Steve Behr

Steve Behr is renowned in mountain bike photography. He has taken some of the most iconic photos of the sport, and has probably had more images published than anyone else in the industry.

In the UK most will recognise his name from MBUK, which he has contributed to since the magazine first went to print.

Over the past 30 years he has travelled around the word to shoot the biggest names in MTB. With all this come a host of experiences and tales of adventure, which he unravels here.

Age: Its been a while since I was 40

Age you first picked up a camera: Teens, (mostly shot super 8 surf movies) it wasn't 'til my twenties that I first picked up an SLR.

Music: Avett Brothers, Jonathan Wilson, Ray Lamontagne or whatever is on The Word magazine cd this month.

Food: Biltong

Drink: Appletiser

Hi Steve, welcome to getabmx! Hows it going?

Yeah, not bad thanks.

So, who is Steve Behr, and what does he do?

A photographer specialising in all things cycling, but mostly mountain biking.

Starting from the beginning, how did you get into mountain biking?

I heard about it in the mid eighties, then saw one in Hyde Park and really wanted to have a go. Eventually I persuaded a few friends to join me on a weekend break in Telford with Jeremy Torr (co-founder of the mountain bike club) who promised to teach us to ride offroad, which he did. Though I'd always ridden a bike, so it wasn't that difficult, but it was fun and so I went and bought one as soon as I could afford to.

Did riding lead to photography?

I had been dabbling with photography a little before that, was just getting into it I guess, so the two sort of coincided. I think riding gave me something to concentrate my photography on.

What were you working as when photography was just a hobby?

A solicitor in London.

Why do you take photos?

I love it. There is an element of being an observer rather than a participant maybe. I like documenting things, telling stories; I write a bit too, but I love the visual medium.

What was your first paid photography assignment?

I sold my first stock picture to a partwork magazine, something to do with activities or holidays or something, and also submitted pics from a MTB race I'd been to to MBUK before it actually came out - I think they bought a few and then called me to do a shoot with some London couriers for an early issue.

Photography is extremely competitive. How did you turn your passion into a career and break into the professional arena?

Not long after I started to shoot mountain bikes, I took a sabbatical from work and went off travelling around the world with my then girlfriend (now wife) Jill, my camera and a surfboard. We bought bikes and travelled around the States for a few months, shooting a feature about it, and another one in New Zealand. When we came back I wasn't sure what to do, and went into partnership with a Ski photographer I'd met to set up a picture library and agency. During that time I got more and more work from MBUK and the bike industry and before I knew it I was a "Mountain Biking Photographer". I suppose it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time, hard work, enthusiasm and dumb luck.

Neil Donoghue.

Near Bubion, Spain, 2007

Cam McCaul. Aptos, USA, 2007

Having been with MBUK from the beginning I’m sure you were heavily involved with the magazine, why do you think the magazine became so successful, and how was it at the beginning?

I think it was of its time; but its success was in large part due to its editor, Tym Manley. He never took the easy option of filling the mag with stuff that was just happening, but made stuff happen. He paced it well, came up with good, entertaining features and allowed the personalities of the sport to develop in its pages. MBUK wasn't hamstrung by the need to stick to one discipline, everything was new and exciting and it captured that excitement well. XC, DH, trials, dirt jumping and all sorts of other things were featured and really it was kind of like a template for how Top Gear became, with interesting twists and features which had a wide appeal.

What other magazines have you photographed for?

Phew... lots. MBUK has always been the main one, but I've shot for all the Future publishing bike titles at various times. Cycling Plus, What MTB, MTB World, MTB Pro, Total Bike... plus their Motocross title, and Redline, their car magazine. In the early days I was staff photographer for the industry magazine Cycle Industry for a while. I've also shot for Bicycle Action, Mountain Biker (which became MBI) and MBR at various times. And a few others which came and went. Not forgetting Singletrack, and more recently Privateer. Those are just the UK cycling ones - I've shot for some of the mens general interest mags, and a fair few foreign cycling titles, including Bike in the US, and Mountain Bike in Germany.

Is there still a place for printed magazines in the digital age of free content?

Yes, but it’s getting smaller and less secure. At least I hope there is! Time will tell.

What advice would you give to aspiring sports photographers aiming for success in the industry?

Find something else to do? It’s increasingly hard to earn a reasonable living doing it, pressure on prices is always down and competition is fierce. Hold onto the copyright of your pictures; it’s becoming increasingly difficult though.

Name five pros and cons of the job.

Pros: There's nothing else I'd rather be doing

          You get to meet and shoot great riders

          You go to interesting places

          When you're shooting, your office is the outdoors

          You get to buy new toys for work and you have access to discounts on bikes.

