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How to photograph mountain biking like a PRO

A beginner's guide to shooting better action shots: learn the camera skills and cycling photography techniques that will give you professional-looking photos.


Mountain biking is a seriously photogenic sport. The sweat, the mud, the speedÖ it's a great way to hone your action photography skills and to try out creative camera techniques like zoom-bursts and slow-sync flash. Best of all, unlike many sports, you can get in close with your camera. You don't need big, heavy telephoto lenses Ė a camera kit lens can give you lots of creative options. Whether you visit one of the UKís growing list of purpose-built trail centres or simply turn up at a race venue, thereís no shortage of mountain bike riders willing to show off their skills in front of the camera. Follow our tips below to do them justice!


Rider Jump


1. Use the right camera and lenses

The great thing about mountain biking from a photographerís point of view is that, unlike a lot of sports, itís possible to get up close to where all the action is happening. And with a choice of viewpoints, often right up to within inches of riders whizzing past, thereís no need for a bag of fancy lenses to get great shots. All you need is your camera body and a standard zoom, covering wide angle to short telephoto. A lens in the 24-105mm range can be perfect for the job.


If you want to increase your options, adding an ultra-wide zoom is a good bet for dramatic angles and a riderís eye-view of the action. Look at a lens in the 10-20mm or 12-24mm range.


The other piece of kit that should be in any cycling photographerís bag is a flashgun. A touch of fill-in flash is useful for blending sharpness and blur in slow shutter-speed shots, and essential if you find yourself deep in the woods where the only available light is likely to be too poor to allow you to freeze the action.


2. Use the simplest camera settings

Cross-country mountain biking is slower moving than many sports and riders generally follow the same path; so thereís often time to use Manual camera settings to ensure consistent results. Here, we give you a foolproof guide to the settings that will bag you the best shots every time.


Camera Focus Mode


Focus mode A bike and rider shot is full of holes that can fool the camera into focusing on the background. So pre-focus on a spot where the action will happen and lock the lens by switching to manual focus.




Camera White Balance


White Balance Use a preset White Balance to prevent changes in colour and lighting, which may affect the overall tone of your pictures. The Daylight option is best and will make batch processing of a sequence of shots easier.




Camera Drive Mode


Drive mode Itís more effective to plan your photos and take a well-timed single shot instead of a sequence. However, keep the camera set to the fastest continuous frame rate so you donít end up missing a great action moment.




Camera Ecposure Mode


Exposure mode Shutter speed is the most important exposure variable in action photography, so stick with Shutter Priority (sometimes indicated by 'Tv' on the camera's mode dial) if you want the camera to handle exposure for you, or go with Manual for more control.




3. Choose the best shutter speed

Selecting the right shutter speed is crucial with mountain bike photography. Although top pro riders move at speeds most of us would never reach on a bike, the speeds are much lower than motorsports. Donít try to always freeze the action otherwise it can look as though the riders are standing still. Here are some suggested settings to use as a starting point, although the result will depend on the light level, the speed of the cyclist and your panning skills (see below).


Camera Shutter Speed


- 1/250 sec: at this shutter speed, there is likely to be some movement, but it may not be enough to make it look as though the riderís going very fast.

- 1/60 sec: at this setting, the background may start taking on a smooth blur, but there should still be plenty of detail in the bike and rider.

- 1/30 sec: it will be hard to hold sharp details on the subject at this shutter speed. It's useful for creative effects but too slow for general use.


4. Pan with the action

To give your mountain biking photos that all-important sense of speed, youíll need to practice your panning technique. The idea is that you move the camera to follow the rider, so that they remain in the same position in the frame as you take the picture. Theyíll then be rendered sharp, while the moving background becomes a blur. If the riderís head is sharp, the rest of the shot can be a blurred mess and youíll get away with it.


Panning Action Photo


To keep a riderís head sharp itíll need to appear stationary during the pan. Think of your viewfinder focus points as imaginary gun-sights. Pick one that allows a suitable composition and follow the riderís head with it. Switch off continuous focus and instead manually pre-focus on where the riderís face will be.


Panning Action Photo Shot


Get comfortable

Plan where you want to take the shot and make sure youíre comfortably standing, kneeling or sitting with your body facing where the rider will be, your legs spaced apart for balance and the camera pre-focused.



Panning Photo Shot


Stay sharp

Using the focus points in your viewfinder as an imaginary gun sight, choose the one thatís closest to where you want the riderís head to be in the composition and hold it over their head as they ride past.



Panning Photo Shot


Be gentle!

Squeeze the shutter gently while the riderís head is still covered by your pre-selected focus point. Never jab or put pressure on the shutter as youíll create vertical movement, spoiling the panning effect.



Panning Photo Shot


Follow through

Follow through with the focus point still over the riderís head until well after the shotís been taken. This is important because it ensures youíre fluidly moving the camera at the correct speed and direction.



Top panning tips

- You need a clear view of your subject Ė if youíre shooting a race, get there early so you can grab a prime spot.

- Choose a spot where your subject will be moving across your path so you can achieve a smooth pan.

- Although panning will play down cluttered backgrounds, try to avoid things like advertising hoardings that may still look distracting. Grass and tarmac are ideal.

- High vantage points can work well, allowing you to look down on your subject. Corners in tracks are also good panning spots as your subject wonít be moving so fast.

- Use your lens set to continuous AF mode if you donít feel your manual focusing is good enough Ė and select the right AF sensor so the lens keeps focus on your subject rather than the background!


