If you've been across Highway 129 to Deals Gap during daylight hours, you have seen these people before. They sit or stand on the side of the road, cameras glued to their faces, and they make you feel like Nicky Hayden when you come by.
There's something neat about somebody taking a picture of you and your bike in action, and it's a picture every rider would like to own. That's how these professionals make their living, supplying tens of thousands of riders with high-quality pictures that show them at their best (or worst), and making them smile months later when they look at that photo and remember that particular day.
The more I talked with these Nikon Ninjas, the more I learned about who they are, what they do, and how much they enjoy doing it. I also have a new-found respect for the effort and time they put into their businesses—it's not nearly as easy as they make it look.
If you have ever attempted to take a picture of a motorcycle at speed, you understand how difficult it is to do. Lots of people can take pictures, but few can take good pictures—and even fewer can take exceptional pictures.
The guys and gals you see alongside Highway 129 (aka the Dragon) are not just doing it because it's a weekend hobby. These are full-blown businesses that are the livelihood for these folks. They are on the job five to seven days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, from early March to late November, using equipment that costs more than many of the motorcycles they take pictures of.
The common burdens these photographers share are dealing with the weather, long days, and managing the unbelievable number of images they shoot.
Usually you will see the picture-takers at common spots. Highway 129 is advertised as having 318 turns in 11 miles, so you would think that there is room for everyone, but there are certain curves that are better for photography. Sunlight, background, space to set up, and approach angles all need to be just right, so there is a little bit of competition to get the good spots first.
Despite being competitors, it's not uncommon to see these folks set up side by side in a good curve. Al Cate, from Moonshine Photo says, "It's sort of like a fishing hole. There is a gentleman's agreement that who gets there first has it, but it's not uncommon to share a spot."
The photographers that I visited with one Sunday afternoon were (in no particular order) Zee Foto, U.S. 129 Photos, Moonshine Photo, and Killboy.com.
Owner: Zee Steinberg
Zee Photo is owned by Zee Steinberg; I didn't know this until I met her, but her husband Ben is the manager of the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort and is also a regular contributor to Handlebars. I first met Zee years ago when she worked in the parts department of Good Times Kawasaki, and she was telling me how she was starting a photography business. Zee's motorcycle background is apparent when she starts identifying the different bikes that come by.
Besides herself, she has two part-time photographers and one full-time employee who helps with uploads to the website. "The amount of time we spend sorting and posting images is incredible," Zee says. "It's common to shoot 1,200 to 1,500 images an hour on a typical weekend day. Yesterday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. we shot 7,000 pictures."
Besides downloading the files from their cameras, each business has to take these thousands of images and put them in categories so that they can be easily found on their websites.
"My website has the largest number of categories, dirt bikes, sport touring, adventure touring, etc., so hopefully it makes it easier for people to find their picture," Zee says. "We like to say we see it all. Custom, chrome, exotic, and idiotic, and we try to get a picture of everyone."
You can't be up on the Dragon for as many hours as these folks are, and take as many pictures as they do, without capturing somebody crashing. Zee says that she has probably witnessed 45-50 wrecks, but only one that required an ambulance being called. "It seems that most of the crashes are cruisers, and they usually don't crash that spectacularly, most of the time they just grind some chrome and get back up."
Zee told me that what she liked best about what she does is the people she gets to meet. "I have one friend from California who keeps his bike at our place so he has it here when he flies in."
Where do most of the customers come from?
"We've sold images to people from all over the world," says Zee. "Australia, Germany, Mexico, Slovakia, you name it. The people that travel such a great distance to ride up here makes you appreciate a little more what we have. We really do live in motorcycle Mecca."
U.S. 129 Photos
Owner: Dave Allison
Dave Allison has been taking pictures on 129 for over five years, the last two under the U.S. 129 Photos name. "I've been riding up here since 1986, and taking pictures almost year round for the past two," he says. "I've got three people who help me out with photography and downloading, which always takes hours."
"We see lots of shaky riding," Allison adds. He says that you can tell some of the riders that come through just don't have the skills they need, or the gear they need. "I've seen people crash at 20 mph who were wearing open-face, non-DOT helmets and land face first on the asphalt. What could have been a minor incident sends someone to the doctor. We also see more cruisers crash than sport bikes, but then again they probably outnumber sport bikes 30:1."
Allison knows about good riding, as he is both a rider and racer, competing in the WERA 600 Superstock, and Senior Superbike class. His website features some action pictures of him, as well as some area racers he sponsors at the track.
When I ask Dave about any wildlife he's seen while taking pictures, he says he's all sorts, and not just from nature. "Bears, Boars and Boobs, we see it all!" he says with a grin. "I had a wild boar charge me one time when I got out of my truck to take its picture; I got back in real quick! I've also seen someone hit a pig with a bike."