Cons: You have to buy new gear when it becomes obsolete/ worn out, and its expensive.

          Travelling with camera gear can become tedious after a while, especially with security since 9/11.

          You sometimes have to work hard in fairly hostile environments/conditions.

          It’s hard to earn decent money these days as a photographer

          Clients can be great but they can also be a pain.

Lance McDermott, San Diego, California, 2005

Describe a typical day.

I guess there isn't really such a thing, but a typical shooting day usually starts early; I usually have to drive a fair distance to the location, and if we start shooting early that means getting up really early. There is often 2-3 hours driving to get there, meet up, discuss what we're going to do and then go do it. Usually I'll take enough food to get by in case there's nowhere to eat. we don't often stop for a proper lunch, it’s usually sandwiches on the side of the trail. Finish shooting, drive home again and download pics; by which time it’s usually pretty late.

A non-shooting day usually starts with a bike ride; 'cos I work from home I do a fake commute to keep me going, though sometimes, particularly in winter this gets delayed 'til the middle of the day. Then I'm usually at my computer for most of the day, editing, processing and sorting pics from the previous days shoot, which can sometimes take most of the day. There's always admin to do when I'm not shooting, always pics to edit, backups to do, accounts or invoicing to do, and calls to make to sort out upcoming shoots.

Do you shoot BMX as well or just mountain biking?

I shoot all kinds of cycling, but it is mostly mountain biking. I'm not really plugged into the BMX magazines so I don't tend to go out to shoot BMX a lot, but I do enjoy shooting it. And road bikes, I've been doing a bit of that lately too.

What do you think about mountain bike street and skatepark riding?

I like shooting all kinds of bike related activities. I've shot a fair bit of street and skatepark stuff over the years, and its always fun to shoot. I don't do that kind of riding myself, but I enjoy watching and shooting good street and park riders. Whatever turns you on, really. Its all good.

If it wasn’t for those early skateboarding mags, would BMX and mountain bike photography be where it is now?

Probably not, but it’s hard to predict. A lot of my early influence was from surf magazines, which I read from an early age. I've always surfed and still do now, and it remains an influence. The skate/BMX thing was also an influence, but I didn't follow it that closely; I kind of wanted to do my own thing.

Cam McCaul. Post Office jumps, Aptos California, 2006.

Cover photo for the DVD: Top Soil 2

Do you prefer photos of style or tricks?

Both have a place. Style is important though - even when the photo is of a trick, I like to see it done with style!

Most unique setting you’ve shot in?

I've shot inside a dormant volcano in the canary isles; inside a casino in Las Vegas; and around some stunning mountains in the Alps. Each one unique in its own way.

What was the last place you travelled to?

Manchester... does that count? Abroad it was Italy.

As a photographer you must have travelled a lot. What’s the best place you’ve visited, and what is your most vivid traveling experience?

Hmm... Alaska for the Iditabike I guess. The environment was pretty hostile in the winter, and it was fairly remote, you could only get there by snowmobile - though it wasn't interesting terrain from a technical riding point of view, it was beautiful, stimulating and exhausting, and I wasn't even riding a bike! 

How does being a rider affect your images?

I guess it gives me an idea of what is possible for a rider to do and what isn't, though I probably get more of that through experience; I'm nowhere near as accomplished a rider as most of the people I shoot. It probably helps me to figure out what bits of trail could look good in a shot.

What do you shoot other than riding?

Lots of things over the years, most types of action and even a fair bit of architectural type stuff. And studio stuff too; people and products.

What do you enjoy taking photos of the most?

A good rider in a good location with good light.

If you could shoot anyone anywhere, what would it be?

Hmm, a tough one. There are so many great riders that I've worked with over the years that its impossible to pick one. Peaty is always good to work with, Gee always pushes harder than you'd imagine, and Chris Smith goes the extra mile. Chopper is great to work with too, as are Martyn Ashton and Chris Akrigg; not forgetting Hans Rey... It’s always nice to shoot those guys in their own backyards, because they know the terrain and and can ride their own stuff better than anyone. But there are some great Alpine locations where I'd be happy to shoot any of those guys. There are probably a dozen more people too, just off the top of my head Fabien Barel was always great to shoot, and Tracy Moseley...

Sam Pilgrim. Nissan Qashqai Challenge, London,2008

What’s it like photographing major competitions such as Crankworx, and how does it differ from taking photos at races e.g. downhill world cups?

