photographing bicycle races

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by bikealps, Mar 14, 2010.

  1. About a month ago I posted about photographing bicycle races. 15 years ago I did a lot of bicycle racing photography. Having gotten back into photograph ywith a DSLR (D90) about 1 1/2 years ago, I tried my first bicycle race a month ago and was quite disappointed with the results. My main problem was focus. The AF system pretty consistently gave me soft pictures, usually with the focus behind the subject.
    I got a lot of feedback, grouped into three themes:
    1. improve your technique
    2. buy better (faster lenses) -- I have 75-200 f4.5-5.6, 300 f4 screw drive, etc. -- no 70-200 f2.8
    3. buy a better body (D3 or D700 has better AF technology)
    This weekend I went to the races again and was lucky enough to meet a very friendly and insightful pro photographer with extensive bicycle racing experience, Scott Mosher and
    He was using a D300 + 70-200 f2.8 VR for most of the shots and a D200 + 35 f1.8 DX with a ND filter for side-action blur shots.
    He coached me about how to use the AF system and how to plan finish-line and other shots. What he said seems simple in retrospect, but he helped me step-by-step and it sure made a difference!
    A few key insights:
    • there are modes where the camera will allegedly pick the nearest object and AF on it. He suggested just using center AF and keeping the subject in the center. This places some restrictions on composition, but it works.
    • I learned to really pay attention to AF and not get too excited about what is happening in the race. Previously, I framed my subjects to tightly.
    • just keep the center AF point on the subject, push it halfway to focus and then snap it!
    For equipment, he had his D300 and the 70-200 f2.8 VR (battered from all the pro use) and I had my D90 + 18-105 kit lens, 75-200 f4.5-5.6, 105 f2.8 micro screwdrive, and 300 f4 AF screwdrive.
    He thought that AF-S is faster than screwdrive. I had heard that a micro lens is slow for AF and had a poor experience with it and my 8008s in 1993. He pointed out that the AF sensor needs contrast, so it prefers wider lenses, even if you don't actually want narrow d-o-f.
    We swapped lenses and gave it a try. He tried my 300 f4 and I tried his 70-200 f2.8. We both agreed the 70-200 f2.8 focuses faster than the screwdrive 300 f4. The 70-200 f2.8 was a dream. He said Graham Watson, the world's most famous bicycle race photographer (who we all know and love), really likes the 300 f4 screwdrive because it is lighter than the 300 f2.8.
    With some practice, I tried shooting with my 18-105 kit lens, the 75-200, the 300 f4, Scott's 70-200, and even my 105 micro. Remarkably, I was able to get sharp in-focus images with all of them, so the main feedback from people to work on technique was correct. I had a few AF issues with the kit lens, but I may have set f-stop too narrow forcing long shutter speeds and my technique may have been developing (first lens used during the race). So, they pretty much all worked! I do not need to spend $5-8k on new equipment. I am amazed that a little coaching from Scott got my photos from garbage to pretty good in just one afternoon. Of course, his are orders of magnitude better! :)
    Scott and I agreed the 70-200 has the fastest focusing, is the easiest to work with, and has the most convenient range of focal lengths for bicycle racing. Maybe I need to buy one of these! There is no substitute, but it seems like I can survive on the lenses I have and my D90. A zoom is an absolute must. Although my 105 micro and 300 f4 are ok, the zooms are so much more flexible.
    Scott's photos from yesterday's race are here: including one of ME, which I purchased:
    I've seen a lot of bike race photography -- every weekend there are multiple photographers who post their photographs from norcal bike races -- and Scott's are among the best.
  2. Thanks for the update Allan, and the link to Scott's website. I'm an avid cyclist but haven't had much success in sports photography though I really admire the work of the pros, including Graham Watson. I will be trying out the technique you related above later this year as I hope to ride (and shoot on alternate days) in several events local and in Europe. Another thing Graham does is use fill flash a lot. I wonder if you saw Scott using a flash as well?
