I have enjoyed shooting the Racers Guild Winter Cup Series downhill races at Stile Cop this winter, it is good to see grassroots downhill thriving in the Midlands. This is just a quick post to share a few of my favourite images from the final round in February. Somehow the Racers Guild managed to arrange for good weather, which has been rare so far this winter. I got to Stile Cop during the practice session, so took the opportunity to shoot something a bit different to my usual race images. I used my little Fuji X100V camera to do some slow-shutter-speed panning shots. I really should have put a wider lens onto my main camera, but it was a nice change to use the little camera for some action photography. I managed to get a few good shots, but the one above, of Fletcher Gallagher, was my favourite. Especially after I had converted it to black and white. I feel like it captures the speed and madness of downhill racing.
For the first race runs, I chose a rooty section, which seemed to be where most of the riders were gathering after their runs, it was a great atmosphere, but the light was not ideal for photography.
When there was a gap i the racing, after a crash, I walked up the track to a better view point and stayed there for the rest of the race.
I have thoroughly enjoyed shooting the winter cup series, and am already looking forward to the next races planned at Stile Cop.
As a fortieth birthday present to myself I upgraded my trusty Fujinon XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 lens to the New Lens: Fujinon XF 50-140mm F2.8 – Fuji’s equivalent of a 70-200mm f2.8 lens, aka the standard sports photography lens. It is a bump up from a good consumer grade lens to pro grade lens, albeit with less reach. The new lens had been on my radar for a while, but it was only when testing the Fuji X-H2S camera body that I decided I should prioritise a lens upgrade. I had planned to call in at my local camera shop, LCE in Leamnington Spa, and buy the lens on my birthday, but got a good Black Friday deal from LCE online, the week before, so got it a bit early.
With everything else going on, I did not get much of a chance to test the lens, only a few walks in the local woods, but managed to get to the second round of the Racers Guild Winter Series at Cannock Chase to put the lens through its paces.
Mountain biking in December in the UK is cold, wet and muddy, an added complication is that it also gets dark mid afternoon, which is not great for photography. Driving up to Cannock Chase it the weather was not too cold, but it was the heaviest rain I have driven through in my MR2 Roadster for a long time. It was still raining heavily when I parked up, so I waited until it had stopped, before getting out of the car, donning my waterproofs and heading to the track. As I was late getting to the track the best angles had already been claimed by other photographers, so I was somewhat restricted in where I could shoot from. I also did not want to walk too far down the track, as I knew I would have to make a quick exist due to other commitments later in the afternoon.
As the riders came down for their first timed runs, I lined up a shot to catch them splashing through a puddle, which worked a bit too well, both the camera and I got splashed with muddy water – what a way to christen a new lens. Fortunately it is weather sealed. As the afternoon drew on the light got darker – I was definitely glad of the extra light from the wider aperture of new lens, I would have really struggled to shoot this race with my old XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8
The other area where I noticed an improvement was the autofocus. I do not know if it was the extra light getting to the sensor, or the faster focus motors, or maybe both, but the autofocus felt like it was on a par with the X-H2s and XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 combination I used at the first round of the winter series. Athough this was only one race, so I need to shoot some more to get a better feel for it.
The last rider down the hill got the biggest cheers – Santa Claus going the extra mile to test the 2023 crop of kids bikes!
When I switched camera systems to Fuji back in 2018 I thought that my sports photography days were in the past. However, I really enjoyed photographing the British Downhill Series at Llangollen last year, and a few other mountain bike races since. The only problem was that I felt I was being held back by the autofocus on my Fuji X-T2. When Fuji launched the X-H2S camera with a stacked 26 Megapixel sensor and improved autofocus my interest was piqued. Especially as they announced it with a mountain bike video! I did have some reservations, as the camera was aimed at hybrid (stills and video) shooters and hoped that Fuji would have carried over the new technology to the next X-T camera aimed at photographers. Instead, they went for a higher resolution, 40 Megapixel, sensor. My ideal camera would have been the sensor from the X-H2S, in the body of the X-T5, but sadly Fuji have not made that (yet!), so I have to choose between the high resolution stills model, or the fast hybrid camera. Luckily Fuji UK free 48 hour test drives, so I would be able to try both options. I decided to test the X-H2S first and booked the loan in to coincide with the first round of the Racers Guild Winter Series Downhill race at Cannock Chase.
