Bikes & Photography: Beyond The Phone Camera

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles on the intersection of Bikes & Photography.

I'll start by saying that I'm far from a professional photographer. I've been on the model side of photoshoots with professionals, and seeing the level of detail it takes to create truly extraordinary photos has made me realize I will never be one of those people. And that's okay, we can all have different goals. That said, I have had a variety of my photos published both online and in print. I've committed to carrying a "real" camera around on my trips for the past year and learned a lot in the process. I've taken a ridiculous number of photos, mucked up many of them, and created a few that I'm legitimately proud of.

If nothing else, I feel qualified to offer a little advice to those who want to step beyond the world of phone photography and see what lurks behind all the knobs and dials of bigger cameras.

A bicyclist rides away down a wide gravel road covered in a rich carpet of fallen leaves.

An Overarching Philosophy

I've been carrying a camera on my bike rides for the better part of two decades. I was always the person with the little point-and-shoot camera who would take pictures of the snacks that people brought or the pretty ribbon of trail snaking through the meadow. People thought I was weird, but I've always been a documenter. As my photography has progressed over the years, documenting experiences has remained my driving force. I believe there's value in taking a bit of extra time and effort to snap a picture of a moment that will not only bring back a memory but will also be satisfying to look at.

I'm a firm believer that the only qualification you need to be a "photographer" is the intent to put together an interesting image. It doesn't matter whether it actually works out as planned, as long as there is Try involved. I also think photography should be fun and the process of taking pictures should bring intrinsic joy, regardless of how the final image turns out.

Two bicyclists ride on a flat dirt road alongside the massive, steel border wall that stretches out to the horizon line.
 

Camera Types

Having a really nice camera is useless if you don't want to carry it or you're scared of breaking it. Some people are happy to carry heavy camera bodies and multiple lenses on rides, but I've always favored minimalism over the potential for truly top-of-the-line images.

If you're going beyond the basic point-and-shoot (of which there are many amazing models that can shoot impressive photos!), you have a choice between mirrorless and traditional digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) bodies. Mirrorless models tend to be smaller but they offer fewer lens choices. You'll also have to choose between a full-frame camera or the APS-C crop sensor type. The APS-C cameras have a smaller sensor and significantly smaller bodies.

Be honest with yourself about your willingness to schlep weight and bulk: although you lose image quality as you lose camera mass, it doesn’t matter how nice your theoretical pictures would be if you choose a camera that’s too big to carry on a ride.

If you're buying a new camera, get the insurance (the full five-year coverage that will cover accidents). We are riding bikes, after all.

A full-suspension mountain bike leans against an old metal windmill fan alongside a weathered, corrugated metal shack.
 

Bike-Specific Photography

In my mind, there are several prominent genres of bike photography: Small Rider, Big Landscape; Look At My Bike Leaning Against Something; Close-Ups of People Riding; People Standing Around With Bikes; and Bike Details (there are obviously many more but you get the point). All are fun and pose their own challenges. Learning how to shoot each type of image can teach you a lot about photography.

The sun creates a starburst between a mountain biker and a huge saguaro cactus as he rides past it.

If you're new to using a DSLR, don't be afraid to take on the challenge of capturing the type of image you're after using manual settings instead of automatic. There will be plenty of frustration as you mess up images but eventually you'll get a feel for what works in any given situation. If you're intimidated by manual shooting at first, setting your camera to aperture priority or shutter priority mode will let you adjust fewer things at once to see how they affect the outcome.

Having a basic knowledge of the relationship between shutter speed, ISO, and aperture will also speed up your learning process.

Shutter speed measures how long the sensor is exposed. If you're shooting moving subjects, you'll want your shutter speed on the higher end of the spectrum.

Aperture determines how much light is let through to the sensor and is measured by the f-stop setting. As you decrease the f-stop setting on your camera, you increase the aperture size. Each step lets in twice as much light, so a f-stop of 2 lets in much more light than a 16.

