I’m back from the fifth and final round of the British Downhill Series (BDS) in Wales. It was a weekend of stunning sunshine, meeting up with friends and taking photos – a great event for all involved!
I've written articles on a few different topics after some of the BDS rounds this year, including an overview of the day’s shooting at round one and a guide to on-track etiquette for photographers at downhill events. For my last post of the year on the WEX Blog, I’m going to go through a few key tips and techniques to help you get started photographing bike events (and some of these tips will be useful for other types of action photography too). Even if you’re not there to shoot professionally and just want to take the kids along for a day out, you can still get some great snaps with all of the rider in the frame and in focus.
It’s all about timing
Try aiming your camera at a point where you think the rider will be passing across on the track and keep the shutter button pressed down half-way, so that the camera focuses and meters. When you push it all the way down it only has to take the shot, without having to compute alot of information, so it makes it a lot more responsive. Become familiar with your camera and work out how long the shutter delay is on your particular model. You’ll get a feel for exactly when you need to be pressing it before you want the photo taken -it sounds simple, but try it!
Next up: Focus
There are a few things you can do to perfect how you use auto focus on fast-moving subjects. Try setting your AF to centre-point focussing (on some compact cameras this is referred to as spot AF) so your camera is only focusing on one tight point in the frame. If the lens you’re using has a focus limit switch, limit the focus to cut off the nearest few feet to you. This saves your lens from scanning through those first few feet when you know you won’t be using them.
My preferred method is pre-focusing, where I choose a point I know the rider will pass across and make a great photo (for example, the lip of a jump). Then I switch to manual focus and when the rider gets there I just press the shutter. Job done. If you have to auto focus though (and I do this a lot too), use the tips above and try to keep the focus point on the same part of the rider at all times (whether that’s their face, legs, torso, etc). It will work better this way and you’ll be able to maintain focus more effectively.
Capturing & freezing movement
Movement is, of course, all determined by shutter speed. Basically, set the shutter speed fast to freeze movement and slow to show movement. If you can set your shutter speed manually and want nice crisp shots (which is what I would recommend) set it as fast as you can while still keeping the correct exposure.
If you want to try something a bit different then set it low (1/125 or slower) and pan with the rider, moving the camera at the same rate as the subject. Pick a point in the view finder and pick a point on the rider, making sure you match them up and keep them matched as the rider moves across your view. Be sure to move at the exact same pace as the subject, this way the background will be blurred out and the subject will stay sharp.
Using flash is also a good way of freezing movement, as the flash duration is so short it almost acts as a shutter. If you’re in a place dark enough to need flash, use it! And even if you’re out in nice daylight and less than 10 foot from a fast-moving subject, use it as well - it will help freeze them, and fill in shadows.
Choosing a lens
Lens choice is crucial. After looking at lighting, it’s the next thing I consider. In my bag I have an 80-200mm f2.8 lens, a 15mm fisheye lens, an 18-70mm zoom lens and a 50mm prime lens. I feel these cover all the bases I need on a regular basis, depending on the lighting, space, composition and subject – which all influence which lens I’ll choose at the time:
In bad light – I’ll use a fast lens with a wide aperture of f2.8
Tight space – I’ll use a wide angle lens
Open space – I can be more flexible with my lens choice, but using a telephoto lens (51mm +) will give shallower depth of field and compress perspective, making the background seem closer to the subject.
Lenses are a product where you really do get what you pay for. Get the best you can afford at the time, save up a bit more and get that extra stop of light. When you’re taking photos in dark woods, you’ll definitely be glad you did.
This is a section I could write a novel on, so I’ll try to keep it brief and to the point. In good weather you don’t necessarily need flashes. If I can, I don’t use them. They slow you down and take something away from the true atmosphere of a shot, in my opinion.
But, when it comes to shooting in the UK, using flash is an inevitable part of photographing bike races, so you need to get to know it. I use 3 Nikon flashguns, all off-camera and triggered with Skyport radio triggers. The system isn’t cheap, but it’s still a lot cheaper than other options out there.
If you use the on-camera flash, you’ll get red eye, very flat lighting and the use of only one light. Use two or more flashes off-camera and you won’t have any of those problems. However, you’ll have to do it manually, which involves setting the power of the flashes yourself - but the results will be worth it.
That about wraps up this season. If WEX will have me back next year, I look forward to writing more about the life of a mountain bike photographer. So, until Spring and the start of another season travelling around shooting two-wheelers, get out there and shoot!All images © JacobGibbins 2010