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Man and machine: capturing the spirit <br class="br_visual" />of the TT

Man and machine: capturing the spirit
of the TT

© Duncan Kendall

July 2015

The Isle of Man TT race is a must for motorbike fans. It also proved to be a happy hunting ground for US-based photographer Duncan Kendall, as CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out...

© Duncan Kendall

Rider Cameron Donald Making way to start line on his Norton. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 44mm; the exposure was 1/1600sec at f/5.6, ISO 400.

Although Duncan Kendall loves motorbikes, the award-winning photographer is keen to point out his recent trip to the famous Isle of Man TT race was less about the thrills and spills of racing and more about the people behind the exhaust fumes. The expedition was an ambitious editorial project to capture a behind-the-scenes look at the most famous two-wheel race on earth from the perspective of those who ride the 37-mile mountain course.

With inside-the-ropes access to the guts and glamour of the TT, Kendall shot in garages, pits and motorhomes to capture the buzz of the race, rather than seeking out conventional shots of speed. As he explains, this was more reportage shot-making than an exercise in freezing moments. “You’ve probably seen pictures of motorbike riders with their front wheels off the ground; well the whole idea for us was to give people the feeling that they were actually there – to capture the feel of the event rather than just show pictures of bikers at speed. It was about the people and the brands.”

The recently launched motorbike magazine 'Esses' had gained unprecedented access to one of the most prestigious marques of motorcycle racing, Norton, which won the very first TT in 1907. To help make the most of this opportunity, Canon provided US-based Kendall with a kit bag of camera bodies, L-series lenses, flashes and triggers. “There was so much going on,” he says. “My job was to capture detail.”

With a super-sized edition of the magazine to fill with tales of the exploits of racers, crews, spectators, TT staff and island residents, the two week-long trip was a hectic schedule of impromptu photoshoots and insightful interviews. To get around the island quickly during the chaos of the TT, Kendall piggy-backed on a motorcycle which while keeping true to the ethos of the magazine and the impetus for the famous race, did impact on his kit.

“We were on motorbikes,” explains the Englishman. “So although I had a lot of camera gear, we had to make sure we didn’t have too much because we had to get it all on the bikes. We had to be mobile and get to where we needed to be, so I used a Tenba backpack. I normally use the Roadies, so this was just the backpack version which fitted all the kit in perfectly.”

The 25kg of Canon camera gear was split between two bikes as the team zipped around the island. Their efforts were only hampered by the location of their base camp 25 minutes from Douglas and the start and finish line, and the rather more insurmountable challenge of perpetual road closures to accommodate the racers and their 200mph sprints. “The logistics of the trip was one of the hardest things,” he admits.

© Duncan Kendall

Game face. On the start line with Cameron Donald and his Norton. Rider Lee Johnston (BMW/East Coast Construction) in the background. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 130mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/8, ISO 1600.

The haul on Kendall’s back included two EOS-1D X bodies, an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, which he describes as his desert-island lenses. “These are the ones I carry about pretty much all the time,” he explains. “One gives me a more all-round shot of everything and then the other is good for getting close in, for instance for a shot of the rider’s eyes.”

Along with the two full-frame bodies and his must-have lenses, Kendall also had the ultra wide-angle possibilities of the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM which features aspherical and UD lens elements, super spectra coatings and circular aperture for improved bokeh. The massive scope of the lens gave him enough wide views to incorporate the hubbub surrounding the event as well as the action itself.

“The idea wasn’t to take pictures of the winners standing next to their bikes; I wanted to pull back to give the viewers a look at the mayhem,” he explains. “The wide angle was brilliant for that and for getting in close to the detail but showing everything around it. And the quality of the image was brilliant. It was comparable to the 24-70mm. After using it myself, I now know the quality of the lens and I will be buying one soon.”

The other piece of the jigsaw was the full-frame, 18 Megapixel sensor of the EOS-1D X bodies. “The idea was to show the wider picture, and while sometimes it’s good to have that 1:6 crop because a 200mm lens becomes a 300mm, our idea was to give the reader a sense that they were right there in the action. To do that, you have to show how manic the people are around the action. We wanted to capture the mania and use the people around the subject to frame the image. That’s why the full-frame sensor really worked. If we had a cropped frame, we would have just been looking at the bike.”

