Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the intersection of Bikes & Photography.
For eight years or so, photography was how I made my living; first as a newspaper shooter, then primarily in a studio shooting bike components. Add in several years between those two jobs scratching a living shooting mountain bike racing and it is easy for me to remember how natural and almost second nature taking photographs became.
Back then, a camera was in my hand, or in the bag on my shoulder, eight hours a day, five days a week (at least). As with anyone who uses a tool repeatedly day after day (or perhaps a musician who not only plays but practices daily), my camera and lenses at times felt like an extension of myself. It was easy to bring the camera up to my eye and make aperture and shutter speed adjustments without looking. During my newspaper days there was a time where I could pretty much guess a proper exposure, a result of using 400 ASA black and white film day after day. I took pride in how fast I could get a finished roll of film out of my camera, a fresh roll in, and be back in action. I was dialed in with my tools, but also my eye, which arguably is much more important than being good at turning aperture rings and shutter speed dials.
While I don’t take photographs to earn a paycheck anymore, and rarely take out my “real camera,” I still enjoy photography, aka Taking Pictures.
My son, Jordan, joined me for my first bike vacation this summer...
Your Reasons Are Your Own
My friend, Joe Parkin, a former professional road and mountain bike racer, once said to me, “I’ve sweated enough in my sunglasses to enjoy long, slow rides.” Perhaps that applies to me now with regards to photography. I’ve felt the pressure to perform enough times to enjoy feeling no pressure now.
Those looking to sell photos or create careers as photographers will need to take it all more seriously, but I believe taking things too seriously can get in the way of doing them in the first place. If you just want to improve your photography and enjoy doing it, my suggestion is to think of it as Taking Pictures.
Personally, I enjoy taking photographs on some of my bike rides to add another creative dimension to the day, celebrate something beautiful I see along the trail, or just create a more tangible memory to look back on or share. Those reasons are mine, and you should find your own reasons (or no reasons) as you choose. Just keep in mind that if you want to improve as a photographer, the best thing you can do is make a point of taking pictures more often.
The Best Camera
There’s an old adage, ‘The best camera is the one you have with you.’ That couldn’t be truer, and the beautiful thing is that nowadays most of us carry a camera with us at all times—our phones.
All of the images shared in this post were taken with my phone during a couple of mountain biking and camping vacations to Marquette, Michigan this summer.
Currently my phone is an iPhone 11, and its camera capabilities are amazing. Do a tiny bit of internet research on your phone’s camera and you will most likely pick up a tip or technique you may not have known was even possible. Don’t dismiss using your phone as a means to improve as a photographer. Does it bring some limitations? Absolutely. But every camera has its own limitations, no matter the price.
The intense fall colors of this fern caught my attention...
Enter The Digital Darkroom
Getting the best image you can straight out of the camera is a good goal, but don’t hesitate to take it into the digital darkroom. There is no shortage of photo editing apps or software available. Take your images into your chosen digital darkroom and do whatever it is you feel like doing to them. They are yours, after all. I typically find myself adjusting my images to make them better reflect how I saw the scene when I took the photo. That could be as simple as a bit more or less contrast or saturation. When I have an image I like but can’t seem to find a color representation that works for me, I’ll take a look at it as a grayscale (black and white) image. Sometimes I just don’t find a final representation that I like and move on to another image. Not every photo will be a keeper. In fact, most won’t. The trash icon is your friend.
Again, you are the boss. You can strive for photorealism or you can play with filters and get creative. I find it amazing how even a slight change of tint, or an added vignette, can have a dramatic effect and improve a photograph.
Gorgeous colors and nice light captured with the self-timer...
Master Counting To Ten
I do most of my bike riding by myself. I’m guessing that’s true for some of you, too. The time has come to master the self-timer, as it adds a whole new element to the bike photography game. WARNING: Type-A riders, the odds are good that you will not enjoy this experience!
Sure, you could use a tripod and remote camera trigger or a Bluetooth trigger of some type, but I prefer to keep it simpler. I use the self-timer function on my phone or camera, and my tripod consists of whatever I find around me; rocks, sticks, tree limbs, whatever.
I wedged my phone between these two birch trees for the following self-timer shot. A rubberized phone case helped keep the phone in place...
Is this a bit hit and miss? Absolutely. But remember that bit above about taking pictures for yourself and your own chosen goals?
Because stopping and setting up for a self-timer shot takes a bit of time and effort, I typically make three attempts at the photograph before moving on and continuing my ride.
Get the camera (phone) positioned and ten-second self-timer mode activated. Keep your bike nearby. Hit the shutter button and start counting. “One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand…”. If your bike has a dropper post, pre-drop it as it really makes getting back on the bike so much easier. Ten seconds might seem like a lot, but trust me, sometimes running 15 or 20 feet, remounting, and pedaling into the scene can really eat up the clock.
If I’m game for some self-timer action while on a ride, I typically watch for scenery I think will work well, really great light, or a trail feature that I think will lend itself to a nice image.
This whole self-timer technique definitely adds a bit of mystery, luck, and photo magic into bike photography. Be prepared for some real dogs, but when you get something that turns out even better than you expected, it can be a real joy.
My first setup for this self-timer shot wasn't working well, so I moved the phone directly onto the trail, balanced by a couple small rocks, rode by as close as possible, and am super stoked with the result...
I hope this article encourages you and helps motivate you to capture a few more bike riding memories. I know I’ll enjoy looking back at some of my images from this summer and fall during the dead of winter, and in the years to come.
All great days worth remembering...
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I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.