I was the photographer for Triathlete Magazine for over 3 years and during that time I photographed races all over North America. One of my favorite races is in my North County San Diego back yard: The Ironman 70.3 California race in Oceanside. It's a grueling bike course that goes through the backside of the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton with steep rolling hills.
Top professional Triathletes are surpassing 35mph easily on the bike. To shoot this portion of a race, I'm riding bitch on a motorcycle. This is a choreography between the athlete doing their race, the background that I have to time perfectly to exclude unsightly elements, the skill of the moto driver (and the communication between us), and my gear being set up perfectly. There is preproduction such as studying maps, split times of previous races/athletes, location scouting the entire course, studying weather and light angles for time of race, and preparing gear.
I do step off the moto throughout the course to get set backgrounds and different kinds of shots. The photograph above was taken on the moto, which has its own set of challenges. I have a rig I build and it has been through many iterations. Less dramatic shots are usually taken from eye level of a photographer on a moto - probably around 6' off the ground. They look down on the subject and there's little separation from the background. I've found that to do this well, you need to lower the camera down to ground level. Interesting proposition on a moto traveling at speed.
So how I do it. You may notice the ground isn't included in the photograph. This is due to the fact that I love the lighting and composition but the reality is, I can't see what I'm shooting as I shoot it. I have a rig that puts the camera low. I only know what I have when I'm editing in post production.
I used a Nikon D3x in Shutter Priority. My exposure is 1/160" @ f13 iso 100. Lens used is the 24-70mm 2.8. I also use a Speedlight for fill which, in addition to lightening shadows, helps freeze the action and separate the subject from the background.
I mount a Custom Brackets 9" Accessory Mount Bar upside down on a monopod. The camera goes on one side and the Speedlight is mounted on the other. I use a 3' TTL cord to sync the Speedlight to the camera and use Shutter Priority to control freezing and motion blur depending on the effect I want. I then have a 3' trigger release attached to the camera that extends to the opposite end of the monopod. You can get a sense of the rig in the following photo.
Important things to note. I'm wearing the requisite gear that Ironman requires. We gather hours before the race start at 5am to pair up with a moto driver. I always seek a driver with a Honda or BMW if I can find it. These are all volunteers and many have no experience so as I said before, good communication is essential. At the 2015 Kona World Championships, I have the same driver every year. I trust him like a brother. We witnessed other photographers yelling and screaming at their moto drivers during the race. I'm guessing it didn't improve the drivers responsiveness over the course of an 8 hour race. I look happy in the above photo. It was my 40th birthday and I look like a 21 year old with that silly grin.
Let's end this rant. You can see how the camera rig is set. I have another camera slung on my back with a Nikon 200-400mm 2.8 lens for off-moto shots. I drop my rig down to within inches of the pavement as I shoot cyclists. You can see tape on my lens hood that has the numbers of the athletes most important to focus on. I check my shots occasionally on the back of the camera but mostly I'm shooting by feel and experience. My warning is to be aware of objects on the road like the frequent lines of traffic cones. It hasn't happened to me but I do know photographers who have lost their cameras/lenses with similar rigs due to such obstacles!
Shooting in RAW is essential. All my modifications are in Lightroom with color and contrast fixes and gradations added. Usually no cleanup necessary. I can shoot 2-8k shots in a race and as these cameras improve, storage is a management issue. Always invest in good CF or SD cards, use backup and have a method to keep track of your used and unused cards during the race.
If you have any questions about this kind of work or this shot or heck, anything, feel free to reach out. I'll try to respond personally whenever I can or I will try to address your questions in a future post!