I strive for eccentric crops and visual space to allow objects within the frame to breathe and the eye to be drawn through the image, whether that’s informed by negative space, allowing you to isolate the subject in terms of framing, or the use of tension points in the composition.
Matt Ben Stone is an internationally published freelance location photographer with a studio in central London, and is known for creating sports lifestyle and cycling imagery. We spoke to Matt about his approach to compositions, his camera kit set up, and some of his most memorable shoots on location.
You live in London, an incredibly cosmopolitan and creative city. In what ways has London impacted your creativity and your approach to sports photography?
I moved to London a few years ago when my network started to expand. I realised that London was the best place for me to live as a commercial Freelance Sports Photographer as it is where the majority of agencies and brands are based that commission me. This means I am on hand to pop in for a meeting with Art Directors and Producers or start pre-production with other members of the crew and collaborate with other departments.
My time now is starting to split between working in the studio, on look-books or still-life, and location projects. However as a commercial freelance photographer I spend a lot of time on the road, working on location. I am very fortunate to travel with my work and see some incredible places. I recently spent some time in India as part of one of my projects and cant wait to share the imagery once released.
What is space to you? How do you frame it in your compositions?
I have been thinking about this a lot lately, as I am expanding more into moving image, I have been collaborating with camera ops, editors, and DOP’s. So I have been self examining my style and trying to define it so when working with other people you can to explain what you’re trying to achieve and how you want to produce your work.
It could be said I have a set of rules where I approach things that give a clean and graphic nature to all of my work. This is also how I convey to my clients when I’m on set to explain when things should be framed or spaced differently; usually also allowing for copy to be used on the image. I strive for eccentric crops and visual space to allow objects within the frame to breathe and the eye to be drawn through the image, whether that’s informed by negative space (blank areas), allowing you to isolate the subject in terms of framing, or the use of tension points in the composition.
Analysing your published work, it’s clear to see that you have an appreciation for minimalism, exemplified by your SS19 shoot for Mono. Is there a sportswear brand you’d love to work with in the future?
There are so many brands doing really cool things. One of the major players like Nike or Adidas would be cool. However, I really love what Patagonia and Rapha aspire to do with their clothing manufacturer, in terms of their sustainability and recycling programmes.
It’s probably more challenging to take a minimalist approach to your equipment. Has your camera kit changed much over the years? What is your current setup?
Whats in my bag(s), changes depending on the requirements of the assignment. Minimal kit just isn’t me. Every job I think I can slim kit down but I am always carrying more kit than I need just in case. Flying often requires a certain amount of preparation, working on the bags and the gear combination, what goes where.
I am a CPS member so I run with Canon gear, several pro bodies with a mixture of primes, and my main camera kit is a Peli Air case, which I take for the majority of commissions. The padded inserts and the pocket organiser lid means I can configure my gear as I need. I use it as a base to work out of in the field, it can double up as a mobile workstation for my assistant to check files/send rushes to the client, or as an apple box for extra height. It’s heavy enough to always draw attention from check in staff.
This is supplemented by a mirrorless system, Fuji Xpro2, which is great for BTS and a Mamiya 7ii for personal work when travelling. Usually contained in a smaller soft bag; either Billingham or Lowepro for a complete camera hand luggage combo. When back from a commission I will ‘reset’ the inserts and cases to store/use my main gear when not in use. I keep all my equipment charged and ready to shoot with full batteries.
When I have to be super quick and low-key I shoot with one body and two lenses, typically my go-to at the moment is something wide and fast and a mid-range portrait lens. I have always preferred prime lenses, they are often sharper than the zoom equivalent and help me concentrate on creating the image through the viewfinder rather than zooming to create a crop. Even at longer focal lengths I still shoot prime, for the World Record shoot I needed a 400mm! I do have a couple of zooms in the bag and mainly have them as a back up, or when it is not feasible to be changing. This is usually for tracking shots from a vehicle when I am concentrating on the shot/background/rider, giving instructions to the driver and trying not to get to travel sick!
As for lighting it all depends on the job, but for location I prefer to use as much natural light as possible. If I need a little help I will use Profoto B1’s. When I am in my studio, I have a set up using the Broncolor system—I love their packs!
Can you share some of your most memorable shoots? What was special about them?
A commission that will stay with me for a long time was in September 2018. I photographed Denise Korenek Mueller who broke the world speed record on a bicycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. The record was set during the Speed Week event, which is motorsport bucket list stuff. It is an incredible place to visit, dead pan flat and rich sunlight makes for supreme conditions. It was a fantastic privilege to be embedded as the photographer for Denise to document her and the team’s time on the salt and the moment she broke the record. I still cannot believe this, it was/is an incredible feat to be travelling at 184 mph—let alone on a bicycle.
