Flashes of light illuminated the dark forest as riders flowed through the trails, but where was the photographer? I was mesmerised until I spotted a man casually walking around, pausing on occasion to press a button on a remote. It was Jonathan Williams.
My second distinct memory of him is from when I was coming round on a 360. At about 270’ I was looking straight at a very expensive camera perched on top of a tripod. For a split second I thought I was going to hit it, but I span the rest of the way and all was well.
JD Williams lives bikes. He grew up racing Motorcross from the age of six, and later competed in BMX and downhill MTB. He has dabbed in photography for over twenty years, but he has only recently made a career out of it, setting up JD WIlliams Photography. His achievements in the BMX industry include featuring on the front cover of Ride BMX magazine with his shot of Leo Forte.
GetaBMX probed into his life as a photographer and rider.
Age you first picked up a camera: Think I was probably around 9 or 10
Music: I listen to a lot of metal, old skool hip hop, hard house, DnB a lot of different stuff really, just depends on the mood.
Food: It's gotta be Indian
Drink: Beer and Jack Daniels
Jay Cowley at K Hole
“I like style more than anything. problem is these days it seems like it's all about tricks. Someone doing a perfect table/invert on a BMX or a big whip on a MX bike is better than any trick in my eyes.”
Hi Jonny, welcome to getabmx! Hows it going?
Yeah all good Milan.
Your sporting routes are in MX right? Can you give me some background such as how you got involved and the role bikes have played in your life?
My dad used to own a motorcycle shop back in the day and got hold of a Yamaha PW50 for me to ride around on when I was about 4.
I started racing when I was 6 and carried on up through the ranks till I was 16. We ran out of money on the big bikes and I had just left school and started work so called it a day.
They built a BMX track down the round from me in Minehead so I raced that for a year or so and did the odd downhill mountain bike race. I just love riding bikes and this was a substitute for Motocross.
Is this what led to photography?
No not really. I used to take the odd pic of my mates riding as everyone does just to capture the day and where we'd been but I wasn't into photography a such.
Every month I would buy Three or four different BMX, Skateboard mags to just look at the photos over and over again. I never thought about taking the photos myself.
I left school and trained as a Barber. Worked in a few different places then started my own shop in a small village called Williton near Minehead. It was a real good business and I had plenty of money but I wasn't happy doing it. The thought of being stuck around that chair for the rest of my life was depressing so we sold up and moved down here to Exeter.
Mike Bennett, Plymouth
“I nearly wet myself when I heard someone wanted to buy a photo from me!“
What were you working as when taking photos was still just a hobby?
I was working as a courier when I first came down here, which gave me weekends off so I started riding motocross a lot more again. I managed to tear my ACL ligament in my knee so couldn't work or ride for a few months and was getting pretty pissed off as you can imagine!
I was out watching my mate ride one day and his friend brought his new camera along. (Think it was a Canon 350d?) I hadn't used a proper DSLR camera before so had a little play and fell in love with it! I wasn't bothered that I couldn't ride anymore and was more than happy just to take photos for everyone. I knew from that day that this is what I wanted to do.
Do you remember your first paid photography assignment?
Well it wasn't an assignment. A guy from a clothing company had seen a photo I had taken of one of his sponsored riders and wanted it for a catalogue he was producing. I nearly wet myself when I heard someone wanted to buy a photo from me!
Photography is extremely competitive. How did you turn your passion into your career and break into the professional arena?
Yes photography is competitive, but no more than any other trade really. The only thing is that it's one of those jobs that everyone would like to do.
It became a passion for me and maybe a bit like an obsession. All I wanted to was take photos and I'm still the same now. It was just natural progression really, my photos were getting better so I was selling more and I was getting more well known in the industry so people would use me.
When did you set up your own business, and how has that been going?
I think it was 2007 when I thought this is what I want to do. It was real slow to start with and it's just slow now ha!
“BMX has always tried to imitate skateboarding. Skateboarding sets the trends and BMX and other extreme sports follow. In my opinion the photos in skateboard mags are better and so are the videos.”
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to make it in this industry?
Like most things in life, It's who you know and not what you know. Get out there and make some good contacts.
Pros and cons of the job?
The pros are doing what you love, not doing a normal 9-5 routine every day, working with some real cool people, getting to go cool places. Getting your work in the mags is a great buzz too.
Cons are having to buy expensive equipment, heavy bags, not getting to ride as much and the moneys not that great, but hey It's worth it!
Describe a typical day.
Roll out of bed at a reasonable hour, Check to see how crap the weather is and send emails while charging all my stuff up. If I've got a shoot planned head on out to that or phone around to see who's riding where.
Depending on time I'll get back and start editing them and start emailing them through to clients.
If it wasn’t for those early skateboarding mags, would BMX photography be where it is now?
Definitely not. BMX has always tried to imitate skateboarding. Skateboarding sets the trends and BMX and other extreme sports follow. In my opinion the photos in skateboard mags are better and so are the videos.
Do you prefer photos of style or tricks?
I don't know if I'm just old fashioned but I like style more than anything. problem is these days it seems like it's all about tricks. Someone doing a perfect table/invert on a BMX or a big whip on a MX bike is better than any trick in my eyes.
“I think it's a little strange when you see a mountain bike at a skatepark or being ridden on street, it just seems the wrong tool for the job...”
When did you start shooting BMX and mountain biking?
Just after I bought my first camera in 2007. I was checking out a dirt jump spot that someone had told me about (pines ridge) near Woodbury. I got chatting to the local riders (Dan Oakaby, Matt Sharland etc) and started taking pics of them from then on.
Have you ever considered shooting at major MTB events such as at downhill world cups or international slopestyle events?