My first reaction on unpacking the camera was that it is a chonky beast – I had not appreciated how much bigger it would be than my X-T2. After failing to attach the supplied strap, I threw on some Peak Design tethers, so I could use my Peak Design Slide strap. The strap lugs on the X-H2S are much better than on the X-T bodies which require metal rings between the camera and strap (or anchor in my case), it is only a minor point, but one that made me warm to the X-H2S. On my lunch break, I quickly dialled in some settings, and went for a walk in my local woods, to try and test the autofocus on some squirrels. I did not have much time, nor were the squirrels cooperating, but I did get a glimpse of what the subject detect autofocus was like. However the first real test was in the evening when Owen was at his karate dojo – Henry and I went to a nearby park. Henry was typically reluctant for photos, but I managed to grab a few shots with my 35mm f1.4 prime lens fitted to the X-H2S. This lens is known to be slow to focus, so I could not come to any conclsions about that, but chasing Henry around the play ground was a good test for the handling of the camera – such as quickly switching to a slow shutter speed for the photo on the roundabout. Upon getting the files in to Lightroom I really liked the Nostalgic Negative film simulation, which is not available on my previous generation Fuji cameras.
The race was on Sunday, but we also had a fun plan for the Saturday – Owen and I were going on a boys mountain bike trip with my friend Partho. The original plan had been a trip to one of the “top ten XC trails” with Partho, which was one of my goals for the year. However, Owen needed to come with us, so it changed to a boys trip to the Forest of Dean to keep the driving time down. Then we realised that there was a big event on there, and plan C formed – a return visit to Sherwood Pines for Owen to try and meet his goal of a 20km bike ride.
We rode the full length of the red-graded “Outlaw” trail, which was not quite long enough for Owen to meet his goal, so we added on another short loop, starting on the blue-graded “Maid Marian” trail, then rejoining the last few sections on the “Outlaw” trail. Before heading out for the second loop, I swapped my hydration pack for my camera bag, to get some shots of Owen and Partho on a new section of the blue trail. I chose a berm, with good lighting, set the X-H2S to 15 frames per second high speed shutter, activated the “bicycle” AI focus mode and called for Owen, and then Partho to drop in. I felt like I got good shots of them both railing the berm, then quickly packed up my bag and chased them down the trail. It felt great to be riding at my pace on a fun section of trail, even if I had a heavy camera bag on my back. As I caught up with the others Partho even managed to get a photo of me airborne over a jump.
We completed the loop, and celebrated Owen achieving his goal with some lovely brownies that Partho had brought with him. The excitement only lasted until we were back at home and I had downloaded the images to Lightroom: none of the eleven frames of Owen were sharp, and only one out of seven of Partho were sharp – the one above. The shutter speed, 1/500th of a second, should have been fast enough, so it could only have been missed focus. Disappointing when I had such high expectations for the autofocus on the X-H2S.
Not feeling fully convinced with the autofocus on the X-H2S, I decided to also take my X-T2 with me to Cannock Chase, just in case it was needed (thankfully, it wasn’t). After walking down the track I found a good corner to shoot from, but again, the AI autofocus was struggling, so I started going back up the track to try a few more angles. For the last few runs of practice I was shooting head on, as the riders came down a long chute – and the AI autofocus was working well. It seemed that it needed to see the rider for a bit before tracking then – maybe this is something that I could have tweaked in the advanced settings, but would need more time with the camera to be sure. Another option would have been to disable the subject detection autofocus and to just use a single focus point, like I would have done on the X-T2, but in the heat of the moment I did not consider that option.
Now knowing how to play to the camera’s strengths, I stayed at the bottom of the chute for the first race runs. The photos were nicely in focus, and I had been able to get a shot of most of the riders. However, they were not what I was hoping for, they were lacking in dynamism, execept for the riders that were jumping.
