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Top Tour de France photographer reveals the secret to shooting the greatest race


COLMAR, France — Cycling is one of the most beautiful and photogenic sports, and its greatest race is the Tour de France.

The Belgian photographer Kristof Ramon is one of the most accomplished shooters on the Tour. His images are lush and dreamlike and capture cycling’s most intimate moments in a way few others have.

When he’s not making pictures for some of the top teams in the race, Ramon is building his trove of indelible images.

Ramon spoke with Business Insider about his work, the business of shooting the Tour, and overcoming imposter syndrome.

Daniel McMahon: Your photos show more than race action. They tell stories.

Kristof Ramon: Some people think I’m a sports photographer, but I’m not. I’m simply a cycling photographer, which is not a sports photographer. I want to tell the story of cycling and what happens in and around cycling. If you focus on a sport, don’t just think the story is always in the action or in the game. What’s next to the game? Who are the players? What do they do in their time off? That is more important. It’s the thing I try to focus on more and more.

If I look back at the pictures that appeal to me most of all, they are pictures of Eddy Merckx lying in bed in the Giro d’Italia with his trainers on and sort of crying. Those images. If you can be the photographer at moments like that, it would be amazing.

McMahon: What advice would you give aspiring photographers?

Ramon: Show up. People tell me, “I want to be a cycling photographer.” I look at their stuff, and I say, “OK, you did this race and that race, but there are so many more races.” You’ve got to show up. Be there. Be part of it. Dig in. Be a fanatic.

In whatever kind of photography you choose, profile yourself as that kind of photographer. I don’t mean just be a sports photographer. Be the football fanatic, be the tennis fanatic, so that you get to know the world working and become someone in that world.

It’s much better to be the king of a little niche than to be a nobody generally. Work hard.

In the beginning you go through the lower ranks and move your way up, build a portfolio, build a following. Dig in and pay your dues. And let it grow naturally. Don’t force yourself in, because then people are like, nahhhh. You’ve got to evolve into it naturally. And by doing that, if I look back to those pictures of Merckx lying in bed, it’s the storytelling.

I see some photographers, and they are sports-news photographers, so they’re on the moto all the time, and that’s the only thing they bring, finish-line photos, this and that. Their clients are newspapers and websites who want it all fast, and they sort of cut out what they want, as long as it’s in focus. Because they’re going to cut it all out anyway and put it on the front page or the sports page.

If that’s what you want to do, you’re in trouble, because whoever wants your pictures just wants it to be that and wants to pay as little as possible. You’re cooked whenever you’re into that game. But if you can make it your own style, choose your clients, and be more about storytelling, then you control the game.

Then clients come to you, and you’re the one controlling the price, instead of the agents or the clients dictating. You say, “No, this is the price.” And that works if you build your own style and your own storytelling. You’re in charge.

McMahon: Is that why you started your own company?

Ramon: Yes, and it’s why I don’t work for big agencies, because I want to control what I want to do, boutique small. I’d rather be a boutique than a big thing, because if you’re a big thing then you have to go low on price. If you’re a boutique, clients want this specific thing you do. If you’re in that game, it makes life much easier.

It’s not just easier commercially, but even on the level of the teams I work with, who allow me to do something more. If a news photographer would come in for a day and try to follow them … I mean, I build relationships with the crew, with the riders, with everybody around. They know I’m someone they can trust. There’s years of trust. I’ll be on a bus where eight guys are naked, and they’re comfortable and trust me that I don’t do something indecent. They’re comfortable with me being there with a camera. And that’s not something you can expect from somebody walking up on the day, because they don’t know who he is. Build trust.

McMahon: What about technique? Is it so important, or is it all about the eye?

Ramon: There is no one without the other. You can be charming and good socially, which will really help you, but if your technical game is not up to par, then after a while — you still have to draw in clients to make it sustainable. I almost never give out technical tips, because it’s basic stuff. If you want to play this game, you need to know that. The only way to get there is to practice, practice, practice.

I went to film school, which is my storytelling background. With the purely technical stuff, just learn it, practice it, repeat it, and be critical. I’ve seen people praising themselves like, “This is a great shot.” And I look at it, and I’m like, no. Is it publishable? Will it sell? No. I mean, I’m very critical with myself. You know, for a long time I had this impostor syndrome, like, “When are they gonna catch me?” Then I realized that a lot of people around me were even worse. [Laughs.] I took confidence from that.

McMahon: Fake it till you make it.

Ramon: Yes, fake it till you make it is a good one, but be aware that you have the technical skills, that you have what it takes, and be better, either technically or in storytelling. Or both, preferably. And if you have social skills to communicate well and to make good connections with people, for sure you can make it.

An easy technical one for me is composition. There’s technique, but then there’s composition, style, and cultural heritage that you sort of picked up along the way. You’ve got to let it sift through and let it be your work, your voice, your preference. That’s what editors are interested in. Learn how to compose a picture, because that’s also part of storytelling.

Something Steve Jobs said that really hit home with me: In the speech he gave at Stanford, he was like, “Hey, I picked this up when I was learning this, and I picked this up and this up.” All the stuff you learn that has nothing to do with photography is also the stuff that influences how your photography looks and feels and comes across. Have as big a cultural baggage as you can. It can be music, for example, or, as in my case, it can be art. It can be so many things. But integrate that into your work. Instead of copying, have a voice.

McMahon: What do you enjoy most about shooting the Tour?

Ramon: This is the biggest event in my sport. Even the world championships are probably not as big as this. It’s a huge thing. You’ve got the World Cup, the Olympics, and the Tour. It’s the third-biggest thing in the world that way.

The funnest thing — because I’m working closely with teams — and the biggest reward is being close to the actors in this play and to know them personally, their trusting me, being there in moments when no one else is there, and to be able to capture those moments. And they can be few or little.

Last year I did my 10th Tour, my eighth accredited one. But for me, in the years to come, the wish is to be with a team that wins and me telling the story from behind. If that happens, I can retire happily, but you have to be ready for it. Whatever I’ve built up over the years, all those years will help me to be perfect — I mean, to be as good as I can be.

The most beautiful moments of the Tour will be those little moments nobody else sees that I can bring out in a nice storytelling image. Being there is priceless.

See some more photos by Ramon below and on his website.



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