Road Cycling

Legends Behind the Lens: Olaf Pignataro Interview

In the Legends Behind the Lens series, supported by Nikon, we talk to celebrated action sports photographers about their craft - and their all-time favourite shots

View the icons of action sports photography at work and enter your best action sports image for the chance to win top of the range Nikon cameras and the photography experience of a lifetime.

Olaf Pigtanaro is a true European. Born in France, he has since lived in Germany, Italy and the UK, where he now calls London home. His oeuvre is broad, covering everything from BMX photography to fashion but his main focus is sport. Which is just as well because as one of Red Bull’s regular snappers he’s called on to shoot a lot of it.

I started out shooting BMX. When I was in my teens I used to skateboard and ride. Some friends of mine started a BMX fanzine and I, wanting to help, grabbed my mother’s camera, an old Yashica film SLR, and started to take photos of fellow riders.

My work grew with my client list. I started out shooting just the action sports that I was practising myself, BMX and skateboarding, then moved into snowboarding, freestyle MX and so on. But as my client list expanded and the sports they covered grew over time, I moved to a broader market. Now I am confident shooting any kind of sport.

For sports photography you need a camera that can shoot a decent number of frames per second. I realised this pretty early on, so I upgraded my mum’s old Yaschica for a used Nikon F4 – I couldn’t afford to buy the newer F5.

I take a lot of inspiration from my colleagues. I’ve been a photographer for Red Bull for a long time so I’m using and checking their image bank, Red Bull Content Pool, a couple of times a week. That means I can see the work of other professionals who operate in my same field, potentially using a language similar to mine.

Don’t get me started on the photos I would have loved to have shot. There are too many and so many jobs I see that I wish I’d been working on. I look back at a lot of my own old work and wish I’d shot it now, because I would’ve done it differently.

Mark Cavendish, Milan 2012. Shot on a Nikon D4 with a 200-400mm f4 zoom.

What I like most about professional cycling, is how close you can get to the athletes. This is Mark Cavendish warming up before Milan time trial of 2012 Giro d’Italia – Mark may be a world champion and a big celebrity, but still he does bottle duties and trains in front of a crowd like everybody else. The 200-400mm zoom I used here is massive, but still light enough to be can used without a tripod or monopod, if necessary. It’s sharp like a 400mm prime lens, but more adaptable. Paired with D4, you can use it to shoot it in any conditions.

Unknown Motocross rider, Slovenia. Shot on a Nikon D3 with a 24-70mm f2.8 zoom.

There were a lot of other photographers at this event, we were all shooting the same motocross riders so it was hard to get something unique. I decided to step back from the action, walking out into this field of green grain, and lowering my point of view in order to have a lot of negative space.

Harry Timson and Arthur Bourbon, Morocco. Shot on a Nikon D4 with a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom.

Sports photographers shouldn’t focus only on the action, they should always be ready for reportage and lifestyle pictures. This was the first day of a surf trip with Reef european team, showing Harry Timson and Arthur Bourbon about to dive into heavily polluted waters off Morocco.

Simone Barraco, Courage Adams and Anthony Perrin, Spain. Shot on a Nikon D4 with a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom.

To shoot this image, I had to ask a local woman if I could shoot from the balcony of her 7th floor home. I started out taking photos of BMX and for a long time this was the sport I spent the most time shooting. Now I hardly find the time to go shoot at the local bike park, let alone jump in a car and head off on a road trip. So I was happy when I got the chance to travel through Spain with Simone Barraco, Courage Adams and Anthony Perrin looking for new spots.

Red Bull Air Race, Ascot. Shot on a Nikon D4, with a 400mm f2.8 zoom.

I’d shot aerobatics planes before, but never during a competition like the Red Bull Air Race. On this occasion, I couldn’t get access to the best spots, so I decided to use the panning technique on a couple of passes, to actually show the speed of the planes. I like the yellow lines in the composition, and the striking effect of the chequered flag.

Follow Olaf on Instagram at @olafpix and check out to see more of his incredible shots.

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