    I hope to get the improvement you observed in your results -- sure wish I had that 70-200/2.8. Let's see, new bike or new lens next year...
  3. Even though I never saw the original thread, and was not one of those who advised you, it's nice to see feedback on how advice worked out. All the more so since it seemed to help!
    It's very nice of a pro like Scott to take the time and help out someone else. Real-life help -where you can try out and report back immediately- is of course often more helpful than online tips, so thumbs up for mr. Mosher.
    I've never photographed bicycle races, but I find that a lot of your tips are the same as the ones I give out to fellow (street-) theatre performances. Freezing the moment, or allowing motion blur to show speed/movement are after all choices we have to make in lot's of situations, and how your AF handles that is crucial.
    Good luck and lot's of fun rediscovering your old love :)
  4. I'm firmly in the camp that for a Dx sensor, a Sigma 50-150 f/2.8 is the ideal longer zoom lens, with the equivalent of 75-225. It has fast HSM auto focus and is very comfortable. With that lens and any of the f/2.8 16/17/18-50/55 shorter zooms, the long standing pro focal length of 24-200 is covered perfectly.
  5. it's going to be technique (pre-focus is fine but sometimes hard to do) and fast lens. the D90 will do just fine. but even the f/4 won't cut it. well, maybe on a cruising peloton. but not for sprint.
  6. Allan Armstrong : "...there are modes where the camera will allegedly pick the nearest object and AF on it. He suggested just using center AF and keeping the subject in the center. This places some restrictions on composition, but it works..."
    Perhaps you know this, but you didn't mention two of the settings I find most important to allow accurate focus in such situations:
    a) Set the lens' focus selector to "C" (continuous), NOT to "M" (manual) or "S" (single);
    b) Set the shutter release to "C_h" (continuous high) instead of "S" (single), and fire off at least two or three shots of each bike in a burst (ie, while keeping the shutter button pressed) as it is approaching you. Often the 2nd or 3rd will be the sharpest as this gives the camera time to acquire the target and make a more accurate estimate of the rate of change of distance.
    I fully agree with the idea of using only the center spot, keeping it right on the face of the subject, framing loosely, and then cropping in PP. You can always crop later, but if your focus is off because you were concentrating on framing, there's almost nothing you can do to save the image.
    The attached photo was taken a few years ago with the above settings on a d200 and a middle-aged 80-200/2.8 AFD (2-ring, screw-drive) at 155 mm and f/4 as the cyclists were screaming down a short section of road on their mountain bikes.
    Tom M
  7. I have been photographing races (triathalons, marathons and bicycle races) since 1973 when I photographed the first Honolulu Marathon with a Nikon F2 and a 105mm lens. I use the same techniques today that I used with my non-auto focus film camera back then and I still capture an extremely high percentage of SELLABLE photos. My race camera today is the rugged D2H but any camera will do. My check list includes: 1. Know your location and where the race participants will most likely pass at your location. 2. Check your background out for a shot that will include something that gives away the location of the event. 3. Measure a pre-focused distance to where you want to take the photo of the participants and put small pieces of gaffers tape or duct tape or use an existing mark on the street at that location. 4. Use Manual focus with a shutter speed of 1/250th to 1/500th (depending on time of day). 5. Snipe each racer as they cross your pre focused tape marks or other markings you wish to use. You can then use a Pocket Wizard on your camera and trigger a remotely pre-focused wide angle camera from a different angle at the same time for TWO sellable photos of each racer. My favorite lens is a fast- simple 50mm. The photos sell and I am consistently hired to photograph at major race events. Keep it simple!
    I shoot and meter manually using a handheld incident light meter to guarantee no post production exposure correction in Photoshop or Lightroom. It also keeps my employers very happy.
  8. I have a question that is more of an etiquette issue. In the past I have shot bike races where a bit of fill flash would have helped a lot to show the face of the cyclist. Would cyclists in general be terribly offended or distracted by a flash going off in the daytime?
