Learning Sports Photography Hands-On

I am not a sports photographer, but when an international-level event comes down my street, I break out the cameras and walk the 25 steps necessary to make some images. Last Saturday, Stage 6 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge raced around the corner nearest my house. (See the photos below.)I’ve never cared to photograph professional sports because, lacking press or event credentials, I could not get close enough to the action to make the kind of photographs that revealed the drama of competition. But, cycling is different. I could set up my camera inches from the course. I positioned the camera at the apex of a right-angle turn. I even took into account that the riders would be leaning into the turn in my direction. Then I backed the camera off about a centimeter more from the curb. Since I was a total novice at this, I asked the race official and police in charge of this turn if I posed any danger to myself or the riders. They assured me that the competitors and drivers of support vehicles did not routinely run over curbs and hence I was good to go.

Although I had viewed photographs and video of prior races and read several articles on photographing bike races, I still encountered a few surprises.

  • These guys are fast. They pass a specific location in just seconds. There is little time to adjust settings as one group of riders is passing. The only time I had to make changes was between groups of riders–and there were only three groups. First came the leaders in a group of 14. A few minutes later two more riders came by. Finally, four or five minutes after the leaders, came the peloton, the main group of riders. Lesson: Get everything setup ahead of time.
  • Spectators want to see the race too. My corner was popular, with spectators two and three deep. Enthusiastic fans kept stepping in front of the camera. Since many of these opaque objects were my neighbors, I could not just shove them out of the way. My neighbor Sandy came to the rescue. She wrangled the crowd to keep the camera’s field of view clear. She also served as spotter, sounding the alert when cyclists were about to make the turn. Lesson: Bring a helper.
  • Riders are not alone on the course. I knew that the racers were accompanied by team vehicles, but I was amazed at the entire entourage of team wagons, sponsor cars, Highway Patrol cars and motorcycles, ambulances and medical motorcycles, timers and scorers, TV crews, and someone labeled a “MOTO COMMISSSAIRE” (Yes, 3 S’s!). Lessons: Photograph these vehicles too. The sight of a video-cameraman standing on the back of a motorcycle leaning into a turn is athletic prowess worthy of a picture. Also, do not plan to cross the street between groups of riders. These vehicles are at speed and their drivers are distracted enough.
  • You can’t be more than one place at a time. I had planned to set up three cameras and control two remotely. Call me cynical, but no way was I going to leave my camera unattended with so many people around. Lessons: Employ human remote controls. I had my wife, Kit, on one camera and a neighbor, Sheila, on the other. I set up the cameras, positioned the tripod, aimed and focused, and set the camera on their highest capture speed. That way, all my helpers had to do was press and hold the remote shutter button as long as they saw bicycles in front of them. And, yes, I paid them so that their shots were “work for hire.”
  •  Lighting and background are critical. Brightly dressed riders do not stand out if they are in the shade in front of a colorful scrum of well-lit fans. Lessons: Pick a spot where the riders are in direct light. Position the camera to place the riders against a simple background. Shooting from near the ground can create a background of sky or trees. A low viewpoint also reveals the faces of the riders who are looking downward.
  • Bike races disrupt traffic. I originally wanted to photograph the race from four locations, leap-frogging the racers to get to each successive location. I also hoped to drop in on a car show on the other side of town. Road closures, traffic delays, and a mountain range pretty much made that impractical. Lesson: .

Do Sports Illustrated photographers have to worry about me taking their jobs? A quick look at my photos will reassure them. Can first-timers get interesting shots? You bet. Will I make a more serious effort to photograph future bike races? I’m already researching and planning.

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