Who says the Philippines is short of automotive exotica? Well nobody told the participants of Tour de Cebu. For the past couple of years, we've covered the event from a passenger's or spectator's point of view. But here's a new angle on it: How about the Tour de Cebu from behind the (camera) lens?
Having have covered the 1,000-kilometer Tour de Cebu historic rally four times; thrice as one of the official photographers. I can tell you that it's a rolling automotive museum and I’ve had the privilege of writing about it here in Autoindustriya and the honor of introducing our tropical rally to the international audience. We're not short on automotive eye candy at all; if you ask me.
But say, you do want to immortalize the drive-through photos, be it for personal consumption (or satisfaction) commercial reasons, or just sharing your passion to the people. I’ve got some tips for you including some principles of how I've covered it over the years and, hopefully, impart wisdom along the way. All the photos shared in this article are from Tour de Cebu 2019.
Before you aim to be an official photographer for Tour de Cebu, start small. Be on the sidelines first. It has been an honor and privilege to witness these artworks on wheels but I didn’t get the gig right away. I went independently for my first time in 2016, with partial sponsorship from a participant and the organizers who thankfully already liked my stuff as Dæmon Ex Machina. Make your presence felt to the organizers, they decided to get me after I put up my albums. The good news is that you can witness and enjoy Tour de Cebu as a spectator, even if you aren’t part of the event. You just have to know when and where to go.
So when and where do you go? The day before the rally begins, all the participants congregate in one parking lot which is open to the public as a pop-up car show. The crowds start flooding in mid-afternoon and they leave past sunset. The morning brings nicer light and fewer people, while it gets completely cleared out at night for long exposures. If you want your coverage to have a buzzing feel, you can take photos of dapper drivers, wide-eyed visitors, curious kids, and hardworking mechanics. The pre-rally parking lot is the best place to zone out on the details without any time-related pressure. This is where one’s enthusiasm for car culture is actually put to most use.
When the cars are stationary, you can get close and even abstract with details. Focus on iconic, recognizable parts of cars — identifiable clues for those in the know, including badges, dashboards, wheels, grilles, lights, design cues, etc. Be flexible and move your viewfinder around to control where the shapes of light, shadow, and reflection are positioned in the frame. I can’t stress how handy a circular polarizing filter can be to a car photographer. It allows you to adjust the intensity of reflections on metal and glass, and see-through windshields and windows. When you shoot the cars in the wild, the circular polarizing filter prevents windshields from reflecting unwanted highlight.
Shooting the rally itself is like a mix between motorsport and wildlife photography. At the track, conditions are more controlled and predictable; you know where the optimal racing lines and braking points are. On public roads, you must contend with mixed traffic, roadside clutter, and even litter — therefore, getting an ideal shot can be hit or miss so be patient. I personally end up deleting a lot of images I personally deem as “ruined” but we all have our own preferences and quirks as photographers.
Tour de Cebu 2019 was different in the way that the rally stages began in Cebu before the ferry ride. In previous years, the rally would properly start upon arrival in Bohol. Remember to study the itinerary. You can do this by asking a participant, organizer, or media member you know for access to the schedules and route maps. Before the event, try to make connections in advance. You can also just show up at the event itself and be very polite in your inquiries.
If you choose only one specific time to shoot cars at Tour de Cebu, you’ll want to hit the port for obvious reasons. This happens the morning after the pop-up car show. The timing is relaxed, the cars line up right by the water, and the maritime backdrops are amazing. It’s the perfect nautical, industrial, and vintage automotive combination. This scene is probably the most distinct and quintessential poster image of Tour de Cebu. Each and every car gets its solo moment in the spotlight as it trundles onto the ferry. If you want to board, make sure you buy a ticket.
The port of Cebu City is quite large and vast. Because there’s waiting involved, I take this time to actually pose cars and exercise a fleeting sense of control. Pick a spot away from the others, specifically for a car and its owner of my choice. On the boat ride itself, the drivers usually relax while the photographers walk around the entire ferry — gingerly snaking in between cars, leaning off barriers, and climbing ladders.
The rally stages test the navigation skills of not only the competitors; but also the media folks. Photographers ride in designated support vehicles, and will sometimes switch between them. You can achieve the same mobility by self-driving or hiring a local tour driver. On Google Maps, save the entire island of Bohol for offline viewing in advance, plot the routes for each day, and pin the trips on my phone’s home screen.
By the time the rally begins, I know the lineup of cars pretty well. I leave ahead with my designated driver, pick a spot, wait for cars, shoot two to five, then leave for the next spot. We also shoot on the chase. When I feel like most of the cars have passed me, I often take a shortcut to intercept the frontrunners on their route. Rinse and repeat.
Being a photographer covering Tour de Cebu — with the lush scenery, twisty roads, less traffic, and classic cars — is pretty amazing as you can imagine. It’s hard work, for me at least, and always challenging in spite of how many times I’ve done it. The more I get used to it, the more I push myself. Hydration and adequate nutrition are vital; I’ve experienced hardcore nausea once after forgetting to eat. I regularly apply sunblock and I dress and pack as if I was hiking. Rain gear helps me shoot moody stuff in the wet.
Be prepared. It’s an exhausting workout for everyone involved in whatever capacity. In fact, I usually come down with a bug when I get home. Then I take my sweet, meticulous time post-processing everything individually afterward, which takes forever because I upload 100-200 photos from each day. That problem is highly specific to my particular case.
My constant dilemma with shooting vehicles (or any object of design) is “information versus drama.” When do you focus on showing valuable, elucidating details of the vehicle? When do you forego them for the sake of artistic tone? I try to strike a balance. They say photography is painting with light.
If you want to create entire images, not just capture subjects and document moments, I suggest paying more attention to surroundings and backgrounds. Is anything interfering with the car’s silhouette? Watch the edges of the frame to avoid cutting or cropping things out at a weird place (basics in fashion photography or art will help). Find the most flattering angles of each car. Frame your “road porn” shot like you’re shooting a landscape first — and then wait for a car to hit the pre-focused mark you want.
Be patient. Watch how objects and people are moving — and then wait until they do something interesting, their bodies are in position (watch their faces and limbs, especially the way their knees bend while walking), or they move out of frame. Move your entire body. Squat. Raise the camera high above your head. Go prone or supine.
I could go on and on. Just shoot whatever you want, however you want. Everyone has a style or idiosyncratic idea of what is important. I’ve been covering Tour de Cebu for years with an abused Canon EOS 6D, versatile EF 24–105mm f/4L IS USM, Lightroom, and Adobe Photoshop CS3 (old habits die hard, but it works for me). You can get wilder with other types of cameras, equipment, lenses, and even drones. If you’re a local automotive photographer, journalist, or classic car enthusiast, I highly recommend attending this grand tour at least once, even just for a day. It’s worth the trip. Tour de Cebu captures man, machine, and nature all in one frame and that's the beauty of it all.