Snapper Steve's tips on taking cycle portrait photographs

Photographer Steve Rutherford spent a couple of years taking photos for the London Cycling Campaign member magazine, London Cyclist. Here, he shares a few thoughts on the subject of the best way to take good cycling portraits.

Types of shot

There are a number of different types of cycling photo. Here are some thoughts on some of the most common ones.

A static shot of your subject with bicycle (above image) This works pretty well if you have an interesting subject or an unusual bicycle otherwise it tends to look a little flat and predictable.

An action shot. Pick a fast shutter speed, e.g. 1/1000s, or the sports icon on your camera. Ask the subject to cycle past you from left to right at a medium speed. Assuming that your camera manages to focus in time then you should be able to freeze them in motion as they pass by heroically. Inevitably there will be quite a bit of cycling backwards and forwards until you get a photo that you are happy with but you'll have a much more interesting image.

Variations on this include:

• Have the subject cycle towards you - this is much harder as your camera will have to adjust the focus as they get closer to you. (Expect many more trips backwards and forwards!).

• Slow down the shutter speed a little until the cyclist is frozen in the photo but the spokes are a little blurred. This is a bit of a balancing act as at some point everything will blur and you'll need to increase the shutter speed again.

A panning shot. This is a variation on the action shot but has quite a distinct look. Pick a much slower shutter speed, e.g. 1/80 second. Pivot your body from the waist as your subject rides past and, as smoothly as you can, take the photo, continuing to move after the shutter has released. With (quite a lot of) practise you will end up with a streaked background and a crisp subject. I would suggest standing by a busy roundabout and practising on passing cars / bikes until you get the hang of this. You should definitely experiment with the shutter speed too: A slower shutter = more streaky background but less chance of getting the subject to be sharp. A faster shutter speed means that your subject is more likely to be sharp but you won't get the sense of motion. It’s a tricky balance.

A static portrait but with the bike in the background. Some of my favourite cycling portraits have involved filling the frame with the subject and having the bike somewhere in the background of the photo.



Other things to think about include:

The position of the subject in the frame. Photos of moving things look better with more space in front of the subject than behind. If your subject isn't moving then perhaps try positioning them off centre - this often looks more interesting than a centered subject.


The amount of background you want in the photo. There are two extreme choices here - you could stand very far away from your subject and zoom in until they fill the frame or you could stand quite close to them and use a wider zoom setting. Either way you will fill the frame with your cyclist but the difference in the photo will be the extent to which the background appears in the photo.


Left image: Longer focal length = larger background buildings


Right image: Shorter focal length = smaller buildings in the background








How blurred your want the background to be. This is not really a choice you have with a point and click camera (as everything is pretty much in focus) but with an SLR you can choose how blurred you want the background to be by choosing a specific aperture (smaller aperture = everything in focus, larger aperture = blurry background).



More than anything the choice of light makes the biggest difference to the final image.  

Natural light. The light around sunrise is often beautiful and makes for great photos and so it's often worth setting an early alarm. Similarly, the light in the hour before sunset is often great. In contrast, photos taken at midday on a sunny day tend to be very contrasty/unflattering and so I tend to avoid this time of day if I can.  

Artificial light I typically blend some artificial light with natural light as I like the more contrasty look that this gives. It's a big subject and so I would suggest a visit to if you want to learn more about how to do this. Here's an example of the difference between a photo taken on a cloudy day with only natural light (left image) and one with some additional light added (right image).



I think that the choice of camera probably matters less than you would think. I use a digital SLR because of the level of control it gives me but that's not to say that it isn't possible to make great photos with a point and shoot camera.

The main advantages of an SLR are:

1. the speed of use - there's no delay between pressing the button and taking the photo

2. focussing speed - my Canon 5d isn't the best at this but it will typically lock onto a passing bicycle. 3. Blurry backgrounds - larger sensors allow you to blur the background which makes for less distraction from your subject.

That said, SLRs are more expensive, a little more fiddly to use and typically heavier than a compact camera. If I'm going on a cycling holiday then I'll definitely leave my SLR at home and take a small camera with me.

Suggested inexpensive kit purchases:

A 50mm lens. If you have an SLR then it would make a lot of sense to buy an inexpensive 50mm lens. Canon, for example, make a 50mm 1.8 lens which retails for around £80. The '1.8' part of the title means than there's a very large opening in the back of the lens which allows for blurred backgrounds (as discussed above) and also lets you take photographs in much lower light levels. It's not the most sophisticated or robust of lenses but you can't really argue with the price. I would just check that the lens will work with you camera - I know that the autofocus on some Nikon lenses doesn't work with certain DSLRs.  

A 100cm "5 in 1" circular reflector. These are essentially large collapsible circular discs with reflective covers that let you bounce light onto your subject. The result is often a much more flattering portrait - skin imperfections are filled magically and the quality of the light is greatly improved (see courier photo). ln addition to bouncing light, they come with a black cover (to absorb light for more shadow) and can be used without a cover as a transparent diffuser to soften harsh sunlight. Prices vary with quality but you are looking at between £10 and £40.



Hopefully there are a few ideas here for you to try. Let me know in the comments if you have other suggestions or if you have any questions.

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