Mountain biking is a seriously photogenic sport. The sweat, the mud, the speed… it’s a great way to hone your cycling photography skills and to try out creative camera techniques like zoom-bursts and slow-sync flash.
Best of all, unlike many sports, you can get in close with your camera. You don’t need big, heavy telephoto lenses – a camera kit lens can give you lots of creative options.
Whether you visit one of the UK’s growing list of purpose-built trail centres or simply turn up at a race venue, there’s no shortage of riders willing to show off their skills in front of the camera. Follow our mountain biking photography tips below to do them justice!
1. The right camera and lenses for mountain biking photography
The great thing about mountain biking from a photographer’s point of view is that, unlike a lot of sports, it’s possible to get up close to where all the action is happening. And with a choice of viewpoints, often right up to within inches of riders whizzing past, there’s no need for a bag of fancy lenses to get great shots.
All you need is your camera body and a standard zoom, covering wide angle to short telephoto. A lens in the 24-105mm range can be perfect for the job.
If you want to increase your options, adding an ultra-wide zoom is a good bet for dramatic angles and a rider’s eye-view of the action. Look at a lens in the 10-20mm or 12-24mm range.
The other piece of kit that should be in any cycling photographer’s bag is a flashgun.
A touch of fill-in flash is useful for blending sharpness and blur in slow shutter-speed shots, and essential if you find yourself deep in the woods where the only available light is likely to be too poor to allow you to freeze the action.
2. Use the best camera settings
Cross-country mountain biking is slower moving than many sports and riders generally follow the same path; so there’s often time to use Manual camera settings to ensure consistent results. Here, we give you a foolproof guide to the settings that will bag you the best shots every time.
A bike and rider shot is full of holes that can fool the camera into focusing on the background. So pre-focus on a spot where the action will happen and lock the lens by switching to manual focus.
Use a preset White Balance to prevent changes in colour and lighting, which may affect the overall tone of your pictures. The Daylight option is best and will make batch processing of a sequence of shots easier.
It’s more effective to plan your photos and take a well-timed single shot instead of a sequence. However, keep the camera set to the fastest continuous frame rate so you don’t end up missing a great action moment.
Shutter speed is the most important exposure variable in action photography, so stick with Shutter Priority (sometimes indicated by ‘Tv’ on the camera’s mode dial) if you want the camera to handle exposure for you, or go with Manual for more control.
3. Choose the right shutter speed
Selecting the right shutter speed is crucial with mountain bike photography. Although top pro riders move at speeds most of us would never reach on a bike, the speeds are much lower than motorsports. Don’t try to always freeze the action otherwise it can look as though the riders are standing still. Here are some suggested settings to use as a starting point, although the result will depend on the light level, the speed of the cyclist and your panning skills (see below).
at this shutter speed, there is likely to be some movement, but it may not be enough to make it look as though the rider’s going very fast.
at this setting, the background may start taking on a smooth blur, but there should still be plenty of detail in the bike and rider.
it will be hard to hold sharp details on the subject at this shutter speed. It’s useful for creative effects but too slow for general use.
4. Cycling photography technique: panning
To give your mountain biking photos that all-important sense of speed, you’ll need to practice your panning technique. The idea is that you move the camera to follow the rider, so that they remain in the same position in the frame as you take the picture.
They’ll then be rendered sharp, while the moving background becomes a blur. If the rider’s head is sharp, the rest of the shot can be a blurred mess and you’ll get away with it.
To keep a rider’s head sharp it’ll need to appear stationary during the pan. Think of your viewfinder focus points as imaginary gun-sights. Pick one that allows a suitable composition and follow the rider’s head with it. Switch off continuous focus and instead manually pre-focus on where the rider’s face will be.
1 Get comfortable
Plan where you want to take the shot and make sure you’re comfortably standing, kneeling or sitting with your body facing where the rider will be, your legs spaced apart for balance and the camera pre-focused.
2 Stay sharp
Using the focus points in your viewfinder as an imaginary gun sight, choose the one that’s closest to where you want the rider’s head to be in the composition and hold it over their head as they ride past.
3 Be gentle!
Squeeze the shutter gently while the rider’s head is still covered by your pre-selected focus point. Never jab or put pressure on the shutter as you’ll create vertical movement, spoiling the panning effect.
4 Follow through
Follow through with the focus point still over the rider’s head until well after the shot’s been taken. This is important because it ensures you’re fluidly moving the camera at the correct speed and direction.
Top panning tips
• You need a clear view of your subject – if you’re shooting a race, get there early so you can grab a prime spot.
• Choose a spot where your subject will be moving across your path so you can achieve a smooth pan.
• Although panning will play down cluttered backgrounds, try to avoid things like advertising hoardings that may still look distracting. Grass and tarmac are ideal.
• High vantage points can work well, allowing you to look down on your subject. Corners in tracks are also good panning spots as your subject won’t be moving so fast.
• Use your lens set to continuous AF mode if you don’t feel your manual focusing is good enough – and select the right AF sensor so the lens keeps focus on your subject rather than the background!
Common panning mistakes
It’s tricky to get panning right and easy to get it wrong. Successful panning is all about control and confidence. If you feel you can do it, you can, whereas if you’re unsure you’ll keep making mistakes – panning the camera too quickly, firing the shutter either too early or too late. You’re bound to make mistakes to begin with, but instead of breaking out in a sweat when you do, learn from the experience and try again – eventually you’ll nail it. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:
The panning action was uneven so the subject is very blurred. This shot actually looks quite effective in its own right, but as an example of panning isn’t great.
Match the speed of your camera movement to the speed of the bike.
In this case the pan was all over the place – you can tell from the shape of the streaks in the cyclist and background that the camera was panned upwards as it travelled right to left.
Keep the pan smooth and don’t jerk the camera as you press the shutter button and release it.
Ooops! Panning doesn’t get much worse than this. The shutter speed was far too slow and the pan wasn’t even so the subject is a mere smudge. Must try harder!
Pick a shutter speed fast enough to provide some detail.
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