Shooting CycloCross, a few pointers to great shots

gareth Cycling, Event, Sport

Last weekend saw Sports-alive shooting CycloCross (CX) at Sparsholt College, near Winchester. It was the fifth race in the Wessex CX league, and it was an excellent day for photographing this type of event. The ground was dry, the sun was out and a large proportion of the course was in open areas that would enable the use of natural light rather than in the depths of the woods. The location of the college with fields surrounding the course also gave the opportunity to have some decent backgrounds to some of the shots.

The very nature of CX racing and cycle sport, in general, is that the course is open and accessible to the general public, which beings out photographers both Pro and Amateur in their droves. What other sport allows you access to the athletes without a huge accreditation process, and the ability to get close to that action as well. Too close in the case of some of the Grand Tours.

We thought this was a good opportunity to give out a few tips on how to approach photographing CX and to start getting the quality of images that Sports-alive produce on a regular basis.

1. Close or Wide view. Everybody has their own opinion of what is a great shot. A wide shot, which puts the rider in context with his surroundings has its value. It might show the lead the rider has or the beauty of that particular course. In CX, it might also show lots of tape, and a couple of spectators in clashing anoraks. A tight shot, or close up may be very powerful. It can show the emotion, the grit and mental toughness required to compete in CX

  • Bright sunlight gives great detail. Shot with a 70-200/2.8, 1/2000 at f4 from the bottom of the slope

  • Capturing the pain of CX, 70-200/2.8 shot from a low angle

2. Lighting is tough. Sunday had a nice big single light source to use, and the course suited the use of natural light. But the sun changes during the day, so it’s essential to adapt and modify your approach as the sun traverses. It can create better shots or more interesting shadows. The use of a flash to just “pop” the shadows is often essential. Used on Manual, it should just have enough power to raise the shadows, but not enough to wipe out the natural contrast. If you’re in the woods, then using an Off-camera flash (OCF) is a useful technique – but you have to be pretty careful not to distract or blind the riders. Practise with a friend before trying it on a race day.

  • Balancing the ambient background light with the on camera flash can give a dramatic shot

3. Do something different. There are only so many ways to take a corner, and they’re either flat, up or down. But do try to get something different, a different angle, a different background. Endless images of riders going between two bits of tape doesn’t capture the imagination – nor does it inspire a new rider or reward the gnarled old vets.

  • A very low angle and a moody sky gives a stunning result

  • Shot with a fisheye lens to exaggerate the sky. Fill-in flash illuminates the rider

4. Edit.Don’t just unload the memory card and upload hundreds of images to Facebook/flicr whatever. Take the time to cull the images, edit them, and make the effort you took on taking them worthwhile. A few really good shots is worth far more to your potential audience than scrolling endlessly through mediocre ones. And ask for feedback. Honest feedback can hurt, but it can also make you a better photographer.

5. Ignore the bikes. Cycle races give you unprecidented access to the participants, often before or after the race. So look for opportunities where you can photograph people, and not necessarily just the action. It all helps tell the story of the event.

  • Look for the unusual, or funny

  • CX abounds with opportunity for “people” shots

6. RTFM. If you understand how your camera works, then you stand a much better chance of being able to cope with the widely different challenges of photographing CX, or sports in general. So if you don’t know your Shutter priority from your exposure compensation dial, then get the book out (or download the pdf!)

  • Shooting against the sun requires a combination of exposure compensation and fill in flash

  • Controlling the depth of field, and getting the focus correct exaggerates the riders concentration

These are only ponters to getting better shots whilst photographing cycling, or sport in general. Taking these things into account will help, but the only way to really get great images is by practising, and using your own personal knowledge and expertise.

All the images from the day are here