  9. I can't speak with any authority, but my approach has been not to use fill flash for bicycle events because the danger is too high, things can happen so fast, and a bicycle can be upon your location before the bicyclist even realizes that you are going to take their picture. Obviously, deep shadows on the face is a serious problem that could cost you hours to fix in PS (essentially infeasible for hundreds of images). You should ask the organizers to get their actual policy on flash for each event you attend.
    However, I freely use fill flash when shooting a foot or swimming event outdoors and have never had a complaint about it from either the organizers, volunteers, judges, or the participants. Indoors is a completely different problem.
    I usually use somewhat elevated ISOs and wide apertures to throw the background out of focus. At such apertures, the power of my fill fill flash is very, very small, often, much less than the flash from a P&S camera. Also I try to stand in a position where the participants can easily see me. Often they will see the flash from my rig as I'm photographing participants in front of them and this reduces the surprise factor.
    Tom M.
  10. Wow, thanks for all the responses!
    To answer some questions about
    1. camera & lens AF settings
    2. using flash
    3. individual photos vs. race photos
    Camera & lens AF settings -- I used continuous high for shutter, AF-C for AF, and set the lens to whatever mode would let it AF. Scott pointed out that he edits his own images, so he only holds down the button for multiple images if there is a crash. I didn't have too much problem getting sharp images so I'm not sure I need a series to get them sharp. On my lenses, I knew what the switches did. On Scott's 80-200, all the markings had worn off, so I could not tell what the settings did and just used the lens as he handed it to me.
    Using flash -- I read somewhere that Graham Watson uses fill flash with medium format and reports that he can do so because medium format has faster flash sync speed than 35 mm. I do not know the details of what flash sync speeds are available now, but back in the 35mm film days I think the limit was 1/60 or 1/250. In terms of safety, I have used flash extensively in criteriums, popping my SB-25 right in the riders' eyes when I was using a 28mm lens on my 8008s and never had any problems. The skill level and concentration in criteriums is enough that the flash isn't any more distracting than cowbells or cheering and screaming crowds. I used to use rear curtain with the 28mm lens while moving the camera to create intentional blur and trail from the rider exaggerating the impression of speed. (I even sold a 16"x20" framed print to a rider once!) For more conventional shots, it seems like fill flash would be helpful because riders are always looking down and have their faces in the shade, but I don't see race photographers using fill flash much. Maybe it is because long lenses make flash less effective or people want better recycling times.
    Individual photos vs. race photos -- At centuries (recreational rides where people ride 100 miles in a day) there are often photographers who set up rigs to take individual photos and sell them to participants. Some sit by the roadside and follow all of Ralph's tips. Some even have automated rigs that flash and take your photo when you cross a light beam so the photographer sits in the van all day. I'm not trying to make any money. I want to get photos that either tell the story of the race or that I can give to my friends and say "Bill, this is when you were at the front" or "Bo, this is you on the last lap when you were absolutely wrecked! Dude, those guys pounded you!!!"
    And a last topic: wide angle vs. long lenses -- For most road races, where the photographer can get a good spot on the course, the normal technique is a long lens, like a 80-200 zoom. For certain effects, a wide angle can be interesting. In a super crowded race, where you have to push and shove to even see the riders, you're stuck working with a wide angle lens unless you can get a press pass. I went to Belgium last November and photographed some cyclocross races. I bought the 75-300 f4.5-5.6 specifically for this trip and found out that it was nearly useless and instead I relied on my 12-24 f4 instead. Here is an example of one of my photos: This is Belgian champion Sven Nys at the Superprestige Gavere Cyclocross. I relied on the wide zoom almost exclusively, with a few exceptions, for example where I got a good vantage point to see world champion Niels Albert leading the field through the barricades. I was able to use the long lens because Dottignies is a far less famous event than Gavere and the crowds were much smaller.
    Cyclocross is by far the most photogenic event, but my real love is road races... and now that I am racing again, I will be at these events and try to photograph races after mine is over... assuming I am not too wrecked!
  11. Thanks for sharing Allan, sometimes we are too hung up on gear and not enough on techinique.

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