Eric Stoner
Eric Stoner

Eric's professional photographic career spans over 25 years specializing in portraits, weddings and commercial photography using everything from simple lighting to very complex.

Tips for better cycling photos

August 26, 2014

As a cycling enthusiast, I also really enjoy the opportunity to photograph a pro cycling event. Since 1985, there has been a pro cycling race in my hometown of Philadelphia every June. It’s sort of a yearly ritual for me to photograph the event and this year was no exception.

Photo by Eric Stoner
City of Philadelphia in background. Wide angle shot, with EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS

 

Preparation is a major key to great sports photography and it certainly pays to do your homework before an event like this. Learning the road course BEFORE the race is the key to knowing where the best shots may occur. Knowing where the sun will be at certain locations on the course will prove valuable, so driving the race route will allow you to pre-visualize your shots, like this one below.

Photo by Eric Stoner
Be on the lookout for vertical images. Compressed telephoto view of a single cyclist, where the road becomes as much the subject as the rider.

 

What camera should you use? Any modern digital SLR is a great starting point. High-end digital SLRs with fast frame rates certainly can produce more pictures in a burst, but aren't mandatory for great shots of moving or stationary cyclists. If you're just getting started with action photography, you can put your camera in a fully-automatic "sports" mode (usually indicated by a little icon of an athlete on the camera's Mode Dial). But best results, you'll be better-served with an exposure mode that lets you pre-set a shutter speed and/or lens aperture, like Tv (shutter-priority) or Av (aperture-priority) mode on a Canon EOS D-SLR. One benefit of Manual mode, if you've correctly set it for the light and scene in question, is that exposure won't change when light- and dark-colored subjects come into the frame.

Everybody makes mistakes. That’s how we learn and improve our skills as photographers. I took this shot (below) a year or two ago and was really disappointed when I got home to realize the racers in front were out of focus because my aperture was set to f/5.6 and the depth of field wasn’t deep enough to get everyone in focus.

Photo by Eric Stoner
A 400mm telephoto lens compresses riders nicely, but at f/5.6, only those near the active AF point are sharp.

 

Clearly an oversight at the time, I corrected it this year by applying WAY more depth of field using an aperture of f/16, as seen below.

Photo by Eric Stoner
A similar shot, but at f/16, a lot more ends up in sharp focus. Aperture-priority exposure mode (Av mode on a Canon EOS DSLR) is a direct way to pre-set an aperture of choice, and still preserve automatic exposure. Don't hesitate to raise ISOs as needed to preserve a fast shutter speed, along with this kind of small lens aperture.

 

I try to get as much variety as possible during an event like this because how many pictures of guys on bikes can one look at, unless the images are interesting? How can you keep your images interesting? The aforementioned “preparation” will certainly help! If I had not scoped out this location before the race, I would have completely missed it. The race heritage spawned the idea for this mural, which was a terrific location for such an image.

Photo by Eric Stoner
Surroundings can be as important as the cyclists themselves. Using an EF 24-105mm lens at a fairly wide zoom setting, it was easy to incorporate the environment into an image from a cycle race.

 

This one was taken high above on a cliff overlooking the course.

Photo by Eric Stoner
Look for different and unusual vantage points, even if it's not where all the other photographers seem to be. Again, a 24-105mm lens (on a full-frame camera) makes a composition with many riders in one shot possible.

 

So what lenses do I usually use for such an event? Well, two I can’t live without are the EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II. I’ve used the EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS, but this year I took the new EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with built-in 1.4x extender. What a dream this lens is! It’s super sharp, super versatile and fairly light, weighing about eight pounds. The investment for this lens is not an easy thing to swallow, but its capabilities are unmatched for countless situations, including razor sharp close-ups like this one.

Photo by Eric Stoner
With 300mm and longer telephoto lenses, tight shots like this become entirely possible, even with moving subjects. Don't stop shooting as a subject gets closer to the camera -- keep the AF point on his/her face and let the AI Servo AF continue to focus-track it, even as it gets close to the camera.

 

Lighter and more affordable options also work, particularly since this type of event almost always occurs in daylight. The EF 70-200mm f/4L IS zoom is a terrific alternative to the larger f/2.8 version, with the same superb sharpness. Even less-expensive zooms, such as any of the 70-300mm lenses, can work well -- especially when you're not in deep shade or dawn/dusk shooting conditions. And for longer telephoto options, either the EF 300mm f/4L IS, or 400mm f/5.6L, are tremendous alternatives to big super-teles like the 400mm f/2.8 or 200-400mm f/4L IS Extender 1.4x lenses. Speaking of extenders, a Canon EF 1.4x extender matched with the 300mm f/4L IS lens is another great way to get long telephoto power at far less weight and cost than high-end super-tele lenses.

