Having traveled internationally for years in search of compelling imagery, I sometimes feel like there aren’t many unique events left to cover in my own backyard. That’s obviously not the case, as the world (even my small corner of it) is filled with undiscovered wonders. This reassuring fact was driven home recently when a friend invited me to take photos at a nearby bike race with him. This, however, was no ordinary bike race.
During the annual National Clustered Spires High Wheel Race, a bevy of international competitors speeds through the streets of historic Frederick, Maryland, atop massive high wheelers. These tall, lopsided bikes are modernized versions of the archaic penny-farthing, a 19th-century Victorian-era pedal bicycle. Unlike modern bikes, which use chain-driven gear trains to power two similar-sized wheels, the high wheeler is directly driven by pedal force applied to the hub of the giant front wheel. The much smaller back wheel serves to provide (modest) stability.
The Clustered Spires event is the only race of its kind in the United States and draws a diverse crowd of high wheel enthusiasts and curious spectators. Fortunately for me, there was plenty of space along the race route to stop and take photos. For this assignment, I lugged out my Mamiya 645 1000S and four manual-focus Mamiya Sekor-C prime lenses. I wanted to test out some action shots on 120 format film and brought along five different rolls for the day.
Because the weather forecast called for cloudy skies with sporadic rain showers, I opted to shoot a selection of faster films including CineStill BwXX (aka Kodak Double-X 5222) and 800T (, Kodak Gold 200 and Portra 400, and Fuji Pro 400H. I wish I would have metered the BWxX a stop faster because its rated speed of 250 was a bit too slow to shoot handheld in the overcast conditions early in the day. This led to slower shutter speeds, and gloomier monochrome images than I would have preferred. Fortunately, the sun began to peek through the clouds as the race progressed, providing better light for the remaining color negative shots.
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My favorite series of shots came from the roll of Kodak Portra 400, which I accidentally overexposed a full stop when I forgot to adjust the meter settings after shooting a roll of Kodak Gold 200. Most Portra shooters know that this incredibly versatile emulsion laughs off even multiple stops of overexposure, so I wasn’t worried when I discovered the mistake halfway through the roll. The slower speed rating forced me to shoot mostly at 1/60th and slower. In order to capture more than colorful blurs at these shutter speeds, I panned with the movement of the bikers and ended up with some solid race action.
All shots were developed at box speed by my favorite lab, and I scanned the negatives myself. I felt like the motion scenes deserved a more cinematic framing, and thus cropped most images to 16:9 in Lightroom. Feel free to check out the rest of my results from the high wheel race on Lomography.
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Very cool event. I bet it was fun to shoot. I love the shots you took that convey the action and movement of the cyclists. Were you able to use all 4 of the lenses you bought along for your Mamiya 645? Was there a lens you used most? Personally I have a Mamiya 645 1000s with 55-110mm f/4.5 N zoom, 80mm f/2.8 Sekor C, and 150mm f/3.5 N lenses. I wonder if having something like the 210mm f/4 or 300mm f/5.6 would be worth it. Do you use that long lens terribly often?
There is a contingent of Ordinary Bicycle (aka penny farthing) fans in a town near me in New Zealand. These people are all crazy!!! No different to shooting them on medium format film I guess – I always take my Ikoflex whenever I go there! Great shots!!!
Great shots of a cool event!! I really enjoyed reading this and seeing the photos.
Are all of the riders male?
No. There were a couple of women participating as well.
No. There We’re a couple of female participants as well.