In this article, I’m going to talk about photography from a cyclist’s perspective, rather than the other way around. So here are some photography tips for cyclists to get the most of out of your cycling journeys.
There are many reasons why people take up cycling; to get fit, lose weight, explore new places, and to have the feelings of exhilaration and freedom are among them. One thing exercise does for you is put you in touch with your own body and highlight any health issues you may have. For photographers, it also opens creative opportunities. On a bike, you’ll travel farther than you can by foot and see more than you would when driving. You can also stop more easily than you can in a car and aren’t forced to bypass great pictures.
Cyclists tend to want slightly different things than regular photographers; they’re looking to record their adventure, rather than passively photograph what’s around them. That adventure might include an amazing sunset or two, but there will be more emblematic photos of cycling itself. Often the bike will be included in the picture, which has more aesthetic appeal to cyclists than non-cyclists. Cycling companions may also feature, of course.
#1 – Camera choices for cyclists
A touring cyclist that bedecks his/her bike with panniers may decide to carry an SLR on a cycling trip. However, most cyclists are looking for a camera that’s light and compact enough to fit in a jersey pocket. A smartphone is an obvious choice since it’s likely to be carried anyway. However, photographers may prefer something with a bigger sensor and higher image quality.
There are a couple of candidates that immediately spring to mind as ideal cyclists’ cameras. The first of these is any of the Sony RX100 series. These are slim enough to be easily carried in a pocket, while also offering high image quality through a relatively large sensor. I sometimes carry this camera, which replaced an old Panasonic LX3. The latter was also okay, but lumpier than the Sony and less easy and comfortable to slip into a pocket.
Choosing a light camera is especially desirable if you climb a lot of hills when cycling since gravity becomes your worst enemy. It’s no coincidence that the world’s fastest climbers among cyclists are either skinny, short, or both. Even if you’re slim, you don’t want to carry more weight on your bike than is necessary. Along flat roads, this is less of an issue, as wind resistance becomes the biggest obstacle to your effort.
A second camera that is popular among cyclists is the Ricoh GR. This camera isn’t quite as compact as the Sony RX100 but it is ruggedly constructed and offers high image quality. The Ricoh has a fixed wide-angle lens as opposed to the zoom of the Sony, so is a little less versatile. I haven’t used a modern Ricoh GR but can attest to the quality of these cameras having once owned a film version.
#2 – Cycling effort and its effect on creativity
All cyclists enjoy riding their bike, but their reasons for doing so are often quite different. A performance cyclist who trains for races will very often not stop once during a ride, regardless of its length. Such a rider will typically go on long, moderately paced rides to build endurance as well as some high-intensity rides to improve strength and speed. Rides with a relaxed pace are more conducive to taking photos than those where the cyclist is barely able to converse.
Rides with a relaxed pace are more conducive to taking photos than those where the cyclist is barely able to converse.
Touring cyclists, I’d contest, are in a better position to take good photos, since they’re predisposed to admiring their surroundings and less bothered about performance. I’ve tried fast rides (“fast” only to me) and find it immensely difficult to stop during the effort, take a decent picture and move on. Whether it’s lack of oxygen to the brain or low glycogen levels, I always feel my chances of a good picture are reduced on faster rides. Photography, being a contemplative sort of pastime, needs a certain amount of attention before it can be done well.
Photography, being a contemplative sort of pastime, needs a certain amount of attention for it to be done well.
The very act of getting up early for a bike ride may result in photos that you wouldn’t otherwise get. One type of motivation very often benefits another. Thus, even if you’re going on a fast group ride, there might be the chance of a good picture before you even reach the meeting point. Big cycling sportives, which are as much social events as athletic, should also provide a chance for good photos and are usually purposely designed to take in impressive scenery.
Big cycling sportives, which are as much social events as they are athletic ones, should also provide a chance for good photos and are usually purposely designed to take in some impressive scenery.
Early morning bike rides for me often involve crossing the misty River Seine.