Crankworx has been fun to shoot: a little chaotic. It’s hard to pick a spot if you don't know what a particular rider is going to do, which line he's likely to take. You need to do your homework during the practices and talk to the riders to figure it all out, otherwise you might find yourself on the wrong line for the winner. Downhill world cups are hard in a different way, all the riders come down the same track, but choosing where to go and getting enough variety is challenging. Both tend to have way too many photographers at them nowadays though.

Do you think slopestyle is leading freestyle mountain biking in the right direction?

I don't really know what the right direction is;  I think it does make it accessible to a lot of people that wouldn't otherwise get to see it, and thats got to be a good thing, bums on bicycles seats and all that. Does there need to be a separate freestyle competition beyond that? Rampage is different but harder to get good locations for, harder to put on, harder for the riders too. It would be difficult to have a whole series of those.

Best mountain bike product of all time?

Suspension... fully rigid bikes weren't the best for riding a long way on... dunno about one particular product though. Suspension in general.

Worst mountain bike product of all time?

Can't remember what they were called, but there were these sort of neon light things that fitted inside the main frame triangle in the early 90's. Useless.

Who or what are your main influences?

There are a bunch of surf photographers whose work I really like and I guess they were my main influences when I was starting out.

Best thing to happen in photography?

Best and worst is digital I guess. I loved shooting film, its still hard to beat that feeling when you put a transparency on a lightbox and put your eye to the loupe; but I wouldn't want to go back to the hassle of it.  Digital has made it so much easier in a lot of ways, but then its made the barrier to entry so much lower and introduced a lot more competition which has driven the perceived value of photography down. But you have so much more control over how the final image looks with digital, and much more flexibility.

Aptos, California, 2007

What is usually the main aspect differentiating a professional from an amateur photo?

Anyone can take a professional looking photo. Its just that professionals tend to be able to do it on demand more consistently in a wider range of conditions. And equipment comes into it too, if you're an amateur using cheaper gear you probably won't be able to get as consistent results as a pro with pro gear.

What equipment do you use?

Canon EOS 1Dmk IV and mk III cameras, with Canon lenses ranging from 15mm to 300mm, mostly with a 2.8 maximum aperture. I use Canon Speedlights too, but also use a quantum Qflash, with quantum batteries powering the flashes. Manfrotto tripods to steady it all and Lowepro bags to carry it all. Oh, and Pocket Wizard radio slaves to fire the flashes. Plus I have a whole bunch of studio gear, Bowens lights and all sorts of backgrounds and supports.

What gear do you use most often?

Most of it, but I do tend to use the 70-200mm lens a lot, and also the 16-35mm lens too. And the speedlights.

What have been the main changes over the past decade, both in equipment and shooting style?

Well digital came in during the last decade; I switched to full digital output in 2004, having done a year where I dabbled with it alongside film. That was a massive change, along with the internet coming of age for delivery and display of images. Not sure how shooting style has changed really, but digital has made it easier for everyone to use off camera flash. A few of us were doing it with film but probably not as much or as successfully, so you see a lot more of that. And as the digital cameras have improved, conversely, you also get a lot better low light performance without flash, so there are more people shooting in the woods now without flash and getting good results.

Who have been your biggest clients?

Future Publishing has been probably the biggest in terms of how much work I've done for them. I've been shooting for them and their various titles since they took over MBUK in the early 90's. But I've worked for a lot of the bike and outdoor industry; Trek, Halfords, Wiggle; Nike; Raleigh to name a few.

Having photographed numerous pro riders from around the world you must have gotten to know some of them pretty well. Who is the biggest character in mountain biking?

Rob Warner is a big character who I've done many shoots with over the years, and travelled a lot with. Rob is great really, an excellent rider who always delivers, but keeps you on your toes. Never a dull moment with Warner around.  Of course I've shot with a lot of pros and there are a lot of great characters. Peaty is another amazing character, in a different way; Will Longden, Hans Rey, Cam McCaul, Brian Lopes, Greg Herbold, Dave Cullinan, Myles Rockwell, Jason McRoy... there's a long list.

Favourite rider?

Hmm, not sure I have a favourite. I guess its the one I happen to be shooting at any given time! I used to shoot a lot with Dave Hemming, who was an incredible rider actually, and could do pretty much anything you asked him to. He always looked great on a bike too, just so natural. So while I couldn't pick one favourite, Dave comes pretty close. And from the same era, of course Jason McRoy was amazing, and a really top bloke. But there are lots of riders I work closely with and I couldn't pick one of them now.

Is there an up and coming rider you have your eye on?

Not really.. there are so many good riders coming through, each generation pushes it a little further than the one before. Look at Danny Hart, I did a shoot with him a few years back with Shaums March showing him some techniques... now Danny would be showing him a few things.

