When cyclist Denise Mueller-Korenek mounted a bike to the back of a professional racing car and prepared to cycle across Utah's salt flats at over 290kph, she knew there was a possibility that her endeavour could go terribly wrong. Commercial photographer Matt Ben Stone was commissioned to cover what would hopefully be a record-breaking moment. A lot was at stake for Denise and Matt.
For Denise, there was a chance it could result in a dreadful accident. To break the Paced Bicycle Land Speed Record, she was aiming to cycle at speeds nearly as fast as the Japanese bullet trains and faster than the maximum running speed of a cheetah, the world's fastest land animal. It's not by any stretch a natural velocity for a human on a bike.
In Matt's case, capturing the racing car leading the bicycle, perfectly in focus and at a safe distance, meant that he needed an efficient workflow and a lineup of carefully selected lenses to ensure he didn't miss the record-breaking moment.
The planning started well ahead of the shoot. "I was commissioned directly by Denise and the team, and knew about it a year in advance. Normally, I get commissioned by branding and design agencies, and you get a couple of weeks, or maybe a month's notice, so in terms of lead time and being able to plan around it, this was really unusual," says Matt.
The shoot was to take place over 10 days in the Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway on the border between Utah and Nevada, USA, during Bonneville Speed Week – an annual racing event held on the dry riverbed. Denise and her racing car driver, Shea Holbrook, were among 170 entrants but had their own category. Matt was to be their official photographer and he was not only required to document the 10 days of testing, training and competing, he was also tasked with managing the social media coverage live from a production trailer in the salt flats.
"I had to run their Facebook and Instagram accounts live with posts during the week, almost in a press officer capacity. So I had to make sure that the sponsors had a certain number of assets for press use when Denise broke the record. And then I needed to actually portray the story. The scale of it was hard to anticipate because although I work within the sports field, my work tends to be design-led – rebranding a product rather than producing journalistic imagery for the press," says Matt. Add to that the challenge of working in an environment as unforgiving as the salt flats. "It's mega hot. It's a hostile environment for electronics and people. There's no shade, and there is absolutely nothing out there."
Every day, the team had to bring everything they needed, from marquees to food and water. They had to use a GPS position to find the Speed Week area. "To give you a sense of the size of the salt flats, if you were to try to drive from one side to the other, it would take you about three hours at 160kph. So it's a vast distance," says Matt.
He worked out of the back of an SUV, and brought a mobile hotspot and SD cards with Wi-Fi that enabled him to download small JPEGs to his laptop, so he could react quickly to media requests. Matt thinks the combined role of photographer and social media officer is one that increasingly more photographers will encounter in the years to come.
"I think it's happening more and more. Certainly if you're working with a brand directly at an event, there is a requirement for that. There is a requirement for your high-quality professional imagery, but in a real-time manner."
The team started testing the vehicles a week before Denise's run. Matt used the testing days to capture wide shots as the sun rose over the vast salt flats, as well as close-ups of the athletes and mechanics, which he shared throughout the week on social media. "I was careful about how I crafted the story. To avoid it becoming visually confusing, I didn't want to show any side profile shots until she had broken the record," says Matt.
To get all the shots on his list on the main racing day he used a number of cameras, including a drone and an action camera that he strapped to the back of the race car to capture Denise riding the bicycle head-on. But the most important shot on his list, the side profile of the racing car and the bike going for the record, Matt captured by standing on the sideline of the pit, using his Canon EOS 5D Mark III and the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens.
"There was only one of me, and the track is six miles (9.7km) long in a straight line. I made the decision to be at the start line for the prelude, but to move to be at a better vantage location when Denise launched. For the run I based myself further down the road because she was travelling at 180mph (290kph), so there was no way that you could even be in a pace vehicle and keep up," says Matt.
He positioned himself between mile marker three and four, a good distance away from the track to remain safe in case a car slipped on the flat salt ground at high speed. The heat haze on the horizon meant that Matt couldn't actually see Denise approaching. Instead, he was equipped with a short wave radio that he used to tune in to a public announcement system to find out when Denise took off.
