Many of the stunning images seen across the Drops website and online publications are courtesy of Russ Ellis. Originally from a small mining village called Bidworh, just outside of Nottingham, Russ had always had an interest in both sports and photography.
While he’s now firmly known for his work with bicycles, Russ explains that his sporting allegiances didn’t lie with competitive cycling to begin with.
“During my school days I was hugely into sport and represented Nottinghamshire Schools at rugby, football and athletics, so sport was a big part of my childhood,” he says.
“Cycling at this point however, wasn’t. Unless you can count riding around the local woods on my Raleigh Burner BMX as being into cycling?"
It’s not unusual for a child to be sporty, but where Russ different from most young school children is his love for capturing images.
“I would have to say photography came first in terms of any kind of passion, my parents purchased me my first film SLR when I was probably around 10 years old. I can’t quite remember the make of the camera; it may have been a Praktica!?
“I got my first bike well before this but a bike was just for using to go and call for friends and then to ride to the football pitch on. So not really a passion, more of a means of transport!”
But enjoying taking photos as a hobby is a long way from professional sports photography. It may seem like Russ was always destined to combine his two passions, but like anyone with a dream, he inevitably had to face the million-dollar-question – can I make a living out of this?
“I think I realised that I wanted to do this as a living the very first time I got paid to shoot a bike race.
“Although, I guess that is not that surprising seeing as that first bike race was Paris-Roubaix for Cycling Weekly Magazine in 2015. I just loved the access to the riders and the race. I was hooked.
“However, there was a huge difference between realising that this is what I wanted to do for a living against actually believing it was financially possible. I had a well-paid office job and security of a monthly wage. But deep down I now had my heart set on making a career out of photography.”
Thankfully, that’s exactly what Russ went on to do but it was only a few years ago that Russ got his really big break.
“Luckily for me my work kept getting noticed and teams and publications kept booking me,” he says.
“It was in December 2015 that I got a call from Sky asking if I would like to be their photographer for the ‘Sky Loves Cycling’ campaign. The first gig was shooting Chris Froome and G at the Team Sky villa in Monaco. I think it was when I sat back down at my office desk after the shoot that I realised I had to give it a go. I think I had handed in my notice a few days later, and here we are now.”
One of the more interesting this about Mr. Ellis, is that despite his obvious talent, he had no professional training in photography prior to purchasing his first digital SLR following the birth of his daughter.
“I’ve always had a camera of some sort, mainly point and shoots before that point. I wanted to teach myself how to use one properly so that I could take pictures of her - and now also my son - growing up.
“Luckily for me YouTube was there to help me learn how to use the camera and also post process the images.
“I started to really enjoy the process and spent a few years doing wildlife photography and then tried my hand at street photography. I really like to take portraits and images of people, so street seemed perfect for this but I never felt comfortable taking photos of, or asking strangers, if I could take their picture. So ultimately I ended up selling most of my kit and just keeping one camera.”
While becoming a parent was one turning point for Russ’ career, another came from a much less life-changing experience – a holiday.
“About 5 years ago I decided to buy a road bike to go to Mallorca with my mates on a cycling trip. I really enjoyed it and decided to start racing.
“I raced for a local team and got to Cat 3 in the first season before having a crash early in the second season, breaking my collarbone in the process. It was during the recovery time that I realised while at the races as a spectator that it was a great place to get those elusive portraits that I love to take, along with loads of other cool things!
"Basically my two passions would come together literally by ‘accident’. I went on to spend that season taking pictures at local races, got asked to shoot for Cycling Weekly and the rest is history I guess.”
Going from an office job to travelling the world with a camera signified a huge shift in Russ’ life. But while there are plenty of positives, his work can often have some challenges too.
“Firstly, it’s amazing, I love this job so much,” he smiles. “Being able to work for yourself doing something you love is so cool.
“But yeah, the travel is a killer. To be honest with you, I can deal with that. It’s not a big price to pay for the privilege of doing this job.
“Late night editing can drain the batteries, I mean mine, not the laptop’s - but again, it’s something I love doing so I don’t mind.
“Extreme weather or terrain can definitely be a tricky one! Difficult conditions are obviously a challenge but a lot of the time that is when you get the best shots!”
Track, Cyclocross and Road all make up part of Russ’ vast portfolio but when it comes down to which individual discipline he prefers, he is firmly on the fence.
“I love shooting all forms of cycling, each offer unique opportunities and it’s great to have the variation.
“Cyclocross is amazing with all the mud and rain, you can get some very gritty images and some awesome dirty face portraits. Of course, it’s all in one place so you don’t have to chase the race in your car like a mad man.
“Track is great for being warm and dry after a season of ruined cameras shooting cross!
“Then there’s road, it’s just amazing, it has everything a photographer could want, spectators, tech, cool riders, landscapes, beautiful towns and villages that the races pass through, it’s perfect!"
Russ has caught the eye of such high-profile cycling outfits largely down to his unique style of photography. His ability to catch a moment in the action and faces of the riders he has snapped, while also using environment and light to build an atmosphere around the focus of the image is something that drew Drops to him too. So what’s his secret formula?
“I can’t really explain how I found my style. Lots of people have said that I have a unique style and people often say they can tell if an image is mine without it being labelled, but honestly, I don’t consciously apply a particular style. I just shoot things as I see them. I am happy though that people seem to like my work though!
“I still feel like I am chasing that ‘one killer shot’. I am always pretty happy with the images I get at races but within a day or two I am over them and can’t wait to get out there and try and get better ones at the next race. My favorite image tends to be one of my latest. “Case in point my current favourite shot was taken last week at the 2017 Tirreno Adriatico of Kyri during the ITT" [PICTURED ABOVE]
“It was a panning shot taken at 1/20th of a second, so quite high risk to get a sharp image, it worked though and I got lucky with the beam of sunlight!”
Having spent a great deal of time with the team over the last twelve months, Russ has gotten to know the staff and the riders will. This year, he travelled with Drops to Mallorca to capture their team camp.
“It was a fantastic week, everyone made me feel welcome and part of the team. I was blown away with the set up that they have, it felt every bit as professional and organized as the top teams in the men’s pro peloton! That’s a credit to Bob and Tom creating a set up that everyone can be proud of!
“I think all shoots are a little challenging as you always want your client to be happy with the images you get for them, I always feel a little bit of pressure as it’s a very fluid process, you are capturing moments as they happen so you need to be concentrating all the time. That being said I really enjoyed the camp and hopefully the team were happy with the images I produced.
“Drops are an amazing team and what Bob, Tom and the staff have achieved in such a small amount of time is fantastic! The riders are a great bunch of girls and you can see that when you spend time with them. I also met a bunch of the sponsors while on team camp and they all seem fully committed to the team, women’s cycling and the girls! It’s a very exciting time indeed.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on the teams results this season and hopefully working with them at a few races later in the year!”