What it takes to be a photographer at Dakar?
As every year, I will try to write down how was the Dakar 2018 for a photographer. There are always several question I am getting so will try to make it clear. I will talk about my personal experience, about my workflow, what helps me in terms of equipment, what appeared to be useless, etc. It is just my point of view - the photographer who needs to take, edit and send photos of about 50 competitors, so it might not apply on those who go there to work for one team only or just for fun.
The Dakar 2018 in general
I wrote last year, that the 2017 edition was the worst one and that I was thinking if to go there again or not. I am more than glad I can write this one was definitely the best one I have done so far. A.S.O. finally realized there were some issues and that if they kept on going in the same way it can cause some serious problems to the rally itself. The Dakar 2018 route had everything .The game changer was definitely Peru with lot of dunes, when you add some mud and high altitude in Bolivia (but just enough) and really difficult stages in Argetina with lot of river beds, fesh fesh and dunes in Fiambala, you have a perfect mixture for a perfect rally. There was just one (two for bikes) leg that was cancelled and there were not so many changes in terms of shortening stages,etc as in the previous years. Less km of liasion, more in the stages. Two loop stages in Peru, one in Argentina, all helped a lot.
From a point of photographer I have never experienced such a kind attitude from the organizers. I am not sure if it was because of the fact I was working for Peugeot or because they needed to put one photographer into my car, but anything I asked for was not an issue and they helped me a lot this year. With the connection with travels for my other photographers from bivouac to bivouac. I hope it was not only a one time thing and that it will continue in this way. The only thing that stays the same are the stupid limits for media cars, which would be still ok if the conditions were same for everyone and there were not several organizer's cars overtaking us while we were on the limit that we were allowed to drive. Thats a never ending story.
I will start with the most important thing. That is our car. We use every year the Toyota Land Cruiser 80 that I bought for the Dakar in 2015. Since then I invested a lot of money into it to be in 100% condition to get us where we need. I can take many spare cameras, spare computer, but you cant take a spare car with you. So if it breaks down it is a big issue. There are many people always asking about the costs and why do they need to pay me for a seat in the car if they want to go for Dakar. It is simple, thats just because I own the car and take care about it. It stays in the Czech republic and we load it every year with all the other cars/trucks/bikes in November with the organizer's ferry. To be allowed to go on a track you need most importantly a roll cage and other safety items to be in the car so you cant just rent an usual car from a rental company in South America even though it would be much cheaper.
I take cameras and lenses for me and my brother. He is not originally a photographer so I supply him with the equipment for the events he goes with me. For two of us we had 6 bodies - I used Canon 1DX mk II and Canon 5d mk IV, he had Canon 1DX mk II and 1DX and as a spare we had 1D mk IV and 7D mk II. The lenses I took with me: Canon 70-200 2.8 IS USM II, Canon 200-400 4.0, Canon 70-300 4.5-5.6, Canon 16-35 2.8 USM III, Canon 16-35 2.8 USM II, Sigma 50 1.4 Art, Sigma 85 1.4 Art, then Jakub the other photographer with us had his own stuff - Canon 1DX mk II, Canon 5D mk IV, using 70-200 USM II, 16-35 USM III, Sigma art 50mm, Sigma art 24mm and Canon 15mm. Jiri the fourth one of ouf group had three bodies from Nikon and several lenses (nit sure about the specific models as I do not know anything about Nikon).
Additionally to that I brought DJI Inspire 2 with the X7 camera. It broke the very first day (at a test before the race) as I did the update in a wrong way, unfortunately no one warned me. Fortunately they sent another X7 from Czech rep before we moved from Lima.
Other equipment for shooting
As I wanted to do some behind the scene video I knew I need to take some cameras to take the footage. Therefore I had DJI Mavic Pro, DJI Osmo, GoPro Hero 6 and 3 Asus Zenfone to shoot with. Jiri had one more GoPro Hero 5 that I got dome footage from. I was mainly shooting everything by myself. Either put the Gopro on my had, on the tripod or on the ground next to me. If there was anyone around I just asked them to shoot something for me and I did several shots with Mavic mainly of our car and the landscape. Sometimes I just took my phone out of pocket and shoot some stuff as well. So the video is just mix of all of this :)
You can check the video on my YT channel - Rally Dakar 2018 video
Of course to all of this with had several batteries, normally at least two for each device, usually even more. Lot of GB of memory cards, all together 4 computers, one tablet, two external flashes from Phototools.cz (plus the other guys had some more for themselves), a little led light from Manfrotto, personally myself three external hard drives. One SSD to download the photos directly while driving, one back up and the third one for the video files.
