Brian Dukes Photography

The image begins long before and ends long after the shutter is pressed.
© Brian Dukes

View all essays

The Art of MTB Photography

Photographing Mountain Bikes and their riders is not the easiest thing - but is hugely enjoyable. Sure it's easy enough to get a blurry shot, or a polished stationary shot - but how do you get a shot of a MTB rider doing their thing, showing drama, action and for everything to be well lit and in focus? I'm going to discuss this a little over this blog post.

The above shot was taken at  Woburn Sands on 29th December 2015.  I'm fortunate enough that my son Patrick "Paddy" Dukes (featured in this image) is a very experienced and capable MTB rider, but he also has an interest in photography and videography.  This means that he also knows what shots work, what he's capable of doing and what he wants to see as a rider looking at images of MTB riders!   For me, it's this last point that is quite poignant - getting a shot that shows some action and everything well lit and in focus isn't enough - the action/drama needs to be engaging enough also.

At the start of the shoot, I walk sections of the track with the riders, listen to what they talk about, corners, jumps, technical bits - I'm looking for a shot that will show some drama, some action - very technical sections and very steep downhill sections do not necessarily translate well into an image.  Steepness of gradient is often lost in the final shot and highly technical sections tend to slow the action down and lessen the drama in the shot.

Shots that really work well fall into the following categories:  Jumps,  Corners (berms) and sections of track that kick up dirt/dust/water.

In the above shot, Paddy is going through a berm, directly after this berm is a left / right switch - but that would have been less interesting to shoot - the berm was quite deep, but as this is Woburn Sands, the ground is soft and sandy, so even after weeks of rain it's still easily possibly to kick up alot of dirt through the corner.

The set up of this shot initially involved Paddy and the other riders (Ross & Luke) doing a couple of runs through the corner - this allowed me to work out the best vantage point for the shot and to start to think about where I will place the lights.

Here is a quick 'Behind The Scenes' shot of me, taken by Paddy on his iPhone - although for the final shots I moved further back and got down on the ground.  The corner that is shown here is actually a different one to that featured in the final image above - but it gives an idea of position and lighting.

In the shot you can see one light stand, complete with an Elinchrom 40" reflector - inside the reflector is a Yongnuo YN560 IV Speedlite - it's held in place by an adaptor I bought of eBay, which works really well.  This is my primary light it's used to throw light onto the rider and it's bike.

Not visible in the BTS image are two other Yongnuo YN560 IV speedlites - one on a light stand behind the tree on the left - this is used to throw light on the dust being kicked up in the corner.   And a final speedlight is placed on the ground (or close to the ground) pointing back up the track to through a little light back toward the rider.

Though I do tend to take a few test shots, often with Paddy standing mid-corner (or where he believes he will be) so I can see how the lighting is working and what exposure settings to choose - remembering not shoot to fast for the sync speed.

In wooded areas, light levels can be quite problematic, it can be really dark but as you shoot up hill, if you have any broken tree-line areas the sky will be quite bright in comparison.  To a degree you can try to minimise this by positioning yourself so that the shot will not include too much bright sunshine,  and then you've only the darkness to deal with.

For the above shot I used these settings:   1/250s f5.6 ISO200 at 75mm   -  remember what I said above about remembering not to shoot too fast for the sync speed - yep, I forgot!    My Canon EOS6D will comfortably sync with the YN560IV at 1/200s - at 1/250s it's a little too fast, and as is evident of the original RAW there is a dark shadow across the bottom part of the image.

I was lucky with this shot, it wasn't a solid black bar across the bottom, just a darker area - so with a bit of selective cropping and a gradient Exposure filter added in Lightroom I was able to fix it enough to the degree that it's not noticeable.  Once I'd realised later in the day I was shooting a bit too quick, I was able to make sure I maxed out at 1/200s.

Prepare The Ground - This will be my last tip of this blog - be very aware of stray twigs, bits of fern, branches etc - especially if they are being caught by the lights or in direct sunlight.  These will stand out hugely on the final image,  some of which can be removed in post-edit, but it's much simpler if you survey the scene at the point of taking the image,  remove any stray twigs or distracting stuff from the scene,  remove the odd bit of fern, or reposition yourself so it's not in the shot - doing this could save lots of post-edit work and possibly even save the shot!

The Woburn Sands shoot, was a very successful shoot - I took over 200 shots,  and have a larger number of keepers - I try to aim to get 1 keeper per rider per setup shot.  This will depend upon alot of things, your abilities as a photographer, the lighting, getting the right angles but just as importantly the riders - MTB shots like the above are not grabbed from races, we've picked a section of track and I get the riders to repeatedly go over the same bit of ground time and time again.    As a photographer you have a split second to fire the shot, that has to coincide with the rider being in the best bit of the corner for them - riders are all different;  and to add to that complication getting them to repeat the same bit of track time and time again doesn't necessarily result in them being in the same place each time - they're human, they're pushing themselves and they're also getting tired.  As a photographer you have to learn the style of each rider and preempt where they are going to be and at what point they're going to be at their maximum through a corner or over a jump.

Anyhow, I hope the above has given you a little insight into the fun of photographing MTB riders.  It's very rewarding to watch, even as a spectator - but when you nail the photography, there is no better feeling!

I'll post some more images as soon as I can grab a moment to go through them!

  • "Drown-Hill" Mountain Biking

    So almost a month ago my son Patrick (Paddy) Dukes invited me up to the Forest of Dean to photograph him and his friends having fun on their Mountain Bikes…

    Behind The Lens - Blog for Wiggle

    http://blog. wiggle. co. uk/behind-lens-brian-dukes Here is a blog interview that I did for Wiggle, where I talk a bit about my background, what i'm looking for when I photograph bikes etc . . there may even be an image or two in there you haven't seen…

Featured essays

In the beginning..

The first blog is always the hardest - but this is not just the first blog, but also the start of a photographic journey for me… Read more

Me, Myself and I

How does a champion runner become a champion runner? How does a Michelin star chef become so good at cooking? A MotoGP rider like Valentino Rossi become a 9 times World Champion (and on his way to his 10th championship at the age of 36) - By practicing… Read more