Mountain bike photography technique

Good sports photography isn’t easy. Many popular sports - football or motor racing, for example - give amateur photographers limited access. To make matters worse, getting close enough to the action for worthwhile shots can involve expensive long lenses that are beyond the financial reach of many photographers.

Mountain biking is different. Whether it’s on a recreational level in beautiful surroundings or part of the race scene with pro-level riding, access is straightforward. A DSLR with standard zoom is all you need to get started, and the techniques for bike photography translate to other sports too. It’s a great way into sports shooting.

Panning

The fundamental point about an action photo is that, by definition, the subject is moving rather than stationary. While this may well be a case of stating the obvious, it leads to an equally obvious point that underpins all sports photography techniques: if the subject is moving, the camera should be moving too. It’s a technique that most people call ‘panning’, but I prefer to refer to it as ‘tracking’. Tracking the subject accurately in the viewfinder is the key to consistently good action shots.

Here’s how it works: as you record an image with your camera, the shutter is open for a brief period of time. During that time the lens projects an image of the subject onto the camera’s sensor. If the projected image moves while the shutter is open, the resulting image is blurred. If it doesn’t move, the image will be sharp. So the idea of tracking your subject is to keep the projected image of your subject - in this case, bike and rider - in the same position on the image sensor throughout the entire duration of the exposure. That way the bike and rider will be sharp. If the background moves a lot during the exposure it’ll be blurred, but that’s okay because it simply adds to the sense of speed.

Two tricks will help you get better tracking shots. First, don’t try to follow the entire bike and rider. Instead, pick one small area - the rider’s head usually works well, because however rough the terrain it’ll tend to move fairly smoothly - and concentrate on keeping that locked into a specific area of the viewfinder. Using an AF point helps, or imagine that you’re a sniper tracking a target. Rotate with your hips and follow through after you’ve taken the shot, much like a golf swing.

Second, practice using different shutter speeds to achieve different effects. Higher speeds mean you don’t have to track as accurately but won’t blur the background as effectively. Slower speeds make a precise pan more critical, but emphasise speed with a creamy blur behind the rider.

 ISO 200, 1/60 sec, F16
 ISO 200, 1/250 sec, F8
 ISO 100, 1/15 sec, F9

The degree of background blur depends on subject speed, distance from the camera position and shutter speed. 1/60sec is at the lower end of usable speeds for reliably repeatable results, while 1/250sec makes life easier but reduces the effect of the background blur and makes the bike look as though it’s going slower. By the time you’re down to 1/15sec results are very hit-and-miss - the shot above works because the rider’s glasses are sharp, giving a focal point for the viewer to concentrate on.

Lens choice

Unlike many sports, mountain biking usually allows photographers to get up close and personal with the action. Most race venues have trackside spectator access and, if you can ride yourself, you’ll have access to an infinite variety of shooting positions on any recreational trail.

In practice this makes mountain bike photography incredibly accessible. All you need to get started is a camera with standard or kit zoom. The wide end of the zoom range allows you to get close to the action or include some context, while the longer end gives scope for some cropping.

Because bikes tend to follow a predictable path along a trail, it’s relatively safe - with a bit of experience - to get in very close trailside. Ultra wide lenses - to 10mm for APS-C or around 15mm full frame - can work incredibly well to pull the viewer into the thick of the action, giving a powerful sense of involvement that tends to be lacking with long lens pics.

Some discretion is needed, of course. It’s possible to get close enough to a rider for a stray pedal, handlebar or elbow to snag an unwary photographer in passing. Wide lenses also tend to ‘pull’ wheels into oval shapes in the corners of the frame, which can look disconcerting.

At the other end of the scale long lenses can be useful for a couple of reasons. In some situations it may not be possible to get close to the action. If you need to pull the subject in to fill the frame, a long lens may be your only choice. But a long lens can also be used to compress the apparent perspective in a shot, appearing to bring the background closer to the rider in a way that can sometimes work well.

This compression can work against the photographer, though. It’s generally harder to incorporate a sense of movement into long lens images of mountain biking, so they can have less immediate visual impact. Good composition and an aggressive riding style are often key to successful long lens bike images.

 Nikon D3, 120mm focal langth  Nikon D3, 24mm focal length

Here’s the same rider on the same section of trail, shot from different positions on different lenses. The longer lens compresses the apparent perspective, making the distant hills and lake appear larger relative the rider. The wide shot is more dynamic, making the viewer feel as though they’re right next to the bike - but the background is far less prominent. Each shot works, but gives a completely different view of the same scenario.

