Cycling enthusiast Russ Ellis reckons he has the best job in the world – travelling the globe and getting paid to take pictures of his favourite sport. But Russ’s career path wasn’t the result of a grand plan he’d been hatching since childhood.
Receiving a camera for his 10th birthday kickstarted a passion for photography, and although a keen sportsman at school, the bicycle was merely his only form of transport for the Nottingham-born youngster. Fast forward to 2013 when some friends suggested a cycling holiday in Mallorca and he was truly hooked on two wheels.
© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/1000s @ f/3.5, ISO 320
Around the same time Russ was getting serious about his photography and after dabbling in wildlife and street photography, he began shooting local bike races and in 2015 was approached by Cycling Weekly to shoot the Paris-Roubaix race for the magazine.
“Getting paid to shoot that first race was a turning point for me. I realised that this was something I wanted to do for a living.”
Photography offers began to steadily increase and later that year he was approached by Sky to photograph their ‘Sky Loves Cycling’ campaign. It was then that Russ had to decide between the security of his office job or the chance to forge a career from his two passions. Luckily he chose the latter.
In 2017, two days before he was due to head out to shoot the Tour de France, Russ was given the opportunity to try the newly released α9. As any professional photographer knows, having 100% trust in your kit is vital, so for the first few days he used the camera alongside his usual trusted kit.
© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/1000s @ f/3.5, ISO 200
© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/1000s @ f/3.2, ISO 100
"I wasn’t expecting to use the α9 as much as I did, but I had a quick look through the menu system and it was really intuitive, so I used it alongside my existing kit from day one and felt just as comfortable using it. The Eye-AF was a real revelation and gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have usually had. By the end of the tour I was reaching for the α9 exclusively."
© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/2500s @ f/4, ISO 320
With the possible exception of those shooting in conflict situations, sports photographers are renowned for being less than kind to their equipment, and to keep working day after day, the cameras have to be pretty robust.
"I spent quite a bit of time shooting from a motorbike and the weather wasn’t too kind sometimes. I was a bit worried about how the α9 would cope with the rain and getting thrown around – especially as I knew my DSLR kit could cope – but it was fine, it never let me down."
© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/2000s @ f/1.8, ISO 250
Alongside his primary role shooting the cyclists along the route, Russ was also granted complete behind the scenes access – something he was keen to document, perhaps a throwback to his earlier street photography.
"Shooting behind the scenes with such a small camera was fantastic and the silent shutter allowed me to capture moments that would have been impossible with my DSLR. I could literally flip the screen out and shoot without anyone realising. I ended up with some great stuff that way."
Rather than the classic long-lens shot that many sports photographers produce, Russ prefers to get up close and personal with the riders, or give his images some perspective in the scenery. He favours short lenses for a lot of his work, especially the Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA which he shoots wide open.
"I love the 55mm f/1.8 – I’d say it’s my go-to lens, especially at the start of the race when I’m grabbing those first images. I like a shallow depth of field so I’m often shooting wide open, and the lens always gives me great results. I’ve also used the 35mm f/1.4 which is just amazing and more recently I’ve been trying the 16-35mm f/2.8 G Master which gives me a lot more flexibility."
© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/4000s @ f/1.8, ISO 160
© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/1000s @ f/1.8, ISO 200