Jamie Goldman, Leogang, Austria, 2006

Does the riding scene in the US differ from that in the UK?

I haven't been to the states for a few years now, I used to go at least once or twice a year and it always was a bit different then. I should imagine it still is. But I guess things vary here from area to area, and the states is such a massive place that things are bound to vary.

Biggest nightmare scenario as a photographer?

Equipment failure when you don't have backup!

Worst photography experience?

I went on a trip to the canary islands, and one of the two camera bodies I was using developed a fault in the shutter. unfortunately it carried on working so there was no way of telling until I got back to the UK and found that all the film shot on that body had a black stripe across it where the shutter was broken. It was a whole bunch of film and half the shoots didn't work out as a result.

Luckiest escape?

World Champs in Vail, I was sat in the bushes waiting for the riders to come around and the lead motorcycle made a mistake and came off a rock at the wrong angle, crashed through the bushes and missed my head by about half an inch. I felt it whistle past and knew that if I'd been half an inch more across I'd probably have been killed.

Most memorable photography experience?

Hard to pick one out, but maybe it was travelling around the world before I became a pro, just shooting what I wanted to and learning on the way.

How important is editing in photography?

Vital. Everyone shoots stuff that doesn't work out perfectly, why show it to other people? If you're not cocking things up occasionally you're not pushing yourself enough.

Is there an area of photography you would like to get into?

I'm increasingly enjoying shooting portraits of people, particularly riders or sports people in their environments.

What are the most common mistakes people make when taking photos?

With autofocus its a common mistake to use the centre spot to focus and then not recompose before pushing the button, so you get a lot of heads in the centre of the frame when a little thought might make you frame it differently.

Top three tips for aspiring photographers?

Shoot lots. Learn from your mistakes. Understand the way light works and how a camera deals with it.

Grant "Chopper" Fielder, Southampton, 2005

Video is becoming an increasing popular medium. Do you think it is important nowadays for a photographer to be able to produce video as well?

Probably! I think if I were starting out now I definitely would spend more time on honing my video skills. As it is, my camera can shoot video and I do from time to time, but there are many people doing it better than me and I haven't been able to devote the time to it that it requires yet. That's not to say I won't be learning how to edit properly sometime soon...

Who do you admire in the photography industry?

Chase Jarvis has made a big name for himself by producing great work and publicising himself well. And people like Dave Hobby (Strobist) and Joe McNally have really advanced the use of smaller flashes and less expensive lighting in digital photography.

Tell me something most people don’t know about you.

I grew up in what is now the slightly hippie enclave of Hout Bay in South Africa...

What bike are you riding at the moment?

A reasonably old Kona Dawg Deluxe when I ride properly offroad, and a very old Kona Explosif with slick tyres for just getting around.

How often do you ride?

Every sunday with a group of friends, and then as many times in the week as I can depending on my work schedule.

For anyone who wants to get into sport photography with a limited budget, what camera(s) would you recommend for under £200?

Blimey... not sure what you can even get for under £200.  I've just bought a new compact, the Canon S95, which was £200, but that was because it was being superseded by the s100 and was heavily discounted. It’s a great little pocket camera, and you can shoot Raw files in fully manual mode, but its limited as a sports camera because of the delay when you push the shutter button. You can work around this a bit, but it helps to have an SLR for sports. I don't really know much about which compacts might be best for sports...

Do you have any other hobbies?

Surfing, guitar.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Learn from your mistakes.

How big a role does luck play in a good photo?

Sometimes luck can play a big part, but as (golfer) Gary Player used to say, "the harder you work the luckier you get."

Nikon or Canon?


How would you like to be remembered?

I'll take just being remembered!

Chris Smith. Near Bubion, Spain, 2007

I took a sabbatical from work and went off travelling around the world with my girlfriend, camera and a surfboard.”

Its increasingly hard to earn a reasonable living doing photography; pressure on prices is always down and competition is fierce.”

A lot of my early influence was from surf magazines, which I read from an early age. I've always surfed and still do now, and it remains an influence.”

I've shot inside a dormant volcano in the canary isles; inside a casino in Las Vegas; and around some stunning mountains in the Alps.”

Digital has made the barrier to entry so much lower and introduced a lot more competition which has driven the perceived value of photography down.”

Look at Danny Hart, I did a shoot with him a few years back with Shaums March showing him some techniques... now Danny would be showing him a few things.”

If you're not cocking things up occasionally you're not pushing yourself enough.”

as (golfer) Gary Player used to say, "the harder you work, the luckier you get." “

Published: 02/02/2012

All photos copyright Steve Behr