- How to shoot cycling with sports photographer Harry Talbot
Photographing cycling is not easy, as the photographer you often have little or no control over your subject. Racing, particularly Tour de France, is in a different location everyday and you have limited opportunities to work around the peloton as they travel at 45+ kmh. This creates a level of pressure to shoot as there are no guarantees of what you will come away with at the end of the day. Because of this, I think it’s easy to fall into shooting images that you know will work, you’ve seen them before, it’s a safe photo to take and it eases the pressure rather than exploring and experimenting.
It’s not to say that the traditional photos are bad, sometimes they’re the best ones - there’s usually a good reason when you see multiple photographers in one place. There’s no right or wrong way to shoot, after-all photography is subjective. Personally I want my work to be different, I am always striving to make the best images I can when covering a race, I want to evoke emotion, tell a story in the image and show people a unique perspective of what happened. When you’re challenging yourself to think creatively and shoot uniquely I think it’s the best way to learn and evolve as a photographer.
Here’s a few things I do to do just that.
When I think of the best cyclists (and many other athletes) in the world they are not afraid of losing, they’re ready to risk it in order to chase for the win. It’s something I try my best to apply to the way I shoot. Looking beyond the safe and easy option for an image and trying something new or difficult is going to yield you an untraditional image; whether it’s shooting from a unique vantage point, shooting close to unpredictable fans or betting on a particular rider coming through at the right moment. It won’t always work out, as it doesn’t for the athletes, but when it does it will give you something far different and likely more creative than the easy and safe option.
A great way to practice this is to head out and shoot a sports event without the pressure of any set deliverables. Give yourself the freedom to experiment and make mistakes without having the need to meet the requirements of a client or a shot list. Heading out to a local sports event or a family/friends game is a great way to start out.
Settings talk. If you’re looking to freeze the action I would recommend keeping your shutter speed above 1/1000, try to keep your iso as low as possible and adjust your aperture to suit the depth you want in your image, personally I like to shoot between f/2.8 and f/5.6.
On the technical side having a camera capable of shooting a high number of frames per second (FPS) will give you the confidence to take risks knowing you’re more likely to capture the image you want. I use the Canon EOS R5 which is capable of taking 20fps on it’s electronic shutter, more affordable alternatives would be the Canon EOS R7 or EOS R10 both of which boast a high number of frames per second.
Emotion breathes so much energy and life into an image, it’s often my favourite photos that are the most emotive. Understanding the athletes and sport you’re shooting will help a lot. Recognising who has the best pain face, who is doing well, who is not, and what moments are likely to cause a reaction are things to look for. When shooting, I am always scanning both the athletes and fans - looking for character and emotion, generally staying as inconspicuous as possible will help as cameras can change the way some people will behave. Having a telephoto lens is a great way to shoot tighter and closer to the subject without being in their face, I use the Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM giving me a range of telephoto focal lengths to capture multiple different compositions and athletes.
This is some of the best advice I've ever received when I first started shooting cycling. Finding as many unique compositions as possible avoids your work becoming stale. Give yourself as much time as possible to scout the location you’re shooting, if you can’t do it in person use google earth, instagram or talk to others who have shot there. When I’m shooting cycling I generally try to find two or three different compositions from one location, often running between them to make it work. I try and find objects to shoot through, things to climb (with permission) or where to get low - all these will help you find a different viewpoint. Accept that sometimes it won’t go to plan and be prepared to adapt if you see something else at the last second. Understanding your camera can also play a big part in getting multiple different images from one location, for example you could freeze the action then change settings quickly to shoot with motion blur. When using the Canon EOS R5, I will often crop multiple compositions from the one image and using zoom lenses will also give you the option to quickly change focal lengths creating different compositions and depth in your images.
To put this into practice next time you’re out shooting a sporting event find the locations you want to shoot from and move on from each one as soon as you have got the image you were after. You will most likely end up with plenty of time left over to find new places or go back to a spot you liked.
I’m talking about two kinds of rules here, the first being traditional photographic rules - for example the rule of thirds, if you haven’t heard of this it’s a composition guideline that places your subject in the left or right third of an image generally leaving you with a nicely composed image. Sometimes I will place my subject on the very edge of my image, it’s fun to experiment with and create something unique. Another example is shooting under or overexposed, at times I will deliberately blow out parts of an image for a more dramatic look. Consider these rules more like guidelines, the majority of times they’re good to follow but don’t let yourself be constrained by them. The best way to do this is take what you’ve learnt about photography and the traditional ways of shooting and do the opposite, pick the time and place wisely but try framing something a different way or shooting on settings you wouldn’t normally.
The other kind of rules being the literal ones, shooting sports there will always be places as a photographer you are and aren’t allowed, push the boundaries as much as possible with permission; and always be sure to never endanger the athletes, fans or yourself. Pick your moment and be sensible, you’re either going to end up with a good image or a great story.
Something I regularly see overlooked in sports photography is post production. It can be a huge part in creating alternative images and making your work stand out. As of late I have been enjoying bringing huge amounts of contrast and deep shadows into my work, the majority of which is done in post. I recommend experimenting with a variety of images and compositions to find a style you like - I use adobe Lightroom to edit my images but there is a variety of alternative and free options out there. Import your images and spend time learning how the software works and the way adjustments effect your images, start with the basics, white balance, exposure, and contrast.
Finding a balance of post production and keeping fast delivery times can be tricky in the sports industry, Finding the right clients that come to you for your style and understand your process will help with this, as a freelancer it’s impossible to compete with the fast turnaround times and quantity of images agencies work to so a point of difference in your work will be a good thing.
The best way to improve your sports photography and put any of these tips into practice is to shoot as often as you can; shoot consciously thinking about what you’re doing, and when you’re doing it. You probably have a family member or friend who plays a sport - you can start there! Alternatively, there are hundreds of sports clubs and teams to contact throughout New Zealand who would most likely to be more than happy to have a photographer at their event.
The last thing to say is enjoy it, it’s the reason all of us take photographs.
Harry is a professional photographer from New Zealand working internationally. He covers professional cycling season and shoot commercially alongside it. Harry goes where his work takes him, living with his bike, cameras, and a tent. He loves being outdoors and constantly find himself chasing adventure. Harry's favourite projects involve mountains, nature and happy people.
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