How do you represent movement in a still image? Obviously, a prime factor is the speed of the movement. However, speed is relative rather than absolute. With cycling photography the subject is relatively small and we are often shooting from close to. This means that, even at non-racing speeds, they move rapidly across the field of view.
That’s if you keep the camera still, of course: however, if you move the camera to follow the rider, keeping them centred in the viewfinder can still be tricky. Riders moving directly towards or away from the camera are easier to keep in frame; you could say that their relative speed is slower.
It’s no surprise that shutter-speed is a key control in determining how movement will appear in the image. However, because relative speed varies, the ‘right’ shutter-speed is also a variable. This means that 'sports' or 'action' modes are crude tools at best. These aim to keep the shutter-speed as fast as possible. Sometimes, however, the shutter-speed set will be faster than necessary; a slower speed might freeze the movement and allow you to use a smaller aperture to improve depth of field. Conversely, if you actually want to see some blur, the selected speed will probably be far too fast.
The natural alternative, which most cameras have, is shutter-priority mode. This is usually indicated by an ‘S’ on the control dial, though Canon, just to be awkward, uses Tv instead. In shutter-priority you select the shutter-speed and the camera sets the aperture accordingly. This is your best bet to ensure satisfactory exposure while remaining in charge of the crucial variable.
What is the 'right' shutter-speed? It would be nice to give a simple answer but the real answer is “it depends”. It depends how close you are to the rider(s), how fast they are moving, and whether they are moving across your view or directly towards you–among other factors! However, part of the beauty of digital is that you can get a quick check on the result from your first shot. If it’s not what you wanted, it should give you plenty of clues as to what you need to change. Then you can get a much better result by getting the rider to do it again, or shooting the next rider, or simply filing the knowledge for next time you face a similar shot.
Practice obviously counts. Studying the images again when you get them on a big screen will help. But rather than suggesting you begin in a complete vacuum, here are a few hints to get you going:
For most cycling action, 1/250th sec is usually a minimum shutter speed to give a good chance of freezing movement. When the riders are travelling fast or you’re really close, it usually pays to jump up to 1/500th, 1/1000th or even faster. There is a place for much slower shutter speeds, but that’s when you decide to accept that a degree of blur can create an effective shot.
In many situations, the light levels won’t allow a shutter speed like 1/500th or 1/1000th to be used unless you set a fairly high ISO rating. Lenses with a wide maximum aperture (say, f/2.8 or wider) will give you more room for manouevre here (that’s why they’re sometimes called ‘fast’ lenses).
In these situations, SLRs and other system cameras are highly preferable. Their larger sensors give better results at higher ISOs, and the range of ISO settings that you can choose from is usually much wider. There’s also much more chance that you will have, or can get, a lens with a wide maximum aperture. And shifting shutter speeds in shutter-priority mode is usually something you can do with a simple turn of a command dial: on many compacts it’s a much slower process.
However, if you only have a compact or you’re not prepared to carry anything heavier on a long tough ride, don’t despair. You can still get good shots, but you will need to understand the limitations of the camera and work within them. For example, simply stepping back and not trying to shoot so close to the rider gives you a bit more leeway on the shutter speed. This will also include a bit more of the background or setting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The idea of using these faster shutter speeds is generally to freeze the action; to record everything in crisp detail without any sign of blur from motion. This means, however, that we need other clues to tell us that the subject is moving, and perhaps also how fast. Of course, we assume that someone on a bike, with both feet on the pedals, is in motion: most of us can’t do a track-stand. But if the point is to show that a rider is travelling at speed, we need a bit more than that. Body posture can help when a rider’s working hard; perhaps in a low tuck in a time-trial or out of the saddle on a climb. Facial expression can emphasise the point.
On the road, bends are also good: a rider leaning into the curve looks more dynamic than sitting up along the straights. Mountain-biking creates extra opportunities as there may be many spots where riders will have one or both wheels off the ground. Riding a technical trail section ahead of your companions helps you identify such spots.
However, freezing the action isn’t the only option. Blur, or partial blur, can also give a very strong sense of motion. In particular, there is the perennial standby of the panning shot.
The basic idea of the panning shot is to follow a moving subject so that it remains basically sharp, while the background becomes blurred by the movement of the camera. This is easiest when the subject is moving across your field of view, at a roughly constant distance from the camera. It’s also easier if you aren’t too close, so you don't have to pan too fast. A moderate telephoto lens usually works well; on many cameras the long end of the zoom range will put you in the ball-park.
The point about standing back is simply that the panning movement you have to make becomes slower. It’s easier to keep the rider centred in the lens, and your movement will also be smoother. You can take panning shots from close range with a wide-angle lens and sometimes there’s no choice: many mountain bike trails run through forest with limited space either side. Close-in panning takes more practice, that’s all.
To get a reasonably sharp image of the rider suggests you don’t drop the shutter-speed too low, but the slower it is the more pronounced the background blur will become. On riders travelling reasonably fast (roads, smooth trails, and of course descents) 1/125th sec. can be a reasonable compromise. As you stretch out to 1/60th or 1/30th sec., the background blur will be more obvious but the image of the rider may also lose a little sharpness. On slower sections (climbs and technical features) you need the slower shutter speeds to get any visible background blur, but the riders will be moving around on the bike more and so they too will appear more blurred.
On a compact camera, if you can’t control the shutter speed directly, don’t use Sports mode for panning shots. Try Landscape or Portrait instead as these will set slower shutter speeds.
Which leads on to the option of an even more blurred result. Well, why not? Go wild and hand-hold at 1/8th sec. and see everything start to blur. This is an unpredictable technique and all too often the results are just a mishmash, fir for nothing but prompt deletion. However, it can also produce really striking and unusual images. It will probably take a lot of trial and a great deal of error before you start to get even vaguely consistent results, but if it appeals, go for it.
An obvious question is, how can you distinguish a blurred subject from a blurred background? There needs to be some form of contrast between them, such as a clear difference in colour, or if the subject’s in sunlight and the background’s in shadow.
It’s also possible to combine both blurred and sharp images. The panning shot already does this in one way, but there’s another refinement which you can add. By mixing a slowish shutter-speed with a burst of flash you can have both a sharp image and a hint of motion-blur. Because flash has a limited range, you’ll need to get fairly close to your subject. It’s more than usually important to ensure that your subject knows what you’re doing, and doesn’t object. An unexpected flash at close quarters could be extremely annoying, not to say painful, for a mountain biker negotiating a tricky obstacle!
In fact many of the images you see in cycling and mountain-biking magazines and websites use flash. Often one or two external flash units are placed to the side of the trail and triggered wirelessly by the flash on the camera. This is almost certainly taking things too far if you want to ride for fun, but may be worth thinking about if there are at least three of you and you have a camera and flashgun which support wireless operation. It requires three people because you need one to ride, one to take the picture and one to hold the external flashgun–unless you want to lug along a lighting stand as well!
If this is too much then you’re probably reliant on the built-in flash on your camera. That’s okay: built-in flash is often terrible as the main light for a shot but gives much better results when it’s just part of the mix with daylight. Even the tiny flash on a compact can work surprisingly well. But get close to the action: the flash simply won’t have the power to reach more than a few metres.