Tips for photographing the Tour de France (and other bike races)

Professional photographer Ian Jackson has these top 10 tips to help you capture the excitement of the Tour de France with your digital camera.

Ian Jackson has been a professional photographer for 25 years. He and his partner Fen run photography workshops in the south-west of France. He has these tips to help you capture the big event from the roadside.

The Tour de France on the Col de la Madeleine by will_cyclist

Waiting for the Tour de France on the Col de la Madeleine. Photo: will_cyclist

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1. Find the right location

As soon as the route is confirmed, start scouting out your ideal spot to take your pictures. Avoid positions that have distracting backgrounds. If possible, visit the spot several times in different weather conditions, and especially on bright sunny days so that you know exactly where the sun is going to be at the time the riders pass. This may even lead you to change your position. Try also positioning yourself on a bend as this gives you a better chance to get the shots as the riders come towards you and as they go past – safely and with less chance of other spectators in front of you spoiling the shot.

Photographing the Tour de France by Robin Ellis

Finding a spot on a bend can give you a good view of the riders as they pass, plus you are more likely to get a clear shot and be able to shoot the riders as they approach. Photo: Robin Ellis

2. Shoot on a high shutter speed

Use a high shutter speed to stop the action – 1/1000th of a second should do it. Also consider slower shutter speeds, such as 1/60th, and panning yor camera to follow the racers as this will result in a blurred background. You want to use a wide aperture to also help lose the background: try F4 or faster. If there isn’t enough light to get these settings, increase your ISO settings until you do. A little grain in action photos can add atmosphere!

Tour de France London by Tim Collins

It may take hundreds of photos to get that magic shot. Try shooting in a high shutter speed to freeze the action. Shooting an Individual Time Trial stage (as pictured here) gives you the opportunity to try again if at first you don't succeed. In Time Trials, riders race the clock one-by-one. Photo: Tim Collins

3. Use a long lens and mount the camera on a tripod

This will give you much more stability. Don’t forget the lens hood! If your camera has the facility, set it to continuous focusing. The autofocus will track the riders as they approach, giving you one less thing to worry about.

4. If you have a motor drive ...

... shoot in short bursts of 3 or 4. If you shoot too many at a time, your camera buffer will soon slow you down as it writes the images to the memory card.

5. Shoot in jpeg instead of raw

The files are a lot smaller and will write to the card much faster. (This is probably the only time I ever recommend jpeg over raw, but you will only have a very short period of time to record the action, so get as many images as possible).

6. Capture the atmosphere

The Publicity Caravan before the main event can take an hour or more to pass, with lots of colourfully decorated floats and cars. Don’t forget to record this to really capture the carnival atmosphere of the day. You will have a little more time here that you will have with the actual riders, so focus on faces to capture the emotion of the day.

7. Don’t forget the other spectators!

They often get a bit carried away, and can give you great expressive shots. As with the Caravan, spectators can add to the atmosphere, and images of them celebrating the Tour and enjoying the day can result in some great photos.

Tour de France spectators by Stijn Hosdez

Capturing other spectators can sometimes better illustrate the excitement of the day, and tell a better story, than shooting the riders themselves. Photo: Stijn Hosdez

8. Shooting the riders

When shooting the leaders and the peloton (the main pack of riders), try to put a bit of space around your framing. You can always crop the shot a later. There's nothing worse than rejecting an otherwise great shot because part of the subject is moving out of the shot. And don’t forget the stragglers – close ups of the anguish on the faces of struggling riders as they seek to hold on to the main bunch can make great shots.

9. Compact and bridge cameras

If you're using a compact or bridge camera, beware of shutter lag – this is the short period of time that occurs between you pressing the button and the camera actually capturing the image. With some cameras this can be as much as a second. If this occurs on your camera, be aware and shoot ahead of the subject so that when the shutter actually fires, the subject is in the frame.

Here is a classic example where the subject matter – in this case the all-important Yellow Jersey! – was missed due to shutter lag (though the expressions of the spectators' faces still tell a story).

Tour de France photography tips

If your compact or bridge camera has scene modes, set it on sports or action mode for the best shutter speeds, and as most do not have lens hoods, if it is a sunny day, get the sun behind you. Shooting into the sun will fox your camera's exposure settings.

10. Stock up on memory cards (and batteries)!

Finally, many people will be lucky enough to see the Tour de France up close just once, so take as many memory cards and batteries as you have so you can take lots and lots of photos. There's nothing worse than running out of batteries or memory space just as the event reaches a climax. Record everything you see, not just the actual riders. Professional sports photographers take many hundreds and hundreds of images, and discard many of them, but they only need one or two great images to make the event a photographic success.

Ian Jackson and his partner Fen run photography workshops in the south-west of France. See their website for full details.

Do you have any other photography tips?

Feel free to log them below in the comments section.

More on watching the Tour de France

See our dedicated Tour de France section for more on making the most of the Tour de France, including a spectators' guide to watching the Tour de France, our Tour quiz and lots more.

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