Fraser Britton: What It’s Like To Be A Pro Mountain Bike Photographer
During most years, freelance photographer Fraser Britton logs 150,000 miles traveling in airplanes around the globe to cover pro mountain bike racing. But ever since events started getting cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been staying home. So we took the opportunity to catch up with the 41-year-old shooter from Squamish, British Columbia.
Stan’s NoTubes: What’s a typical year look like for you?
Fraser Britton: Normally, I’m on the road from early March until late September or early October. My travel starts in New Zealand with Crankworx, then I’m off to Europe for the opening World Cups. I bounce back and forth between Europe and North America seven to eight times throughout the main season, and there’s usually a trip to Australia or Asia in there, too. In addition to the downhill mountain bike World Cups and the Crankworx series, I also cover a few Enduro World Series (EWS) events, the Red Bull Rampage, U.S. Cyclocross Nationals, and a random road event or two. After so many years, it’s gotten pretty easy to plan... well at least until recently.
SNT: What’s it like to go from world traveler to being stuck at home during this pandemic?
FB: It’s interesting. This will be the first time in 20 years that I’ve been home in the summer. This spring, I shot the X-Games, Dark Fest and then Crankworx New Zealand, and then everything just stopped. I’m taking advantage of it by doing renovations and riding my bike. I hope for the best and to get back to work before next March. I wasn’t planning on a year of unpaid vacation.
SNT: In a more normal year, do you ride more when you’re on the road taking photos or when you’re home?
FB: Back when I worked for the Monster Energy Factory Team doing all their photos and press releases, we’d travel in an RV and take our bikes with us. Life was easy, and I rode a lot while on the road. That team is gone, and now I don’t usually take a bike with me when I go to World Cups. Sometimes I can borrow a bike for an afternoon, which is easier than flying with a bike, but at this point, I’d say I ride more when I’m at home.
SNT: Many people dream of having a job like yours that lets you travel the globe while going to the biggest and best MTB events and destinations in the world. How and when did you get into being a pro photographer?
FB: I raced for a long time, including downhill World Cups, then I got a journalism degree. I found I could use the same media and marketing contacts I’d developed as an athlete and get paid in a different way. I started doing some photo work while I was still racing while in college, but I’ve never actually taken a photography class. I had initially specialized in radio; however, my timing wasn’t great as it was just when radio news was ending. So I don’t really use anything I learned in school.
SNT: What’s the best part of your job?
FB: I get all of my work done in six months and get six months of vacation each year. I could work more, but I choose not to.
SNT: What’s the hardest thing about your job that people don’t realize?
FB: Because you’re never really home during the season, you have limited windows to catch up with people. Many of my friends are the people that I have been traveling with for 15 years. Some of those folks have gotten to the point where they don’t want to travel that much anymore. For example, I have 1.3 million air miles, but I won’t use them. Other than going somewhere warm in the winter for a week to break it up, I usually don’t feel like going anywhere else.
SNT: Do you still do any racing?
FB: I still race once in a while, but I’m not home enough now to even ride my bike much. Last year, I actually did two races, and one of them was Masters Worlds.
SNT: Tell us about that...
FB: I’m originally from Montreal in Quebec, so I’ve raced at Mont-Sainte-Anne over and over again -- maybe three dozen times. Everyone I used to race with decided they would race Masters Worlds, too. It was going to be fun for all of us to come back. I hadn’t raced a bike in years, but I ended up staying with [Stan’s North American Events Manager] Drew [Esherick].
It was a pretty rough track at Mont-Sainte-Anne -- a combination of the new and old tracks there -- and I guess I had gotten way older. It was technical and muddy and slippery, and one of the longest, hardest tracks out there, and I couldn’t feel my hands after my race run. Drew had to help me get my body armor off and help me get undressed.
SNT: Tell us about the bike you put together for Masters Worlds.
FB: When I decided I wanted to race Masters Worlds. GT got me a Fury Team DH bike, SRAM got me parts, and Stan’s got me Flow EX3 wheels (29” front and 27.5” rear). The guys at Crankworx helped me get in a few runs at Whistler before I flew over to Worlds. Then Drew worked on my bike all week long while I mostly just drank his beer.
SNT: Speaking of drinking beer, you’ve been around on the downhill circuit for a long time so we have to ask... what are those World Cup after parties really like?
FB: They used to be out of control. A lot of things got broken, and a lot of police showed up, but that’s gone away now. Riders are in bed by like 9:00 pm as they’ve gotten more professional. They get paid more now and are expected to act like adults.
