What is an MTB Photographer? What is MTB Photography? What are the best tips for mountain biking photography? What makes a brilliant MTB photographer?
MTB or Mountain Biking photography is two passions combined for me. My love for photography started very early in life as well as my love for bikes. Over time It merged into one and is now one of my favourite types of action photography. My first mountain biking photograph appeared in MBUK magazine circa 2008. After that it was one Gopro shot after the next and then onto the DSLR and more.
When I started riding mountain bikes there was no MTB parks or trail centres. That just shows how long I’ve been biking for. Rostrevor, Co Down, was one of the first serious trail centres with 2 downhill tracks as part of its features. We spent all our money on uplifts and bikes. In 2022, there is an abundance of parks including the GAP in the Dublin mountains, Biking.ie, which has several trail centres and many others across the Island.
I travelled all over the country and eventually to the Alps, with friends, to catch the best trails. Thousands of Gopro Shots later and I’ve a professional camera in my hand, with a love for dust and 2 wheels!
What is an MTB photographer
An MTB photographer is usually the one photographing mountain bikers passing by at high speeds. This is usually in dusty, mucky or wet conditions, all of which individually make excellent photos! It is a sport that requires you to use all of your senses to photograph or even spectate. These riders are travelling at serious speeds down either a narrow piece of single track or a wide jump track and it can really get messy if you don’t know your surroundings.
What is Mountain Biking Photography?
This can either be the photography of downhill racers, XC racing, Enduro or BMX. The downhill riders will usually be travelling purely straight downhill with little or no need to pedal. The XC are the cross county kings are queens, who pedal through (up and down) all kinds of terrain showing impressive fitness levels and skills. Enduro is a bit of a mixture of both downhill and cross country, where the rider may need to pedal on sections to keep the speed up on the flat. BMX racing is a closed track circuit, usually paved, where riders travel at high speed over purpose built single lap tracks. All of these types of mountain bike photography are very exciting to photograph.
MTB Films and Action Sports
Just like MTB photography, filming mountain bikers has its own challenges. Keeping up with them is a big one! These guys and girls spend a lot of time learning to be fast over rock features and nasty terrain. Keeping up with their speed is a challenge in itself. Fitness is a huge part of the job for me. In order to get these MTB shots, you have to be able to run as fast as them, move as quickly as they do and adjust to the environment. I am always moving and training to stay fit and flexible for the job. It’s very helpful to know your rider. Their moves, speed and posture can all determine how and where they are going to land. This is important in shoot planning for finding the best way to keep up with the rider and keep the viewing angle close. I’ll usually ask the rider to complete the run a few times to make sure I have what I want and move on to the next planned scene. Using a cable cam is an amazing way to stay with the rider in real time and gives incredible first person view of the action. You can see a video sample below for Loka Wear.
Tips on mountain biking photography
There is a few things you can do to get familiar with this type of photography. Firstly, like anything, get to know your sport. Understanding disciplines, riders and trails can really help with your photography. This works for MTB video too. The joy of mountain biking is the freedom you feel when riding. The speed can be an amazing reminder of the ability we have in our bodies to move and be fast and relentless on the trails. Knowing your place and where to stand is vital, especially in the faster disciplines like downhill and enduro. Finding a safe spot that you will still be semi safe if the rider comes off their bike is smart.
What makes a great photo is capturing the essence of this feeling we all get. Bikes feel like freedom!! If you can show the reason we all bike in one photo then you’ve nailed it!
Keep a tree or rocks in front of you always or say goodbye to you and your gear. Listen, look and watch and listen out for speed. Most of us can determine how fast someone is travelling based on sound alone. With this in mind, try to figure where they are gonna hit the turn or jump. Slower riders will always hit the jump in different spots or be placed differently on berms. Look for where the previous rider’s tracks are and watch the patterns of where their wheels end up. All of this will help you frame your next shot.
Finding the best spots is really going to help with your images. Watch a few riders and see how they handle tricky parts. It really all depends on what shots you are after. Dusty corners are great, huge drop sections or berms! Shoot everything, shoot when they jump and keep shooting when they fall. Because they will! Human nature is to stop and check if all is ok but I cant tell you the amount of times I’ve been asked for the crash photos by the rider’s themselves. Crashing out can be just as epic a photo as everything going well! Also, thinking like a rider. If I am riding something that scares me, I would probably want a photo of that! I often select my photo spots in this way. Everyone has a nemesis that they want to conquer. Talk to riders, find out what they are practicing and working themselves up to. This always makes for an entertaining shot.
It is as much about people and connection as it is about the biggest jump, fastest rider to the bottom etc. Find your locations with all of these things in mind and you’ll get some cracking images to show.
Your choice of lens, super wide or telephoto can mean a completely different final shot! Super wide means you gotta get right up close beside or under the riders to get that “onboard feeling” of speed. Zoom on the other hand often gives a greater perspective of the surrounding trail and the angles the riders are at. In the Gravity races, the riders are pushing as hard as they can go and every second counts for the podium. It is usually a very fast paced day! Get yourself in a position where you can see or hear them coming towards you and keep snapping until the dust hits your lens!
Is it dangerous?
This image might be the extreme but it’s not always like that. However, If you are standing somewhere dangerous, it’s bound to be a good shot! This is how it has always worked for me. You need to show that rider connection to the trail, see their obstacles, and see their focus and attention. This means you have to put yourself in the line of fire. Some of the best shots are when the riders are flat out, pedalling to keep the speed up. Their eyes focused on the trail ahead. The viewer gets the speed, emotion and energy all in one shot. Most of the time that means standing on the trail and getting the hell outta the way before they get close.
Showing the steepness or height of their jumps, you have to stand somewhere a bit risky. It’s always worth having a back up plan if the rider falls. Hit the deck, jump behind a tree… just in case. Like I say, If It ain’t dangerous, it’s not gonna be a good shot! The best shots I’ve achieved have had some risk but great reward. This could mean standing on the trail right in front of the rider and moving ontime! Or sitting half way up a huge drop, all while hanging out of a tree, hoping to show the steep gradient the riders are descending.
I’ve had some pretty close encounters with riders who either skipped out, overshot or lost their line. Thankfully I was not landed on, or cycled over! As bikers, we cant help ourselves when we see the photographer two corners ahead. We go for it, hoping all our skills will arise in one photo. Sometimes this hasn’t worked out but it’s always a great shot!
Matheus Neitzke during the practice day at the IDMS in the GAP 2022. Matheus took second place after Ronan Dunne on race day.
What makes the best MTB photographers?
The photographer who doesn’t move and keeps snapping, even though someone is hurtling towards them at high speed and will most likely pass within inches of their lens. It takes a brave (or stupid) photographer to keep snapping as someone is about to fall on them. All instincts are to stop, look up and move! But these end up being some of the most rewarding shots.
Some of the best MTB photographers such as Keno Derleyn and Sven Martin are riders themselves. It takes a biker to know one. So keep snapping, watching, learning and riding! Know your trails and know your riders and you will grow quickly! After that, a nice zoom and some guts to stay in position and you will have the secret sauce for a some great imagery!