Friday Feature: VeloEye Richard Baybutt

Richard Baybutt is a professional photographer who has shot some of the biggest names in cycling, Panache decided that he wanted to get to know the man behind the lens – and find out the inside story of what it’s like to photograph some of the world’s most famous athletes. So without further ado ….

Panache: So, Richard, tell us a bit about yourself.

Richard: I’m a photographer from Sheffield, which is situated right next to the beautiful Peak District in the UK.

Panache: How did you become a professional photographer – what road did you travel to achieve this?

Richard: I began by playing with my dad’s old Pentax SLR. I loved the mechanics of it. I studied photography part-time while still at school and my first photo was published 12 years ago in a mountain bike magazine called Dirt. I remember waking up the day after my final A-level exam (and the subsequent party) and opening the new issue and there it was! My photo across a page and a half! I had no idea if they were going to publish it or not so it was really a life-changing moment. I raced to the BMX track to meet my friends and someone said, “you know you get paid for that.” Up until that point, money had never crossed my mind and I suddenly realised that I could choose it as a profession. So I did.

The picture that began a career – Richard’s first shot printed in Dirt magazine

Panache: Wow – that’s sounds like destiny. You talk about BMX – what is your relationship with the bike? Do you just ride or do you race as well?

Richard: I’ve always ridden, mostly MTB and BMX, but when I moved to London I found myself on a road bike more and more. I went on a few rides – I had been commuting through the city on my bike, which I loved – but it wasn’t until I moved back to my hometown of Sheffield that I really embraced road cycling. There are lots of hills!

Panache: Who are your photographic heroes? Inspirations?

Richard:My photographic heroes are pretty varied. I’ve always loved Richard Avedon’s work. He photographed everyone from A-list celebrities to working men and women with the same unique style and atmosphere. They all looked noble, which is not necessarily the case in every subject, but his style made you look more at the figure in front of the lens than the way it was photographed.

Conversely, David LaChappelle couldn’t be more different. His photos are staged, but on a huge scale; actors, props, pyrotechnics, lights. They’re like stills from the craziest film you’ve ever seen. Action-wise, I’ve always loved the style of Paul Bliss for years since the early days of Dirt magazine. His advice was “edit”, which I try to stick to as best I can.

Panache:You have shot the biggest names in the professional cycling …  from Cav to Contador, the Schlecks, Cadel, Wiggo and Cancellara! Your work looks so natural. How do you build a rapport with your subjects?

Sam Foakes cover for Cream

Richard: They’re generally just like you and me – people who ride a bicycle – they’re just a lot better at it than us! The main thing is to try and convince them early on that if I make them look stupid, I’ll look stupid so I’m not going to do that. Whoever they are, my job is to make them look good and if they like the images then that’s even better. It’s a huge privilege to meet these riders and this way I get to have a proper chat with them, rather than rush past on a motorcycle in a race.

Panache: What are the biggest challenges when working with these athletes?

Richard: Time. Some have it, others don’t. Some are generous with it, others aren’t.

Panache: So just between us, who are the generous ones and who aren’t. If you whisper it, no one will hear it but me …  

Richard:  Nice try, but no. What happens in the studio stays in the studio!

David Millar … more than a cyclist

Panahce: Your client list includes most of the major cycling magazines.  What assignment was more memorable – what work are you most proud of?

Richard: The piece I’m most proud of was probably that first shot published in Dirt. I did it for the love of cycling and showing off my hometown.

The most memorable day, however, was probably at the HTC training camp in 2010. I had six different shoots to do and each had a different set-up; one being the super complicated shots of Cav with the green lights. He was ill with a tooth infection and bored out of his mind. He’d seen the examples I’d shot of BMX rider Sam Foakes for the cover of Cream magazine and loved them. He walked into the room I’d set up as a studio and said that it was the first bit of press he’d actually been looking forward to. That was a huge boost.

Cav gets the green light

Keeping up with Bernard Hinault and his entourage cycling around Jersey whilst wearing a huge heavy jacket, surf shorts, flat pedals, no helmet, on a borrowed touring bike and carrying a big camera bag was pretty good. We got back to the hotel and I realised over half the group (including the journalist) weren’t with us. I was too busy taking photos while riding as Hinault warned me “ne tombez pas”! (don’t fall!) It was one of my first jobs for CycleSport magazine, and it prompted me to actually get some proper riding kit.

Word of warning: don’t fall when you ride with Bernard Hinault!

Panache: What is the difference between photographing a rider like Cadel Evans in a scarf and photographing him on the bike or in a race?

Richard: To be honest, I don’t cover the races that much. If I do, I’m very much behind the scenes, showing the ins-and-outs of the day, rather than on a bike or in the press pit. That’s why I love my job because when I watch a race, I see the person I met as well as the athlete. Knowing a bit more about how they got there often endears them to me more than just seeing a familiar face on a bicycle (but sometimes not!)

Panache: And again, I suspect you aren’t going to tell us which ones haven’t endeared themselves to you! So why don’t you walk us through some of your favourite shots!

