Cyclo-cross... Not Cyclecross.

So I've been saying for the last week that I shot pictures at a cyclecross event last weekend.  I thought it was cyclecross because it's a sport that combines road racing and mountain biking.  You know, a "cross" between road and mountain biking.  Makes sense, right?  Turns out it's called cyclo-cross racing.  You know why?  Yeah, me neither.  I guess it's a cross between mountain biking and cycloing and we all know what cycloing is, right?  Yeah, me neither.

Well, last weekend my brother-in-law asked if I wanted to attend one of his cyclo-cross races and maybe bring my camera and shoot some pictures.  Honestly, all I heard was "blah, blah, blah blah, blah, shoot some pictures," so of course I said yes! :-)   Anyway, I had no idea what to expect, but I figured it would be a nice day outside, I'll get to play with my camera stuff and I might see something cool.  Well, it was awesome.  Lots of riders, lots of dirt, fast bikes and beautiful weather.  Throw in the fact that the backdrop for this whole day was Candlestick Park and it couldn't be beat.  What more could one want on a Sunday morning?  Well, now that I think about it, I guess all the riders could have been lingerie models, but that's probably asking a bit much.

Well, it wasn't all good news.  It actually turned out to be one of the most challenging shoots I've done since last year when I did a photo shoot on a trampoline with a juggling bear and a lady dressed like a clown... and I never did that.  Why was it so hard?  Well, if somebody had asked me to just go shoot pictures at this event and get some good ones of all the different riders, it would have been much easier.  I could have camped out at a few prime locations and taken shots when I wanted to, of the riders that were positioned to have a great photo made of them.  Instead, I was trying to focus on one rider, my brother-in-law, and he as almost NEVER where I wanted him to be.  I'd pick a great location for a shot and when he came around he'd be in a pack with 6 or 7 other people, making a great shot of him almost impossible.  If I could have focused on the riders who were at the right angle to the sun, separate from the group and riding at just the right speed, it would have been easy.  Well, easier.

Another challenge was getting the right shutter speed.  Choosing the right shutter speed when shooting bike races is really important, because you often want to convey a sense of motion.  If you just take a shot with a really fast shutter speed, to get a really sharp shot, you'll freeze the action and won't have a sense of movement in the photo, so it will look like the person is just standing still, upright on their bike.  So you have to decide how much motion you want.  A slow shutter speed will allow a blur of the rider going by, if you hold the camera steady when you take the shot of the rider.  If you pan along horizontally with the rider and have the right shutter speed selected, you'll be able to blur the background and the spokes (for you non-riders, I'm talking about the wheels), but the rider will be tack-sharp.  It's really cool effect if you get everything working together correctly and really conveys the motion and speed.

Photographers usually pay as much attention to what's behind their subject as to the subject itself. When choosing a location to shoot passing cyclists, keep in mind what's across the trail, if possible. The colorful riders will really pop when shot against a dark, uniform background. A bunch of dark green trees are ideal (of course I had nothing but dead grass and shrubs for miles), as are cliffs or open skies. Avoid distracting elements like light poles, ugly buildings, ugly people, parked cars or signs. Anything that competes with the main subject—the rider—is something you want to keep out of your photo.

Photographing outdoors and cycling in particular can be awesome, but be prepared to move around with your camera to get that great shot. You’ll want to become proficient in panning and using a shutter between 1/15s and 1/90s to get dynamic shots with a blurred background. Use shutter speeds of 1/800s or faster to freeze the action or movement. Use a long lens to get tight compositions. Be prepared to increase the ISO when using fast shutter speeds or in lower light situations. Remember that where you position yourself for the shot is critical to ensure those awesome compositions.  Climb a tree, cross over a barrier, get on somebody's shoulders... whatever.  

If you're going to go out and try shooting cycle-cross, have fun and practice.  I can promise you'll have fun and can also promise that the sun, rider, bike, background and other riders will almost NEVER been in the place you want them when you want them there.  So take baby steps... Practice one aspect at a time until you can put it all together.  And if it doesn't work out for you, try cyclecross... I hear that's much easier to take photos of.