I was far from the noise and light pollution of the city. Instead, I stood in the middle of a lush green forest. The breeze could not penetrate the foliage around me. It was an area that only existed to me in my imagination after multiple times of poring over Google Maps and allowing my mind to wander.
Off in the distance, I could hear the low rumble of a slow-moving freight train struggling to climb up the hill that I had perched myself on. It got closer and I was able to see the treeline, which had been obscured by heat haze from the exhaust stacks. As I was able to see its speed, I knew my exposure. The locomotive broke through the tree silhouette. It was, in a way, foreign to the landscape that surrounded it, like a metallic dinosaur crawling through some uninhabited land, miles away from civilization. It was an opportunity that I had only seen when I daydreamed but became possible all due to… a bike.
To be honest, this article didn’t start out being so much about bikes, but rather what it would take to reach distant areas of land to photograph trains. As a commercial photographer, I’ve been conditioned to see the only product that mattered being the images in the end, but the journey to getting them is just as important to me.
When the ebike project began, I was eager to find out more about them and their shortcomings. Between in-person and internet research, there was a lot to look at. However, my eye started gravitating towards the form being just as important as the function. Maybe it’s the side of me desiring aesthetics, or maybe it’s just the fact that I got really tired of seeing so many e-bikes with a big black box of a battery slapped onto them that just wore thin on me.
Eventually, I stumbled upon Aventon, a California-based company that has a smaller selection of e-bikes than most, but the ones they did have were aesthetically striking. In many ways the bikes look like regular bikes, but with large tires. They have hidden batteries built into their chassis. The lines reminded me of cars I photographed HTML1. I reached out to them early on with the initial plan of transporting the bike to a location with my car and riding further into the forest for the photos. For this reason, the first bike I got was a Sinch.
The Sinch is a bike that folds in half and clamps the handlebars in order to fit into the trunk of a car. While it was one of the smaller bikes they made, it still seemed quite capable. It was my thought that, if it were possible to get a bicycle that could carry me and my cameras, this bike could be used as transportation for the production. However, once it arrived and I rode it for the very first time, it excited something in me that I haven’t felt since I was a kid. In many ways, it felt like the first time I had ever explored the wilderness on a bike. Although there were many places I had always wondered about visually, I wasn’t going to be able to carry a backpack all the way with me. With the ebike I am able to ride to any location and look around. Then I can go further. I see the world in ways I didn’t know existed. I found locations for future photo shoots of people, landscapes, and even new angles on trains.
Upon returning from my first outing on an e-bike, I never even took the camera out of the bag. Even still, I felt that I had done something that would benefit my photography, not to mention my physical health as well. It was a high-energy day and I immediately put the bike in my bag, with the intention of riding the next morning.
It was around this time that the heavy monsoons began in Flagstaff, where I live. Houses were flooding due to the burn scars left by two wildfires one month earlier. I thought it was more important to help those in need to protect their houses from further rain, and so the e-bike project was put on hold. My days consisted of sandbag building and laying, as well as shoveling dirt from streets. While I was waiting for the weather, my heart was longing to get back on the bike. Aventon called me in the middle of all this to ask how the bike was doing. I told them that it was everything I could dream of, but that I had yet to create an image by utilizing it as I tend to get distracted and ride for hours every time I go out.
In an attempt to make me more creative, Mike and I went to Flagstaff with our best friends to bike bikes and take photos. My willpower was not strong enough for me to create images. I thought that my friend Mike would. He too loved the bikes Aventon made and got an Aventure. This bike was sturdy and very large, so it did a great job with the photo shoot. We realized that riding the bike rather than driving was a cost-saving move considering gas prices. Not to mention how the bikes couldn’t be fit in our car. We rode together the first day, just as we had done every day riding by ourselves. However, it was exactly like any other ride I’ve taken with me.
On the second day, we were graced with incredible light and felt compelled to shoot the shots we had planned on. We rode to the tracks and immediately got lucky with two cool trains that had passed. We knew it was going to be awhile before we saw any more trains so we decided to ride the bikes instead and turn the camera towards them.
While the idea of creating some kind of action-based biking images existed in our minds, Mike and I both realized that our physical conditioning along with our riding skills would not make this possible. While waiting for the trains, we thought of bringing lights to take semi-posed photos in the forest. Call it silly or juvenile, but truthfully it is often fun photo shoots like this that remind even the most professional photographers why photography is so special.
After catching a couple more trains, we rode back to my house and washed the bikes as they had both been turned completely brown from the mud. We decided to have a few beers and set up a studio for our bikes to be photographed. After all, if I was going to write an article about them, people might want to see what the hell we’re actually talking about. Each bike was photographed using lights, effects, and we set them up. In many ways it was the practice I needed as I would step on set for a sports campaign only two days later.
In the weeks following, I too picked up an Aventure and now see how people go down the rabbit hole when it comes to buying e-bikes. In many ways, they are the camera accessory I never knew that I needed, nor wanted. However, after the last month I feel as though e-bikes could be one of the most important tools to a photographer.
Photographers have been taught since the days of Robert Capa that the first rule of photojournalism is to get close, and the second rule is to get closer. The best thing about bikes is that they allow us to move beyond the zoom ring and into the images, sometimes finding hidden details we didn’t know existed. My time away from production meetings or on set is being consumed now by Google Maps searching for trails to help me ride the roads and discover new views of nature. We have already used one location that I found on the Aventure as a production deck for an outdoor campaign, and I am sincerely convinced I never would’ve found it had I not gone for a ride that day.
I want to thank the local bike shops in Flagstaff along with Aventon bikes for taking the time to teach me about the capabilities of modern e-bikes. As the reader, I challenge you to rent a bicycle, take your camera with you, and go out on a ride to discover what else you haven’t seen in a vehicle. Be open to the chance that the world just might astound you.
About the author: Blair Bunting is a Phoenix commercial photographer. You can see more of his work on his website, blog, Facebook, and Instagram. This story was also published here.