Lighting

The vast majority of mountain biking takes place outdoors during daylight hours, with obvious benefits for photographers. Natural light is generally plentiful and always free, so there’s little need to break out the strobes except in specific circumstances.

Most cameras perform best with a preset manual white balance. Auto white balance can throw a curve ball at any time, giving inconsistent results even when the light hasn’t changed. I prefer to set my cameras to 5000k and make small adjustments as necessary during raw processing. Setting ‘sunny’ or ‘daylight’ works pretty well too. Even if you habitually shoot jpeg, a white balance that’s consistently very slightly too warm or cool is easier to sort out than one that fluctuates all over the place.

The best natural light occurs at either end of the day when the sun’s shining. If you have the luxury of being able to choose both where and when to shoot, the long shadows and warm light of early morning and late afternoon can give the same kind of modelling and ‘feel’ that many landscape photographers strive for. For shooting under heavy tree cover, on the other hand, it’s best to pick an overcast day. Strong sunlight creates exceptionally high contrast under the tree canopy, creating unattractive pools of either burnt out highlights or blocked in shadows.

There are times when flash can help - when the light’s low, any time you’re shooting in close with a wide lens, to fill in deep shadows in the subject, or just to make use of a strobe’s very brief duration to help freeze the action. Newcomers to flash should begin with a shoe-mounted strobe set to TTL automatic, which allows easy experimentation with shutter speed and flash ratio (via exposure compensation) to light bike and rider.

For maximum versatility, though, nothing beats remote off-camera flash. Most riders aren’t the least bit bothered by flash while riding, so it’s normally possible to position the light where you need it. A single strobe can be used to provide the main light, while a second unit can add a rim or back-lighting effect for extra impact. 

Remote-flash setup
 ISO 400, 1/100 sec, F6.3, shot with remote flash

Remote flash can help to add contrast and life on a dull overcast day, or to reduce contrast in situations where deep shadows and bright highlights would otherwise cause a severe exposure headache. The brief duration of a strobe’s light output also works well with slow shutter speeds to give an effective mix of sharp subject against a blurred backdrop.

Composition

The single biggest contribution to lacklustre composition in any action photography is a DSLR’s autofocus system. All of them, by necessity, are designed around a central focus point, creating a tendency for centralised - and boring - compositions. Want to improve your composition? Turn off the AF. Or, at the very least, prefocus and recompose.

It isn’t as hard to do this with mountain bike photography as you might imagine. Mountain bikes largely follow a predetermined path - usually on a narrow trail - and cover the ground at relatively low speeds - up to 40mph or so, but usually much slower. The combination of these factors means it’s not hard to pre-visualise the shot you want, pre-focus the camera on the point where you want the bike and rider to be, then squeeze the shutter button at the appropriate moment. By not relying on the camera’s autofocus system to track the bike and rider you’re now free to ignore the position of AF points in the viewfinder, allowing much more dynamic composition.

The key point is to place bike and rider somewhere other than the centre of the frame. It doesn’t particularly matter whether they’re on a rule of thirds intersection, in a corner, or somewhere else entirely. The very fact that they’re not central will immediately help to grab the viewer’s attention. Conventional wisdom also suggests that a moving subject should have space ahead of it to move into. Turning this idea on its head so that the rider is about to exit the frame can create more tension and add to the sense of action.

A de-centralised rider is a start, but of course the remainder of the image needs to have the right elements too. Once again, mountain biking’s reliance on a trail can often help. A visible path can be used as a lead-in line to draw the viewer’s eye across the frame towards the rider, particularly if the shot is composed so that the trail runs diagonally through the frame. Add a dramatic backdrop lit with low sun at either end of the day and you have the makings of a great mountain biking image.

Mountain bike trails provide a compositional anchor for photographers, offering a ready-made lead-in line that can be used to draw the viewer’s eye through the entire image. Keeping the rider away from the centre area of the viewfinder adds dynamism, while making use of available scenery provides useful context.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 41
Mccushim
By Mccushim (Aug 31, 2012)

A great way to capture video and or photos in action sports such as mountain biking, surfing, skiing, motoracing or skydiving is a POV camera. Check out the top POV cameras of 2012 here http://www.squidoo.com/top-action-sport-cameras

0 upvotes
CedricL1984
By CedricL1984 (Jan 11, 2012)

Great tips again. Makes me want to ride!

1 upvote
sevenjedi
By sevenjedi (Dec 1, 2011)

Excellent image..love it

0 upvotes
colgs3b
By colgs3b (Sep 23, 2011)

Nice article. I got experience with panning/tracking by photographing cars on a county highway. Another great place to get panning practice is at a criterium race. The bicyclists pass by many times in a short period of time. You can also stand on a corner and get great closeup shots.