For the second race, I went back to the first corner I had scoped out. I had come up with a plan to work around the autofocus limitations I had experienced earlier – I would switch the camera to manual focus (I missed the SCM focus switch from the more traditional Fujis) and pre-focus on the exit of the corner. The 15 frames per second burst mode would allow me to pick the sharpest frame. As well as being better for photography, there was more of a party atmosphere at this corner, as it was towards the end of the track, next to the biggest drop. Riders were finishing their runs and gathering around this area to watch the faster racers coming down on their runs. Once again I was reminded just how fun it is to watch mountain bike racing in person, even at a grassroots level, the fact that I was able to photograph it was the icing on the cake!
When I got home, I had some issues importing the files to Lightroom, I do not know if this was a hardware or software issue on my MacBook Pro, or anything to do with the Cfexpress Type B card used in the X-H2s. I tired importing both from the card reader Fuji had sent with the camera, and by connecting the camera directly by USB, but both had issues. It is something that I would need to investigate more in the future, but I would not rule out the camera based on this. As I understand it, the Cfexpress Type B card is part of the reason that then camera is so fast in use, but I thought that it was worth noting the import issues. Otherwise, I was happy with the image quality, it is the quality I would expect from a Fuji X camera.
My preconceptions of the X-H2S were that I would love the autofocus, but hate the handling, I was wrong on both counts. I was underwhelmed by the autofocus, although I expect that with more time, tweaking of the settings and learning how to work with the camera I would be happier with it. Experienced camera reviewers believe that the autofocus on this model is pretty much on a par with Canon and Sony’s high end cameras, so will have to trust them on that. After initially thinking that the camera was huge, I grew to appreciate the size and handling – I even managed to forget to take a camera strap with me to the bike race, so held the camera all day – I am not sure that would have been as doable with my X-T2, which is a much smaller body. I was shooting in shutter priority mode all weekend, but adapted to the different “PASM” controls easily – I thought this would be a deal breaker for me, but I think I could manage.
Although I am yet to try the X-T5, the X-H2 has overtaken it and is now top of my wish list for my next camera. However the reason I use wish list is that there is a big price jump from the X-T5, especially when you consider the need for a Cfexpress Type B card and that there is no “kit” package with the 16-80f4 lens available for the X-H2S. However, my main takeaway from the weekend is that I probably need to prioritise a new telephoto lens, rather than a new camera body. When I bought my Fuji 55-200mm lens I liked the compact size and versatility, but after a few years I am coming into its limitations – the autofocus could be better and I either use it at the wider end or maxed out at 200mm for wildlife, where it is not really long enough. So an upgrade to the Fuji 50-140mm f2.8 lens is in order, and my aspirations for wildlife photography will have to be put on hold. 50-140mm is the Fuji equivalent of the 70-200mm lens that I used on Canon for many years and is the go to focal length for sports photography. So even though my expectations for the weekend went out of the window, I still feel like I have come out of it with some clarity on what camera kit I will purchase next.
I could not make that angle work, partly because I was lower than the riders coming through, and the wide-angle lens on my Fuji X-T2 was struggling to focus. During a break in the racing, I crossed the track, found a better viewpoint above a switchback corner, switched to my telephoto lens and was getting some better images.
I then noticed a better position to shoot the jump I had started at, so walked down the track to that. The angles didn’t quite work for the jump, but I could get a nice clean shot of the riders coming down the chute after the jump, so stuck there until the end of the first runs. The weather was overcast, which was both a blessing and a curse, it meant that there were no strange shadows to deal with, but also that it was pretty dark in the trees. With lots of riders coming straight towards me, I took the opportunity to experiment with some of the different focus modes on my camera but came to the conclusion that placing the smallest focus point where I wanted the rider’s face to be in the frame, then tracking them was getting better results than any of the more “intelligent” focus modes. This is the method I have been using since my motorsport photography days (fifteen years ago!), however, I would like to try the new bicycle tracking mode on the latest Fuji cameras though.
After lunch it seemed like everybody went back up to the top of the hill, so I joined them. This was a bit of a rookie error – as I was the only photographer to do this. All the others seemed to have shot the first race runs from the bottom of the hill, and then come up the hill and got themselves set up with good viewpoints for the second runs. I considered going to the bottom of the hill, but took the lazy option and returned to the switchback I had shot earlier in the day. Lesson learned for next time though!
