Location, location, location. It’s the No. 1 rule of real estate, and the same principle is true for outdoor photography. As photographers, we are always seeking out the most scenic locations, and the best spots are usually the most remote, often requiring us to travel great distances via trail to reach them. Mountain bikes are an incredible tool that we can utilize to reach those places. They are quiet, allow you to cover greater distances in a shorter time than hiking, and, according to a National Park Service research report conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, mountain bikes produce less erosion than hikers and horses. Not to mention—it’s incredibly fun to ride bikes.
Adding The Human Element
Nature photographers are drawn to dramatic landscapes, and we often feel an intimate connection to them, yet we seldom include people in those images. Adding a human element to our landscape images is a great way to not only show a sense of scale and place but also to invite the viewer into an emotional connection with the image. Unlike conventional sports photography, action sports imagery, such as mountain biking, skiing and rock climbing, is more about revealing a sense of place and using a human element to convey the feelings that go along with it, whether it be the emotion of triumph when finally making it to the summit, the exhilaration of speed while chasing friends down single-track tails, or the feeling of weightlessness of a “perfect air.”
The key to capturing mountain biking, and adventure sports in general, is to anticipate the action. Over the years, I have found asking myself the following questions every time I look at a scene helps me to be better prepared when the action happens:
- Where on the trail will the rider be at the apex of a turn?
- Where on the ridge will the light be the most dramatic?
- What makes this section of trail so fun?
- What sort of emotion am I trying to convey? For example, is it triumph from clearing a section of trail or reaching the summit? Is it adrenaline from a jump or a high-speed descent?
Whenever possible, I like to do a 360-degree walk around the section of trail I am shooting, as this can either present options for interesting angles or suggest techniques to capture the scene.
Basic Techniques For Photographing Adventure Sports
Many of the same techniques we use for landscape photography also apply to capturing images of mountain bikers. For instance, you can use a graduated neutral density filter to hold back the sky to better balance it with the foreground, creating a more pleasing and dramatic image. When shooting in the alpine, you can use a telephoto to compress the scene and really give the mountains a sense of scale. Another instance where your landscape photography instincts work well is by using wide-angle lenses and a small aperture to increase the depth of field.
Photographing mountain bikers is more challenging when shooting in the forests. In those locations, it is best to avoid the high contrast of sunny days and instead seek out the soft and dramatic light that overcast and even rainy days can provide. The challenge then becomes dealing with low-light conditions, so a high ISO helps keep the shutter speed in an acceptable range. Another good option is to use off-camera flash trigged by radio remotes to freeze the action while using a longer shutter speed to capture the scenery. Selecting a large aperture to create a shallow depth of field is also another great way to convey the feeling of riding amidst a tightly spaced forest.
One of the best things about photography is that there are almost always multiple solutions to a problem. When shooting adventure sports, the athletes can have a unique vantage point, so don’t be afraid to listen to their ideas. Creativity comes from experimentation. Move around. Don’t let yourself get locked into a single vantage point, and don’t be afraid to try combining different photographic techniques to solve a problem in a new and interesting way, such as combing graduated ND filters with fill light or remote flashes with a telephoto lens and a large aperture.
When planning for a bike-based project, choosing the right equipment to bring is essential. In addition to having the proper safety equipment—helmet, riding gloves, eye protection and quality riding shoes—it is important to adapt the weight of your gear to what you are comfortable with carrying, given your riding experience.
My typical setup usually includes a Canon EOS-1D X, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lenses, plus a Canon 1.4x teleconverter and Schneider Graduated ND filters. However, I often calibrate my equipment selection to the location. For example, if I am shooting in the deep, dark forests of the Pacific Northwest, I tend to leave the big telephotos and my filters at home and pack fast lenses, a couple of flashes and a camera body that handles high ISO well. Conversely, if I am shooting the high alpine of Europe, I’ll leave the flash gear at the hotel and bring my graduated ND filters and a teleconverter.
Having the right camera bag to carry it all is also extremely important. The ideal camera bag keeps the center of weight for the gear as close to your back as possible. It’s also important to leave chest-mounted bags at home as they will inhibit your handling of the bike, and too tall of a pack will interfere with your helmet.
Mountain bikes are an incredible way to way to see vast spans of the backcountry. They can also serve as a dynamic subject to photograph. By experimenting with different combinations of basic photo techniques, you enjoy unlimited ways to capture the essence of the sport and the riding environment.
See more of Grant Gunderson’s work at grantgunderson.com.