Cycling as a sport has gained much recognition over the years, thanks in part to the Tour de France, one of the most famous bicycle races in the world. Photographing cycling can be tricky because of the extremely fast movement involved. The photographer must have quick reflexes and be able to follow moving objects effectively. Static shots work fine, but dynamic angles and panning will be the techniques you want to be proficient in to get the most out of cycling photography.
Many times cycling events occur at velodromes (indoor cycling tracks), where you’ll want to use a long telephoto zoom lens to isolate and capture the action from either up close or the far end of the track; use a 300mm lens to compress the background and focus in on a single cyclist or a small pack. Due to the long focal length of the lens and the speeds of the cyclists, you’re better off setting the lens to continuous focus (AI Servo AF Canon/AF-C Nikon) mode. This way the camera will continue to focus as the subject – the cyclist – keeps moving forward.
Focus on the Face
An effective technique in sports photography is to capture the struggle the athlete is having to overcome during the contest, and that struggle is best illustrated in the face of the athlete. In the case of cycling, the rider is constantly exerting him or herself, and a compelling photo will capture the sweat, the grimaces, the pain and determination. Be ready for fast-paced close-ups of the cyclists. Set the lens to AF (Autofocus) and select continuous focusing (AI Servo AF Canon/AF-C Nikon) and keep the sensor points inside the viewfinder tight on the rider’s face.
Pan to Create Motion
More so than many, cycling is a sport about motion. To imbue your photographs with a sense of motion, the best technique to employ is to pan with the action. As you track and pan the cyclist while the shutter is opening and closing, you’ll inject motion blur in the background, but (when done correctly) you will have a sharp rider. Turn the mode dial to M (Manual mode) and set your shutter speed between 1/10s - 1/60s, which ensures that camera movement will cause a blur. You’ll want to have a tight aperture (say f/8) to ensure that the cyclist is sharp with blurred surroundings. Then press the shutter release and rotate with the subject throughout the opening and closing of the shutter – it is important to follow through to obtain the full effect.
Pay Attention to Backgrounds
Road cycling events have courses that take the riders through amazing settings, and these can make gorgeous backdrops for your sports photography. To include the background in the action, you have to make a concerted effort to properly frame those scenes so they have meaning in the context of the race. You can do this by using a wide-angle lens with a small aperture (say f/11 - f/16) to ensure a deep DOF (depth of field). Wide-angle lenses provide an angle of view that is more expansive than the human eye, so you have the ability to position background objects in the frame for dramatic effect that might not be apparent when you look at them with a naked eye. However these elements take on a new dimension when viewed through a wide-angle lens.
Experiment with Different Perspectives
Compose your frame so that the main subject dominates the upper third of the frame - the lower portion of the frame might be something as mundane as the ground. There is great effect in this technique. To understand this point better, consider the Rule Of Thirds (which divides the frame horizontally and vertically in thirds, and each plane left, right, middle, or top, middle, bottom can be made to be the focus of the composition). By essentially creating a narrower band in which to view the image, the image instantly becomes more compelling and actively directs the viewer’s eye where to look. If you really want to impress your audience, then fill the lower band with interesting objects in the foreground. This will add texture and dimension to you image, but just make sure what you put there isn’t more impressive than the main subject! Try other techniques for different perspectives as well. For example, when photographing cycle races you can look outside of the competition for other details; what does the crowd look like? Try to show them reacting to the excitement of the race.
Shoot in Continuous Mode
One of the beauties of digital photography is the high volume of photographs you can take without having to switch out your recording medium (i.e. roll of film for analog photography or the memory card). When the action is fast, vibrant and explosive, you don’t want to miss any action, so use the continuous shooting mode on your camera to capture 2, 3, 4, or 5 photos in a couple of seconds. When employing continuous shooting for cycling photography, use as large an aperture as possible for a blurred background so you can isolate the specific rider that you want, and capture his or her efforts.
Cycling is a fast sport, so to get sharp images you need to use high shutter speeds. You should also be prepared to choose ISOs up to 800 if necessary (i.e. using 1/1000s for your shutter), but remember the trade-off is digital noise. Depending on what your goal is for each shot, you’ll have to adjust your aperture accordingly to affect the DOF. However, using a wide aperture with the high shutter will decrease your DOF without having to use a telephoto lens. This effect is even more accentuated if you are using a telephoto lens.
Depending on where you shoot from, different kinds of equipment are needed. If you photograph indoors in a velodrome, a telephoto lens is most useful. Since we recommended using at least a 300mm lens, you’ll probably want a tripod or monopod to support the long, heavy lens. For outdoor cycling, a telephoto lens also is useful as is a standard lens. You can buy a telephoto that zooms, so you have the best of both worlds. Good quality lenses that can get down to f/2.8 will allow you to take sharper photos at much faster shutter speeds.
Photographing outdoors can be exciting; be prepared to move around with your camera to get the money shot. You’ll want to become proficient in panning and using a shutter between 1/15s and 1/90s to get dynamic shots with a blurred background. Use shutter speeds of 1/800s or faster to freeze the action or movement. Use a long lens to get tight compositions, and try not to use a flash. Be prepared to increase the ISO when using fast shutter speeds or in lower light situations. Remember that where you position yourself for the shot is critical to ensure those awe-inspiring compositions. Cycling is one of the less photographed sports, so there is good opportunity with this type of photography. It is worth mastering the techniques mentioned here to get some striking photos.