You can have the best spots, best photos, you can have them ready in time, but if you do not have the connection and cant send them it is useless. Therefore I made a decision to take a satellite with me to be absolutely independent, to be able to send it out directly from any place on the track, BUT ... but it did not work in the way I thought it would be and that I was told. I rent the satellite - the Safari device you put on the roof of your car from Inmarsat through one company in South Africa. All together with the rental and the data package for the Dakar I paid around 6500 USD. Unfortunately I recommended that to some other people as well. It was troubleshooting almost every single day and if it was working it was extremely slow or cutting of. It helped me two or three times when I was able to send like 5 resized photos out when it was an emergency, but if I was using only that device I would probably be still in South America right now trying to upload everything. The guys who I rented it from tried few times to check it in the bivouac always saying it was ok, unfortunately out in the terrain it was not. At the end I was told it was a) simcard from the device (apart from the satellite on the roof, there is like a router in the car) was getting out sometimes - wrong installation of the device (vertically not horizontally) - the installation was done by the company, not by me. B) not enough power from the lighter - again installation done by the company, not me. C) the Safari device is not stable, because bla bla. Good to know after you pay 6.500 USD. I would not be writing any of this if I get any solid attitude from the company. They just asked for my experience, I told it was really bad, they sad it was mostly my fault and that was it. So, if you have one client to take care about and you need to send 10 photos per day or you want to connect to whatsap sometimes, it is probably ok for you. The question is if it is worth the 6500 USD - for me definitely not.
So what saved my ass in terms of internet were local simcards - there is quite good connection in Peru, sometimes ok in Bolivia, surprisingly the worst in Argentina. Then I had the Skyroam device. You buy the device, recharge it with daily passes and it should connect to the best network available. The simcards work better but sometimes, near the bigger cities this was an option as well if the cards did not work for some reason. The internet connection from the organizer. There is a wifi or a cable connection you need to pay for so you can use it in the media room, but compare to the satellite I rented, this connection was ok and saved me few times as well. The problem is that sending the photos out from the bivouac is usually too late, so I only used it if I did not manage to send the photos on the way. We stopped several times for few minutes when 3G or LTE appeared on the phone. Sent what we had edited and continue. Then again and again.
I have started to use Peak Design product and must say it was a good choice. I tried several straps, different system, etc and at the end the usual strap from PD seems to work the best for me. I always struggled with some other stuff that it was either not strong enough (my 200-400 and 1dxmkii fell down) or I lost some mounting parts, etc. The PD is extremely strong and the system where you just add the small but strong mounting straps to any camera and "click" it on the strap or other product is really useful. I also had the messenger, backpack, little back, pouches for lenses (got it after Dakar), small additional pockets and the all camera cover. In general I was super happy with everything. Only the backpack could be bigger but as far as I know there are some new, bigger things coming. What surprised me the most was the quality of material and the fact it never gets dirty. If you choose the Charcoal color (which is probably the best anyway) you can have it all covered in dust and it will never get dirty. I was using it for the whole time of Dakar and it stills look like new.
We had a Garmin GPS, 4 radios to be always in touch, several power banks and thats pretty much it
Choosing the right point
How do we choose the right point to shoot at? Well it is many times a lottery and most of all it is a big compromise. As I wrote at the beginning it is my point of you and the most important is to make the clients happy. What counts is the the speed that you deliver the photos with and of course it needs to be the best possible. The compromise is that even if you know there is an awesome place but you would need to go 200km through the stage and back and it is at the 400km of the stage you just cant go there even the guys were jumping from 200m high dune, doing backflips, landing in ocean, going through 10m deep fesh fesh :) We always try to stay at a reasonable point in terms of action/landscape but most importantly the number of km of the stage. 1) you probably see everyone you need (better chance after 10km than 400) 2) the order is still the same as it was at the start - so you know who to expect, so you can even change positions a bit. You just cant get 4 same photos of 4 Peugeot cars, so you need to move around. 3) the differences in between the competitors are quite small and you do not need to wait too much for the next one. 4) you have plenty of time before they get to the finish so you can download, edit and send the photos. You also need to look for s spot that you can take more than just one photo. It is in 90% the only occasion to take the photo, so you find a spot so you can take some landscape shot while they are arriving, some close one, some wide one, something when they are leaving.
You need to use all the info you can get. The photo point from organizers are quite helpful even though it is not always crazy good and you meet there lot of people. But at least you have a point of access to the stages, then you can move back and forward using the roadbook and Tripy GPS. Every evening we check the points, the roadbook (you need to know how to read it) and once you are on the stage, you can use the Tripy GPS, where you have the points the competitors go through. But usually you have really simple info and drawings.
