Cycling Photography Tips: Shooting Head On

Tom Boonen - (c) Ken Conley
Photo by Ken Conley
Back in the day I wrote an article, Shooting cycling photographs with a Canon Digital Rebel, which by now is laughably quaint. Hopefully not too many are stuck trying to shoot with an original Canon Digital Rebel, which is incapable of doing important sports-related tasks like focusing. I've taken much better photos since then with a combination of a Canon 30D and 40D, so I thought I'd update my beginner tips for the modern age.

Shooting head on is both difficult and easy: difficult in that the rider is moving at you very fast so your margin for error is very little, but easy in that you don't have to move your camera very much at all. Here are some rules I use for getting the most pro out of my SLRs (NOTE: these are my rules, not the rules):

Before the Shot

  • Learn your autofocus points: Don't rely on your camera to select an autofocus point because you'll end up with mostly blurry shots. Choosing your autofocus point is easy: select the point where you want the rider's head to be.
  • Turn on AI Servo: Your camera should have several autofocus modes. On Canons, you want to select "AI Servo", which tells your camera to keep focusing as your target moves.
  • Shoot between f/4-f/5.6: I generally shoot between f/4 and f/5.6 when shooting head on, which I can select using either aperture-priority (Av) mode or manual (M) mode. This lets you focus on getting a good, collapsed depth of field that will make the rider stand out. You generally worry about shutter speed when you're trying to get spin-blurry wheels, but you can't see wheels spin head-on.
  • Shoot manual if your camera sucks: I try to shoot in manual mode as much as possible as my metering gets thrown off by the color of the rider's kit. The repeated action of a time trial makes it easy to dial in your aperture and shutter speed manually and then adjust every couple of riders or so. I'll usually shoot the first couple of riders in Aperture Priority mode and select the settings I like best.
  • Longer is better: The longer the focal length you can shoot with, the better you can collapse the depth of field in just around the rider. Ideally I would shoot with a 300mm, but all I can afford is a 70-200mm with a 1.4x extender. Any longer is probably too heavy to lug around, but if you're strong and burly, go for it.
  • If you have good fps, use it: My 40D shoots near 6 frames per second. I usually end up using all of this during time trials. Even if you're a master of getting the shot in focus, so many shots in my reel have to be tossed out because the rider chose to blink at that exact moment. I also find that either I or my camera loses track for a frame, so it's good to know that you have several other good frames available.
  • Try to find a part of the course where you're sure the rider will look up/lean: I have plenty of shots of helmet tops, which get to go right into the trash. Find a course feature that improves your odds, like a crest in the hill or a nice turn. Turns have a couple added bonuses: the rider will lean, which can make for a nice diagonal composition, and the rider has to follow a more defined line around the bend, which makes it easier to predict your composition.
  • Faster riders are much faster, be prepared: Riders like Dave Zabriskie are much faster and DZ in particular likes to go early. You'll get lulled by a bunch of slow riders and suddenly DZ will blow past you.
  • (Canon-specific) Lenses: The 70-200 f/4L lens is a fantastic, relatively low budget lens for shooting time trials. I now use a 70-200 f/2.8L IS for two reasons: image stabilization and the ability to still shoot at f/4 when using a 1.4x II extender. The f/2.8 + 1.4xII setup is about 5x as expensive and isn't 5x better than the 70-200 f/4L. If money is no object, go with a 300mm prime.
  • (Canon-specific) AF Selection Mode: The 30D and 40D both have an "AF Selection Mode" Custom Function. I use this to switch over my autofocus select to the little rocker button. This way I can change my autofocus point very quickly as I'm looking through the viewfinder. Often I've been able to take several different framings of a shot as the rider approaches.

During the Shot

  • Keep that autofocus point on their face: lock your arms in good, hold the camera steady, and do whatever you can to keep that autofocus point on the rider's face as they come at you. Don't go for the helmet as that can be an inch in front of the rider's face, which will throw off close-in shots. As the rider moves past you, you'll have to start rotating faster, so be prepared.
  • Quick draw a second camera: If you have the rider on a hill, you may have enough time to get a side shot using a second camera with a wider lens (the 200mm is going to be too long for this). Do this if you can as it gives you two entirely different shots of the rider to work with. If you take a slow-speed panning shot, you'll blur the background enough to make it look like you were in a different spot.

So, to summarize, get a lens 200mm or longer, choose a good spot on course, put your camera in manual (M) or aperture-priority (Av) mode -- go manual if your metering sucks, set it between f/4 and f/5.6, set your autofocus point, put it in AI Servo mode, and fire off as many frames as you can get while keeping the autofocus spot on their face. For bonus points, quickly grab your other camera and get off a side shot.

That's it for this set of tips. If there are others you're interested, please feel free to drop me a line.

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Comments (9)

My D50 is not really a step up from a digital rebel, but I can't wait to use some of these tips at the Tour de Georgia.

Yisehaq:

Nice tips. I had terrible experience the other day taking cycling race. The day was sunny (Africa) and there were fast blowing cloud on the sky which terribly disturbed my exposure meter.

Can you tell me how to expose? I now think that my exposure should be on the face but since the helmet will put shade on the face I have to compensate a bit on that. That will overexpose the rest of the scene. Any advice

Nice tips, just what I was looking for. I'll be taking my 450D to Monaco this weekend in the hope of getting some good shots of the TT.

:-)

Some great tips here!!! Thanks!!! I'm shooting my 1st cyclocross race this weekend and I've never shot cycling before so this is a great help! I have a 40D as well and I've hired a 70-200L 2.8 IS for the weekend. Any other tips you have would be greatly appreciated.

kwc:

If you're shooting cyclocross, I would bring something wide as well. You can get very close the riders and can get some interesting shots that way. The classic 'cross shots are usually done catching people running over the barriers or hoping back on.

john:

Tour de France is coming up soon and me (and my canonm eos 40D) are ready to shoot soem footage of the cyclist there!

thanks for the article and the shooting tips

L:

Why not shoot in 2.8? Just curious.

kwc:

Two reasons:

1. The depth of field is often too short

2. The shot will not be as sharp for most lenses

It's not a hard rule. I've shot 2.8 when need be. In general, though, f/4-f/5.6 is a better sweet spot.

Beth:

Thanks for these tips! I can see they are a bit old now but I have been going mental with my Canon 350d photographing my bf on his bike. Could NEVER - ok maybe sometimes - get pictures in focus! I am skint and have the same long lens as you so may go for an extender and upgrade my body to a better model. So yo think upgrading to a 30d or 40d will really help?? My camera is appauling and always has been with af!

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