Culture

Ben King and his growing passion for nature photography

In the idle hours between training and racing, NTT Pro Cycling stalwart relaxes with one eye behind the lens.

Many pros, after a hard day of training, hit up social media or jump on PlayStation. But not Ben King.

Instead, the NTT Pro Cycling racer uses his rest and recovery time to keep an eye out for a sudden movement in the woods. Whether he’s resting on a patio or lounging at a hotel, a camera is close at hand.

King’s first love is racing and cycling, but he has a newfound passion as a budding wildlife photographer. Downtime now takes on a new meaning for King.

“It’s been a positive influence on my training, and it is helping to keep me mentally in a good place,” King told VeloNews of his photography. “It’s restful. Instead of watching Netflix, or something like that, I am sitting on my back porch, watching a bird feeder.”

King’s growing interest in photography is a natural extension of his lifelong interest in wildlife and nature. As a kid growing up in Virginia, it was that curiosity that got him on a bicycle, and put him on a life-long path that would eventually lead to a decade of racing at the WorldTour level.

With racing on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, King is back home at his parent’s house in Virginia, and enjoying the plethora of feathered and furry creatures that live in the deep forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“It’s really relaxing,” King said in a telephone interview. “It helps me disconnect from all the stresses of being a pro. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and I feel a connection to nature, and I feel closer to God when I am out there in creation.”

The former U.S. national champion and two-time stage-winner at the Vuelta a España, King’s new hobby as a photography is also gaining attention. Over the winter, he started an Instagram page that’s already garnered more than 1,000 followers.

“I started to post photos on Instagram so I could share it with people because it gives me so much joy,” he said. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with nature and wildlife.”

Before the cycling bug bit him, the 31-year-old King was even considering a future as a herpetologist. Growing up in Virginia, he and friends from the swim team would roam the woods after practice, flipping over rocks and snooping around pools, looking for snakes, toads, salamanders, and other creepy-crawlies. He’s also an avid hunter and fisherman, so spending time in the woods comes as naturally as sitting on the bike.

“Whenever I go hiking, I always try to be as stealthy as I can in the woods,” he said. “You just see these incredible things.”

Ben King has sharp reflexes to capture motion in his photography. Photo: Ben King

During the last couple of years, King’s interest in photography stepped up. His wife, a TV journalist who’s covered the Tour de France and other sports, had a top-quality digital camera. King would slip it over his shoulder as he headed out into the woods during the off-season.

Based in Lucca in Italy’s Tuscany region during the racing season, he and his wife often go for evening strolls along the river. King started snapping shots, and a new passion was born.

“I’ve hijacked my wife’s camera,” he said. “I’ve gotten very interested in photography. It’s a challenge, fueled by the frustration of these near-misses, but also the thrill of getting a good shot.”

King, and his wife, Jenna, returned to the states in March once it became obvious Europe was going to be shut down by coronavirus. They’ve settled into King’s parents’ home on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia. Set on a 200-acre estate, the area loaded with birds and wildlife. Some of King’s best shots are taken from his childhood bedroom window.

“I enjoy sitting out there, listening to the sounds of nature. It’s meditative,” he said. “If you’re patient, and know what to look for, there is so much to see.”

Coupled with his outdoor background, King has quickly developed a sharp eye. Shooting with a Sony RX10iii, he instinctually knows that a good shot needs composition, sharp focus, context, soft light, and motion.

“I like to capture that moment when a bird’s feet leave the branch,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know the camera really well, so I can make the adjustments and be ready to take a shot in that exact moment.”

King’s enthusiasm for wildlife and nature extended to the couple’s honeymoon, and they went to South Africa, with a visit to the world-famous Kruger National Park. Their guide turned out to be a specialist in wildlife photography.

While he is fascinated by all wildlife, he’s grown a keen interest in birds due to their diversity and sheer number of species. During the winter, he started a checklist, and he’s already photographed nearly 250 species, and that’s just from shooting around Virginia and his European base in Lucca, Italy.

“I used to think I knew all the birds around here, with all the cardinals and blue jays, but with the migrating birds, there is so much out there,” he said. “If you know how to look and what to look for, there is a lot out there.”

When VeloNews caught up with King a few weeks ago, he had already photographed four species of owls, one of the hardest birds to track and photograph. Owls are stealthy, boast natural camouflage, and hunt during low-light periods.

For days, King could hear an owl’s call just beyond the tree line of his parent’s property, and it took him a while to finally spot it in the deep woods. King was determined to capture an image, and patiently sat on a bench in his parent’s backyard to get a sense of the owl’s habits, hunting hours, and movements. Using binoculars, he eventually zeroed in to where it was nesting, about 500 yards away. With some luck and determination, he finally saw the owl pounce on a vole for an evening meal. King snapped the shot.

Ben King

Ben King staked out this barred owl for days before capturing this shot. Photo: Ben King

Once King gets to know a bird’s habits, he will quietly observe its movements. And when the birds perceive he’s not a threat, they start to gain confidence in his presence. He’s since shot dozens of photos of the owls in the woods around his parent’s home.

“The great thing about birds is that they are wherever you go,” he said. “When I was racing in Saudi Arabia, right out the window of the hotel room, there were all kinds of birds I’ve never seen before.”

One of his favorite images was of another barred owl he had been tracking for days. He finally got close to snap off a frame, but it flew away before he could compose the shot. King followed its movement, and when the owl landed and looked back at King, he snapped off the perfect shot, with branches framing the image. Another favorite is a series of photos he took of a skulk of fox puppies.

He’s been surprised how many people seem to enjoy his photography, and some have asked to buy some of his images.

“Right now, I am not over-thinking it,” he said. “I might get some prints made and share it with people who have requested it. I don’t want it to feel like a job. I already have my dream job now.”

His dream job, of course, is being a professional bike racer. King stresses that cycling comes first, and that his photography is a hobby that helps him relax a few hours a week. His top priority an absolute focus is training and preparing for racing.

And like most pros, King is itching to get back to his full-time job. Right now, he and his wife are staying put in Virginia, but he’s hopeful to return to Italy and racing as soon as restrictions allow.

“I’ve been watching old race footage, and it’s gotten me hungry to race,” he said. “After being away from the races, you’re reminded cycling is so frickin’ awesome.”

King says he misses the adrenalin of racing as well as the camaraderie of the dinner table and working together as a team.

“I miss that delirious laughter five days into a stage race,” said King, who’s raced on some of the biggest teams in the WorldTour. “There is such a quality group of people in cycling. It’s so hard, it weeds out the people with bad attitudes pretty fast. I can’t wait to race again.”

In the meantime, between training and recovery, King will have his camera at the ready. After all, you never know when an owl or a hummingbird might be in the neighborhood.

The patience required to be a pro cyclist comes in handy when Ben King is tracking birds. Photo: Ben King