As a cycling enthusiast, I also really enjoy the opportunity to photograph a pro cycling event. Since 1985, there has been a pro cycling race in my hometown of Philadelphia every June. It’s sort of a yearly ritual for me to photograph the event and this year was no exception.
Preparation is a major key to great sports photography and it certainly pays to do your homework before an event like this. Learning the road course BEFORE the race is the key to knowing where the best shots may occur. Knowing where the sun will be at certain locations on the course will prove valuable, so driving the race route will allow you to pre-visualize your shots, like this one below.
What camera should you use? Any modern digital SLR is a great starting point. High-end digital SLRs with fast frame rates certainly can produce more pictures in a burst, but aren't mandatory for great shots of moving or stationary cyclists. If you're just getting started with action photography, you can put your camera in a fully-automatic "sports" mode (usually indicated by a little icon of an athlete on the camera's Mode Dial). But best results, you'll be better-served with an exposure mode that lets you pre-set a shutter speed and/or lens aperture, like Tv (shutter-priority) or Av (aperture-priority) mode on a Canon EOS D-SLR. One benefit of Manual mode, if you've correctly set it for the light and scene in question, is that exposure won't change when light- and dark-colored subjects come into the frame.
Everybody makes mistakes. That’s how we learn and improve our skills as photographers. I took this shot (below) a year or two ago and was really disappointed when I got home to realize the racers in front were out of focus because my aperture was set to f/5.6 and the depth of field wasn’t deep enough to get everyone in focus.
Clearly an oversight at the time, I corrected it this year by applying WAY more depth of field using an aperture of f/16, as seen below.
I try to get as much variety as possible during an event like this because how many pictures of guys on bikes can one look at, unless the images are interesting? How can you keep your images interesting? The aforementioned “preparation” will certainly help! If I had not scoped out this location before the race, I would have completely missed it. The race heritage spawned the idea for this mural, which was a terrific location for such an image.
This one was taken high above on a cliff overlooking the course.
So what lenses do I usually use for such an event? Well, two I can’t live without are the EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II. I’ve used the EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS, but this year I took the new EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with built-in 1.4x extender. What a dream this lens is! It’s super sharp, super versatile and fairly light, weighing about eight pounds. The investment for this lens is not an easy thing to swallow, but its capabilities are unmatched for countless situations, including razor sharp close-ups like this one.
Lighter and more affordable options also work, particularly since this type of event almost always occurs in daylight. The EF 70-200mm f/4L IS zoom is a terrific alternative to the larger f/2.8 version, with the same superb sharpness. Even less-expensive zooms, such as any of the 70-300mm lenses, can work well -- especially when you're not in deep shade or dawn/dusk shooting conditions. And for longer telephoto options, either the EF 300mm f/4L IS, or 400mm f/5.6L, are tremendous alternatives to big super-teles like the 400mm f/2.8 or 200-400mm f/4L IS Extender 1.4x lenses. Speaking of extenders, a Canon EF 1.4x extender matched with the 300mm f/4L IS lens is another great way to get long telephoto power at far less weight and cost than high-end super-tele lenses.
One technique I love to utilize is panning. With racing cyclists passing by at 30+ miles per hour, shutter speeds of 1/15 to 1/60 can be perfect for creating enough background movement to make your subject really stand out like this.
Panning can turn an ordinary photograph into a piece of art, but it takes a good deal of practice and, even then, it’s difficult at best. Setting your focusing system to AI Servo will allow you to track moving subjects as they change distance. Panning with your subject at slower shutter speeds will turn your background into streaks of blur. If you don’t pan with your subject, this is what you’ll get with moving subjects.
Occasionally, I like to break the rules, as was the case with this shot below.
The exposure is all over the map because the racers are coming out of a tunnel and into bright sun, striking more than half of the group. I processed the image by dialing the contrast way down and the same with the highlights. Artistically, I like this image but there’s also another reason . . . Turns out that the only cyclist that’s sharp, the one in blue and white, was the race winner! That was just dumb luck and NO planning can make that happen! You give yourself more opportunities when you have a lot of images to choose from.
Other creative techniques involve shooting in non-traditional ways. I’ll explain . . . Looking at the two images below, what do you notice? Repetition, perhaps? Repetition in an image tends to be very appealing to a viewer. Even though you don’t see any faces in these images, they work from a creative standpoint.
From non-traditional to traditional, what would a race be without the finish?
I should mention that I’m not a photojournalist. I’m certain they would photograph an event like this in a completely different manner. Because I shoot events like this for contributions to our Canon Digital Learning Center site, as well as my own enjoyment, I shoot it with my own creative license and not my editor’s. Either way, it’s still a lot of fun!
Until next time . . . Stay cool this summer and happy shooting!
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