Jay Sousa: Cycling race offers great photo opportunities

February 25, 2012 

Jay Sousa

One of my favorite events of the year to photograph is coming to downtown Merced next weekend. The McDonald's Downtown Grand Prix bicycle race, a part of the four-day Merco Credit Union Cycling Classic presented by Mercy Hospital, is March 3.

We are fortunate to have this great event in Merced each year. If you haven't seen a high-level bike race, then you are in for a treat. The color, speed and excitement of this event makes for a dream come true for a photographer at any level.

One of the magnetic draws of photographing a bike race is how close to the action you can get. At what other kind of sporting event can you watch a highest-level pro athlete streak past you at speeds of over 30 mph just a few feet away from you and your camera?

A novice photographer with a modest camera can get good action photographs at this event. But a photographer with a digital single-lens reflex camera and a zoom telephoto lens can make some pro-quality images with a few simple tips.

There are several races throughout the day, beginning at 7:30 a.m. and finishing with the Pro 1-2 Elite race, which starts at 2:30 p.m. The start-finish line for all races is at 20th and N Street. The race winds through the downtown area, and a map of the course can be found at www.

topsportcycling.com. The races range from 25 to 40 laps, giving you plenty of opportunity to wander the course to find your favorite photo location.

The best places to photograph are at the corners as the racers bank their bikes around the 90-degree turns at very fast speeds just inches from each other. Near the end of the race, make your way to the finish line to photograph the excitement of the final sprint with speeds approaching 40 mph. For a different angle, try some photos from the top level of the two parking garages on the corner of M and 18th.

You can make good photos with almost any lens on your camera, but a zoom telephoto lens of up to 200mm will let you get in close to see the intense expressions on the cyclists' faces. A wide-angle lens shot at a low angle near the ground as the racers go around a turn can produce interesting images as well. Creating crisp, in-focus images of fast-moving objects can be tough. Try using a focus function such the AI servo autofocus feature (refer to your camera manual). This will continually focus on a fast-moving object.

It is also crucial to have the proper shutter speed to freeze the action of the fast-moving bikes. Try using your shutter-

priority setting, marked as the "Tv" setting on many cameras' control dial. This will let you select the shutter speed that you need, and the camera will do the rest to achieve a good exposure. A shutter speed of 1/1,000 of a second should be fast enough to freeze the action. You also might try making some images at a slower shutter speed of 1/30 of a second to create a feeling of motion. One technique that I like to use is pan action. In a pan-action image, I select a shutter speed of 1/30 second or slower and as the pack of riders is racing across my field of view, I'll depress the shutter release button and pan, or move the camera along with the riders trying to match their speed. When done properly, the racers will be sharp but the background will be a blur. You will need to try several of these to get it right.

Play around with various shutter speeds; the slower the shutter speed, the more dreamlike your image will be.

One last, and very important, tip. Please follow the directions of the course marshals and other officials, and don't cross over the barriers marking the course to take a photo. A collision with a racing cyclist moving at very fast speeds can have disastrous consequences for the both of you.

Contact Jay Sousa at jay.sousa@sbcglobal.net.

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