I agree with other commenters: twist at the waist when trying to get a nice background blur with the subject sharp.

0 upvotes
Dave Bennett
By Dave Bennett (Sep 22, 2011)

Thanks for this Seb. Whem I'm not MTBing I love photography.

0 upvotes
marcomariano
By marcomariano (Sep 21, 2011)

very nice! exactly what i need ... im a photographer & mountain biker at the same time...

0 upvotes
Raul
By Raul (Sep 20, 2011)

Very nice article!!!

0 upvotes
andrea_g
By andrea_g (Sep 20, 2011)

Interesting article
Wishes for part 2 if any:
use of AF and MF technics in different situations
use of compact cameras by bikers who like to take some pictures
That's why most times all that I can bring with me is a premium compact camera and many times a weather resistant P&S.
Can I have some decent MTB pictures with this cameras?

0 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Sep 19, 2011)

It looks as though "world class" results require bikers getting paid to stage climbs or stunts, two or even twenty times. Gear manufacturers or resorts might put up the money for the sake of promotion. Staged or not, the "wow" shots entail a fair amount of danger.

The casual hiker with a camera will encounter bikers by chance, like a grizzly or cougar, at some sudden break in the woods or rocks, and require luck to shoot a few pics that aren't marred by back-lighting, blur, or falling off a cliff [Wilhelm scream].

POV video shots from a helmet cam seem to work only to convey (usually rather shaky) motion and viewers can't stomach very much.

0 upvotes
DeputyPhoto
By DeputyPhoto (Sep 19, 2011)

Good tips but careful on the flash. Maybe pros aren't bothered by flash but as an amateur bike racer it could be a shock (eg accident) to go over a jump and get hit by a load of SB900s going off wirelessly from an over keen photographer!

1 upvote
SebRogers
By SebRogers (Sep 21, 2011)

It's a commonly held belief, but in over 15 years of pro bike photography this has never been an issue for me - and I've never heard of any other photographers or riders having a problem, either. Riders are concentrating on where they're going. Strobes are in their peripheral vision, very brief and simply don't cause the issues that most people think they're going to.

0 upvotes
Matteo Ganora
By Matteo Ganora (Sep 19, 2011)

I can't believe... fake panning also here, in a tutorial!!!
The second and third shot are the same shot, one with a blur effect on photoshop...

It's a shame!

0 upvotes
DeputyPhoto
By DeputyPhoto (Sep 19, 2011)

No they aren't - look at rear of red jacket and front position on track.

0 upvotes
TenzinWill
By TenzinWill (Sep 19, 2011)

Check your eyes

0 upvotes
dacmo
By dacmo (Sep 19, 2011)

Tsk tsk.. some people talk without first checking the details. It's NOT the same photo processed in photoshop.

2 upvotes
La5Rocks
By La5Rocks (Sep 20, 2011)

Most riders will typically assume the same position when riding downhill, hence the identical pose. However, you'll notice the jacket hood is clearly different, as well as the leading foot is not in the exact position. I'm impressed Seb managed to snag each photo at almost the exact position!

0 upvotes
Raul
By Raul (Sep 20, 2011)

Hmmmm. It does look like the same shot indeed.

0 upvotes
jcmarfilph
By jcmarfilph (Sep 20, 2011)

Are the shots repeat of the scene? Coz the backgrounds are the same. Look at the branches in the middle. It' highly unlikely that the biker will end up in the same scene in two runs unless two photographers are shooting this single action. =D

0 upvotes
jcmarfilph
By jcmarfilph (Sep 20, 2011)

Maybe the OP is just emphasizing what the shot would look like if faster or slower shutter will be used hence the PP. =D

0 upvotes
SebRogers
By SebRogers (Sep 21, 2011)

They're different shots. The rider, Chris Smith, is a pro. My timing is pretty good :) The two shots look almost identical because Chris's position is almost the same and I timed the shots to within a few inches on the trail.

1 upvote
jcmarfilph
By jcmarfilph (Sep 21, 2011)

So the biker went back up and trail down. Excellent timing on your part then.

0 upvotes
SebRogers
By SebRogers (Sep 21, 2011)

Yes, Chris rode the same trail twice. Actually, multiple times :) Having a rider who is willing to work with the photographer is the only way to get the best possible trail riding images. Race photography is another matter entirely...

0 upvotes
Cornelis
By Cornelis (Sep 19, 2011)

Great article, very informative. Thanks, dpreview!