SNT: When you’re at events what kind of camaraderie is there among your fellow photographers?
FB: It’s like any other industry. We’re all doing our own thing. We don’t dislike each other, but we all have a short amount of time to get our job done. I have another photographer with whom I’ve worked for a long time, and sometimes we collaborate, but I’m lucky enough though to only have to work with a few clients so there is less overlap in my assignments. There are some guys who regularly work together if they are over extended and working for too many clients at a time.
SNT: How has the sport and your work covering it changed for you over time -- both in terms of tech and media?
FB: Mountain biking has gotten much more professional. Cross country is an Olympic event, and downhillers are getting paid money and not trashing hotel rooms. More athletes have six-figure salaries and non-endemic sponsorship commitments. That also means that the athletes usually show up for an interview. Many have had media coaching -- that makes for less entertaining interviews, but it’s also easier to work with them.
Tech-wise, cameras make things easy now, too. You download to a laptop -- you don’t have to develop photos or send slides. Internet speeds are better, so it’s easier to deliver images and video right after the event although I’ve only ever done photos. I don’t have much interest in doing video although several clients have asked me. I know how and could, but I’m probably not as good as those who do it full time. They also have to put in a lot of time editing video footage after the event.
I used to do a lot of event reporting with an emphasis on getting results back to an editor right away. Now everyone just watches the live feed. So we promote less news content and instead do more feature-based content. Frankly, the feature content is more interesting.
Courses have changed, too, and a lot of the changes seem to have been made due to TV contracts, which call for longer camera shots and fewer wooded sections. For a while, courses were getting faster and smoother and more bike park-y because most of the courses were at bike parks. I think some athletes would agree with me and some wouldn’t. Some of the courses that look like they are smooth really aren’t when you go that fast. Speeds are much faster now, which is more exciting for spectators. I think that there’s a good variety of courses now as most tracks are starting to go back to having both wooded trails and open sections.
SNT: Most of us aren’t flying now, but eventually, we will be again. What are your favorite and least favorite airports and why?
FB: Singapore is really nice and simple to get around. I also really like the Vancouver airport because it’s just big enough to not be crowded; yet for a big airport, it’s quick and simple and efficient. I also liked the tiny Aspen airport; I think it had just two gates.
Both German airports, Munich and Frankfurt, suck because they are big and take forever to get through. Chicago in the summer is a terrible idea -- there is a thunderstorm every 10 minutes to affect flights. And winter isn’t much better.
Miami is the worst airport that I’ve ever flown through. I’ve been stuck at that airport for so many hours. It’s dirty and old and cramped and has low ceilings. No wait... the worst one was in Columbia for one of the EWS rounds, but I can’t remember the name of it -- it was a small airport. The airline there was on strike, and bags were lost for days. They were going to charge us $10,000 bonds to get bikes into the country.
SNT: Do you have any road warrior tips to share?
FB: The biggest thing for me is to stay with one airline alliance and not to try to save every single dollar on every single flight. Sticking with one airline or one airline alliance means that I don’t have to stand in line any more. You get a lot of perks at 150,000 miles: no lines at check in, no lines at customs and TSA, and lots of free baggage. I get more back in terms of time saved by not waiting in line; and being able to have three bags weighing up to 70 pounds each at no charge saves you a lot of money, especially when traveling with camera gear and bikes.
What’s important is to know which airports to avoid when. And it’s always a good idea to avoid country hopping when you can. It saves you time spent clearing immigration and customs. Like for example, I’ll always avoid going through the United States if I can.
Get a comfortable backpack and a good set of headphones. And don’t forget to wipe off your tray tables because they are really gross.
SNT: You’ve dealt with a lot of athletes over the years. Looking back, who are your favorite riders to shoot and why?
FB: I’ve worked with Sam Hill since he was 17 or 18 and with the Iron Horse Team. We know what to expect from each other, so I can get jobs done much more quickly with him than shooting with someone I don’t know yet.
There are also some guys who have such good style on a bike that you can’t take a bad picture of them. They make our jobs easy. Loic Bruni is an example. He’s so easy to work with, and he’s willing to do shots over and over again.
But really, with everyone becoming so much more pro, the riders know it’s no longer about showing up to race and then just going home. They realize the photo part is important. They know they have to do photo shoots and autograph signings.
SNT: Any parting thoughts?
FB: Thanks to Drew for all the beer at Worlds last year.