February 18, 2007
Photographing a bike race
Ken over at kwc.org wrote a terrific how-to on shooting bike races, and there's no arguing with results: He got some awesome shots from last year's Tour of California, and from the Sea Otter Classic. With the Tour of California underway, I thought I would expand on Ken's guide.
Ken nails down a lot of the technical questions you've got to address, many of which are similar to any high-speed sports shooting: Use the fastest glass (lens with a low numerical f-stop) you can afford, use manual focus when the camera's autofocus can't keep up, and mind your depth of field.
I've also been trying to figure this out. The pictures I got at the 2005 Tour de Georgia were, as a group, a big disappointment. At that point, I was using two point-and-shoots, a Casio Exilim EX-Z30 and a Nikon Coolpix 880. The worst thing of all was the shutter lag. I got into what I thought were great positions for a lot of shots, but I only got a handful of good shots, and plenty like this.
That was enough to drive me into the arms of the Nikon D70 (since replaced by the Nikon D80, and very similar to the less expensive Nikon D40). The DSLR has made a huge difference in the technical quality of my photos, and I know, given more money, what I can do to improve that quality even more. A big advantage of the digital SLRs over most of the point-and-shoots is their ability to shoot continuously at 2, 3 or up to 8 shots per second. If you're using this mode, keep in mind that you'll get faster repeats if you're using “JPEG Fine” than if you're shooting in RAW mode, since the camera can write the smaller JPEG files faster. If you're stuck using a point and shoot, try to shoot pictures of the riders before and after the race, or shoot to limit the speed of the action (from in front of the field instead of beside, for instance).
Beside the technical consideration, there are a lot of logistical issues to consider about shooting a bike race.
For instance, there's only one point in the whole length of a bike race where you're guaranteed to get a good picture that tells a story, and that's the finish line. The quintessential cycling shot awaits, of the triumphant rider, arms raised, with a buzzing, colorful peloton just behind. The downside: dozens of other people will get that same shot, including pros set up with tripods just past the finish line. You, on the other hand, will probably have to hand-hold or use a monopod in the heavy crowds around the finish. Pedco's UltraPod is another option, providing a Velcro strap that can be cinched around crowd barriers or street signs to provide a steady mount.
So it's key to think about where you want to set up. One thing that's awesome about bike racing is the accessibility of riders. Rider warmups before time trial stages are typically wide open to the public, with riders set up next to the team RV, and riders will often work an autograph line on the way to or from the rider sign-in before each day's stage. After the stage, the day's winners and the race overall leaders have to hang around for the award presentation, and you can frequently shoot portraits and shots of riders with the fans. Typically, organizers will set up a cordoned-off area for the pros at the actual presentation, but with a 200mm zoom you usually can shoot the podium from outside the velvet rope.
Time trials are fabulous, since each rider will come by in turn. One tip I've used a couple of times: Riders start out from an elevated start house, ride down a ramp into a fenced-off chute, then usually turn as they exit the fenced-off area. It's often hard to get a good spot around the starthouse and storm fencing, but usually a lot more open as the riders exit the chute. That's where I got this shot of Lance Armstrong at the 2005 Tour de Georgia (still with the point-and-shoot). You'll have a couple of hours of riders coming through every 2 minutes or so, which gives you a great chance to get your settings dialed in. Since the race is on public roads, you can usually get there early, with a load of gear, and set up a tripod and a cooler. It can become almost mechanical, but there are still surprises. At the 2006 Tour de Georgia time trial over Lookout Mountain, I got a good spot on one of the day's toughest hills, and was set up on the left side of the road as riders came through. For some reason, though, the strongest riders -- Zabriskie, Danielson, and Landis -- were among a small minority of riders riding in the center or right-hand side of the road, so my shots of those three key riders were neither as tight nor as sharp as of riders before and after them.
Frequently, road races finish with a loop around a downtown area, so you get multiple cracks at the action. Corners are nice, since the riders are leaned over and you can get a lot of different angles by positioning yourself inside or outside the corner.
A stage takes as much as 6 or 7 hours to ride, so you can often get more than one look at the riders, bumping up your chance of catching an important breakaway, an interesting backdrop, or a great fan shot. Make sure you've got maps of the area, and plan out how you will get from shooting location A to shooting location B. Generally, stage races provide a “race log” that estimates when the riders will reach each intersection at different average speeds. These also help you estimate what's going on in the peloton: If they come in behind schedule, the group is taking it easy. On the other hand, you can easily find your way from Point A to Point B blocked by a breakaway that closes the road, keeping you from making a planned rendezvous with the riders.
If you find yourself chasing the racing on a regular basis, you might consider a portable radio scanner. With one, you can listen in to race radio as race organizers track breakaway riders, road closures, and unexpected problems.
I've only gone to one mountaintop finish, when Floyd Landis shadowed Tom Danielson to the top of Brasstown Bald last year. My wife and I went to the top with hours to spare, picked out a spot right along the course, and by the time the leaders showed up, the crowd was so thick that I couldn't get a shot of the showdown, and had to settle for action shots of lower-placed riders and the leaders at the presentation. And keep your eyes and ears open: That woman with the umbrellas and the shawl could be your race leader's mother.
A bike race is a great opportunity to try out a new lens (or body). In most cities, there are companies that rent out pro-level photography equipment by the day, week, or month. Day rates typically range from 2 to 5 percent of the purchase price, or $10-$100 per day, with discounts for weekly or monthly rental typically available. Here in Atlanta, for instance, we've got Professional Photo Resources. The reason the pros use multiple bodies is to keep from having to change lenses under fire; they can have a supertelezoom on one body and a wide angle on another.
The cool kids at Flickr say “closer is better”, preferring stuff like this and this, but follow your bliss. I like this shot from last year's Stage 6 better than its tack-sharp equivalent, and this pedestrian peloton shot because it may be the last time I ever see Floyd Landis race competitively.
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Great article; thanks for passing it along. I was disappointed with my shots from last fall’s US Pro race, so I finally broke down and bought a Nikon D50. The Tour de Georgia this year will be my first chance to use it for a bike race. Maybe I’ll see you there.
Posted by: James at Feb 19, 2007 1:09:40 PM
Good recap. The Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 is also on my shopping list. Like you I'd like to get it before the TdG, but we'll see. The next lens purchase is the 17-55 f2.8.
Posted by: Josh Hallett at Feb 19, 2007 6:24:34 PM