1 upvote
inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Sep 19, 2011)

this is by far the best article i read here
every tip in it is worth concidering, and the pics are stunning too

1 upvote
rockjano
By rockjano (Sep 19, 2011)

Yeah great article

1 upvote
Willem Steenis
By Willem Steenis (Sep 19, 2011)

Great article! Interesting tips :-)

0 upvotes
jjdsantos
By jjdsantos (Sep 19, 2011)

GREAT! I'm a MTB rider and a amateur photographer since 1983.
These tips are very interested and I will test them in next future.

0 upvotes
Debankur Mukherjee
By Debankur Mukherjee (Sep 19, 2011)

Good Article.

0 upvotes
WALTER LIAO
By WALTER LIAO (Sep 19, 2011)

very good articles.
know more about action shot.

0 upvotes
jorg14
By jorg14 (Sep 19, 2011)

Ah... has everyone forgotten about a form of photography which is just about synonymous with action sports? The no hands video camera. GoPro, Drift, Contour, ATC, Tachyon? For $400 or less one can produce world class videos.

I know, it's not a still picture, but as a serious amateur I've begun to explore this medium and find it tremendously exciting.

0 upvotes
JEPH
By JEPH (Sep 18, 2011)

Good article that's relevant to lots of different areas.

Plus, it covers flash techniques, panning techniques along appropriate shutter speeds, effects of focal lengths, compositional devices-what's not to like?

4 upvotes
JEPH
By JEPH (Sep 18, 2011)

forgot to mention:
effects of shade under sunny conditions, white balance suggestions, and implications of focus techniques.

Lots for one article. Well done.

1 upvote
Ian Johnston
By Ian Johnston (Sep 18, 2011)

I've taken quite a lot of motorcycle trials pics, which is like mountain biking in mays ways, including the fact one can get right up close to the action. However, I don't have the best of SLR gear, but I make do. Couple this with the fact I cut my teeth in the sport with a Canon D30 I learned very early that AF was a waste of time and so learned to pre-focus every shot.....and still do today.
I pre-focus on a rock or other object seconds before the bike appears and keep the shutter half-pressed until the bike is just entering the 'zone' where I then finish the shot off, taking into consideration what part of the bike you want in focus etc.
Ian.

0 upvotes
Bob Thompson Photos
By Bob Thompson Photos (Sep 19, 2011)

Good tip. This also works with many point and shoot cameras. Also try the video mode for real action.

0 upvotes
inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Sep 19, 2011)

me too, though the d700 has a fast af, i prefocus 90% of my shots.
to make it even easier i deactivated the af on shutter halfpress and only use the rear af-on button combined with continous focus

0 upvotes
csnyder103
By csnyder103 (Sep 18, 2011)

Excellent article. I shoot a fair amount of mountain biking and these are some great tips that I will definitely use.

I have had excellent results using my AF on panning shots. I usually use my 10-22 lens @10mm in the mountains here in Western North Carolina which are heavily wooded.

0 upvotes
nbt
By nbt (Sep 18, 2011)

Having been on one of Seb's courses I can vouch for his methods: under his tutelage my photography came on in leaps and bounds. If you can get a to local race, do it - you'll also make lots of new friends from people who see your photos and are flattered by how good you make them look! And I too imagine it would work for skiing, but it's a damn sight harder to find the right location when there's powder to be had...

0 upvotes
Ashley Pomeroy
By Ashley Pomeroy (Sep 18, 2011)

It'd be interesting to have some tips on pre-focusing; with the riders being in roughly the same plane of focus, I surmise that unless your camera has pretty good AF tracking it would be a better idea to use manual focus to pick a zone, and wait until the rider is roughly in that zone. Especially in the case of the headline image, which has the rider's head outside the focus point area of most SLRs.

With the background blurred out by panning you could probably afford to stop down a bit, and still achieve separation between the subject and the scenery. Or alternatively you could fake it, by mounting the stationary bike on a perspex pole, and have the rider pull a face whilst you photograph him (and just add the background whizz in Photoshop). Or suspend them with wires. The possibilities are literally finite.

1 upvote
Jkoether
By Jkoether (Sep 18, 2011)

One principle of panning (or "tracking") I've discovered is that the more mass you are rotating the more stable and consistent it will be. That is don't just rotate your head, camera and arms, but hold your whole upper body stiff and rotate at the hips.

3 upvotes
Identity
By Identity (Sep 18, 2011)

Well-written and thorough article. The lead photo has great perspective and almost makes my palms sweaty just looking at it! I don't like heights at all.

I live in an area with great mountain biking trails and a few races each year, but I've never thought to go and shoot photos. Time to practice my panning.

0 upvotes
jkrumm
By jkrumm (Sep 18, 2011)

Interesting and thorough article. Nicely done. I imagine it's similar for skiing, other than the cold and snow.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 41