One of the most remarkable stories Allison tells is of helping the police find a crashed rider who went off the mountain unseen. "The police came to me with his riding buddy who couldn't find him," he says. "They were driving back and forth trying to see some indication of where he went off.
"We looked back through my pictures on the camera, which are time stamped, and were able to find out when it was he came through. We estimated the speed he was traveling and figured out the area he would probably be in. They were able to locate the crash site fairly quickly. Evidently he had a heart attack, and rode off the side of the mountain."
It's too late for you to sign up now, but on Nov. 1, US 129 Photos is giving away a 2003 Honda CBR 600RR to a lucky customer. Allison admits he's doing it to generate business, and while it isn't a new bike, it's still a free bike. Not a bad deal—buy a cool picture of yourself, and have a chance to ride home a new scoot.
Owner: Al Cate
Moonshine Photo is the relative newcomer to the Highway 129 group of photographers, owned and operated solely by Al Cate. "I started doing this in 2006 when I was sort of introduced to it by my son-in-law," he says. Cate is unique in that he does everything himself without help, and he is the only one of the photographers who doesn't ride. "I don't ride, never have, and don't want to," says honest Al. "Besides, I don't have time. For example I got up at 6 a.m. this morning to drive up here, and I'll be up until 1 or 2 a.m. tonight."
Even though he doesn't ride, Cate could possibly be your best friend if you ever have an emergency on the Dragon. He is a licensed HAM Radio operator, and has one in his car. "Cell phones pretty much don't work up here, but I can get in touch with emergency personnel if needed, plus all of us photographers have handheld radios so that we can talk to each other. We can relay messages to send for help, or to warn of a dangerous situation."
It's common for these photographers to refer people to their competitors. In fact, the Moonshine Photo website has links to the other photographers websites, so just in case Cate didn't get your picture, he's happy to help you find it. That's being pretty cool.
Owners: Darryl Cannon (aka Killboy) and Lori Cannon (aka Killgurl)
If there is a Godfather of Highway 129 photographers, it is Darryl Cannon.
Darryl is the one who started it all back in 2001, but he doesn't have the background you would expect. "I lived in middle Tennessee, and we would come up here to ride," he says. "I had a gift certificate to an electronics store, and with that I picked up this little point-and-shoot camera. When we would take a break we would gather at the overlook, but didn't like standing out at the sun. I started parking up here in the shade, hanging out and taking pictures. For the first two years I gave pictures away, just to get it started."
The Killboy name, which people always ask about, was an online nickname that he had already registered as a domain name, and it just sort of stuck.
From this simple beginning, Darryl started not just a business, but also what has become a very unique cottage industry.
"There have been at least 10 different photographers who have come and gone over the years, but I knew that was bound to happen." Darryl says. The fact that so many have come and gone is a testament to the business being so demanding. Darryl says that they have shot over 12,000 images in one day. That's a lot of images to shoot, and a lot to sort through and upload.
Killboy has four employees counting Darryl and photographers Jack Rose, David Spotts, and Killgurl (aka Darryl's wife, Lori). Darryl and Lori actually met on 129 when she worked at the store at Deals Gap. When I met them over dinner they gave the impression of a couple that was destined to be together, and genuinely enjoy life and what they do. Darryl is quick to point out that Lori does all of the grunt work such as downloading images from the cameras and sorting files. Darryl and Lori both ride—Darryl, a Suzuki GSXR 750, and Lori a GSXR 600.
Darryl says the most satisfying part of the business is reaching people. "We try to put lots of information on our website, such as riding tips, what to watch out for, stuff like that," he says. "We really stress safety. It's nice when someone from out of town comes up to us and says, ‘We knew what to watch out for before we even got here because of you.' That's what fuels us, the positive reactions from people.
"We've also lost some business because of our stance on safety, and not being afraid to call people out. When we get a picture of a car or bike doing something stupid that could get somebody else hurt, we put the picture on the website and make an example out of them, and sometimes people don't like it."
A very cool feature that Killboy.com offers is old images. "I have pictures from as far back as 2001," says Darryl. "People will often ask us if we still have old photos. It may be a picture from the last trip they made with their dad, or a friend who is no longer around, and it's cool to be able to give it to them." Killboy also gives away all crash photos to the crash-ee: "You can't make money off of someone's misfortune."
Go to the Killboy website and you will see that over the years, samples of his handy work have been featured in nearly every national motorcycle magazine, and there have been articles about Killboy himself. Some of the pictures he and his posse have taken are sort of legendary, including the sequence that actually caught Darryl himself crashing. In addition to bikes and cars he also has some interesting and beautiful pictures of the area available for purchase.
So the next time you go across the Dragon, be sure to wash your bike, get the bugs off your face shield, and try to look like somebody. When you get home, you can bet that at least one of these picture-takers captured your image, and that they've made you look good.