A How-To Guide to Photographing a Cycling Race
With the Tour de France ending this Sunday, we'll take an in-depth look at cycling photography. I recently photographed a 200-mile, one day bike race through rural Ohio in the United States. While its prestige wasn't quite on the level of "Le Tour," it was still intense and fun.
1. Pack for the Race
The first thing you need to do is pack for the race. I wanted to be high mobile. So along with my Nikon D700, I packed a small kit of three lenses: a 24mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.8 and a 70-210mm f/4. Honestly, I could have used my 70-210mm for almost all my photos.
I also packed a lot of water, almost a gallon. I was stationed about 5-10 miles away from any modern conveniences, and with all the work I would be doing on the heat, I didn't want to get dehydrated.
I also packed my smart phone with GPS, so I could identify where I was on the route if I got lost. It really came in handy.
Finally, you'll need a mode of transportation unless you really just want to shoot one part of the race. Because I knew the main pack of riders would be spread out and the race was out in the country, I just used my car to get around. But a bicycle or motor scooter would have worked, too. You don't necessarily need to go faster than the cyclists. On most courses, there will be short cuts to get from one part of the route to another.
2. Map the Course
Unlike most of the Tour de France, most lower profile bike races will have a series of loops scheduled in the course. At the very least, they will likely end where they began. Due to the 200-mile distance of this race, every rider was required to do three 16-mile loops at the end of race.
You can see a map of this loop in the photo above. As you can see there are several roads that cut through the loop making it easier to "cut off" riders and get several pictures of them during one trip around the loop instead of waiting in one spot.
It's important to remember that most long distance cycling racers will average between 15 and 25 miles per hour. Obviously, hills can affect this speed, and at big races, the pace will quicken to almost 50 miles per hour near the finish.
3. Look for the Light
Looking at the map and noticing what time of day your cyclists will be coming through will further allow you to plan your day. This race finished up in the evening. The sun sets in the west. By looking at the map, you can see the top stretch of the loop might not be the best place for pictures because the sun will be at the rider's backs.
The rest of the course offered be relatively nice side light with the exception of the section at the bottom of the map. At that point the cyclists were biking straight towards the sun.
4. Plan Your Attack
With the average speed, your good map, and knowing where the sun will be. It's easy to figure out exactly where you want to be and when. Look for interesting scenes along the route, and look for corners where the cyclists will be leaning hard to make a turn.
You should have a shot in mind for each location for each pass of the riders. Maybe your first shot is with a long lens, then you reposition and shoot a wide angle. Don't try to do to many things with each pass.
It's always better to get one perfect realization of the image in your mind than six "close enoughs." In my case, I knew the riders would be going around three times, and that I could cut them off twice during each lap. That's three opportunities per lap for a total of nine chances to get photos.
5. Setup Your Camera
You'll want to have your camera set up before the race as well. When I shoot any fast moving sport, I always use aperture priority mode. I set my aperture to the widest aperture the lens offers or maybe one stop down from that if I'm worried about depth-of-field.
I set my ISO to 400 at least, often times 640 or 800. This allows my camera to select a very fast shutter speed that will freeze the action (sometimes, you may want blur, but I'll get to that later).
I set my auto focus to "continuous" for my Nikon camera. You want to give your camera the ability to track a moving object instead of locking on to a specific distance. This is crucial for cycling where you subject is usually moving toward or away from you very rapidly.
I also set my camera up so it shoot rapidly. Sometimes this is called "burst" mode and other times it's also called "continuous" mode. This will give you the best change to nail your shot.
6. Look for the Characters
Every race has a few stand out performers. Look for the person favored to win. Look for the person who won last year. Look for the person who came in second last year. And look for people who have interesting stories.
One of the stand out characters competing in the race I covered was a man with limited mobility in his legs. He had a special arm-powered recumbent tricycle, and he was quite a bit faster than many of the other racers!
7. Set the Scene
Many times when people shoot sports, they feel they need to shoot very tight with a long telephoto. While this is almost always a valid approach, you need to create different images to tell a complete story and properly "cover" an event.
Many times, you should include the background in your photos. This might mean shooting with a wide angle lens or it may just mean isolating a third of the frame and allowing the background to fill the rest of the scene.
In the case of my race, we were in a very rural agricultural area, so I left that my shots need to show that farm land. If you watch coverage of the Tour de France, you see beautiful shots of the castles and towns and landscapes that the riders encounter. It adds context and depth.
