Action shooter Michael Clark goes in-depth on how he captures fast-moving mountain bikers, from lens selection to lighting, in this excerpt from his book Adventure Photography.
This excerpt from Adventure Photography is provided courtesy of Lark Books. To purchase the book, visit the Barnes & Noble website.
When compared to many adventure sports, mountain biking is relatively easy to photograph. There are no major concerns about getting into position, using a rope, or having to deal with avalanches—in many cases, you can simply walk to the location if you have too much gear to ride with. There is always fast moving action and it is amazing to witness what expert riders can do on two wheels—it all makes getting solid images relatively easy. The bike also lends itself to an array of remote camera options, which result in stellar images, giving a feel for what it was like for the rider.
One of the greatest difficulties with photographing mountain biking is that riders are moving very fast, so you'll need some very specific gear to have a fighting chance at capturing sharp images. I highly recommend using a camera that shoots at 5 fps minimum, but a camera that shoots at 8 or 9 fps is even better. Fast framing rates give you more options in the end because you can only catch so many frames as the riders blast past you. If you have a camera that can shoot 8 or 9 fps, then you'll have an extra image or two to choose from, and that might make the difference between getting a good image and a great one. In addition to fast framing rates, you'll need the best autofocus you can afford. How well your camera can track moving objects will have a big impact on how many images are truly sharp. I have found that lenses with the autofocus mechanism built into them are radically better than those that use a screw drive system. In general, the lenses made by the camera manufacturer will also focus faster than those made by a third party.
For this blur image, I ran next to Ryon Reed as he rode the Chili Pepper Trail above Moab, Utah. I held the camera about a foot (30.5 cm) off the ground and shot at 5 fps while Ryon rode at a slow pace so I could stay with him. I used a 12-24mm wide-angle zoom and a 1/10 second shutter speed to create some blur, but not so much that the scene was unrecognizable.
Using a telephoto like a 70-200mm zoom allows for a good working distance from the riders, but also allows you to fill up the frame. A 300mm lens gives you even more reach, but since it is quite heavy, it will depend more on your location as to whether or not you use it. Carrying a teleconverter (1.4x or 1.7x) with you is a great option if you need more reach and want to carry less weight. On the flip side of the focal range, a fisheye is one of the lenses I always take with me when I photograph mountain biking. By using this lens for cliff jumps, remote camera setups, and line-of-fire shots with the biker buzzing by only inches away from the camera, it's possible to get some incredible images that really give the feel of what it was like to be there.
Freeriders near the Rio Grande River just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, show the flipside of freeriding, which is pushing your bike back uphill for another run.
Most of the mountain biking photography I do is of a sub-genre called freeriding, or downhill mountain biking. Freeriders jump off cliffs, ride very steep rock walls, and blast their way down unforgiving mountain trails. They are pushing the boundaries of what can be done on a mountain bike, and it really makes for incredible images. Normally when I am shooting freeriders, I hike into the location with them since the terrain is beyond my skills on a mountain bike. There are a few tried-and-true combinations of gear and positioning that really convey the intensity of this sport. For instance, when I am shooting a cliff drop, my go-to lens is the fisheye (10.5mm or 16mm), because it makes the cliff look larger and steeper, and I move in tight underneath the drop, just to the side of where the rider will come off. I use a hyperfocal distance method to achieve focus (see page 69); this way, I know that everything is sharp enough and I can concentrate on the composition. If the image is better served with a wide-angle like a 14-24mm zoom, I'll move a little farther away and shoot from the side with the autofocus engaged. If the cliff drop happens to have an incredible landscape behind it (like the image that opened this chapter), then I'll move back even farther with a 24-70mm lens and include the rider and the landscape. Or if there is no cliff drop at that particular point on the descent, I'll pull out the 70-200mm and try to capture the rider ripping down the trail and the dust flying behind him to show the concentration and speed involved in this wild sport.
Downhill mountain bikers move incredibly fast. For this image, I used a 70-200mm zoom and a fast shutter speed to stop the motion. By shooting at 8 fps, I was able to capture the rider just as he was hopping a small tree on the trail at the Silverton Mountain Ski Resort, Colorado.
When shooting cross-country mountain biking, I usually ride with the athletes. There aren't as many "stunts" with cross-country riding as there are with downhill or freeriding, so the focus is more on the location, the experience, and conveying a sense of speed. I look for open areas, whether they are in a forest or a mountain valley, that allow me to communicate the setting with a rider flowing through the frame. Depending on the situation, the scene could call for anything from a wide-angle to a telephoto lens. It just depends on how far away I am and how large the landscape is in relation to the rider.
To relay the rider's experience, one of the best tricks is to use a remotely mounted camera on the bike. I have a clamp made by Slik (Slik Camp Head - 65), which mounts to any cylindrical object up to about one inch (2.54 cm) in diameter. When I mount it to the bike, I either wrap up the shoulder strap or remove it altogether so it doesn't get caught in the wheels. Most often, I use a PocketWizard to trigger the camera, which is usually mounted with a prefocused fisheye lens. I'd suggest experimenting with different mounting spots on the bike, but I have found shooting from the seat tube to be one of the best bets.
Mountain biking photography can be very artsy and creative. Here, I focused on the foreground and let the rider, downhill pioneer Josh Bender, become part of the image but not the main focus. The picture now says more about the pristine mountain landscape near Silverton, Colorado, than it does about the rider.
I tend to shoot a lot of motion blur images with cross-county riding to give a sense of speed. For these shots, I usually ask the rider to pedal at a moderate pace and I'll either run with them using a wide-angle lens (as with the first image in this chapter) or back off and use a medium telephoto (either the 24-70 or the 70-200mm) and pan with them as they go by me.
In either case, whether I am shooting freeriding or cross-country riders, I work with the riders to capture specific images. To get the best images, you'll need to do this so you can predict exactly what is going to happen and get a few chances to catch it. I usually have the riders do a cliff drop or fly past me a few times if possible, which allows me to change shooting positions and have more opportunities to get the best angle. With freeriding there is quite a bit of inherent danger, so I am very concerned with the rider's safety and try not to push the envelope too far. In some cases, I'm there just to document what they are doing. However, I may ask them to do it again if it isn't too scary and they are confident they won't get injured.
Often, using artificial light to shoot mountain biking can result in some amazing images. Towards the end of the day, you can get away with using small flash units, but for the best light quality a larger battery-powered strobe setup gets better results. Keep in mind that whenever you are using artificial light, it slows the shooting process down, so the riders need to be willing to work with you. A large part of the delay is the recycle time of the power pack. In general, you'll get one shot for each pass of the rider, so your ability to catch the height of the action will be tested. When I use flash, I work with a crew of mountain bikers that can perform in consistent intervals to allow my flash to recycle. This way, I have more chances of getting the best image. Another factor to consider is that the exposure setting is related to the rider's distance from the flash, so it is critical that the riders can perform whatever action it is you're trying to capture at the same distance over and over. Of course, a foot (30.5 cm) closer or farther away isn't a huge thing—which is why you are shooting RAW—but this is just one more thing to think about when using flash.