One technique I love to utilize is panning. With racing cyclists passing by at 30+ miles per hour, shutter speeds of 1/15 to 1/60 can be perfect for creating enough background movement to make your subject really stand out like this.

Photo by Eric Stoner
Experiment with different shutter speeds and pan your camera and lens with moving subjects as they pass by. Here, very slow speeds of 1/30 or 1/60 of a second (with an EF 70-200mm lens) give a definite sense of movement. Faster speeds, like 1/125 or even 1/250 can give a hint of movement, but with more likelihood of a sharp, recognizable subject. If you are using an Image Stabilized lens with a Mode selection switch, remember that Mode 2 is intended for deliberate panning.

 

Panning can turn an ordinary photograph into a piece of art, but it takes a good deal of practice and, even then, it’s difficult at best. Setting your focusing system to AI Servo will allow you to track moving subjects as they change distance. Panning with your subject at slower shutter speeds will turn your background into streaks of blur. If you don’t pan with your subject, this is what you’ll get with moving subjects.

Photo by Eric Stoner
Another way to show movement is to use slow shutter speeds, but with a stationary camera. This wide-angle shot (taken with a 24-105mm lens) highlights an important fact: subjects close to the camera will appear to be going faster, and show more blur, than subjects farther away. This is a perfect application of wide-angle lenses, to highlight this as a subject comes near the camera. Image Stabilization, if your lens has it, can be a big help here to keep the rest of the scene sharp in a slow-speed, hand-held shot.

 

Photo by Eric Stoner
One thing I’ve learned when using this technique is to try your best to choose a clean background without a lot of bright highlights and no people in the background. If either are present, you’ll see distracting bright or colored streaks in the background that look like this.

 

Photo by Eric Stoner
Some distractions in the background can be acceptable, like this one below, but try keeping them to a minimum.

 

Occasionally, I like to break the rules, as was the case with this shot below.

Photo by Eric Stoner
High-contrast scenes on bright sunny days can be a real exposure challenge. One option to consider is activating the Highlight Tone Priority that's a menu option in any recent Canon EOS camera. If you shoot JPEG images in-camera, or shoot RAW and process with Canon's DPP software, an additional option in bright sunlight can be to try either the Neutral or Faithful Picture Style setting, and then lower the contrast further with the "Detail Settings" menu option. Either can help preserve some highlight detail, especially if it's not greatly over-exposed to begin with.

 

The exposure is all over the map because the racers are coming out of a tunnel and into bright sun, striking more than half of the group. I processed the image by dialing the contrast way down and the same with the highlights. Artistically, I like this image but there’s also another reason . . . Turns out that the only cyclist that’s sharp, the one in blue and white, was the race winner! That was just dumb luck and NO planning can make that happen! You give yourself more opportunities when you have a lot of images to choose from.

Other creative techniques involve shooting in non-traditional ways. I’ll explain . . . Looking at the two images below, what do you notice? Repetition, perhaps? Repetition in an image tends to be very appealing to a viewer. Even though you don’t see any faces in these images, they work from a creative standpoint.

Photo by Eric Stoner
Remember that sometimes, cropping an image in the computer can give a more effective finished composition than what you started with in-camera. Here, telephoto compression from a 400mm lens, combined with radical horizontal cropping with an image-editing program, result in a powerful and unusual graphic image.

 

Photo by Eric Stoner
Faces don't always have to be visible! Again, a 400mm lens gives dramatic visual compression, and form becomes the key component of this image. Remember, the continuous AI Servo AF focus-tracking in your camera works with subjects moving away from the camera as effectively as it does with subjects approaching it.

 

From non-traditional to traditional, what would a race be without the finish?

Photo by Eric Stoner
Think about what you want when setting-up for a finish line shot like this one. In some instances, if you're shooting for a client, it may be better to use use a wider lens, and bring elements of the finish line (like the banners suspended above it) into the image... at other times, a super-tight shot, with a 300mm or longer telephoto lens, may be more appropriate. Even then, allow room in composing your shot for motions like the raised arm you see in this image -- don't shoot *so* tight that the "joy of victory" is cropped out of the picture! This shot was taken at a mid-range zoom setting with a 70-200mm lens.

 

Photo by Eric Stoner
Try to move in close for the victory stand shot, and expect to use a wide-angle lens (here a 24-105mm with a full-frame camera was used). Remember if this is in a shaded area, or under a roof or canopy, to raise your ISO so that you're at sufficiently fast shutter speeds for sharp pictures in the lower light.

 

I should mention that I’m not a photojournalist. I’m certain they would photograph an event like this in a completely different manner. Because I shoot events like this for contributions to our Canon Digital Learning Center site, as well as my own enjoyment, I shoot it with my own creative license and not my editor’s. Either way, it’s still a lot of fun!

Until next time . . . Stay cool this summer and happy shooting!

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