Trail Shooter: The Dirt Rag guide to mountain bike photography – Part 1, the basics

Originally posted on January 17, 2014 at 9:08 am


Those of us dirt bags reading this magazine have a common interest, for better or worse: riding mountain bikes. Additionally, most of us like looking at engaging photographs, as well as documenting our own adventures. It’s high time we write about making better photographs of our adventures, so you can share them with your friends, or even better, in the pages of Dirt Rag in our Rider’s Eye section. Note for photo nerds: I’m breaking some very complex ideas and concepts down into easily digestible chunks for people who aren’t photo geeks.

Part 1, the basics

To improve your photo skills, you first need to understand your equipment and have a firm grasp of some basic photographic concepts. With this knowledge under your belt you’ll able to tackle the world of photography. Whether we’re talking film or digital, there are a few fundamentals. Each and every photograph is the product of three elements: your film (or digital sensor and its sensitivity), aperture and shutter speed.

ISO Rating/Film Speed

Everything starts with the sensitivity to light of your film or digital sensor, known as the ISO rating. When shooting film, you’re choosing ISO roll-to-roll, while digital cameras allow ISO to be selected shot-to-shot. Lower numbers (50, 100, 200) are less sensitive to light and can be used in brighter conditions, while higher numbers (800, 1,600, 3,200) are more sensitive to light and can be used in dimmer conditions. Film or digital, image quality degrades as ISO increases, so you generally want to use the minimum ISO rating necessary for a given shot.


You will need a high ISO to capture action in low light or bad weather.


Aperture refers to the size of the opening in your lens through which light is allowed to strike the sensor, or film. Think of aperture as defining the diameter of a water pipe: larger pipes flow more water, small pipes flow less. Most lenses allow for some variation of aperture. Aperture settings are denoted by f-numbers. A larger opening corresponds to a smaller aperture, or f-stop, number. For instance, f/1.4 “flows” more light than f/8 or f/16.


You will need a small aperature (a higher number) to get large depth of field, such as landscape photos.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed defines the duration of the film’s exposure. A slower shutter speed, allows more light to fall on your film or sensor, while a faster shutter speed allows less light to reach the film or sensor.


You will need a fast shuttler speed to capture action.

Taking Control

All three of these elements dictate the overall exposure of an image. When your select the “auto” mode you’re asking the camera to select all three of these settings. By taking control of one or more of these settings, you can drastically up the ante of your photographs. Many cameras, even many basic point-and-shoot models, have a setting that allows the user to select “shutter priority” or “aperture priority” modes.

Shutter Priority

In shutter priority mode the user selects shutter speed, while the camera selects an appropriate aperture. ISO can be selected by the user or selected by the camera if its “auto ISO” setting is turned on. Selecting a slow shutter speed of 1/8 to 1/160 of a second will allow you to capture motion blur.

These motion shots generally fall into one of two categories: A focused subject and blurred background, or a focused background with a blurry rider, zooming through the frame. Shutter speed will be dictated by the speed of your subject. Slow-moving subjects can be shot at slower shutter speeds, while fast-moving subjects require a faster shutter speed to balance motion blur and subject sharpness.

Setting your shutter speed to 1/125 in Shutter Priority mode is a good way to get great panning photos. More on panning in Part 2.

Aperture Priority

In aperture priority mode, the user selects the aperture, while the camera selects the shutter speed. Again, ISO can be selected by the user or by the camera. The smaller the f-number you choose (bigger opening, more light) like f/1.4, the shallower the depth of field. Conversely, a larger f-number (smaller opening, less light), like f/16, increases depth of field.

Depth of field refers to the depth of the plane of focus. A shallow depth of field may be less than one inch thick, while a broad depth of field might be tens or hundreds of feet. Utilizing a shallow depth of field can greatly contribute to the feeling of depth within an image.


In this photo you can see how the photographer used depth of field to highlight the rider (or walker…) and blur the foreground and background.


Expert Insight

“Stick to what you’re passionate about, but branch out enough to learn a full bag of tricks/techniques to create your own style.” —Jordan Manley

“It’s all about the light! We all can take great pictures, but there are only a few who scout the locations, get up early or wait for couple hours for that perfect light. That’s what separates the good from the great.” —Justa Jeskova 

“Training your eyes and brain to know what will make a good photo is way more important than gear. Study photos that you like and try to figure our why it is good and why it may have been published.” —Sterling Lorence

Submit your photos

Once you’ve started taking great photos, send ’em in to be considered our The Rider’s Eye, our section showcasing reader’s photos in every issue. Email yours to [email protected].

Up next

In Part 2, we’ll show you how to put these mechanics to use with the basics of good technique. Read it here.


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