Friday, April 15, 2011

Dragging the Shutter - Shooting Cycling - How to shoot Triathlons

With the cycling and triathlon season approaching, I thought that I would write a little about a relatively easy way to get great cycling shots.

People have asked me how I get the shots of objects or people in motion where the primary subject is in focus and the background is smeared accenting the motion or speed of the subject. The way I do that is by using a technique called dragging the shutter.

For the pictures above, I used a Nikon D700 with a 200 f/2.0 lens on shutter priority with a shutter speed of 1/30s on continuous. The riders were in motion, so I panned the camera with the rider maintaining focus on the rider's head while the shutter was open. This takes some practice.

Let me break down how to do this and get consistent results.
1) Use a 200mm lens with image stabilization (This can be a zoom. You will be on something like f/11 or higher usually.)
2) Set the camera on the lowest ISO setting
3) Set the camera on shutter priority 1/30s for bike riders or 1/15s for runners
4) Set the camera on continous shutter and continuous focus, where it takes photos as fast as it can and continues to track the subject. (Alternatively, you can set the focus on manual at a fixed distance and lock it in.)
4) Get some distance from the subject on a flat area where you can see the subject approaching from a distance.
5) Pan by rotating your upper body at the waist, keeping your arms, shoulders and shooting platform stable.
6) Pan consistently before and after you press the shutter release. Any stopping and starting will be obvious.

As the subject or rider in this case approaches, begin panning by rotating your body at the waist. Press the shutter when the subject is just about perpendicular with you. Continue to pan until you are looking at the subject's back leaving the area. You do not need to have a camera that is capable of taking 9 frames a second while focusing, but it helps. The main point is to use a slow shutter speed, pan with the subject and maintain focus. This takes a lot of practice and you will still only get a few keepers out of hundreds of shots, but it is worth it.

Shoot in the shade:
Many races start in the morning, so finding a consistent shady spot not a problem. The reason for this is that while you want light, you don't want too much and you don't want the subject dabbled with distracting shadows. (The above picture shows some of the inconsistent shadows.) If you get too much light, you will not be able to stop down the f setting far enough to avoid overexposing the shot. This is due to the camera being at a low shutter speed.  If you do find yourself in an area with too much light use a neutral density filter. I use the Singh Ray Vari-ND. Using the Vari-ND, I can adjust the amount of light I want to cut out with the filter, up to 8 stops. Fixed ND filters work fine too. The great thing about Nikon standardizing to 77mm with the latest lenses is that I can use the same filters on all of my standard lenses. With the 200 f/2.0 I use the cirular polarizer to cut down the light. This same technique works well when I want to shoot with a shallow depth of field and isolate my subjects on a bright sunny day. I can turn up the ND filter and still have my camera on f/1.4 at noon.

Flash can be used to make the subject pop, but be careful with it. Make sure the flash is on rear curtain sync. This will cause the flash to shoot at the end of the exposure. If the flash is not set to rear curtain sync the rider will be seen at the start of the frame and trail off as they move forward. Also when using a flash, the camera should be set on manual so that the shutter speed can be set to 1/30s instead of defaulting to 1/60s. The flash should be adjusted manually so that it gives enough light to bring out the colors of the subject, but not look like a "flash picture".  The above picture required a flash since the rider was entering a dark tunnel.

So - go out and try it - or "tri" it.  The season is fast approaching and there are plenty of opportunities to practice. Checkout more shots at

I hope that you find this helpful.

P.S.  There is no need to use expensive gear. All you need is a camera that allows you to set a slow shutter speed.


  1. Skies of Bitan 碧潭的天空May 24, 2011 at 7:59 PM

    Nice tips. I would only disagree about image stabilization. When panning, IS (or VR) only interferes with focusing.

    You're lucky to have a 200mm f/2.0 lens. Amazing glass!

  2. Great job. Thanks so much

  3. Thanks! I look fwd to trying out your tips.