ISO on a digital camera affects the sensitivity of the camera to light. A higher ISO is more sensitive and can capture images in low-light situations but can cause graininess in a photo. If you're shooting movement in low light, a high ISO is often your only option for capturing a sharp photo.

These three settings can be adjusted to get the proper image exposure and style. A high shutter speed lets you capture motion but doesn't let much light in. A low aperture (f-stop) lets a lot of light in and produces the bokeh effect, where the background of the image appears blurry. A higher aperture lets you keep more of the image in focus. Low ISO settings will produce a crisper image. Each stop of a setting provides the exposure equivalent of the stop of another. For example, if you increase your shutter speed by one notch and decrease your f-stop, you'll get an equivalent exposure. If you decrease your shutter speed by one, you can also decrease your ISO by one and get the same exposure.

A mountain biker rides past a large, jagged rock formation in the desert southwest.

The beauty of shooting digital is that you can get immediate feedback, make adjustments, and try again. If the riders are blurry, increase your shutter speed. If you want to create some depth, open up the aperture. Change your backgrounds and foregrounds to see how that affects images. If you're shooting moving bikes in low light, a lot of the graininess caused by a high ISO can be edited out later.

When learning, there's value in finding bike photographs that appeal to you and trying to work out the settings and angles that will let you take a similar picture. Try shooting into the sun. Adjust the height from which you take a picture. There's value in learning from others and trying new things.

In the end, take lots of pictures. If you're just learning, this is the single best way to improve your skills. You can skim camera settings from the internet all day long and learn about the principles of image composition, but until you actually go out to take photos and see how they work out, you won't improve. I've always found that riding buddies might roll their eyes at first about stopping for a photo, but they're always thrilled if I can send them a nice picture afterwards.

A backlit mountain biker rolls down a sloped rock drop as the sun creates a starburst effect.

A different view the rock drop in the previous image shows a wonderfully colored landscape in all directions.

Lenses

If you're in the process of researching and investing in a new camera for riding, have a good think about lens choice. As a brief primer, the lower the focal length of a lens, the wider angle the lens is. A typical phone camera is in the 18 mm range. Lenses smaller than that get classified as a wide angle, while larger lenses are considered normal, and very large lenses are commonly known as telephoto lenses. A "fast" lens will have a large aperture (low f-stop) and be able to let more light in so that you can increase your shutter speed without losing quality. Fast lenses also make it easier to create the bokeh effect with a shallow depth of field. You’ll find that faster lenses tend to get pricey quickly.

Looking out through the broken windows of a deserted building, a mountain biker stands near a large water tank.


As someone who does very little bike detail, close-up, still-life style bike photography, I operate with two lenses. If I'm going on a ride with people where most photos involve stopping suddenly, shooting a photo of people riding away from me with a pretty backdrop, and then trying to catch up, I use a lens with a bit of zoom. My current go-to is a 16–50 mm lens, though a bit more zoom wouldn't hurt in many situations.

If I'm going on a mountain bike ride where I know there will be stops to session rocks, or I'm with people who are willing to pause and let me set up more close-up shots, I love shooting with a wide-angle lens. The key to these shots is to not let your subject get too far away from you. They're great for landscape shots with a bike rider in it, and getting the camera low to the ground on technical terrain can create some neat images.

A bicyclist rides past three large saguaro cactuses, in symmetry with three desert hills in the distance.


Enjoy the Process

Learning how to capture satisfying images of rides and riders can be intensely frustrating and amazingly rewarding. Accept the fact that not every picture will work out for you and learn from the mistakes. And then one day when you're out with your friends and the light is just right and the dirt is lit up just so, you'll know exactly what to do. 

A bicyclist rides down a long dirt road, large rocky mesas forming a wall to their left.

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YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY PREVIOUS ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES...

Taking Pictures

Capturing Moments

Light And Memory

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Eszter Horanyi Fatbike Gravel Mountain Biking Road Sponsored Riders Touring Travel

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eszter Horanyi

Eszter Horanyi

When Eszter Horanyi was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com

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