It’s fall! In my house, that means it’s the season of long drives in the mountains through the beauty of the changing trees.
… of cool, sunny days spent outdoors before the winter arrives …
… of grease stains and dirt and blood ….
Think music festival on wheels. Gorgeous fall colors and dirt-smeared happy grins. Folks on bikes out living their best backcountry lives.
It’s Mountain Bike Race season
Watching these riders as they tear through the changing trees and fly over the nearest rock or ramp can be exciting and rewarding, especially for a photographer. Use these tips to help you capture sick shots that your favorite rider will be thrilled to show off.
Tip #1: Location, location, location!
Start by scouting the course or trail beforehand. Look for places that can lend themselves to visual tension in your images or showcase the rider’s skills.
- Good-sized rocks or smaller, sharp hills
- Tight turns or s-curves
- Ramps or berms that riders can bank off of
- Short, steep uphills that riders may power up and fly off the top
- Dust or dirt patches where you can catch stuff flying into the air behind them
- Anything interesting at the bottom of a hill you know a rider will come flying down
Look for places that make interesting settings for the rider. Beautiful fall colors, bridges, interesting stands of trees, and fun patterns. Use the surroundings to create natural framing for your rider. Chances are if you think the scenery is interesting, it will also make for a great setting for your shot.
Tip #2: Freeze the frame
When you’ve got a rider who loves adding flair as she flies over a jump, or leaning so far into a turn that you’re SURE she’s going to wipe out any second and you can feel the gray hairs sprouting as you watch, then you’ve got a great setup for freezing motion.
You’ll need to choose a fast shutter speed — something around 1/500th to 1/800th of a second should work, depending on the speed of the rider.
If you’ve set up in an area where you can’t easily see the trail leading to your chosen action spot, it helps to have someone further up the course. This way they can let you know when a rider is coming your way. Often the riders themselves are too focused on not dying to give you much of a heads-up. So, someone willing to be an early warning system can help make sure you don’t miss the shot.
Tip #3: Focus Pocus
If the rider won’t be in view until right before you want to hit the shutter button, it’s a good idea to pre-focus the camera on an object or spot that is approximately the same distance from your camera that the rider will be. This can be a tree branch, rock, volunteer … whatever you can find.
To help make sure you nail focus, give yourself enough depth of field to keep things sharp if your pre-focus point is off a little, or you’re a hair late hitting the shutter button. Depth of field is controlled by your aperture, so if you are shooting in an auto or semi-auto mode, make sure your aperture setting doesn’t fall too low.
Alternatively, if your camera has this capability, setting your autofocus for “continuous” or “servo” can also help keep your subject sharp. If you keep the focus dot on your subject and keep the focus lock button pressed, servo will continually adjust the camera’s focus until you actually push the shutter button.
Tip #4: Strike a pose
In an action-filled sport like this, a shot that looks like a rider is just kind of sitting on the bike is … well … not exactly Instagram-worthy. You’ll want to look for opportunities to show a rider in action.
Some examples are:
- Leaning into a turn
- Standing up off the seat to tackle a hill
- Dust flying from behind the rider’s wheels
- Flying off of a rock or jump — get them midair!
- Cranking to pass the rider ahead
- Screaming across the finish line
Even though you are freezing the motion, you want to show how fast and talented these riders are, and how hard they’re working to make it to that finish line.
Tip #5: Lights! Camera! Action!
Another way to create unusual and compelling shots is to look for interesting lighting.
Is there a place where the sunlight comes through a break in the trees and highlights a rider’s face, or an opening in the clouds that will highlight a rider while the rest of his surroundings are still stuck in the shadows? Backlighting is particularly awesome for this.
Not only can it outline the edges of a rider and help them really stand out from the background, but it can also highlight the dust and dirt kicked up behind their wheels and create that sense of dynamic motion. Just make sure you adjust your exposure so your subject doesn’t go too dark in contrast with a bright background.
Even cloudy days can give you the chance to really zoom in on a rider’s game face without the harsh or distracting shadows often caused by bright sunlight. Or saturate the colors in the surroundings to really make them, and your rider, pop.
Tip #6: Up, down and all around
Sometimes you don’t have much choice, but where you can, position yourself so you can catch the riders from different angles. Shooting up will give them a sense of height, power and strength, and can help get rid of a distracting background.
Shooting down can add that “eagle-eye” perspective or show a lone rider working their way through a vast network of trees or boulders.
I’ve even seen folks settle down in a hollow and shoot riders jumping right over them! I don’t recommend this for races as you don’t want to mess up someone’s race, but if it’s safe it can allow you to create some really unusual and powerful images.
A rider flying straight at you can evoke that sense of excitement and impending danger, and shots from behind can make it look like the rider is going so fast you couldn’t catch him until he was already past.
Just remember, whatever angles or perspectives you explore, safety first!
Tip #7: Get in the race spirit!
Don’t forget to shoot the whole vibe of race day while you’re at it.
Capture dirty teeth, mud-spattered arms and legs or dripping blood. Let your riders show off their badassery!
Get close-ups on game faces. Capture checkered flags at really close finishes, and the tension of racers at the starting line just waiting to unleash on the course.
Zoom out to create a sense of scale between the riders and the course. Silhouette shots on ridgelines or hill climbs can be creative additions to your photographic story.
Some races even have themes, and you can capture both racers and the audience in colorful costumes or crazy get-ups. My daughter’s team has a long-standing tradition of wearing tutus at the State Championships. The contrast between dirt-smeared expressions of pure determination and flying tulle makes for some really fun and memorable images.
Grab some shots of the post-race scene too — congratulations from teammates, spent riders dangling over handlebars, and hugs from proud parents and friends make for awesome shots.
Last but not least, give some love to the spectators! Shots of cheering a teammate to the finish or parents watching anxiously at a tricky part of the course can add a wonderful emotional element to your storytelling.
Most of all, let yourself enjoy the whole experience.
Open yourself up to the excitement and energy of race day. Ride the highs and lows. Let the combination of emotions and these tips guide your creativity. As our league says, “Rule #1 is … FUN!”
And if your final images are greeted with a chorus of “Gnarly, bruh” …
Congratulations! You just nailed it.
Editor’s note: We welcome this post from Michelle Fox. Michelle accidentally started a portrait photography business 18 years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history. After many years of chasing children with a camera and nurturing a long-standing love affair with high school senior photography, her passion has taken a distinctive left turn into the world of landscapes and wildlife. Fueled by her favorite chai lattes, she also enthusiastically teaches beginning photography and editing classes through the Denver Photography Group. Her images can be found at a gallery in Frisco, CO, as well as (coming soon!) on her website.