Concentrating on one corner was a good exercise in getting the best angle and in the end I managed to settle on a “BOGOF” angle – capturing a full rider shot exiting the previous corner (photo above) and then a much tighter image of the rider going through the corner in front of me (photo at the top of this post). I would not normally go for such tightly cropped action images, but I liked how I was able to capture the rider’s expression, even behind a full-face helmet and goggles.
Even though it was “only” a local race, the standard of riding was high – the elite riders looked particularly fast, pedalling everywhere they could, rather than solely relying on gravity. There was also a surprisingly big crowd which meant there was a good atmosphere. Racers Guild has another race at Stile Cop planned for the autumn and I hope I can go because it was a great day out!
When we got to Cannock Chase, the weather was cold but sunny, and thankfully, not raining. I still opted to wear a waterproof jacket though. It has been a while since Owen last rode his bike, I think it was our trip to Llandegla, and his kit is starting to look small on him (again). We rode the first five sections of the blue-graded Perry’s Trail, which Owen has ridden loads and enjoys, before diverting away from the blue-graded trail and riding up the fire road to pick up the red-graded Follow the Dog trail, which Owen had not yet ridden. In fact, he was yet to ride any red-graded trails.
Owen was cautious through the first section, the newly resurfaced “Bombhole”, walking down the first rockgarden, but I would rather he be cautious, rather than sending it off everything. However, after that he started to find his groove and began to enjoy the trail. After a short stop at the Marquis Drive playground where it seemed that small boys have a separate energy store for running around a playground after declaring they are too tired to pedal, we crossed the road to Takeroo and the boys enjoyed messing around in the bomb hole section, seeing to could make the biggest splash through puddles. I had been expecting the “Son of Chainslapper” section to be closed, as it is next on the list for the Forestry England contractors to work on – but it was still open, and Owen flew down it! The Takeroo side of the road seemed much wetter than the main side, with some particularly big puddles – especially for Owen on his 20″ wheeled Orbea. “Snow White”, “The Seven Dwarves” and “Let Loose” are some of the most technical trails that Owen has ever ridden, especially in the wet, but he made some good line choices and gathered things up on the few occasions when he unexpectedly pinged off a rock etc. As we rode through the last few sections of the trail: “Are we nearly there yet?” and “Snakes and Adders”, which are smoother and more in his comfort zone he seemed to be particularly enjoying himself and keeping a good pace.
At the end of “Snakes and Adders”, I asked if wanted to repeat the last section, and was surprised when he declined – but only because he wanted to do a full lap of Perry’s Trail, then hit the skills area instead. I have no idea where he gets the energy from! I was not going to deny him the opportunity to ride another lap, especially as it had turned into a lovely sunny evening, so we set off for another lap of Perry’s Trail. Owen was definitely in his element back on familiar trails. I am sure it was our fastest lap together – although my Apple Watch had run out of battery so I do not have an accurate time for the full loop (and why I have embedded two Strava files below). Owen managed to stay awake for the drive back to Coventry, but I could tell he was tired – he was not chattering away like he usually does, but it was a good tired as it had been a great day together!
At the end each term, Henry’s nursery set him (us) homework, to share a few photographs of what he has been up to over the holiday. Owen also had this homework when he was at nursery, but I did not think to share the photos on my blog. As it is a nice recap, I have decided to share them.
One of my goals for 2023 is to get out for more bike rides with Partho – we are aiming for at least one a month. Yesterday we got out for another ride at Cannock Chase, and it could not have been any different to the wet and muddy ride we did there last month. The sun was out and the trails were unseasonably dry – we had a great time!
Rather than pushing ourselves to do the full Monkey Trail red-graded loop, we cherry-picked some of our favourite sections and hit them a few times – including Lower Cliff. On our second run down we both got caught by a faster rider, so when I pulled over to let him pass I grabbed my phone from my pocket and captured this photo of Partho on the way down – his smile sums up what a fun ride we had!