#3 – Planning rides for photography
Cycling adventurers like to explore new roads whenever possible. It’s fun to do this without any preplanning just by taking a random turn here and there. However, you can also plan a route on your computer using tools like Google Maps, MapMyRide, Ride with GPS, and Strava Route Builder. If you have a bike computer capable of navigation, you can load a route into the computer in the form of a TCX or GPX file and then follow its course out on the road.
Strava Route Builder, which lets you create routes and download them for use in a GPS bike computer.
Some bike computers will randomly generate a route for you, though they might take you along roads or through areas that are unsafe, so you must be a bit wary of that. If you really want to predict photo opportunities, an app such as LightTrac (or PhotoPills) will tell you what time the light will be at its best at any given location. Not everyone wants to plan their journey down to the finest detail, but the possibility does exist.
#4 – Bike Preparation
Non-cyclists are unlikely to “get” this, but people who love to ride bikes also tend to like looking at them. Most cyclists appreciate a stylish or characterful bike. So, what is the best way to prepare a bike for photography?
Here are some slightly tongue-in-cheek details that may make a bike portrait look better:
- Remove any bidons (water bottles) from their cages for the picture.
- Ensure the saddle is level.
- Cut any excess from the steerer tube (an untidy protrusion that often exists when handlebars are lowered).
- Match the colour of the handlebar tape to the saddle.
- Line the pedal cranks up with the chain stay so they don’t cut across the bike frame (manufacturers do this in catalogue photos).
- Install matching tires.
- Remove saddle bags for the photo. (Impractical for fully loaded touring bikes.)
- Gum wall tires outline the shape of the wheels nicely, but don’t hide dirt very well. They tend to offer a plusher ride, so you might buy them for aesthetics and comfort. Make sure they’re clean.
Portrait of a single-speed “fixie” bike, often considered to be the height of urban cool.
Clearly, these are not all things that can be addressed out on the road, and you can attend to any or none of them as you please. The stuff you carry on a bike might be part of your adventure, so whether you remove it or not will depend on the story you’re trying to tell. On a bike ride of a couple of hours, most people don’t carry much, so don’t need to include it in a picture.
Bike luggage is part of the story when touring.
#5 – Background and composition
However good your bike looks, you’ll let it down if you don’t set it against a pleasing background. If the background complements the color of the bike, so much the better. Nice light helps, too.
If you’re traveling, of course, you’ll want to include some scenery in the picture or any iconic buildings and monuments. The same rules that apply elsewhere also apply here. Keep the composition as simple as possible and don’t include clutter or any unnecessary elements. Pay attention to detail and remove litter and unwanted objects. Use roads to create strong diagonals, which will lead the eye into the picture.
Cyclists well positioned along a road that leads the eye into the picture.
#6 – Photos on the move
Though it’s highly inadvisable among traffic, a lot of cyclists can handle their bikes well enough to be able to take a photo while moving. There are several possibilities here:
- When moving at the same pace as a companion, you’ll be able to take a portrait with a motion-blurred background.
- You can take photos of a cycling group up ahead, preferably on a quiet road or cycling path where you don’t endanger yourself or them by taking the photo.
- You can take a selfie while riding, either from side-on or from the front. Holding the camera/phone at a high angle will capture any cyclists behind you, too.
- When you’re riding with sympathetic companions, set the camera up before moving for a particular type of shot. For instance, a slow shutter speed will enable you to take a portrait while maximizing the effect of movement.
When it’s safe to do so, you may want to photograph other participants in a group ride.
Other photo ideas and summary
There are various other types of pictures you might take as a cyclist. If you puncture a tire, you could photograph your bike in its state of disrepair and record the process of fixing it. Then there’s the obligatory café stop that’s part of the group-riding culture.
Photographic subjects on a bike ride are almost limitless, but those most relevant to your journey will often be bridges, roads, tracks, trails, grass banks, sweeping fields and vistas, wildflowers, woodlands, road signs, traffic, tanned legs and cool sunglasses.
Most of all, enjoy your cycling and your photography. The two go hand in hand once you’ve found the right balance of exercise and creativity. Please share your cycling photos and tips below.
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Author: Glenn Harper
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