Richard:  One of my favourites is the black and white shot of Marco Pinotti. He’s a really kind person and I think that comes across in this shot without him trying. Aside from the modern jersey, he has the sort of timeless face you’d almost expect with a pair of goggles on his head and a bottle of wine on his handlebars in a 1920s photograph.

The face of a champion: Marco Pinotti

Another is Damiano Cunego, who I photographed in his man-cave. I was struggling a bit for ideas so I asked him if we could use a bike as a prop. We went to his garage to get it and found the room exactly as you see – slightly odd portraits of himself, bike bits, toy cars, vintage wine, The Doors CDs and his tiny dog. It was like a gold mine! I didn’t need to set up anything.

Damiano Cunego in his man-cave

Panache:  I loved the black and white series you did of David Millar. Those images are full of panache! Tell me about that shoot.

Richard: Thank you! He was great. I’m always keen to get riders in regular clothes to show that they’re real people and not racing all the time. I had to cancel on taking my wife Fera to her office Christmas party to go on the shoot – I’d bought a suit and everything so that was in my mind as an idea for Millar.

When we got to his house after a training ride, he showed me a shoot he’d done for Rouleur magazine wearing some smart clothes. I was gutted but I figured we could do it differently if we included a bike and shot it at dusk. Girona is beautiful, Millar was super generous with his time and 100 percent into the idea. We ran round with some smoke bombs, Ed Pickering from Cyclesport helped with the lights, and we shot everything in about an hour and a half. We went back to the hotel, where Ed conducted the interview after a few more photographs then we all went out for sushi. It doesn’t feel like work when shoots go like that.

James Bond on a bike

Panache: Tell us about this one of Frank Schleck in the pool! How did that happen?

Richard:  That was amazing. After shooting some headshots in front of all the coloured walls we had found and even breaking onto the roof of the hotel for some more, we went to the pool for the last photo. I was setting up my lights and told him to sit on that bridge and look relaxed. I heard a shout, looked up and just saw him disappear under the water! He’d just lost his balance and fell in. I managed four blurry frames as he crawled out, leaving his sunglasses at the bottom of the pool.

It was a SchleckChute into the pool!

I felt bad as he’d ruined his wallet, passport and phone but he stuck around for 30 seconds more so I could grab the best shot of the day – Frank in all his clothes, dripping wet by the pool. The rest of the CSC team were desperate to see the shots at dinner that night. He had a big crash in the Tour of Switzerland soon after, prompting some journalists to suggest he had an inner ear problem!

Panache: Okay, we’ve skirted around this for long enough. Give me some names of riders you really loved photographing and why – yep, I’m asking for favorites! 

Richard: Oh, okay, you’ve twisted my arm! David Millar – he was up for trying lots of different ideas and remained patient and professional all the time. The interview was really interesting and I can’t recommend his book enough. A class act.

Cav is another great person to shoot. At the first Columbia training camp I was supposed to get a cover, opener and lots of shots for the article but as he was late, I only managed the cover before he had to go to another appointment. He knew I’d been shortchanged on time and he suggested meeting before breakfast the next day to get some more shots. He didn’t have to do that – and I’d never expected it – but he did and I never forgot it.

The shoot with Fabian Cancellara was a dream as well – the weather was perfect, he was in the great Swiss champion jersey and he gave us a lot of time and help. After the training ride I suggested a ride through Bern in casual clothes to grab a few more shots before the interview. He took us to a bike shop and borrowed a pair of electric bikes for me and Ed to follow him on. It was surreal keeping up with him on a super steep climb and just before the ridiculous ‘motorised bike’ story broke, which made it even better! Such a great day! Oh, I ate a horse steak in Bern too – that was different. [makes a face]

Fabian Cancellara surveying his kingdom.

Panache: I love the way you display your portfolio on your website. Where did you come up with the idea to page though a book on video?

Richard: It’s not my idea at all, but it’s nice showing off work in print form rather than on a screen. I’m a huge advocate for getting photographs off your computer or phone and sticking them on your wall. Fera and I did a huge road-trip round America last year and printed a ton of iPhone photos. We framed them nicely and now they’re the main feature in our kitchen, reminding us daily of an amazing time. So my advice to everyone out there – print your pictures!

Panache: Kitty was wondering if you had Cancellara’s phone number? She’s also willing to work for you for free if you ever need an assistant on a shoot with him.

Richard: Perfect. I don’t have his number but she’s on the assistants list for sure! [We hear Kitty fall to the ground in a dead faint in the other room …]

Panache: And finally, what’s next for Richard Baybutt?

Richard: More assignments, more video work, more personal adventures! I have a blog, which gets updated fairly regularly, and as polarising as it may be, I have an Instagram page too –quelle horreur! A good photo is a good photo, camera envy is daft. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Panache: Thanks so much for the interview – we love your work! Let me know if you’re ever in my part of the world. It’s very much worth a visit.

All photographs copyright of Richard Baybutt

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