Matt knew there would be a very small window of time to get the shot once Denise had left the start line, so he had set the manual focus on his Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM to near-infinity ahead of the launch. "Denise was travelling in a straight line so, based on the previous entrants doing their runs, I was able to get the focus right. The focus was locked off, which gives you a little bit more of a boost in terms of the drive speed and frame speed," he explains.
"I did actually try shooting with the lens's 2x converter, to give me 800mm. But at that focal length you're tracking such a tiny object within the frame at such high speed that framing became harder. My hit rate was far lower just because of the speed at which I was able to physically track and pan. So I stuck with the 400mm lens and then cropped afterwards. Being able to crop is one of the advantages of the 5D series cameras."
The Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM features gapless dual-layer diffractive optical elements that help reduce flare, a useful feature under the bright sunlight at the salt flats. Another reason Matt enjoys working with this particular lens is its portability. "The weight was a key factor for me in terms of flying and those restrictions and limitations. The diffractive optics (DO) version can fit in a rucksack, whereas the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM has to come in an in-flight case."
Because of the extremely bright conditions, Matt enabled the Highlight Alert setting on his Canon EOS 5D Mark III to notify him if the highlights were blown out. "To give you an idea of the amount of available light there, I was often shooting at 1/1000 sec at f/13 and ISO100. It's so bright there. Even with long lenses, there was no reason to raise the ISO," Matt says. He even brought a dark cloth similar to those used with old analogue field cameras to pull over his head when reviewing images and colour correcting on his laptop.
"The sun is so highly reflective, it's almost like skiing. There have been cases where people have been burned in very strange places. The salt is also very corrosive and harmful," says Matt. Every night, he checked all of his gear and cleaned it with a rocket blower to make sure his optics were clean. He also had to charge all his batteries in his hotel at night, to be fully equipped for the 12-14 hour days with no electricity out on the salt flats.
Once the side profile shot was in the bag, Matt had to hurry to the finishing line. There he swapped the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens for a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens to document the happiness and celebrations of the record-breaking team, using autofocus and a high frame rate. "I used single point AF, and as the events unfolded, I toggled the focus point within the frame," he says.
When Denise and Shea reached the finishing line and learned that they had, indeed, broken the record, Matt breathed a sigh of relief. "There was a lot of risk involved because you could be building all of that hype and all of that tension and then something could go wrong," he says. "It's not the same as a football match or a bicycle race where someone is going to win no matter what. At the end of this, they could have not broken the record, or there could have been far more serious consequences in trying to. It's quite daunting when you think that there are life-changing consequences, for good and for bad."
As it turned out, Denise rode at an average of 183.932mph (296kph), shattering not only her own previous record of 147.74mph (238kph) in 2016, but also the men's record of 167mph (269kph), achieved by the Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg in 1995. According to US news outlet NPR, Denise's achievement may cause Guinness World Records to stop separating bicycle speed records by gender. After the win, the victorious Denise is said to have yelled out "Beat that, Fred!"
For Matt, the extent to which the event was spoken about around the world took him by surprise. "I've just had stats back for the images that were distributed when the story broke. It went throughout the worldwide press, to 360-odd news outlets, which is mad really."
Matt's next step, he says, is to invest in a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. "But for this assignment, due to the weight restrictions while flying and the ability to move around easily on the shoot, the lighter and smaller Canon EOS 5D Mark III was the right choice."
1. Opt for speed
"Buy the fastest memory cards you can. They'll mean you can shoot for longer at your camera's highest frame rate before the buffer fills up."
2. Make sure you can be reactive
"Being able to move and being reactive is by far the most important thing. That's why I used the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens. I was able to keep it on the monopod and just carry it over my shoulder. I had two bodies so I could react fairly quickly if a situation occurred – because no matter how much priming you do, things always change."
3. Don't put the camera down
"When things stop happening – say the award has been given and the celebrations have stopped – don't be tempted to put your camera away and think it's all over. Lots of things unfold in the moment before and the moment after that really help tell the story. There are usually more intimate and private moments with the people that you're dealing with, such as when they speak to their teammates."