It's easier to imagine that we could be like cycling photographer Graham Watson than it is to imagine we could be like Lance Armstrong. I cycle, I take photos, and I take photos of cycling. I know that I will never, ever, do a time trail at 50+km/h. I do believe that, given the exact right lighting conditions, Photoshop, and luck, that I might someday take a photo that looks indistinguishable from a professional photograph. After ten months of practicing and events, that hasn't happened yet, but the three stages of the Tour of California got me a bit closer. I haven't taken a lot of great photos, but I've made plenty of mistakes, and those perhaps are better learning experiences.
So, if you're a novice like me and have a Canon Digital Rebel 300D or similar and want to take better cycling photos with it, perhaps my guide to my mistakes here will help you out.
I put this guide together based on my experiences shooting at the Tour of California (stage 3, stage 2, prologue A/B/C), San Francisco Grand Prix, and Morgan Hill Grand Prix. I've also included advice that I solicited from bigempty, who has the best Tour of California photos I've seen on Flickr -- they're amazing. Finally, I surfed through the "Ask Graham" section of Graham Watson's Web site to see what advice there was straight from the pro source.
I expect that I may say things here that are wrong and you should feel free to tell me so. I'm still trying to learn and any advice you can provide to add to what I've learned would be a big help. I plan on putting together some guides in the future covering other aspects of cycling photography, but this guide focuses mostly on shooting with cheap SLRs like the Canon Digital Rebel series.
Know your equipment
The Digital Rebel can take some fine photos, but it is not a great camera for sports photography. You won't get good photos with the kit lens and you will have to compensate for its slow focusing.
First off, forget about trying to take a great photo with the kit lens. I still have fun with it on nature hikes, but the cycling shots I got out of it were never much better than my little digital Elph point and shoot camera. The kits lens is slow and can't zoom in far enough to get really close to get a great shot unless the riders are slowly coming up a hill and you happen to be standing a couple feet away. In many cases, though, you won't be that close and the riders will be going very fast.
I invested in a Canon 70-200mm f/4 L lens, which you can get for $400-600, depending on whether or not Canon is running rebates at the time. The 70-200mm f/4 lens is considered one of the cheapest high-quality telephoto zoom lenses you can get. It is part of Canon's top L line of lenses and, as good quality telephoto zoom lenses go, it's fairly light and compact. No one would mistake it for small, but you should see the other lenses people carry.
The pro Canon photographers will probably have a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens, which runs $1000+. There's two good reasons for the extra investment. First, the f/4 lens is relatively slow for sports -- it really needs sunny outdoor weather. Second, the f/2.8 lens can also be hooked up to a 1.4x extender to make an 98-280mm f/4 lens or a 2x extender to make a 140mm-400mm f/5.6 lens to give you that extra reach. It won't be as sharp as carrying a separate telephoto zoom lens, but it saves a bunch of weight. You can use the extenders on the 70-200mm f/4 lens, but you really start to lose a lot of speed that you need -- the 70-200mm f/4 lens drops to f/8 with a 2x extender. Philip Greenspun has longer discussion on the 70-200mm series.
You can get by with lesser lenses, but there is one important feature of 70-200mm L lenses that will help you out: ring-type ultrasonic motor (USM). These lenses can focus fast with barely a twitch. The USM lens designation on Canon lenses is abused by Canon and I tried to clear up some of the confusion with this older post on ring-type vs. micro USM. Compared to my other lenses, I can hardly feel my 70-200mm lens while it focuses. It's quiet, fast, and barely trembles, which is important in keeping the camera steady for that shot. To quote bigempty, "the silent-wave internal gearing of the best lenses is invaluable." The ring-type USM also allows you to do Full-Time-Manual (FTM) focusing, which basically means that even if you are in autofocus mode, you can grab the focus ring and change the focus on your own.
Autofocus vs. Manual focus
To take a photo of a cyclist, you need to focus on an object moving at 25+mph. The Digital Rebel has an autofocus mode called AI servo that lets you continuously focus on an object, i.e. if you press the shutter down halfway, it will continue to adjust the focus up until you press the shutter button. If you have the newer 8MP Rebel 350D, you're probably enjoying the fact that you can select AI servo in the manual modes. If you have the older 6MP Rebel 300D, you're out of luck just like me: you only get AI servo if you're in 'sports mode.' Sports mode takes away all of your fine control. You can't set ISO, shutter, or aperture values, and you can't even do exposure compensation (Av +/-). I find that most of the photos I've taken in sports mode don't have good exposure: highlights are blown out or the riders are too dark.
I find that I have to use manual focus with my Rebel. Manual focus is great if you know what shot you want to take, but it takes a lot of practice. I usually choose an object that's the same distance away as the photo I want to take. I focus on that object and then wait. When the rider approaches, I try to anticipate when the rider will move into focus. This takes a lot of practice. When I was first trying out this manual focusing technique, I often set a smaller aperture (e.g. f/8 - f/10) so that I would have a greater depth of field. As I got better at it, I've tried using it with f/5.6 and f/4 to get a more collapsed depth of field. I've had to throw away many shots with this technique as you have to learn to press the button before the rider appears in focus, as by the time you're pressed the button the rider will be in focus.