Common panning mistakes

Itís tricky to get panning right and easy to get it wrong. Successful panning is all about control and confidence. If you feel you can do it, you can, whereas if youíre unsure youíll keep making mistakes Ė panning the camera too quickly, firing the shutter either too early or too late. Youíre bound to make mistakes to begin with, but instead of breaking out in a sweat when you do, learn from the experience and try again Ė eventually youíll nail it. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:


Common Panning Mistakes

Problem: The panning action was uneven so the subject is very blurred. This shot actually looks quite effective in its own right, but as an example of panning isnít great.

Solution: Match the speed of your camera movement to the speed of the bike.


Common Panning Mistakes

Problem: In this case the pan was all over the place Ė you can tell from the shape of the streaks in the cyclist and background that the camera was panned upwards as it travelled right to left.

Solution: Keep the pan smooth and don't jerk the camera as you press the shutter button and release it.


Common Panning Mistakes

Problem: Ooops! Panning doesnít get much worse than this. The shutter speed was far too slow and the pan wasnít even so the subject is a mere smudge. Must try harder!

Solution: Pick a shutter speed fast enough to provide some detail.


5. Use Flash to Freeze the action

A burst of flash is brief enough to freeze the fastest movement, so why not use an external flashgun to create perfect slow-sync action shots? This technique combines a slow shutter speed with a burst of flash Ė the slow shutter records blur while the flash captures a sharp image of a cyclist on the same frame.


Many flashguns and digital cameras with pop-flashes have a slow-sync flash setting. This ensures that the camera doesnít automatically set the correct flash sync speed but instead sets a shutter speed to correctly expose the ambient light. The shutter speed you want depends on how fast your subject is moving, what ambient light levels are like and how much blur you want.


Flash to Freeze Camera Use


One other factor to consider is whether to shoot on first-curtain sync, where the flash fires at the start of the exposure, or second-curtain sync where flash fires at the end.


If you donít intend to get lots of blur in the picture, first-curtain sync will be fine because you know that the flash will fire when you hit the shutter button so you can time your picture accordingly. However, if you want to record a lot of blur, second-curtain sync (aka rear curtain sync) works better Ė you get the blur appearing behind the frozen image, not in front of it, which looks more natural. Timing the shot for the peak of the action is more difficult though, as the viewfinder will black out while the exposure is being made.


When it comes to taking the picture, track the bike as if you were taking a panned shot, so the background blurs, and hit the shutter when itís in the right position. If your camera is set to predictive/continuous autofocus mode it should keep the subject sharply focused. Alternatively, in low light, switch to manual focus, pre-focus on a spot where you intend to fire the shutter, then track your subject towards it.


Creative Zoom Burst

6. Get creative with zoom bursts

A classic technique for adding motion effects. In a nutshell, all you do is zoom the lens through its focal length range, from longest to shortest or vice versa, while taking the picture. Result? Your subject records as a series of colourful streaks that appear to explode out from the centre of the image. The subject doesnít even need to be moving as the zooming action itself introduces motion.


If you do attempt to zoom a moving cyclist, start off with them coming towards the camera. For bikes moving across your path youíll need to pan the camera while zooming, which is trickier.


The key to success is zooming smoothly through the focal length range so you get even streaks, and also to set a shutter speed slow enough so you can zoom through the range Ė anything faster than 1/8sec will probably be too fast.


Once you've mastered the art of the simple zoom burst, you can add a flashgun into the mix. This will help you record a sharp subject (as long as it's within the flash's coverage area) in the middle of all that blur. Use the slow-sync flash setting to ensure the shutter stays open long enough to record the zoom burst.


Creative Composition

7. Improve your composition

Itís all too easy, when youíre in the thick of the action to forget that great bike pictures arenít just about capturing a sharp image. Shot after shot of riders in the middle of the frame may give an accurate record of, say, a race or event, but a little extra care will lift them out of the ordinary.


Thereís no secret to making your mountain bike pics stand out from the crowd and thatís where great composition can help. Itís something that photographers take great care over when faced with a stunning landscape, for instance, but which all too easily goes out of the window with a moving subject. Plan your bike shots in advance, take the subject away from the centre of the frame, use natural trail features to lead the eye in and out of the picture, and, by doing this, create something a little different.


Peak of the action

Whether itís the moment a rider leaves the ground from a jump, or the sideways swing of their handlebar as they sprint up a tough climb, thereís almost always an ideal moment for the shot. Try to anticipate it and squeeze the shutter release just before that point. A D-SLRís mirror blacks out your view at the point of exposure, so if you see the shot in the viewfinderÖ youíve missed it!


Lead-in lines

Most mountain biking takes place on well-defined trails. These make perfect lead-in lines to draw the eye into the picture. When you canít get close enough to fill the frame with the rider, try using the trail. The first shot with the rider centred in the frame works okay, but itís a far more powerful picture when the riderís positioned off-centre in the top third of the frame.


Shoot in Context Photo


Shoot in context

Close-cropped action shots can be very effective, but sometimes itís helpful to include some context to show where the riderís come fromÖ and where theyíre going. With a low viewpoint, wide lens and fast shutter speed, this silhouette of pro rider Chris Smith launching a drop has loads of impact.


Thanks to: Seb Rogers, Chris Smith, Ben Birchall, Andrea Thompson and the team at Cwmcarn near Newport in South Wales, one of the countryís best-established and most popular trail centres.


Source: PhotoRadar.com

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Posted By: Diesel

Date: 02/20/2010



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