Yesterday was the Little Rippers Christmas Ride at Cannock Chase, and also my birthday. I love riding with the Little Rippers crew, so that was my birthday plans sorted! And after a tasty breakfast, we loaded up the van and set off for Cannock Chase.
The rain just about held off for the ride, but it was cold, so I was surprised to see such a good turnout. Henry seemed excited to ride with the group, but realistically the planned route would be too difficult for him, so he went for a more leisurely ride with Jen. Owen and I went on the group ride, although at the start the kids set off together and I barely saw Owen for the whole ride, just catching the occasional glimpse of him in the distance. We rode Perry’s Trail, which Owen knows well, so I was happy for him to head off with his friends, and I enjoyed a leisurely ride at the back of the group with the other parents.
After the ride, we all gathered near the car park, ramps were set up for the kids (and some bigger kids) to jump, which gave me a chance to catch up with friends I had not seen for a while, and got a ribbing for being old.
Jen and Henry joined us, and Hen even had a go at hitting the ramps. As Henry seemed happier riding with me and Owen, so we rode up to the “Pedal and Play” trail. Henry enjoyed followed Owen around, and looked so pleased with himself when he managed to sneak ahead of him. He coped really well, considering it was his first time at Cannock Chase on his pedal bike. He hit his first rockgardens, although he was disapointed that the bell at the end of the trail has been removed. Unfortunately the fun came to an end when Henry’s front wheel slipped on a wet wooden skinny and he went down fairly hard. He was OK though, other than the shock and a small nosebleed, so we rejoined the group. The boys were given goodie bags, which was a great surprise. We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the fire at home.
Hopefully, next year Henry will be able to ride “Perry’s Trail” and Owen will be able to ride the red-graded “Follow the Dog” trail, although after having a season pass for Cannock Chase in 2022, we will make more of an effort to visit other trail centres in 2023.
At the end each term, Henry’s nursery set him (us) homework, to share a few photographs of what he has been up to over the holiday. Owen also had this homework when he was at nursery, but I did not think to share the photos on my blog. As it is a nice recap, I have decided to start sharing them.
On my last Friday “Daddy day” between finishing my old job and starting at the new one, Henry and I went to Cannock Chase. It was meant to be a Little Rippers Meet, but that did not quite work out. I thought that Henry would really enjoy the new play trail, but he had his own agenda. I did get him to do a few laps of the “Butterly loop”, including riding this skinny. Technically, the photo is not great, but I like his expression.
On New Year’s Day I took the boys for a welly walk in our local woods – it was so muddy, but we needed to get out of the house. Henry likes posing in this tree.
Henry enjoyed sitting at Jen’s piano, he would play us a tune (well, some random notes) and sing along. He is really starting to show what his particular interests are. Hopefully the piano/music is something that he will continue with.
Henry and I had a few rides out in my MR2 Roadster, he seems to be turning into a right little petrolhead at the moment and made a few requests to “go in the sportscar” and who was I to argue?
Today I had a great bike ride at Cannock Chase, with my school fields Ali and Partho. After a similar ride at Hicks Lodge last year I hope this is going to become a tradition! As you can see from the photo, we had pretty decent weather for December, unlike last year, which was cold, wet and horrible. The last few weeks have also been cold, wet and horrible, so I dressed for that and ended too warm. Having received a winter jersey (from Partho) and some winter gloves (from my brother) for my birthday I was keen to try out my new kit – both are going to be good for riding through the rest of the winter.
We only had a few hours, so rode the first four sections of the blue graded “Perry’s Trail”, before switching to “Follow The Dog”, a red graded trail, at the bottom of “Cardiac Hill”. The last time I rode “Follow The Dog” with Ali, “Cardiac Hill” almost lived up to its name – but this time Ali made it all of the way to the top without any drama! Partho was also riding well and is definitely getting fast on the downhills, whilst still being faster than me uphill. I was also happy with my riding, the shorter loop than usual meant that my legs felt fresher so I could focus on technique, especially towards the end of the trail.
Cannock Chase is my local trail centre, but since “Perry’s Trail” opened earlier this year, I have been riding there more than ever, both with and without the kids. They have now also got a “bike play” trail, which will be perfect for Henry as he learns to ride his pedal bike next year.