A few weeks ago, I photographed two cycling time trials and thought I would share some techniques I use when tackling events of this nature. This post is going to go over some of the basics of shooting cycling events and provide some tips that will improve the quality of the images produced. These events serve as good skill builders/maintainers for action photography because they involve dynamic and fast moving subjects. To see the photos check out the Cordova 20k and 40k galleries.
I used a Canon 7D body and a Canon 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6 USM lens to shoot a majority of this event. The long lens allowed me to get closer to the subjects without being in the way and allowed a large amount of subject separation (more on that later). Even though the lack of image stabilization (IS) on this lens made it more challenging to keep the riders in frame and the images sharply focused I believe it was the best option from our quiver of lenses. I was able to partially compensate for the lack of IS by choosing faster shutter speeds given the abundant sunlight, but when the light gets dim there is no substitute for IS.
I favor shutter priority mode for fast action events and for this particular event kept shutter speeds around 1/320 s. This wasn't fast enough to stop all motion because I like to keep some blur in the wheels and the background for a sense of movement. During both days there was ample light for a variety of exposure styles. I chose to run low ISO values to reduce noise in the image as well as bias the camera to use lower aperture values for shallow depth of field (adding to background separation). One more important point, when shooting fast moving subjects, using the continuous high speed shutter drive function (burst mode) is going to yield more usable images than trying to press the shutter repeatedly throughout the panning process. Automatically cycling the shutter in drive mode reduces the amount of vibration induced into the camera from your body (especially true with longer lenses) and reduces unintentional motion blur.
The three most important things to consider to create a well composed shot of a fast approaching subject are: focus, tracking, and framing.
If you have a DSLR, focus can usually be taken care of by the camera's built in auto focus system. Enable the AI servo or predictive/tracking focusing function on the camera, manually select your focus point, and you are ready to shoot. During low contrast conditions, some tweaking may be necessary to tame the focusing system. One thing to try in this situation is expanding the focus point search radius to give the camera a larger area to find items which it can focus on. This typically slows down the AF response, but not drastically and is a better option than out of focus images.
Tracking a subject is a little more difficult than flipping a switch in the camera because it is something the body must be trained to do. I often use a long exposure panning technique to convey motion in an image by blurring the background while keeping the subject in sharp focus. These contrasting states of sharpness work to separate the subject from the background and results in a visually appealing and three dimensional image.
Panning is simply following the subject with the camera. A smooth upper body motion is better achieved by keeping the lower body firmly planted and feet spread wide (kneel down to get even more stablility). Having a stable foundation is crucial to minimizing vibrations that will upset the framing of the shot and introduce blur into the subject (which we don't want). When conditions allow, I begin tracking the subject with the shutter button half-depressed for 1-2 seconds before fully releasing it to ensure I have achieved a smooth and stable motion. By positioning your lower body facing the midpoint of the arc of travel of the subject and rotating just your upper body, the smoothness and range of panning can be maximized. Maintaining a smooth motion is essential when dealing with longer shutter speeds and longer focal length lenses. Image stabilization (IS) systems built into lenses or the camera itself attempt to eliminate the jerky up/down and side to side motion induced when tracking a subject and make it easier to reduce blur in images under dim lighting conditions. I find it helpful to use a reference point in the camera's viewfinder (like an AF point dot) and a point of reference on the subject to keep the motion more fluid. Maintain alignment of the two points while following the subject and the motion will be much more precice. It takes considerable practice to master this technique, but it produces photos that really pop.
Panning shot example. [1/125s, f/7.1, ISO 100, 50mm]
Framing is perhaps the most difficult task when tracking a subject with a fast closing speed. In a head on situation, the subject will rapidly increase in size as the distance between the camera decreases and at very close distances the camera's AF system will often fail because it can not keep up with the subject. To compensate for the increase in size, the focal length (zoom) of the lens needs to be adjusted. Smoothly operating the zoom mechanism of the lens while also maintaining a steady panning motion is once again a practice makes perfect skill. Another thing to keep in mind while framing the shot is to leave some dead space in front of your subject’s direction of motion. This helps reduce tension in the image because it reinforces the idea of unimpeded motion.
A common mistake of many amateur photographers is not getting close enough to the subject. Whether it requires physically moving or using a longer lens to zoom in, just get closer. Filling the frame better expresses any subtle details or emotions within the subject. Also, cropping out dead space in post processing results in reduced image resolution which has negative effects when making larger prints.