Cycle race 100 400 6By Nina Bailey, Senior Lecturer

Over lunch on a recent training course, I mentioned to the group that I had been photographing a local cycle race that weekend. I have no real interest in the sport and do not even cycle myself – I fall off far too often to even bother these days! Instead I was looking to add to my image library – interesting action shots are always useful for teaching purposes.

I’ve never photographed cyclists like this before. So how did I know how to guarantee that I’d get the shots I wanted?

ESP – Evaluate, Settings, Produce.

As Senior Lecturer at EOS Training Academy, ESP is the approach we advocate to all our photographers. Preparation is key – without evaluating your subject and location, without having good familiarity of your camera set-up, the success of the images you produce could be in jeopardy.

Evaluate your subject...and your problem areas

When shooting a new subject, ask yourself what is required for a successful shot or, to put another way, what problems will you face?

With a cycle race, it’s the fact that your subjects are moving, and moving quite quickly. So I asked myself:
– How fast do I need to shoot to freeze my subject?
– How much of my subject do I want in focus?

Shutter speed

I wanted to freeze my subject – I didn’t want movement on this occasion. I know that to freeze a runner I need 1/500th; to freeze birds in flight I need 1/2000th. A cyclist is generally slower than a bird in flight, but if shot side on the amount of movement is roughly the same. So I was going to be looking at around 1/2000th.

Working out the aperture can be trickier as it will depend on the lens you are shooting with as your choice of lens changes depth-of-field more than the aperture you ‘re using. However, with this particular subject you have the bike and rider to consider – ideally both need to be sharp – so f8 or f11 is a good mid-range aperture setting that should give the sharpness you need but without restricting the light too much.

Being outdoors, the light levels could be variable, so the next question is:
– What’s the weather going to be like?

Settings like ISO simply come from the weather – the lower the light levels, the higher you need your ISO. Check the weather forecast, but prepare to be adaptable once on location.

Here’s where your basic photography knowledge kicks in:
Bright sunny day: 1/250th second at f8, 100 ISO.
For 1/2000th at f8 there’s a three stop difference, so we need to consider 800 ISO.
Cloudy conditions: You’re looking at another 2-3 stops less light, so we’re looking at 3200 ISO to achieve the same settings.

Not all of your considerations are to do with camera settings. Choosing a good location and using the right lens will also make a difference to the success or failure of your image.

That led to further questions:
– Where will I position myself on the route?
– Which direction will the light be coming from?

Street map view cyclingLocation
I wanted a spot that offered a good background, a stretch of road with good visibility and, if possible, the opportunity to shoot with different lenses. It needed to have a verge where I could stand safely (and dump the kit bag) and where I could stand with my back towards the sun – this is so the cyclists would be front-lit or slightly lit from the side.

These days research like this is so easy to do online. I looked up and printed the route. Then I checked where I could get to easily and checked the race times. I even used Google’s Street Map view – there’s a person icon you can click on and position on the map so as to be able to see the locations as if you were stood there yourself.


The direction of your light is critical, otherwise you introduce complexities that can be very difficult to solve. This is something you can only really assess when on location; however, I gave myself enough time to check out the possible locations before the race passed through the area I’d chosen.

Setting up your camera

Being able to find and set the features on your camera quickly, to establish what settings you need and, often as important, checking what doesn’t need to be set is always key to getting good results.

I arrived at my chosen location about 45 minutes before the race. This gave me plenty of time to set up my camera – I was using my EOS 5D Mark IV – check the light levels and take a few test shots. Note: you don’t need your subject there to assess the lighting.

Whilst on site, the light was changing quite rapidly, so whilst there is no one definitive mode that performs better than another, I opted for Av – this allowed me to control the aperture at f8 or f11, lock the shutter speed to a minimum of 1/2000th. I then switched ISO onto auto, but took some control by setting the minimum as 800 ISO, meaning that the camera couldn’t go below this. It was quite overcast by the end of the race, so most shots ended up between 1250 and 3200 ISO.

Focusing mode – for movement the mode to use is AI Servo.

Focusing area – I chose Auto Select. This means all 61 AF points were active on the 5D Mark IV. The iTR AF system was set to Face priority, which did a good job of keeping the focus on the cyclists’ faces. I left the camera to select where to focus on most shots – nominating a focusing point, which is how I started the shoot, proved to be less reliable.

Case setting – I used Case 3. This is recommended for cycle racing and is designed to focus on subjects suddenly entering AF points whilst coping well with changes in speed. (Note: not all EOS cameras have case settings – it’s an enhanced feature on cameras like the 5D-series, 7D-series and 1D-series.)

Drive mode – High speed continuous. On the EOS 5D Mark IV this gave me seven frames per second. I dropped it to three frames per second partway through shooting as 7FPS was really producing too many shots.

White balance – left on AWB. During the test shots the camera was coping fine and didn’t need any correction.

Picture Style – I chose FD Picture Style, and increased the sharpening slightly. This gave good saturation and contrast.

Auto Lighting Optimiser was on standard – helped prevent dark faces when shooting from a low angle. Again, this reduces the need for postproduction on most of the images.

Metering – Evaluative – this coped surprisingly well and no compensations were needed for any shots. Spot or partial would have been a pain to use due to the different shades and colours of what the cyclists were wearing.

What to UNSET
Are there settings on your camera from your last session? Check settings like exposure compensation, to make sure that you’re not going to compromise your shoot. Wrong settings will affect your whole set of images and you might not be able to recover them in post-processing.

Producing the images

Cycle race 100 400 1

Cycle race 100 400 2
I could see the cyclists about 400m ahead, giving me plenty of time to frame and start focusing. I’d taken two lenses with me, the EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM and the EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM.

I started off with the 100-400 lens at 400mm and gradually zoomed out – meaning I could take more shots of the same group of cyclists. The view changed considerably as they got closer. The 100-400mm lens was the one I used the most as it gave cleaner background and enabled me to get the lead cyclist sharp and the other blurred.







Cycle race wide3However, the 24-105mm lens did allow me to get more in the background and to shoot some side on shots. This was quite difficult as they were passing within a metre or two of where I was standing most of the time.

Cycle race low4After a while I decided to shoot from a lower angle to make it easier to include faces in the shots. This worked well and gave some very different shots with a lot more sky in them.




Cycle race corner

Towards the end of the race I moved location to take a few shots of the cyclists going round a corner, to get a few different viewpoints, though it was a harder place to shoot as there was a lot of road clutter around the junction and was difficult to get a clean background.



Overall I took 3300 images, a downside of starting off at seven frames per second (fps). This was pruned down to 850 images, using the quick check tool in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, by far the quickest way to flag images you want to delete. From there they were sorted again down to 395 good images, so just over a 10% keep rate. That's roughly what I aim for. All of my images were captured as JPEGs – I'm confident that I can get them right in-camera, ready for use in my eBooks, on training courses, and in articles.


Next steps

If you need help with the basics, then our EOS for Beginners event is a great place to start, with the follow-on EOS for improvers workshop moving you onto the more advanced camera settings.

Our Understanding Focusing courses are advanced level events, designed to help you understand how to set up your camera's focusing system. This is a small group practical, so you get hands-on with your tutor by your side.

For those wanting to start shooting action this Beginner's Guide to Action Photography eBook is also a great starting point – it assumes no prior knowledge and is a no-nonsense, jargon-free guide to action photography, specifically with Canon EOS cameras.