It was four of is for a reason. 3 of us were in my car that goes to the track every day, the fourth one was traveling from bivouac to bivouac only to catch the ambience and portraits when the competitor get to the bivouac, or finish and start of the stage when it was close to the bivouac or somewhere on the main road. Because of that we did not need to hurry to get to the bivouac every day and focus on the photos on the track, plus sending them out - so we could even stop from time to time as I wrote above. Meanwhile the fourth one was getting the ambience stuff.
There is a huge difference if you need to get photos of specific clients, especially the first ones. You see them only once per day and you need to be sure the photo is perfect. Therefore we usually shoot with high shutter speed, to be sure everything will be sharp. You just cant tell the client: "Sorry I was just trying something, but it did not work out, so you wont have any photos today." The other problem is that if you see my sensor in the camera after first two days you would realize you cant shoot with lower shutter speed (so the aperture gets to higher number), it is just full of dots and I do not have time to clean every single photo for 10 minutes. The clients do not ask, they just want the photos every day and you just cant fail. As my brother has done Dakar three times as a competitor and participated at many other rallies he drives the car most of the time as the most experienced one. I drove like 3-4 times this year, always over the night, early mornings, when he was too tired. So normally he drives and I do the navigation. When we get to the shooting point, we just try to split somehow. One goes one direction, the other one somewhere else, or we check it few kms there and back and leave someone at other spot. Many times, when it was getting too late I just went to the car start to edit the photos of the first ones while we were still waiting for some of the last clients. I normally edit my photos and my brothers ones as he is driving and the third one - either Jakub or Jiri - they were changing every two days, edit their own photos. There might be some priorities who we need to send the first, but then we usually just edit and send the photos as the clients passed. We all used Adobe Lightroom to edit the photos, usually like 40-50 seconds per photo, without any presets. All together we took up to 100.000 raw files, editing like 4.000 out of them.
Dakar is a super tough event. The most difficult rally in the world. That is for the competitors and what about us? Sometimes it is even more difficult. We need to wake up earlier than the competitors as we need to be ahead of them. Sometimes we drive in the evening till we reach the stage and sleep there. Sometimes we are just too tired so we stay in the bivouac and sleep there. Then you need to wake up at 3-4 a.m. and drive. You do in average like 500-600km (before it was even more) per day, sometimes up to 1000. You stay for like 5 hours at the track until everyone pass, then you jump to the car and edit there. When you are lucky enough you have everything sent and you are back in the bivouac you just get a cold (better say freezing) shower, dinner, pick up info for next day, help with editing the photos from the bivouac and it is midnight again. So you jump back to the car and drive or sleep for 3-4 hours and then drive.
Quite an often question. There is not that much time to eat, but you need the energy from food. I think I went to breakfast just once to grab something, otherwise it was usually too early when we were leaving. In the accreditation you pay you have the breakfast/lunch/dinner, but we usually only male it for dinner. By the way the catering got much better this year. Apart from this it is just lot of raw and müsli bars, nuts, etc and most importantly Adventure Menu. Food that saves us every year. We had lot of jerky, but as well the meals that you can heat without a fire. Extremely useful and tasty. No chemicals, nothing. Thats definitely what helps us the most in terms of food.
The most "important" thing as the last one. Dakar is extremely expensive even for a photographer. Not talking about all the equipment you need, all the things you break, but most importantly - the accreditation, the car, sending the car to SA, flights, hotels at the start/finish, internet connection, fuel, the entry fee for car, renting Tripy, e-track, some food, drinks and the money I pay to the guys who work me. Roughly all together it was 50.000+ EUR. Thats what I needed to spend, plus there were some deals for exchanging photos for getting some accommodation (as we did wit Peru), for my flight with other company, etc. If you do it for business you need to earn it back which is not that easy :) It starts from now on - getting ready for the next one. Or better say it has started 7 years ago when I started to go for rally raid events. You cant imagine the number of emails/calls, etc I do every year to make this happen. Convince the clients, get some support from sponsors, etc. There is a lot of work behind it all, it just did not happen over the night.
So that is it. Simple as that! That is what it takes to be a photographer at Rally Dakar. I have recently read a comment from some other photographer under my video from Dakar that someone shared. The comment was saying something l like : "What is so special about his photos? He just adds some clarity to the photos." So that is the other, much shorter way that I wanted to hide from everyone but he got it right. Skip all the stuff I wrote, add some clarity to your photos and you can go to Dakar to work for the top teams in there ;)
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