8. Focus for Faces
As with many other types of photography, getting faces in your pictures is really important. Sport of any type is an emotional competition. Your viewers want to see the victory, the defeat, the struggle. The easiest way to do is to show faces.
With cycling, there are two challenges standing in the way of this goal. First, many riders where sunglasses that obscure the eyes. This is pretty hard to get around, so if your shooting a group, look for someone without them. Make them the anchor point in your image.
The other issue is that cyclists move quickly, so many times it's worth shooting a little looser to keep your focus point on the rider's face. With a quick crop in post-production, you can tighten up the composition.
9. Shoot the Action
It may sound obvious, but it's important not to get caught up in shooting everything else and forget that a top level athlete is a very compelling subject. Shoot them as you would a dancer or weightlifter. Highlight their strength and poise.
In order to do this, you may want to shoot an individual rider against a clean, undistracting background. Shooting head on to achieve this usually hides the position of the body and therefore doesn't work. Use a three-quarter or profile shot.
Shoot many images, and choose one that shows the leg closest to the camera is the up, compressed position. If the leg is extended, it tends to look like they're coasting.
10. Shoot the Conflict or Cooperation
Unlike, football or basketball, cycling is for the most part and individual sport. Though in the Tour, there are teams and some team strategy. Most smaller races don't feature this.
Therefore, you'll need to hunt out the cooperation and alliances people form. You might not have three people pulling a single star, but you'll see group riding together and switching the lead so others can benefit from drafting.
During shorter races and toward the very end of longer race, you'll also see riders in neck-and-neck battles for position. They may be looking at each other and signaling that there is conflict between them and that they are trying to beat each other.
Look for these situations to show that what you're photographing is a sport and not just a training ride.
11. Shoot the Moments
At the race I covered, the cyclists had certain points that they had to check-in at. They had to get off their bikes to do this, so they usually used the time to relax and refill their water bottles. They also chatted with other racers about the situations on the route.
Shooting these smaller moments allow you to get a better look inside the world of competitive cycling. You'll see that many of the people are friends and ride together casually.
This is also the time to find out from the riders if there are any particularly hard stretches in the loop like long climbs or hard corners. If you hear about something people are having trouble with, go there to shoot next.
12. Shoot the Details
In any medium, no story is complete with out a few details. In photography, these images might attempt to tell the whole story through something small. I chose to shoot a very worn tire, which I admit is not the most creative picture.
I'd love to see photos from a race that show a broken chain or spoke. Maybe you'll get the opportunity to shoot a worn shoe or a dented helmet. At the Tour de France, the riders discard food and water bottles as they ride. Something like that could be a great shot.
13. Experiment with Angles
We've already spoken about shooting with wide angle and telephoto lenses, and shooting straight on versus in profile. Now I want to mainly talk about camera height.
Shooting at eye level is not a bad thing. Your background could be the disappearing road behind the rider, or as you've seen in my shots, the environment.
You can shoot from a low angle, but in most places this will mean that the sky is your background. If the exposure in the sky blows out, you're probably looking at a bad shot. You could also hope for clouds. Or you can do as I did, and make sure trees are in the background.
Shooting from a high angle insures that a bright sky is not in your image. In my location, this was a tough task. But in more urban areas, you can look for overpasses, skywalks and tall buildings.
14. Pan at Your Own Risk
With any object moving in a predictable direction, panning in an option. I suggest you try it. I always do. But be warned. It's not a great way to spend a bunch of time. The problem is two fold.
First, most bike races take place during the day when it's bright outside. There are times when I can only get my shutter speed down to 1/60th of a second. That's not really long enough for a good pan. If you're set on doing pans, you may want to bring a neutral density filter.
There's also the issue of legs. The cyclists legs are pretty much always moving in a different than the bike itself. That means that even if you execute a perfect panning shot, the legs will be blurry. In order to overcome this issue, you'll need to catch the rider while they're coasting. This usually occurs on downhills that make for tricky panning angles.
15. Prepare for the FInish
When you're at the finish line, you'll see one of two things. If it's a long non-professional race, you won't see too much drama. You might just see some relief on the face of the riders as the stream in one by one.
For shorter races and professional races like the Tour de France. The finish will be far more interesting than any other part of the race. If you're confident in your auto focus, track the leader. If you're not, prefocus on the finishing line and shoot a sequence as the riders come across the line.
The race I followed as long, but one rider seems pretty happy to be done. Or maybe he saw me and thought it would be a good photo!
Cycling can be a daunting thing to shoot, but in the end, it's much easier than sports like football or basketball because the movement is predictable. Good luck with your next race!