Photography and Cycling- A Q&A with Professional Photographer Tom Main
Let us introduce you to our friend Tom Main. Tom is a former award winning Sport & Editorial photographer who previously worked for major publications such as The Times, Sunday Times, Sunday Mirror and The News of the World. Now he is primarily focused on his passion of large format film and platinum printing. Ohh and how could we forget! He is also a dab hand at cycling photography and a little bit of film making to boot.
So without further ado, here is our Q & A with Tom. Questions posed By Daz. Enjoy
BCR: Tell us a little about your life in Sports Photography.
TM: I started shooting rugby for The Sunday Times office in Glasgow in 1992 with a bit of football and then cricket in the summer season. I was then asked to go to cover SPL and 1st Division football for the News of the World 1993 as the No3 photographer and at the time there were only three football match reports with photographs so it was always Rangers, Celtic and some other team ! So I managed to cover grounds in Scotland from Stair Park Stranraer in the south to Forres Mechanics at Mosset Park on the Moray coast.
By the time SCORE the football pull-out in the NOTW was launched a few personnel changes had taken place and I was first choice for sport and was covering it all; football, rugby, golf, boxing, swimming, anything with exertion and I was there.
At the turn of the century I was in a position to supply my work to other newspapers through the contacts I’d made so my work was now being published the UK’s broadsheet and tabloid papers. This goes back to being freelance and making contacts in the sporting world allowing me the opportunities to create work that the papers would want especially in sports that generally had to battle to get coverage.
There were lots of great photographic experiences along the way that unfortunately haven’t made it to my thomasmain.com website like; Amir Khan KO in 30 seconds to Bredis Prescott, glove on jaw, back page of the News of the World. Tiger Woods on the front page of the Telegraph Sport or Scotland’s former rugby coach Andy Robinson in the Guardian. Generating my own style of portrait and getting to know what certain papers wanted I could create jobs that would be published and that was the essence of a freelance photographer.
“Winning and award is like peeing down your leg with black trousers on, you feel all warm and nobody notices!”
BCR: When did you move away from Freelance/Editorial and how did this change your outlook and approach to your own projects?
TM: I was always a freelancer, which looking back now, wasn’t so bad overall, as I still had control over what & when I wanted to shoot. In saying that I’d shoot any sport at any level at anytime, as I still enjoyed the challenge, but as the old adage goes at a few football grounds when the floodlights came on….it got darker! I remember being at Firhill, home of Partick Thistle, and my camera had a broken light meter, so going into the second half the floodlights came on and I whipped out my hand held light meter only to hear “you don’t need that to tell you it’s dark!” from one of the other photographers to a few guffaws all round.
Rupert Murdoch killed my career but he did give me the opportunity to go and create work away from digital cameras, great tools for professional work but a double edged sword nonetheless with the market flooded with images. I now work almost exclusively with black & white film, silver gelatin prints, platinum palladium prints and….. shhh ! digital prints. I’m not anti-digital but I have used it enough to want to go back to what I enjoy and thankfully I kept my darkroom equipment through this digital period and found it easy to go and shoot manually with a hand held light meter again. After finding work outside journalism any free time I now have could be devoted to the ideas and projects I put on the back burner over the last few years.
People need to experience the satisfaction and enjoyment of producing a photographic print without the use of a computer or digital camera,
BCR: Tells us about your current cycling project(S)
TM: My work at the moment is looking more at the aesthetic of the print that is expressionistic with the movement and texture.
So over the last six or seven months I’ve been shooting cycling action which is a perfect subject as the cyclist brings the effort and drama that I’m looking for. To add to the action photographs I’ve also collected various damaged bike parts to photograph in a still life set up and trying to get a delaminated tyre to look interesting is difficult ! Beyond the still image I’ve also started a video project involving my son Ellis and hopefully some additional riders in the future. This one goes back to my professional sports work where I want to shoot video on longer lenses in order to compress or foreshorten the perspective so that I can concentrate on the rider in detail. This is challenging as I haven’t had a great deal of experience with video and it’s a different way of thinking and planning your shots, though it is nice to see a moving image with the same look as my sports photographs.
BCR: Any current or past Cycling photographers who’s work you enjoy?
TM:Before I mention any photographers this is a link to a Henri Lartigue photograph that sent me down the road of my current cycling project. I’m not looking to recreate this image with cyclists but it is the source of inspiration. Not bad for a photograph over 100 years old to still be so stimulating. Back to inspirational photographers. I really don’t have specific cycling photographers in mind though I do like Thomas Van Brecht’s work for Pelotonphotos. Though there are too many photographers to mention that have had an effect on my work in one way or another however I will mention Chris Smith from the Sunday Times and Eamonn McCabe from The Observer both of whom were a big influence on my sports work when I was learning. Albert Watson’s
photographs for Rolling Stone magazine were another big influence on my work, though on the portrait side, his attention to detail is incredible and the photographs timeless.
