Friday, June 4, 2010

Tom Robertson

Happy Friday, and for your weekend pleasure I've brought back the interview. On the docket is none other than Tom Robertson, everyone's favorite photographer from Missoula. Tom takes great pictures of people on bikes, and can be seen at plenty of races throughout the year hiding behind the lense of his camera. Back at the end of April/beginning of May Tom and I went out on a bike ride where he snapped some pictures and I asked some questions. The end result, is the interview below, feel free to enjoy. Happy Weekend, time for a drink.

You have 50 words to describe yourself, please do so.

I can’t sit still. I seem to be in constant motion. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been riding a bike with a camera in my hands. The only thing that seems to have changed is that I drink a lot more espresso these days.

What happened first for you, the camera or the bike?

The bike. I was riding at 4 years old. I had my first drop-handlebar single speed when I was 7. I grew up in a small town in the south, so from the age of 7 onward, I had free reign to ride all over the town and county on my bike. I was “that kid”...the one that was always on the bike. I got my first camera when I was 8, so from that point on, I had it with me most everywhere I went.

How and when did you find yourself developing a passion for photography?

My father was into photography for a while and I used to devour all of the photography magazines that were lying around the house. I started bugging him for a camera, and eventually he broke down and got me one. I soon was riding all over the county shooting anything that looked shootable. I was selective though. As an 8-year old I didn’t have much money, and purchasing film and paying for processing seemed expensive.

Where have been some of your favorite locations to shoot photos?

Any winding road or trail, with no buildings, cars or telephone wires. That said, man that can be hard to find. I do have a few places around Missoula that I prefer. If I’m taking out folks just to shoot, I generally try to keep it close to town to cut down on car travel. There are some roads around that have nice curves, but lots of power lines (Duncan Dr.), and other roads that might have no power lines or buildings, but are straight and in somewhat narrow canyons (Marshall Canyon Rd.). The road that I’ve been hitting the most for road cycling shots is Butler Creek. Nice curves, low traffic, and close to town. Shooting from the right angle, it can seem like that road is miles from anywhere. Also I’ve learned on that road, if you put a step ladder in the middle of a road, cars driving by think you are official and will give you a wide berth. I have no idea if this is legal or not, but I suspect not.

For mountain bike shooting, I tend to like “cozy” places. Tight single track and lots of foliage. There are places around Missoula with small sections of trail that you can blast through in seconds and not really think about, but shooting there can yield great results. Anything from the trails beside the Kim Williams Trail along the river, to the connector trails going up to the Rattlesnake. Though I have a couple of shoots lined up in the coming weeks with mountain bikers where we are going to try for the “big vista” shot. Still scouting locations for those...

What sort of goals do you have for the next couple of years regarding your career as a photographer?

To keep shooting endurance sports, with a focus on cycling. To start working my way into more editorial work for national publications, as well as commercial work for the outdoor industry. I’m also in the midst of planning a long bike tour overseas, with plans of developing work from it.

If you had to pick a piece of photography that you are the most proud of from the past couple years, what would it be?

That’s a tough one, as these days it seems like my last big shoot is always the one that I’m most jazzed about. But I will say that shooting the Rapha ride ( in Montana last summer was the first big shoot that I was really excited about. And to shoot alongside cycling photographer Chris Milliman ( was a great experience for me.

Do you feel that your experiences of cycling through road racing, and touring has helped you to become a better cycling photographer?

Absolutely. Not only have I ridden, raced, toured, commuted my whole life. But I’ve been devouring cycling photography that whole time as well. I like to think I’ve seen most every angle that there is to shoot. I’ve tried to somewhat emulate shots that I think are interesting, and really tried to avoid the cliched shots for the most part. For each of the disciplines of cycling, I try to shoot shots that are pleasing, but also convey what it feels like from the saddle. Maybe it comes from racing cyclocross over the years, but I like to see shots that make me feel like I have dirt in my teeth.

You took a bunch of pictures at this years Speedwagon Classic, Rolling Thunder and last years ZooTown Throwdown, of the three which was your favorite to photograph, and why?

Most times I think I would answer Rolling Thunder, or most any cyclocross race for that matter. But this was the first time I had photographed the Speedwagon Classic, and I’d have to say that was my favorite cycling event to shoot. To start with, the scenery there is unparalleled. Green fields, car-free roads and snow-capped mountains really provide a nice backdrop. But also the fact that it is somewhat of a non-sanctioned race, and that I had the freedom to drive up and down the course, and find the backgrounds that were the most dramatic and wait for the racers to zip by.

How much of your finished photos are a result of careful planning to get all the settings just as you like, or a result of improvisation where things just seem to come together?

It’s a little bit of both. At a race like the Speedwagon, Matt Seeley actually had a map for me with places he thought would be good spots. And when I take models out on the bike in and around Missoula, I know the spots that I’d like to hit. A lot of the times, we head to those spots, and depending on light and trail/road conditions, I start trying to come up with unique looks. It’s at that point that things start coming together. So I do like to have the initial structure thought out, but really feel that once that is in place, that improvising is where the magic happens.

Describe both your ideal day of taking pictures, and your ideal day on a bike?

Both of them start with 4 shots of espresso. An early start to the day for the ideal day on the bike. Loaded up with pastries from Le Petit, my riding partners ride over to my house and we take off from here. Either for a 5-hour road ride, partly on dirt roads, or an all-day adventure on the single speed mountain bikes riding straight up some lightly used trail in Western Montana.

The ideal photography day involves taking out willing models on the bike, who have the time and patience to ride back and forth in front of the camera for a while. I do like the evening shooting as the sun is going down, and prefer some cloud cover. Then 10 minutes before the sun goes behind the mountains, it breaks through the clouds and produces some kind of glory light. That’s happened twice to me....and it seems to make me whoop and holler a lot.

What are you looking for when shooting someone riding a bike? Do you have a preference for someone gritting their teeth on a climb, landscapes with a ribbon of singletrack, etc…

Most times I’m trying to show the cyclist in their environment. So given those two options you listed, the “ribbon of singletrack” would be my first choice. I love the grandiose landscapes of Montana, and to be able to show that along with a cyclist flying along that landscape is what gets me excited. Whether that is a mountain biker on that “ribbon of singletrack”, or a road cyclists on a curvy climb or descent.

You’ve been around long enough to see how technological advancements/changes have changed both cycling and photography, which advancements/changes do you like the most, and which the least?

To look at cycling, and this is going a ways back, but the clipless pedal has been the greatest advancement to me in my lifetime. For photography, the digital camera has been huge. But to break it down a bit more into the cycling photography world, I love that you can have a point and shoot camera that captures images in the RAW format. These large files can be enhanced easily in photo programs, with an end result that looks like it was taken with a much larger camera.

Now a days everyone has a camera, and with web services like SmugMug, Flicker, and Blogspot, its easy for anyone to make their photos available to the world. Do you think this has a negative impact on a professional photographer like yourself?

Perhaps not negative, but it is definitely different than it used to be. I’ve only been shooting professionally for a couple of years now, so I feel like it really hasn’t impacted me like it has folks shooting for years. But just like everything in life, change is gonna happen. And in my opinion, if you can change and figure out a new way of doing business, then there are great opportunities to be had.

Anything else you would like people to know about you?

I’m fascinated by spaces. Spaces where we live, work and recreate. I’ve done a fair amount of architectural photography and secretly really like it. Lately I’ve been combining the love of spaces with cycling, and am actively looking for unique rooms where people store their bikes and gear. So if you know of anyone with such a space, I’d love to check it out.

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