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Dakar 2020 - How was the first Dakar in Saudi Arabia?


Rally Dakar has moved to another continent. After being in South America since 2009 it would stay for a bit in Middle East. The 2020 edition run through Saudi Arabia and I am gonna try to sum it up from a photographer`s view. Honestly speaking I was quite happy that the race has moved once again, even though I really like South America, it started to be a bit boring, especially with the last year's edition being only in Peru. Do not take me wrong, Peru is a really nice country, but a bit too small to host by itself such an event, so when it went 5 days one direction and the next 5 days back in the opposite way, but more less on the same stages, it was really difficult to shoot anything interesting. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has so much to offer. It is a huge country with many opportunities, obviously it was there for the first, so that made it even more interesting and in fact that Saudi Arabia has got opened for tourists only few months ago so we went to the places that not so many people have been to before.1I have been to Saudi before for few races, but it was like 3-4 year ago and lot of has changed since that time, so to get ready for Dakar we even did 4 round of the national championship in 2019. It was definitely a good idea, we got used to the country a bit more, people, culture, driving style, etc, so there were not so many things that could have surprised us. Saudi was a great mix of some dunes, even though I expected a bit more than what we actually had there, fast sandy roads, gravel roads, lot of rocks, canyons, I even found some palms, so there were many opportunities to take different photos. So from that point I cant say a single bad word about it, but  on the other it could be always better :)M2205759-2As usual I sent my Toyota LC80 which was planned to go to the stages as it as the roll cage and all the necessary stuff you need to have to be allowed to go into the stage + we rented Toyota Fortuner that was about to go on an assistance route - that means from bivouac to bivouac, some start, finish of the stage, some action when the stage was crossing the main road. My Toyota was focused on the action photos and the Fortuner was more about lifestyle, ambience stuff at the arrival, bivouac, etc. I planned it so that it was 5 of us coming, the original plan was 4 of us in my car going to the stages and one + driver in the other car. But it only work till day 1 and then it got all ruined, but I will get there later.M2102694The plan was, that 3 of us in my car will be shooting and the one will be editing already at the stages. That means, collecting the cards from us while we were still shooting. You normally spend like 4 hours or more on the stage. So while we were waiting and shooting the cars, Honza was supposed to collect cards from us with the photos of bikes and quads and edit them all . Once we got back to the car we should have all started to editing our photos and one was supposed to be driving. Seemed to be well planned and quite easy, but as the car broke down the first day after the very first stage, everything got a bit more complicated. M51_2576We arrived to Jeddah on 1st January in the morning, got our rental car at the airport and went to the port to pick up my car that traveled on the boat with all the other racing cars and assistance. We spent the whole first day by getting the car ready, repacking everything, trying connect all the cables we needed for all the devices we needed to have in the car,  tried to get local sim cards and from the second day we started to shoot already. Most of the teams were doing shakedowns, where they tested the vehicles after they spent few weeks on a boat and in a harbor. At first it was planned that everyone was doing the same testing route, but at the end it was like 3 different, plus we also needed to shoot the admin checks and scruteneering, so we needed to split. The Dakar started for us already on 2nd of January as it was about shooting the whole day and then you started to edit quite late in the evening till like 2 AM and on 3rd it was exactly the same, while on the 4th we got the last clients at the checks, did a quick edit and went directly to the start podium. _M428902Podium - thats the thing I hate to shoot the most. Especially the one at the start of Dakar is extremely long, so we spent there like 7 hours. I was not shooting at all. Jiri, Kuba and Pavel shot the podium while I was getting cards from them and I was editing and sending the photos right away, so when our last client left the podium, it only took like 10 more minutes and all the photos were already sent. Then we went back to the hotel, slept for 3 hours and left for the first stage. We found a really nice spot, everything looked really good, was quite happy with the photos, also really happy with the car as well.  It looked more powerful, really easy to drive in the dunes. 35__M130640 When we got out of the stage, I jumped out from behind the steering wheel, went to the back seat and started to edit. Suddenly, after being on the road for like 10 minutes, the engine stoped. We were not sure what was going, tried to started to turn it on again, but it did not really work and once I heard the noise from it, it was clear we wont be able to repair it at the spot. For about 10minutes I had no idea what to do and was actually not even able to think. We were lucky enough that two other cars with photographers from the Czech rep were passing on the same road, so they stoped by us and at the end they took us to the next bivouac. At least me and Pavel. I called a guy with a trailer from Jeddah (around 300km away) to come to our spot, left Honza and Kuba with the car waiting fro the trailer and at the end they went back to Jeddah. We arranged a workshop to go to, but it did not work as the car was Diesel and 99% of the cars in Saudi are Petrol, so they have no spare parts, no mechanics, nothing and they simple said it was impossible to repair. It was a fuel pump that got broken and maybe some more stuff in the engine, but we do not know yet, so I do not even know what I will do for the next year, but fortunately there is still plenty fo time to solve this out. M2300715So the first day was a complete mess, I got cards and external drives from everyone and was just doing everything by my own till midnight or so, and meanwhile trying to arrange transport to the stages for the upcoming days. Fortunately the second day I could travel with guys from FotoP, the agency from Brasil, but needed to find another ride for the next day as their car got broken as well :D Not the actual car I was in, but another of their cars and so they needed to relocate people for the next days. From the third day ASO helped me a lot which I am really grateful for and put me into their car, which was there was some international media agencies such as Reuters, etc. It was not ideal, but at least I could have continued in my work and could take the photos every day._M31_7460When everything started to get back to normal and I got used to the fact that the car got broken, my photo gear was stolen. Fortunately not all of it and I still had three cameras and several lenses, so I could work, but it was just another thing that made it a bit more difficult. Obviously it was nothing compare to what happened on day 7 when Paulo passed away. There you realize that issues with the car or camera do not really mean anything. I knew Paulo for long time, worked with him since 2013, not only at Dakar, but all the other races during the year. We always had lot of fun, he was smiling and joking most of the time and thats exactly how I will always remember him.  