Even with the AI servo mode, you may find that you want to use manual focus instead. From what I've read, the autofocus on the Rebel XT is about the same as original Digital Rebel, which is not very precise and is also slow.
The general rule of thumb I've heard bantered about is that you need to shoot at least 1/focal length for a handheld shot. Otherwise you'll get camera shake. The only time you should ignore this rule is if you're intentionally trying to blur the shot, such as with tracking shots, which I discuss later on. Here is a more detailed guide on avoiding camera shake.
My biggest mistake in the Tour of California: I didn't use a DOF calcuator to figure out what my lens was capable of. If I had, I would have known that some of the shots I was trying to take just were too difficult. A narrow DOF is one way to make a better cycling shot, especially when shooting a time trial. It isolates the subject of your photo and good background blur ("bokeh") can be aesthetically pleasing. The shots I've seen that I like the best are the ones where the depth of field is just big enough for the rider and the bike.
To quote bigempty:
Ideally you want to be shooting at less than f/5.6. To do that you might have to set your ISO speed to at least 400 or 500. The longer lenses get, the more they'll collapse the depth of field, so shooting a 70-200mm lens at f/5.6 might not blur the background like shooting at f/5.6 with a 400mm lens.
Near the end of Stage 3 of the Tour of California, I really wanted to get close in on the riders and fill up my whole frame with an upper body shot from the hands to the helmet. I set the aperture to f/9, which was about as small as the lighting conditions would allow. I thought the smaller aperture would give me enough depth of field, but if I had checked the calculator I would have found out that I had DOF of 2.3ft ... and I was on manual focus. Possible for some, but not me. The shots looked good when I glanced at my screen, but when I got home the evidence of the short DOF was clear: blur everywhere. Checkout Floyd Landis' blurry face as he time trials into the lead at the Tour of California:
If I had done my math, I would have needed to focus at least 60ft to get a 4ft DOF at f/4. A bike is about 5ft long, so even this would clip out part of the bike. At 70 ft, the DOF increases to 5.63ft, which is a bit more breathing room. If you want to get in closer, another option is to frame your shot from the side of the rider, assuming you can track the rider quickly enough. This online DOF calculator should let you do all the calculations you need before you head out in the field with your lens.
Alternatives to shooting with a narrow DOF
If you're not shooting with a long telephoto lens or if the conditions won't allow shooting with a narrow DOF, there are other options for isolating a cyclist. An easy option is to try and shooting with a clean background, such as the sky or something that's far enough away to be blurred. I tried to do that with this shot, though it would have been better if the spectator wasn't in the shot:
Another trick I've seen is tracking shots. With a tracking shot, you choose a slower shutter speed and then track the pan with a rider as he crosses your field of view. The background turns to nice streaks, and if you're panning is steady enough the rider is still clear. This is definitely a more difficult technique, though, and you will have to throw many away. The Technique Group in Flickr has a pan and zoom thread and here's an example of this technique with rollerbladers by Flickr user cszar:
I kinda/almost did this technique when I accidentally let my shutter speed drop below 1/focal length. Here's Paolo Savoldelli shot at 1/160 with a 200mm focal length:
I've quoted bigempty throughout, so here is the full message so you can read it as written:
Shooting the type of images you ask about is tough for sure. It takes a lot of practice. Having a camera with a great autofocus system helps, but as you've indicated, it can be done with manual focus, too. The real trick is setting yourself up to improve the odds that you'll get good images.
One tip when using big lenses is to use a fast lens-- f/2.8 or faster. And the silent-wave internal gearing of the best lenses is invaluable. Beyond the gear, though, always try to shoot with your shutter speed at one over the focal length. So for example, if you're shooting with a 300mm lens, you need to have a shutter speed of at least 1/300th. To do that, you need to take a meter reading in the light conditions you're shooting, set the shutter speed, and then see what aperture reading you're getting for the available light. Ideally you want to be shooting at less than f/5.6. To do that you might have to set your ISO speed to at least 400 or 500. The longer lenses get, the more they'll collapse the depth of field, so shooting a 70-200mm lens at f/5.6 might not blur the background like shooting at f/5.6 with a 400mm lens.
Also, always try to use a monopod or tripod. Every little bit of stability helps, especially using bigger lenses. The fast shutter speed helps, but as lenses get bigger, they accentuate every bit of movement.
Finally, the gear does matter somewhat. Much of it is technique, but having fast lenses and fast gear improves your odds. That's why there are sports-specific cameras that the media use. Still, I used to shoot with a slow, crappy digital camera, and still got decent results. Practice, practice, practice. [Ed: emphasis mine]