By: Kelly Bastone
Following a few simple tips and tricks can radically improve your mountain bike photography.
I feel pretty confident about this bet: If you’ve ever aimed your smartphone at someone riding a mountain bike, you’ve probably experienced some disappointment with the resulting images. I certainly have.
Usually, photos don’t come close to capturing the beauty, the thrill, or the technical challenges of mountain biking that I’m trying to memorialize. What feels like an electrifying piece of riding ends up looking, in pictures, like a dull and forgettable moment.
But as a professional writer, I’ve also been lucky enough to travel and work with action photographers that specialize in shooting mountain bikers. I’ve watched them select shot locations, listened to them direct cyclists in those shots, and begged advice on how to avoid making boring images myself. This is what I learned.
None of these tips assumes you’re carrying a DSLR. All of them apply to smartphone photography, and they do a lot to raise the “wow” factor of your snapshots.
1) Seek the light
Pros avoid making pictures in shady locations. In thick forests, they look for places where beams of sunlight penetrate the tree canopy, and they’ll snap the photo as the cyclist enters that spotlight. You can do the same thing in canyon country by noticing where shadows obscure the trail. Don’t take photos of the rider in shadow, because the viewer’s eye will follow the light—even if there’s no cyclist there. Position the rider in bright sunshine.
2) Shoot from above
Photos taken from the same elevation as the rider tend to look dull. So if you’re stepping off the trail to photograph your buddy, avoid flats and instead, climb a nearby hill or boulder. The downward angle creates a more epic-looking scene—and that’s true whether you’re trying to capture a grand, sweeping landscape or a close-up of the rider. For the latter, try standing on the uphill side of a switchback and snap the cyclist climbing out of the turn.
3) Or below
This is a trickier move because positioning the camera below the rider raises the risk of you or the camera getting hit, so consider safety before setting up this type of shot. But the advantage is that shooting up from dirt level makes technical obstacles look bigger—or at least shows them as they are (maybe you’ve noticed the camera’s habit of shrinking the size of roots and ledges that seemed intimidatingly huge in real life). Lie on the ground with your phone on or just above the trail, and angle it up to increase the visual impact of the approaching cyclist. Experiment with compositions that cut out some of the bike or body and capture just a fragment—like the front wheel. These shots sometimes represent the terrain even better than ones taken from a panned-back position.
4) Get your subjects to stand
Seated cyclists look boring in photos. So even where the trail doesn’t require riders to hover above the saddle and stand on the pedals, ask them to do it as they proceed through your shot. You’ll be amazed at how much more interesting the pictures look, yet without looking artificial: Even when riders are pedaling along smooth, flat trail, the standing body position makes them look energized, not staged.
5) Exploit natural drama
Canyon rims, hilltops, cliff faces—all of these can energize your photos, especially when you place riders in close proximity. Instead of depicting your mountain biker in the middle of a hill climb, snap them just before they crest so that the viewer feels the anticipation of completion.
The same principle applies to descents. Try shooting the cyclist from behind, just as they start a steep rollover, to let the viewer share in the drop’s emotional pull. Think of the rider like a roller coaster on a track: What portion of the trail creates the best visual tension? In flat terrain, look for edges to create drama. Capture your cyclists as they peer over a canyon rim or snake along its brink.
6) Let riders pose
When my photographic goal is simply to make mementos, I find that I end up with better pictures when I let subjects know I’m staging a shot. Yes, that gives them time to compose their facial expressions, which some photographers object to because it invites artifice—and I can understand that. But realistic pictures of my companions looking haggard or gassed or grumpy don’t usually score well with them in the final evaluation. Most people prefer pictures of themselves looking good, or at least happy. So encourage them to flash you a grin as they pedal through your shot. That way, you won’t need a caption explaining that the trip was fun, because your photo will say it all.
As a full-time freelance writer, Kelly Bastone contributes to publications such as Outside, The Red Bulletin, and AFAR. She lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but every spring and fall she totes her mountain bike to the Colorado Plateau. Follow her on Instagram at @bastonek, and read her latest work at kellybastone.com.