6. Flash for mountain bike photography
A burst of flash is brief enough to freeze the fastest movement, so why not use an external flashgun to create perfect slow-sync action shots? This technique combines a slow shutter speed with a burst of flash – the slow shutter records blur while the flash captures a sharp image of a cyclist on the same frame.
Many flashguns and digital cameras with pop-flashes have a slow-sync flash setting. This ensures that the camera doesn’t automatically set the correct flash sync speed but instead sets a shutter speed to correctly expose the ambient light. The shutter speed you want depends on how fast your subject is moving, what ambient light levels are like and how much blur you want.
One other factor to consider is whether to shoot on first-curtain sync, where the flash fires at the start of the exposure, or second-curtain sync where flash fires at the end.
If you don’t intend to get lots of blur in the picture, first-curtain sync will be fine because you know that the flash will fire when you hit the shutter button so you can time your picture accordingly.
However, if you want to record a lot of blur, second-curtain sync (aka rear curtain sync) works better – you get the blur appearing behind the frozen image, not in front of it, which looks more natural. Timing the shot for the peak of the action is more difficult though, as the viewfinder will black out while the exposure is being made.
When it comes to taking the picture, track the bike as if you were taking a panned shot, so the background blurs, and hit the shutter when it’s in the right position.
If your camera is set to predictive/continuous autofocus mode it should keep the subject sharply focused. Alternatively, in low light, switch to manual focus, pre-focus on a spot where you intend to fire the shutter, then track your subject towards it.
7. Cycling photography technique: zoom bursts
A classic technique for adding motion effects. In a nutshell, all you do is zoom the lens through its focal length range, from longest to shortest or vice versa, while taking the picture.
Result? Your subject records as a series of colourful streaks that appear to explode out from the centre of the image. The subject doesn’t even need to be moving as the zooming action itself introduces motion.
If you do attempt to zoom a moving cyclist, start off with them coming towards the camera. For bikes moving across your path you’ll need to pan the camera while zooming, which is trickier.
The key to success is zooming smoothly through the focal length range so you get even streaks, and also to set a shutter speed slow enough so you can zoom through the range – anything faster than 1/8sec will probably be too fast.
Once you’ve mastered the art of the simple zoom burst, you can add a flashgun into the mix. This will help you record a sharp subject (as long as it’s within the flash’s coverage area) in the middle of all that blur. Use the slow-sync flash setting to ensure the shutter stays open long enough to record the zoom burst.
What to look for in a zoom lens for this technique:
• Zoom range:
wide-angle, standard or telezoom – all are suitable so choose whichever you need to suit your subject.
• One-touch zoom:
most interchangeable zooms are one-touch these days – twist to focus and pull/push to zoom. These are ideal for zoom-bursts.
• Integral zooms:
in compact or all-in-one bridge cameras, the focal length of the integral zooms is usually adjusted using T and W buttons. The zooming rate may not be fast enough for everyday use, though in low light with long exposures you should be okay.
• Tripod collar:
mount your lens or camera on a tripod to prevent additional blur being created by camera shake, but this isn’t essential if you have a steady hand.
Zoom bursts: a step-by-step guide
1 Get ready
Choose a colourful, bold subject that doesn’t rely on fine detail for its appeal. The background isn’t too important as it will be blurred, but don’t go for anything too cluttered. Mount your camera on a tripod.
2 Set the exposure
In sunny weather outdoors try stopping down your lens to f/22, setting minimum ISO and using a polarising or ND filter to reduce the exposure. In low light such measures won’t be necessary.
3 Lock the exposure
To lock the exposure, set your zoom to its longest focal length, take a meter reading and use the exposure lock to hold it so the exposure doesn’t change once you start zooming.
4 Focus the lens
Focus the lens on your main subject. You may want to do this with the lens set to manual focus so there’s no chance of the focus point changing during zooming.
5 Let zooming commence
Set the zoom to its longest or widest focal length, and then just as you’re about the trip the shutter release, start zooming. Zoom smoothly through the exposure.
6 Vary the effect
An alternative idea is to zoom for part of the exposure so that you have a sharp subject surrounded by blurred streaks.
7 Get creative with flash
Once you’ve mastered the technique try adding a burst of flash to record a sharp image among all the blur. When zooming the lens from wide to long, use first-curtain sync flash (its default setting). When zooming the lens from long to wide, switch to second-curtain flash. If you zoom in the opposite direction when using flash, you’ll get bizarre results (see the shot on the right).
8. Improve your composition
It’s all too easy, when you’re in the thick of the action to forget that great bike pictures aren’t just about capturing a sharp image.
Shot after shot of riders in the middle of the frame may give an accurate record of, say, a race or event, but a little extra care will lift them out of the ordinary.
There’s no secret to making your mountain bike photos stand out from the crowd and that’s where great composition can help. It’s something that photographers take great care over when faced with a stunning landscape, for instance, but which all too easily goes out of the window with a moving subject.
Plan your bike shots in advance, take the subject away from the centre of the frame, use natural trail features to lead the eye in and out of the picture, and, by doing this, create something a little different.
Peak of the action
Whether it’s the moment a rider leaves the ground from a jump, or the sideways swing of their handlebar as they sprint up a tough climb, there’s almost always an ideal moment for the shot. Try to anticipate it and squeeze the shutter release just before that point. A D-SLR’s mirror blacks out your view at the point of exposure, so if you see the shot in the viewfinder… you’ve missed it!
Most mountain biking takes place on well-defined trails. These make perfect lead-in lines to draw the eye into the picture. When you can’t get close enough to fill the frame with the rider, try using the trail. The first shot with the rider centred in the frame works okay, but it’s a far more powerful picture when the rider’s positioned off-centre in the top third of the frame.
Shoot in context
Close-cropped action shots can be very effective, but sometimes it’s helpful to include some context to show where the rider’s come from… and where they’re going. With a low viewpoint, wide lens and fast shutter speed, this silhouette of pro rider Chris Smith launching a drop has loads of impact.
Thanks to: Seb Rogers, Chris Smith, Ben Birchall, Andrea Thompson and the team at Cwmcarn near Newport in South Wales, one of the country’s best-established and most popular trail centres.
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