A few years back, I was at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. I remember being in the pits shooting some details of an iconic racing Mercedes, a 300 SLR in which Stirling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia. A crowd started to gather around the other side of the car, and Sir Stirling appeared. He was dressed in his period open-sided helmet and glasses, which he found were smeared and needed cleaning. He beaconed to his entourage to help but their efforts were unsuccessful. I was in a unique position, hemmed in by the crowds between the car next to Sir Stirling. I realised that my lens cloth would be ideal and fetched it from my camera bag. After a short interaction he thanked me and the car left the pits. He drove the car for the last ever time up the famous hill climb. I felt honoured to have this interaction with a racing legend.
Another memorable shoot was at the Red Hook Crit in Greenwich, London, a fixed gear circuit race, which was slightly different to the usual cycling commission. I was shooting the race from within a construction site, half of which, the course ran through. This is something that is pretty unique for any vehicular race circuit and I believe to be special to the London leg of the event. I had the opportunity to be in a position that was exclusive, which in a public race environment is almost unheard of. I knew the content I created would be remarkable, not only for myself but for the client too. My favourite location was in one of the high-rise buildings under construction, shooting from height to create aerial perspectives. In order to get around the site I was fully kitted out in full protective gear, hard hat, and boots, making carrying all my gear slightly cumbersome. The images were definitely worth walking up all the flights of steps.
When you shoot on location, what lessons have you learned about your process and the uncertainty of conditions?
This links back to equipment question. I use equipment (not just cameras) that I can rely on. I sometimes shoot in extreme conditions and need gear that I can trust and will not let me down when it is raining, when I have hiked up a hill side or when I am shooting tracking shots on the back of a rig! I am quite technical when it comes to kit. I am always geeking out on the specs and find out everything my tools can do. Having said that, I tend to have a back up alternative for every piece of kit. Just a good habit, you know everything’s ready to go.
I keep an emergency rain poncho and hand warmers in my kit bag. I have AA and AAA batteries on hand, always. These are tiny but important. Can you imagine what it feels like to have your pocketwizard run out of power on a flash shoot?
I keep my gear organised and well marked. I try to work with the same assistants but it is inevitable that I am going to work with a few different assistants and it is helpful for them to know where everything is, especially when you need to move quick.
We know you’re a keen cyclist, and your passion for the sport evolved into the career you have today. What is it about cycling that you particularly enjoy? And what bike do you own?
I am a keen cyclist and this passion evolved into my career over time. It started with photographing friends for fun and then gradually for smaller bike brands, which snowballed to where I am today. Being a sportsman myself, it does give me an appreciation and understanding for the athletes, allowing me to explore the subject further through the lens. I try to show different perspectives if shooting a race, I feel it is not just on what is happening on the course—there is a lot in the peripheral that often gets dismissed that helps build the bigger story. I am always trying to bring something to the table that no one else would capture.
I have a small collection an Eddy Merckx Strada, a Cannondale Super Six, and a single speed bike which I restored from my grandfather’s garage. When at home in London, I can be found drinking far too much coffee or escaping for the countryside to ride, or to the Olympic park on the outdoor road circuit for some training laps.
Do you still make time for non-commercial work? Or even photography away from sports?
Yes certainly, I’m always keen to experiment and do test shoots. I am very fortunate to have a studio in central London so it is ideal for this kind of thing. I am a strong believer in that work you create and pushing yourself helps lead you to where you want to go. I make ‘personal’ work as it offers me much more creative freedom and then I can introduce those ideas to paying commercial clients. It helps as a base for the commissions to be based from, whether it is a test shoot with a model trying out a new lighting technique or a process that I think would suit a potential client. I think they both influence each other.
Whenever I go away on holiday, I still take a camera with me. I love the freedom and the release of being in a new place and exploring. I always feel so free and creative, seeing things for the first time, having down time really powers the batteries back up.
Sports as a genre is so broad and vast—I can be shooting studio portraits of athletes one week and still life details of shoes the next, so it’s really varied in it subject matter and skill set for me. That said, it is always connected back through being linked to sports in some way. It is not all track and field sidelines.
How important is the camera quality on your smartphone? And how do you feel about publishing on Instagram?
There is a great quote for this anecdote: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” If all you have with you is your iPhone, that’s your best camera in that moment. It does not matter if you have the slickest newest full frame body with a sharp f/2.8 telephoto set-up at home if the image you want to capture is right in front of you. A “poorly” captured image is an improvement over an image not captured.
However, this is a double edge sword—I do want a good camera on my iPhone for that very reason, but it often makes me lazy for family occasions, which I wish I recorded properly.
What are a few of your favourite places in London?
Watch House Coffee on Bermondsey Street. I think it is a hidden gem and love to get a coffee and have a catch up with friends there.
Carnaby Street in Soho for shopping or when I want some downtime drinks with friends, there’s plenty of lively bars around that area.
Olympic park Stratford—it’s a very new park to London, and there is always space for some quiet time to relax in nature, even in the height of summer.