The other bit of kit Kendall says he will be investing in is Canon’s radio-frequency flash trigger; the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT. Small, lightweight and portable, this controller fires flashguns over distances of up to 30m using more reliable radio frequencies which come into their own when direct line of sight isn’t guaranteed. In the crowded pit lanes and garages of the TT, Kendall says the ability to fire flashes reliably was a godsend.

“Sometimes I would get Dave the editor to hold a flashgun and move around the location, or I would have a flashgun and he would have one so we ended up with two portable light sources. I used a lot of flash but there wasn’t any chance of setting up a tripod or light stands, so we improvised,” he says. “I have an ST-E2, but the difference between the E2 and the E3 is vast. The E3 is digital so you can adjust it really easily. It’s a far superior and updated version.”

© Duncan Kendall

Rider Guy Martin being interviewed. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 168mm; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/2.8, ISO 500.

Also in the kit bag was the powerful Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT, which has a guide number 60 (m, ISO 100, at 200mm). Kendall says he is well aware of the capabilities of this versatile flash as he acquired one to replace his trusty old Speedlite 580EX II a few months earlier. He says it’s another example of the meaningful innovation at the heart of Canon’s latest kit. “It definitely seems like the updates that Canon release, like the ST-E2 to the ST-E3-RT or the 580EX II to the 600EX-RT are vast leaps on the previous versions. Sometimes companies bring out new models as marketing exercises, but these Canon models aren’t just repackaged versions of what they had before. These are serious improvements, and they are truly brilliant.”

As well as bagging enough material for the magazine, the Esses team also had been commissioned to produce a special celebratory book detailing the highs and lows of entering a team into the TT. This additional workload ensured that an already hectic schedule was made all the more demanding, and meant Kendall had to ensure his workflow and back-up routines were adhered to without fail.

“We travelled to and from the pit lane mainly because that’s where most of the action happened. We would shoot throughout the day and if possible, I would download the files as I worked but I would always make sure that all the files were downloaded at the end of each session,” he explains. “Back at our base, I would split them into files for each day; with separate files for each lens. I would edit them all in Adobe Bridge, picking out some of my favourites from the day, and then batch process in Adobe Lightroom. When I process the final versions, I’ll do them in Photoshop, but for speed and batch-processing Lightroom is much better.”

He continues: “I would upload the edit into Dropbox and send them off to the art director so he could have a look and provide me with a critical judgement. It is always good to have someone take an impassive look at your work and provide you with feedback. It also helped him build up an idea of how the book and the magazine were going to look. Everyone was involved in the process.”

© Duncan Kendall

The Norton in pre-race scrutineering. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 135mm; the exposure was 1/1200sec at f/4, ISO 400.

Kendall divulges that he has removed the CD drive from his Mac in order to have two hard drives to provide the necessary storage space needed on a trip of this nature. He bolstered that with a separate storage drive and, back in the States, he also brings along a Canon M80 that provides 80GB media storage in addition to review options. It’s all about disaster planning he says.

“It’s just making sure there’s no chance you could lose your work,” he says plainly. “If the worst case scenario happened and the house we were staying in burnt down, you wouldn’t want to be standing there watching the house burning with all your pictures inside. You have to cover yourself for every possible worst-case scenario. It’s one of the advantages of digital over film – you can have your images in many different places.”

After all the back-ups and uploads, Kendall finished the day off by cleaning up the camera gear and getting everything charged up for the next day’s shoot. It was, without doubt, a fortnight to remember, and not simply because of the photography. “We asked a fan to sum up the TT,” Kendall says wistfully, “and he said; ‘if you’re into surfing you go to Hawaii and if you’re into motorcycling you go to the Isle of Man TT’. Since I’ve been working on this magazine, I’ve been to some cool places, but this was something else.”

Duncan Kendall’s Isle of Man TT kitbag:

2x EOS-1D X

EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Speedlite 600EX-RT Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT

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Biographie: Duncan Kendall

Duncan Kendall

After working as a professional photographer in London for 14 years, Duncan Kendall now lives in Philadelphia, USA. His varied body of work includes numerous magazine covers and features as well as a considerable input into the award-winning British Army magazine Camouflage, and credits in Men’s Health magazine and the Sunday Telegraph. Kendall also has a number of corporate clients including Legal & General, which Insurance Brand Book won the 2011 UK Cream Design Award for best photography. He is a member of both the Royal Photographic Society and American Society of Media Photographers, with action and sports photography remaining an important part of what he does.


Rider Ian Hutchinson in the winners’ enclosure. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 200mm; the exposure was 1/400sec at f/6.3, ISO 800.