Most mountain bikers have taken a camera with them on a ride at some point. That’s the easy part. The trouble is that getting great pictures of your riding adventures isn’t quite as straightforward as pointing, clicking and hoping.
The good news is that you don’t need the talent of David Bailey or the gear of a pro sports photographer to improve your results. All it takes is a bit of thought and a few simple techniques. Here are five tips to put you on the right track to better mountain biking pictures. And just to show you don’t have to be a pro to get great shots, all the ones here are from the Bikemagic gallery…
All photographs are rectangular slices of reality with one dimension – depth – removed. The trick is to arrange all the bits inside that rectangle in a way that’s pleasing to the eye, which is really all that people mean when they talk about composition. And the key to good photo composition isn’t anything more arty than a bit of forward planning.
Walk around where you plan to take the shot and choose the best viewpoint. Experiment with different angles or, perhaps, different focal lengths. Take a couple of shots without bikes to see whether it’s all going to work. Then, when you’re sure everything’s as it should be, you can add the bikes and riders. It all takes a few moments, but it’s time well spent – and you’ll end up with shots that are noticeably better than the average snap.
Track the action
Unless you plan to take a lot of pictures of bikes leaning against walls and gates, you’ll be shooting moving targets most of the time. In order to keep a moving subject sharp in a photo, it needs to remain in the same position in the frame for the entire duration of the exposure. And for that to happen, you need to track it accurately.
The simplest way to do this is to plan where you want your main subject to be in the final shot, and imagine a crosshair in that part your camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen. Then as the bike approaches, move the camera by swinging your upper body, keeping the bike and rider centred under your imaginary gunsight. Take the picture and – this is the important part – follow through with the movement. If you stop moving the camera as the shot is taken, chances are you’ll stop too early.
If you want to refine this technique, keep your virtual crosshairs on the rider’s eyes. A bit of motion blur elsewhere in the picture doesn’t usually matter, just so long as the rider’s eyes are sharp.
Fill the frame
By far the biggest single mistake that beginners make with action photography is to capture a stunning moment surrounded by acres of space. If you’re going for the peak of the action, make sure you’ve cropped out everything that doesn’t need to be there. Less is almost always more when it comes to filling the frame, so don’t be afraid to move in as close as you need to.
It’s good to see a bit of context, so you might want to leave a bit of trail (/jump/boardwalk/whatever) in shot. But keep a wary out for stray onlookers, trees and crisp packets – and crop them ruthlessly out of shot. Cropping in camera saves time at the editing stage, sharpens up your technique and preserves as many pixels as possible for those lovely big prints you’re going to want to make of your masterpieces.
Use the trail
Look at any good landscape painting or photograph, and you’ll notice the way your eye is drawn into and across the picture. There are various composition tricks that can be used to achieve this, but you can use the trail to do the same thing. Standing a few paces to one side will allow you to use the trail as a diagonal to join the near, middle and far bits of your photo. Add a rider and hey presto! You’ve got a great landscape photo with added bike interest.
Get high (or low)
Most people see the world, most of the time, from a height of between five and six feet above the ground. Because we’re used to seeing things this way, any photo that’s taken from a different height immediately grabs our attention. And that means that using varying viewpoints is a great tool for making your pictures stand out.
Cameras with LCD displays are a great way to use low viewpoints without spending too much time grovelling around in the dirt, particularly if the display swivels or tilts. And many trails run close to walls or trees, both of which can be used – with care, obviously – to get an elevated view of things. It may not quite be a bird’s eye view, but it’ll be enough out of the ordinary to make people look twice.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what happened to all the stuff about shutter speeds and lenses. Well, understanding basic photographic principles certainly helps you get better results, but it’s not essential. Great pictures are more about composition and timing than technicalities, and that’s what these five techniques are all about.
Just about any camera – with the possible exception of oddities like pinhole and large format cameras – can be used to take pictures of mountain biking. But if you’re starting from scratch, here are a few guidelines:
The extra size and weight of an SLR with lens over the compact alternative isn’t ideal for mountain biking. But for responsiveness, quality of results – particularly in low light – and all-round versatility, there’s no serious alternative. If you must have a compact, check how responsive its shutter release is. Shutter lag – the delay between pressing the button and getting the shot – is a common compact bugbear.
Megapixels don’t matter
At least, not nearly as much as most salespeople will tell you. If you rarely print over A4, any camera with 6 or more megapixels is more than adequate. What’s far more important is how comfortable you are using the camera. Is it a comfortable fit for your hands? Is the viewfinder clear? Do you find the controls easy to use? Try a few for size and choose based on how they feel to you.
Buy a case…
…and then stop worrying. Cameras are reasonably tough, so provided you don’t make a habit of soaking yours in muddy water and / or falling off on top of it, a camera packed in a good padded case and carried in a Camelbak or rucksack should be fine. I’ve only ever written off one camera in 11 years of mountain bike photography – and that was by dropping it on a concrete floor.