Ryu: Velodrome / Track Cycling, round and round they go

Not to be mistaken with “How to shoot Olympique Marseille”.  If you don’t get it, dont’ sweat it.

Last week, I busied myself shooting people with gigantic thighs going round and round and round the velodrome.  I was apprehensive to do the shoot in the first place as I couldn’t imagine something so horribly dull as watching bicycles go around in circles would be fun.  Just ask a NASCAR photographer. Saying that, cycling was fun due to these factors:

1. You can actually shoot the riders’ face and consequently their expressions.
2. The crashes are spectacular.
3. There are more than one type of event per day.

It’s a bit of a stretch for number 3 as all they do is go around in circles, but hey, it’s slightly better than staring at a race track as cars go zooming by every few seconds.  But I guess having a higher chance of getting the prestigious headline “Local sports photographer gorged by flying fender” is a bonus.

Here are some tips on how to shoot cycling at a velodrome.

1. Know the events
Cycling is like swimming in that there are bazillion events so that everyone gets a chance in medalling.  You also need to be aware that the scheduling of the events will also affect where you will be positioned to shoot.  For example, if you are after a specific rider, you might have to give up the rider before and after the one you want because you won’t be able to move fast enough from one shooting position to another.  So, make sure you know which event takes place when.  The velodrome might look small, but it’s a lot bigger place with all the fans and security restrictions getting in your way.

Also depending on the event, the riders ride in different lines.  In most short distance events, they stay towards the inside of the track.  Longer distances, they switch from inside to outside during the course of the race.  If you want to shoot them at the starting grid, there is a massive difference between shooting a keirin, where the riders line up side by side compare to omnium where they line up in two vertical lines. Some sprinting events have the riders warm up on the outside lines and this gives you the chance to shoot them very close.  Keirin and omnium crashes happen in the corners, so be there if you want some blood.  They wear different helmets for different events and if you want shot through the visors, get as close as possible.  For some team events, you will only get one lap to shoot all of them in a set whilst on the track.  And so forth.  I had no idea about these things until I got there and watched the events with my own eyes as well as annoyingly quizzing veteran cycling photographers.  If you know someone who is a track cycling geek, get some pointers prior to the day of the shoot.  It will shave at least half a day of learning on the job.

2. Position
Same with any sports photography, cycling is all about where you position yourself.  Let me elaborate further: In an event where all you get is the track, it means EVERYTHING for you to get the best position.  So, I’d like to take this place and time to say “thank you” to the London Olympics people for giving me all the access a photographer needs in order to take a great photo.  Oh wait, I didn’t get all the access as I didn’t belong to one of the top 6 agencies.  Silly me.

By googling what these 6 agencies shot during the competition, I must say they deserve all the special treatments they received. The photos were so good that I almost passed out looking at them.  Merely thinking about them makes my eyes water.  From what I’ve seen, the shots were far superior to mine or others who did not have the access that they obviously made the right choice in not giving us the chance to shoot from the infield.

Phew, I needed that.

As I have noted above, the position battle can only work if you know the event and if you know what and HOW you want to shoot.  If you want to get a shot of the riders before the start, it makes no sense for you to get situated in the corner.  The opposite is also true that if you want to get a chance to shoot a crash, it makes sense to be at the corner and not next to the straight away.

“But what if I want to shoot both the start and the finish?”

I thought you would ask me something dumb like that. You’ve got a good chance of getting these shots had you cloned yourself prior to the day or you have mastered teleportation.  Yes, you can use a remote and yes, if the event is more than a lap, you can move.  But unless you are shooting for one of those prestigious 6 agencies, where it is paramount to get the same shot as everyone else, you will be served better to be patient in one position.  By doing so, you will have ample time to concentrate on getting the shot you want from that position, rather than getting half assed shots like everyone else.  Patience, my young padawan…

3. They go a lot faster than you think
You might think that these dudes and dudettes don’t go that fast because obviously, they are riding push bikes.  But they go very very fast, especially when the distance between you and them become closer.  Anyone can shoot the rider on the other side of the track.  It takes a skilled and knowledgable sports photographer like you to get them when you can smell their breath.  It won’t do you any good to focus on them as they approach you as their speed is faster than your camera’s focusing speed.  The only way you deal with this is that you prefocus.  The good thing about this sport is that if you screw up the shot, you will get another chance when they come around again. Set your focus at a distance that you think the rider will be when he approaches you and pray to Matt Cohen that your guess is right. Take a shot, have a look, and make adjustments.  Go again.  What might also helps is to not go for a shallow of a DOF.  This will increase your chance further of getting sharp riders.

As for celebration shots after a win, it’s just like any other sport.  Don’t forget that they don’t stop immediately after the race is over as they don’t have breaks on these bikes.  It’s a gradual and painstakingly slow halting process.  Celebration depends on the whim of the rider and they might fist pump + wave flags as they approach you.  This could easily happen on the other side of the track, so consider yourself lucky if they get in the mood in front of you.

Last but not least, shutter speed.  If you want to stop the action, make sure you use 1/1000 or higher and that your ISO is up as well.  It’s quite dark in these places unless they have a sun roof.  If you want to pan or do slow shutter speed, understand exactly what you want to do.  You might want to test it on an event before the one you want so that you can gauge what shutter speed will make the pretty blur.  This is much easier than other sports as they do go in one direction with constant speed.

That’s about as much as I took in on the 4 days of access free competition at the velodrome.  If I can get another opportunity to shoot this, I wouldn’t even dream of wanting to to shoot from the infield.


*Please Read Below*
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3 thoughts on “Ryu: Velodrome / Track Cycling, round and round they go

  1. Your shots from this event are among my all-time favorites of yours. Those tiny infield photographers in this photo must all be jealous of your “special” position!

  2. Yugo,

    Thank you very much. :)
    I guess it pays off to do some other sports once in a while.


    PS By the way, I’d still like to shoot from the infield some day.

  3. Hi Ryu!

    I too love these velodrome shots – and your football/soccer work makes me cry.

    When you are shooting on assignment and you post content from that shoot on the BLFS website, Flickr or your portfolio, do you need to *not* post stuff you’ve submitted to your client(s)? Or do you need to wait for a few days? Or does it not matter one way or the other?

    Thanks! :)


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