I'd love to go and shoot a major event like that, travel round all the world cup rounds would be a dream come true. Just need someone to pay the expenses and i'd be there in a shot!
How does being a rider affect your images?
I think it makes it ten times easier if you know the sport your photographing. You can discuss with the rider what your trying to achieve and work together. It's simple things like knowing where to stand and what sort of angle is going to make the trick look bigger and better.
“Motocross is my favourite thing to photograph. It's aggressive, fast, noisy and trying to capture all that in a single frame is my goal.“
Do you prefer riding or taking photos?
I don't think I could choose between the two as I love doing both. I try and mix it, I'll ride for a couple of hours to get it out of my system then get the camera out.
What are your views on mountain bikes being used for BMX riding?
I don't have a problem with it. I think it's a little strange when you see a mountain bike at a skatepark or being ridden on street, it just seems the wrong tool for the job... I personally think that they should stay on dirt where they belong.
What do you shoot other than riding?
I do portraits, weddings, PR and corporate events. Anything to fund my lifestyle.
What do you enjoy taking photos of the most?
Motocross is my favourite thing to photograph. It's aggressive, fast, noisy and trying to capture all that in a single frame is my goal.
If you could shoot anyone anywhere, what would it be?
Err… It would have to be someone like James Stewart or Ricky Carmicheal. Top motocross racers who can also whip the bike really well. Oh and it would have to be out in the hills in California!
“Watching Leo Forte cranking down the wine isle in Tescos will always stick in my mind”
What’s it like shooting at competitions?
I never really shoot at comps to be fair, I find them really hard work and never get what I want. Skatepark comps are the worst as your all crammed in to one small area, everyone's in the same spot fighting for the same shot, na it's not for me.
Who or what are your main influences?
The riders are my main influence for sure, i just try to capture the height, speed and difficulty of what their doing.
Best thing to happen in photography?
Easy, it would have to be the Ride BMX mag front cover I shot of Leo Forte in Tesco supermarket.
What is usually the main aspect differentiating a professional from an amateur photo?
I think professional photos are sort of put together as a package. The photographer has thought about the trick, the composition, the light and how it's all going to work together.
What equipment do you use?
I've got a Canon 5d mark2 body, 70-200mm , 50mm , 15mm fisheye lens and plenty of flashes.
What gear do you use most often?
I probably use the 70-200mm lens the most, but I still like the fisheye stuff as well.
“His wheel and peg hit me in the face nearly knocking me out and breaking my fisheye. That sucked!”
What have been the main changes over the past decade, both in equipment and shooting style?
I haven't really seen any big changes apart from DSLR's getting better and better. Which is good as you don't have to spend thousands to get a camera thats capable of taking great photos.
Who have been your biggest clients?
DC and FOX are probably the biggest names in "extreme" sports so it's gotta be them.
Biggest nightmare scenario as a photographer?
Getting your film developed and there's nothing on it. Or wiping your memory card by accident!
Worst photography experience?
I got a bit too close to a flatland BMX rider while he was doing a spin the other week. His wheel and peg hit me in the face nearly knocking me out and breaking my fisheye. That sucked!
Jay Cowley at The Barn
“I'd love to just be able to travel around the world shooting all different kinds of action sports for companies.”
Most memorable photography experience?
Watching Leo Forte cranking down the wine isle in Tesco will always stick in my mind as a good one.
How important is editing in photography?
It just depends on what sort of look your trying to achieve. I don't use a lot of photoshop on my images, probably because I'm not that good with it. I tend to just do the basics like the curves and crop the image how I like.
Is there an area of photography you plan to or would like to get into?
I'd love to just be able to travel around the world shooting all different kinds of action sports for companies.
What are the most common mistakes people make when taking photos?
There are just too many to list, and I still make them, ha!
Top three tips for aspiring photographers?
Take the photo in the way you want to take it, there are no rules.
Shoot in RAW format as you can often save an image even.
Try to get it right in the first place rather than try and fix it in photoshop later on. If it takes 10mins longer to set up then do it.
Video is becoming an increasing popular medium. Do you think it has become important for a photographer to be able to produce video as well?
It's a handy thing to know how to do for sure. And most good DSLR cameras these days are able to do video in full HD. I've messed around doing a few little edits for people, I quite enjoy it but can't quite get into it like the photos.
Tell me something most people don’t know about you...
I cut my own hair and I used to have a dog called Sam.
Do you have any other hobbies?
God no! I've got two motocross bikes, a mountain bike and a BMX. I would like a surfboard though!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Don't give up and don't worry too much about what other people think.
Nadine Baker: How big a role does luck play in a good photo?
Well for the majority of the time luck doesn't play into it. You've prepared yourself by setting everything up right and you know what you want. But you can be very lucky and be stood just in the right place at the right time.
Beaker Rowland: Nikon or Canon? And biggest inspiration?
It's got to be Canon for me, I just like the look and they feel better. People always argue which brand is better but I don't think there's anything between them.
There's a couple of things that inspired me. Looking at other photographers work like Garth Milan, Rob Dolecki made me want to go out and take good photos. But just my mates really, there my biggest inspiration.
Martyn Walker: How do you choose your shot? Do you come home from a days shooting with 300 - 500 pictures of which you have maybe 10-15 good ones? How do you choose which pics go to press?
I'm not one to take loads of photos, there are some who machine gun everything and like you say have 500 pics to go through at the end of the day.
When it comes down to 10-15 shots that I really like and can't choose i'll normally send some over to the rider to get their opinion. I always try to send a few over to the client as everyone has different tastes.
Jonathan in front of the lens, floating 120ft