M2202473Now I will try to focus on how we work at the Dakar, that means how we choose the place to shoot at, how we move around the shooting spot, what you need to think about while shooting, etc. During the Dakar it is not really only about the photography, but it is a lot about the logistics, how to get to the spots, to find a good one, to move around to get different photos of different competitors. There are many thing you need to think about and honestly at the end it is a huge compromise to get the final photo. Lets try to sumps it up - you have only one chance per day to shoot the competitors, you need to edit and send the photos as soon as possible and you need to get to the next bivouac as soon as possible. As you see them only once per day, you need to find a spot where you can shoot them at least two times on different cameras/lenses. You need to  shoot them with some longer lens while they are approaching you, quickly switch the cameras and shoot them again with a wide angle and then ideally again with the long lens. This year I was usually shooting with three cameras - D5 with 200-500 lens, another D5 with 70-200 and D850 with 16-35. _M130018Another thing that you need to keep in your mind is that you can't shoot everyone from the very same spot, angle, side of the dune and you need to move all the time. I mean you do not need to (as seeing some other photographers), but for me it is a actually a must not to have everyone at the same spot. So once you find your place to shoot you need to think about another few angles you can use. You can always walk a bit further, to the next corner, next dune, take it once with the sun, the next one against the sun, etc. Could be easy, but not always as you might have plenty of other photographers on the other side of the dune, so you cant walk there or the next corner is 2km away from you. _M132597To find a good spot was never easy, but it just got even more difficult this year as we did not really get a lot of info about the track and we always got it a bit late, usually only few hours/minutes before the start of the stage. As the organizer planned to make the navigation a bit more difficult this year and avoid the so called “mapman”, they distributed the roadbooks (at half of the stages) in the morning, just 20 minutes before the start and so they did not give us any info until the morning so it did not leak to the competitors. It worked so that we got a GPS coordinates for a “proximity point” for the next day. That point was not in the stage, but was close to it with a good mobile signal, so we could receive some more info the next morning. When we got the proximity point, we also got some basic info about 4 photo points in the stage - we knew how many km was the photo point from the PP, how much time it takes to get there and what’s on the photo point - if it is dunes, rocks, etc. We also got the info about the time when we receive the full info, with GPS coordinates of the Real photo points - it was usually like 5-6 AM. So we drove in the early morning to be somewhere near the stage around 5-6, there we received the info and drove another 20-50km to the real spot. The problem was that you needed to chose something just from the info you got - dunes, canyon, etc, but it was not always nice and once you were there you did not really have that much time to drive somewhere else.7, Kevin Benavides_M31_8989Another issue was that having only 4 points meant that there were too many people, too many photographers at the same spots. 1) I do not want to have the same photos as everyone else 2) you lose the freedom that I love about the Dakar, that you can actually stand wherever you want, as close as you want, change the angle, side of the road all the time. When you have 10 other guys shooting, you cant really do that as then you would end up having them on the photos or they have you in a shot. Last but not least you want to be as close as possible to the start of the stage. 1) the order is the same as the starting order 2) they come on time and the gaps are still not that big 3) you have a bit more time to edit afterwards as they still need to do like 400km, so you could easily stay for all the other categories. So even if we knew that there was an awesome spot at km 420 at the stage I would not go there as I would not be able to deliver the edited photos in time and then it does not really make any sense. If I do not send the photo out in time, it is useless. The advantage of knowing the order in which they come and the gaps in between them is that you can plan your shooting spots a bit more. As an example if you need to shoot Monster Energy Honda Team which had 5 riders who look quite similar (same colors, bike, design) with only different number on their bikes, you cant shoot them all at the same spot, with the same lens and send these photos out. It is not a “try to find 5 differences on a photo” game and if they put them all on social media, newsletter next to each other it would not really look good. So you have a starting list in your hand and you know you need to shoot the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 7th, 15th bike, so you plan it around it and you move so, that you get different shots of them. M2207907What was much better in Saudi and what made our life easier was the condition of the main roads. The road section were not so long in general and if so, once you got out of the stage to the main road it was usually quite good highway, so you could go quite fast (compare to the South America) and it was also much better for editing. We do most of the edit in the car while driving, so you have your computer in your nap and edit. And it gets a bit more easy if you have a straight good highway than twisty road full of traffic and holes. What was also better was the mobile connection and so we were able to send most of our stuff through the phone and local sim cards._M129537What made my life quite easier was also the SSD disc I was using. The My passport Wireless SSD just worked really well and saved me lot of time. It works so that it has a built in car reader, so you can put a SD card in, or if you have XQD as I do you just connect another reader to the USB port, put the card in and it starts to copy your data from the card to the SSD disc. What you want to do at the Dakar is to save every single minute, so what I was actually doing is, that I always had it with me in my little backpack I took on the stage and when the bikes where finished I copied the cards (I obviously had more cards with me, so I could take some and start to copy them while I was shooting on another one). When there were some bigger time gaps even in between the cars I would have done the same, or just on my way back to the car I would just copy the rest of the images. So when you get back to your computer you do not need to start to copy the photos, but you just connect the SSD disc and import it to Lightroom and start to edit them, so I save like 15-20 minutes every day as copying 4000 raws take some time. _M126643Now I will just sump up some everyday life which people always ask about. I usually slept around 4 hours. The weather was much colder in Saudi compare to South America, the temperature was ok during the day, somewhere around 20, sometimes a bit colder, but once the sun went down it got really cold and it dropped till 0 degrees. Thats why I slept all the time in the car (the Fortuner) and did not even set up a tent. It was just oo cold for me and I ddi not want to waste my time by setting up the ten, so the car was much easier at the end. In general the temperature was much better for me as I did not feel that tired. It is better if it is 20 when you stay oustside in the dunes for 5 hours than if it is 40. The only thing was to get out of the sleeping bag in the morning, that felt really cold, but at least it woke you up a bit more. The food in the bivouac was quite ok. First time in my Dakar experience I went for breakfast everyday, usually some eggs, orange juice, some cereals and that was it. I took the dinner every day either at Martin Prokop`s service as they had they own chef (which actually better) or at the bivouac, but even there it was not that bad, would say better than in the previous years. The media centre was usually fine, the best was the Nespresso machine in every single bivouac - definitely the best idea and hope it will be there next year as well. We normally used the mobile connection, but if it was needed (two times) the connection in the bivouac which worked quite well, the only issue is that it costs 1 EUR per 1MB. Which was also good was that the layout of the bivouac was usually the same, so you do not need to run aorund and try to find the media centre, or the catering, etc, that was quite easier. 