BCR: What equipment do you use and what does it give you over digital.
TM: Did I say I get to push boundaries? Shooting sport with a Fuji GX617 panoramic camera or a 5″x 4″ Field camera is interestingly difficult and can yield results not to everyone’s tastes, but that’s life at the edge of the frame. After years of striving for pin sharp, peak of the action photographs, I am now interested in building up layers of texture and movement with multiple exposures or one second long, panned shots. Even my still life photographs are challenging as I’m not satisfied just to sit a 1kg stud bolt down to be photographed, I need to make it float ! One of the reasons for shooting with film is that everything has to be done in camera when working with silver gelatin prints. A very small amount of computer work is required for Platinum Palladium printing. I’ve never found any enjoyment in manipulating images to the extent of adding or removing parts of the image. If something exists and you don’t want it in your photograph then you have to work to find a composition that removes the object from the scene, that’s part of the enjoyment of photography. Adding and subtracting in Photoshop is lazy, it’s not enhancement, it’s just something else you let a computer do. People need to experience the satisfaction and enjoyment of producing a photographic print without the use of a computer or digital camera,
BCR: What is it you look for in setting up and creating your pieces?
TM: The first thing that draws me to a subject is tone followed quickly by texture and that tells me if the subject will photograph well in black and white. Next consideration is the composition, whether or not the subject sits in the frame correctly, bearing in mind that I use the full frame of the negative for the final print, as I don’t crop my current photographs, just to make things a little more challenging. Also, to make it really interesting the location for the best picture always seems to be three feet over the edge or where security tell you where you can’t be or when someone tells you it can’t be done. The best spot never seems to be where I’m standing.
I like pushing boundaries. I like to push my photographic self.
BCR: Talk us through your process of creating how you make your subject matters appear to float…P.S. Can you make a Cyclist float? I floated once on the bike, but it didn’t have a happy ending for me!
TM: I don’t think you’d want me to make you float, I don’t do instant gratification, I like the pain, suffering and elation involved with creating the initial visualisation from scratch through to the final realisation in print or, in order to stay in the present, digitally on my website. All of my still life photographs where the subject is floating is done in the studio not in Photoshop and it then requires a level of technical still to light the subject in order to make the photograph believable and subtle. It would be a dawdle in Photoshop, but where’s the ‘fun’ in that? Generally once I’ve shot the photographs I spend an evening developing either the rolls of film or, in the case of large format, the single sheets of 5″x4″ film. Netflix on my phone evens out the tediousness of repeat processing film. Once the film has dried overnight I’ll scan the photographs and make adjustments to the levels and spot out any dust on the negatives. Once they digital images are ready I’ll either produce a digital Pigment Ink print straight from my Epson P600 printer or I’ll prepare a larger negative printed from the same printer but used as part of a contact print to make a Platinum & Palladium photograph. Platinum printing is too involved to explain it here though I have some examples on my twitter feed @thomas_main or use Google as there are plenty of examples out there.
BCR: What is your favourite memory or experience from your time in the field as freelance sport and more recently in your non digital world?
TM: To name one I would think winning the Sports Photographer of the Year three times at the Scottish Press Awards, though the quote from the guest of honour doing the presentations burst any bubbles, “Winning and award is like peeing down your leg with black trousers on, you feel all warm and nobody notices!” Even just being nominated is enough vindication that you’re doing something right. In the non-digital world the best experience is seeing the finished print just as you imagined it would be before you had even pressed the shutter. Nothing beats that!
BCR: What is one of the most important things you have learned in your life of photography.
THE most important thing I learned is that no matter how worked up or upset you are, never burn your bridges. Before you get to that point remember you are not more important than your subject no matter who they are.
I did burn my bridges once before I left the industry though it was building up for a few years and I still haven’t regretted it, so probably recognising any source of irritation and avoiding it’s influence would be a good piece of advice.
BCR: Your on a field trip. One album, one book and one alcoholic beverage to fire up the creative juices?
TM: ALBUM: Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway BOOK: Hunter S Thompson – The Rum Diary. BEVERAGE: Jack Daniels & Coke
Huge thanks for Tom for giving us little glimpse into his life and passions. If you would like to see more of Tom’s creations head to
Tom’s social media weapon of choice is Twitter follow him at TW: @thomas_main and tmainphoto for Instagram