
In my riding BLT (before Linda and Tandems!), I was exploring Michigan on day trips, cross-state rides and solo tours. One of my early riding mentors was Bob Harrington, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources photographer who had started in photography with the military in WW II. Bob was a chain smoking retiree who could ride people a third his age into the ground, but mostly rode for fun and friends. It was Bob and his wife Emily that introduced me to tandem touring. He also shared at least two of his “secrets” of good pictures; take lots of them, and never bring home film. I took this advice to heart, hence the thousands of slides. The summer that Linda and I met, we did our first weekend tour together on a ride led by Bob and Em. Bob’s picture of Linda and I, relaxing in some grassy shade, is in our living room to this day.
A few years later Linda and I were married and preparing for our first tandem tour, a week riding across Missouri. Even as we shaved ounces, my SLR and a spare lens were in the handlebar bag. A half dozen rolls of film, and Kodak mailers were already stuffed in the panniers as we tried to find room for clothing, camping gear and food. My goal was a roll a day, 36 slides, dropped off in the mail as soon as the roll was finished. Most days I made it, but some days I missed due to weather, or the exertion of riding. That first tour started in southeast Missouri, and the first three days were grueling rolling hills in road-softening heat. We would go from spinning out the 108” top end to grinding a 24” granny in a hundred yards 5 or 6 times an hour. Linda took one picture that captured all of this with the hills rolling on ahead of for miles, as I grimly held the tandem and prepared for the next stretch of road.
We rode six more week or longer tandem tours (and countless weekends) during the `80s. Our trips included much of both Michigan peninsulas, the length of the Wabash River in Indiana to the Ohio River, the coast and deserts of southern California, New England, and the Canadian Rockies. The roll of film a day became slide shows we shared with family, friends and bike clubs. We would include landscapes, landmarks, and curiosities we found along the way. We told the story of our life on the road, from setting camp, to cooking, to eating, changing a tire or resting in the shade. Along the way, finding a mail drop for each completed roll was part of the daily ritual. Upon returning home, some of those finished slides would be waiting in our mailbox, and they would continue to arrive over the days that followed. We never lost a roll in the mail, and had very few lost shots or disappointments, except from our Canadian trip. The contrast of snow and rock, Sun and shadow were outside my realm of experience at the time.
I took the majority of the pictures, but we soon learned that we had to hand the camera to Linda, or a passing stranger, to prove to people I was on the trip and we were together. I also had a mini tripod, but we never had a flash until my last film SLR. I used a pair of lenses (ultra-wide angle and medium telephoto) until Linda drew the line and demanded I purchase a single lens (a medium zoom) to leave room for warm clothes in the Rockies (a good call). Sometimes Linda would take pictures while we rode, and we became adept at a rolling camera hand-off. Many pictures were during quick stops, standing over the bike, and few times we even turned back, or I walked back for a special scene. Linda was usually very patient, up until the extra effort of riding with both boys began to curtail the luxury of stopping for that “just-so” scenic landscape.
That perfect handlebar bag was from Eclipse (a brand now long gone) and it was the first and best of the suspended and tensioned bag designs. Eclipse was among a handful of companies in the `70s that developed lightweight bike gear using backpacking technology. Prior to that, all that was available were leather and canvas touring gear from Europe and Great Britain. The opening of the Eclipse bags faced the rider for easy access, and the hanging nylon “sling” protected the camera from vibration. I am on my third Eclipse Pro bag now, found in like new condition at a 2006 swap meet. With STI cable routings, handlebar bags are seldom used today, but they remain the best way to keep a camera at the ready and protected while riding.
As I mentioned, riding with kids changed the focus, and my roll a day shooting pace slowed. With 20-month old Tyler riding in a Burley trailer, we tandemed a week-long trip around Puget Sound. That was the last major trip where I shot Kodachrome slide film. From then on, it was print film for the boys’ scrapbooks and to economize. With less touring, there were fewer scenic shots, and more emphasis on family pictures. But this began to change with our first digital camera, a simple Canon Elph purchased 2003.
The Elph was the smallest camera I had used since my childhood Kodak Instamatic, and it left LOTS of room in the handlebar bag. Film was no longer an issue, and memory cards and battery life were the only constraint. Since I was primarily shooting family shots, and still bringing along the SLR for “serious” stuff, it began to get more and more use. The moment of truth came at the start of our weeklong Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure (GOBA) tour in 2006. My film SLR was packed and made the trip to Ohio, but it never left the van. I didn’t quite shoot a “roll” a day, and it lacked the focal length I needed for a few scenic shots. But we came home with over 100 pictures, and we had a TV slide show the evening we returned.
Early on, you had to have a PC to really do digital photography, but today any place you used to drop film can print your pictures or burn them to a CD/DVD. I am a Mac user, and Apple’s iPhoto software remains one of the simplest ways of managing a digital photo collection, including creating slide shows for playback from DVD. iPhoto also supports easy photo emailing and online print ordering. Best of all, it provides a number of excellent back-up options, and having a back-up plan is the most critical issue in digital photography. Please be sure to regularly burn CDs or DVDs of your pictures to insure you have back-ups. If you don’t print it and don’t backup, your pictures could be gone forever in the blink of an eye.
My current camera is a Canon PowerShot S3 with a 10x optical zoom and digital viewfinder. It looks like a small SLR, and has been a perfect compromise in feel, size and capability. The camera, memory cards and batteries for over a 3,000 pictures take up less space than my old SLR by itself. (For fast and light rides, I now have simple Nikon CoolPix that will fit in a jersey pocket or clip onto a CamelBak.) It has been fun getting back into the swing of shooting lots of pictures. And what about all those thousands of slides? With a recently acquired slide scanner, I am slowly converting those old trip shows into DVDs. And with some image editing tools, I may even be able to fix up our Canadian Rockies slides that were so disappointing.
I am still that kid at heart, on a bike with a camera, looking for new places and sites that have to be remembered and shared. It always been that urge to yell out “Hey! Look at what we saw! Look where we went!” Over time the tools have changed, but the message remains the same: Once you see these pictures, you will want to ride too.