 There are many other things I could talk about, but I guess it is long enough already and I still want someone to go through and read it :) So in general the very first Dakar in Saudi was quite good, I was only a bit disappointed by some of the stages as they were too fast and not really technical, but it was still ok for the photography I would say. The “problem” is that if you look at the photos or videos it does not really give you the perfect idea about the stage as we obviously try to shoot at the most interesting parts. So if you have 10km of the dunes at 400km stage, we would be shooting in the dunes and not on the flat area where they go straight for 50km, but I have not done the whole racing track so I do not want to judge it, it is just from what I have seen (a bit) and heard from the competitors. I believe it was little bit easier as it was for the first time in Saudi and no one really knew what to expect and the organizers did not really want to make it extremely difficult, but now when you see the logistic and infrastructure is really good and it is quite fast to move around the country, the stages could get maybe a bit more difficult. Another thing and compromise in here is that if they wanted to do such a long race - in terms of the stage km, it needed to be fast. The problem is that it is winter time Saudi in January and the days are quite short, so the stage could not start earlier than 7 AM or so when it was the sunrise and the sunset was already around 5:30 PM. If you want to do 400-500km stages it cant be only dunes or it cant be that difficult so you have like 60 km/h average and do it for 7-8 hours as half of the competitors would need to finish in the dark. So guess the only option to make it that long in total and make it more difficult is to do more shorter stages in more days. 9, Ricky Brabec_M52_1462

Thanks a lot to the whole MCH Photo crew for all their help not only with the photos :)

Jiří Šimeček + Jan Stárek + Jakub Fišer + Pavel Mothejl

For those who want to know even more, check my FB page - MCH Photo and check the live FB video I did. It is another 1 hour and 20 min of talking about Dakar (not only) and photography. 

Some numbers that are always interesting:

0,11 EUR - the price for one L of diesel

1 - my first Dakar with Nikon

4 hours - average amount of sleep I got per day

4 - number of Dakar winners we worked for (4 our of 5 categories)

5 - photographers - Myself + Jiří Šimeček + Jan Stárek + Jakub Fišer + Pavel Mothejl

6-7 - photos of each client we sent every day

9 - the number of Dakars I have done

15 - number of cameras we had with us

55 - competitors we needed to shoot at the Dakar

190km - the amount of km I walked during the Dakar

350 - the amount of photos we sent every day

4500 EUR - the price for one photo accreditation 

6500 - the number of photos we edited during Dakar

8500+ - the number of km we drove

10.000 EUR - more less what it cost to go to Dakar as a photographer

140.000+- the number of photos we took


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