lone rider on a mountain road

How I Shoot | Photographing Cycling

Russ Ellis

For me, cycling is the most varied sport to shoot. That’s why I love it. It incorporates so many different types of photography; there’s the pre-race milling around where you can shoot portraits, the action itself, which you can frame in the scenery, and then at the finish, you have this raw action, energy and emotion.

group of cyclists riding past a stone arch

© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/1000s @ f/8.0, ISO 2000

Emotion is a huge part of what makes a great cycling shot. While there’s all sorts of styles you can use, the greatest images contain three things. First, they have a sense of place, which could mean framing up with a famous monument or landmark. Second, the key players will be featured, including maybe the rider in the yellow jersey or someone who’s potentially going to win. And finally, they need a sense of emotion and effort – sweat on their face or rips in their jersey where they’ve crashed before.

cyclist crosses the winning line with his hand in the air

© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/1600s @ f/5.0, ISO 125

The range of styles you can shoot and the access you have means you need to be prepared in terms of lenses. Fortunately, my Sony Alpha lenses are quite small, so I can take most of my stuff with me. I normally have two Sony Alpha 9 bodies, one with the 100-400mm and the other with 85 1.4 pre-race, and the 16-35mm out on the course and at the finish. That means I’ve got huge versatility in framing. After the finish, I might switch to the 50 1.8 for some candid moments, but it’s all there in my pack if I need it.

cyclist passing a building with yellow shutters

© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/1250s @ f/5.6, ISO 125

Though it’s not one you’d always associate with sport, the 16-35 can be very useful out on the course. It lets me be more creative with framing, for instance shooting through cafe windows or a car interior to get a different look, while the Alpha 9’s flip out screen means I can shoot from high or low angles, getting above crowds at arm’s length, standing on cars, or getting as low to the ground as possible to give the riders more impact. This also gives me a bit of blurred foreground, adding depth and leading the eye into the action.

cyclist in purple jersey celebrates as he crosses the line

© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS | 1/1250s @ f/5.6, ISO 2000

The Alpha 9’s AF system is brilliantly advanced but also highly adaptable, perfect for cycling. I always use Continuous AF mode and for action shots, the AF area I pick is Flexible Spot. I use the joystick to place it centrally, or offset it slightly, if I want to push the riders to one side of the frame or the other, then move the camera to keep it on the rider I want in focus. I find that this is the best way, especially when faced with a group of jostling riders coming towards me in a sprint. If I’m doing portraits or candids at the end of the race, then I’ll switch to the eye-tracking mode.

Nelson Oliviera riding along an empty road

© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/1250s @ f/5.0, ISO 320

I have three main approaches to exposure in my cycling shots. The first is to freeze the subject, and for that I always shoot in aperture priority. Because the brightness of the frame varies as you follow the rides, it provides better exposure than manual. I set the aperture, then I’ll set the ISO to Auto and limit the lowest shutter speed to around 1/1000sec. After that I just ride the exposure compensation dial, depending on the lighting conditions, lightening or darkening as required. The beauty of a Sony mirrorless camera is I can see how that’s affecting the exposure live in the EVF.

 group of cyclists in heavy rain

© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/500s @ f/4.0, ISO 2500

For more passive situations, I’ll shoot in Manual and deliberately use middling shutter speeds like 1/60sec. For instance, if I’m in a shop, framing a cyclist passing the doorway, I’ll then get the interior and the crowd sharp, but as the rider comes past, they have just a little motion blur, which makes it feel alive. If they’re too sharp in those situations, they’ll mix into the static parts of the scene too much.


© Russ Ellis | Sony α9 + FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS | 1/25s @ f/16, ISO 125

Finally, there are panning shots which combine a slow shutter speed with camera movement, keeping the rider sharp, but blurring the background. Panning cyclists is quite tricky; you’re looking at panning at something like 1/10sec, which leaves lots of room for error. There’s camera shake, but also the rider’s body can be moving up and down, too. Shooting in continuous drive gives more chances of a hit, and even if the glasses, or the helmet, or the face are sharp, that’s a win for me.

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