Photographing the Tour de France 2014 – a few tips

ron smith photography, tutorial

On 7th July we have the  Stage 3 leg of the Tour de France in London (via Cambridgeshire and Essex) – a few tips on how to approach this difficult but exciting subject ….

Best advice is to prepare well beforehand – there is a lot of tension involved – you need to think 3 times faster than usual –  if you can screw it up then you probably will! So take a lot of shots.

Tour de France London 2007

Panning Shot Tour de France London 2007

There are two main viewpoints which are you likely to use – first side on as in the shot above and second with  riders coming towards you. The viewpoint you have will decide which focus mode to choose. Lets take them one at a time.

For the side-on shot you may well want to pan as in my photo above. I used manual focus, the reason being that with the speed of the riders, and at a close distance, using auto focus may just as easily pick out the crowd (which is also moving). The way to do it is to watch a few riders pass then focus on the road where they make their track. Aperture can be set to F8 or F11 since the blurred background will come anyway from the panning shot and the higher F number will give you more leeway on the position of your rider.

The shutter speed was probably 1/160 which is what I normally use for panning cyclists but, I think 1/250 would have been better ( the reason being that shutter speed in a pan is dealing with up and down motion which is faster than usual.

The horizontal motion (panning with the bike) should come out OK with that speed since you are following the subject yourself with the camera.
Also I would set continuous shot as you pan. Please note that to pan you will pick up the rider in the viewfinder or LCD from the side and then follow them across. The idea (and skill) is to take your shots just as they come to the point in the road that you have set your manual focus for. Please remember to follow through afterwards (follow the rider with the camera even after the shot it taken), that way you may get the smoothness of action that is required for a panning shot.
If you find the manual focus method too complicated you might try tracking focus – here you can pick up (hopefully) the rider and the focus should follow them. You don’t have to worry too much exactly when you hit the shutter button since the focusing  distance will change for you. Not all cameras will do tracking focus in the same way – it would pay to experiment beforehand with you own camera.

For the second likely viewpoint with riders coming towards you, it is easier. Choose continuous focus mode (AI SERVO on Canon,  AF-C on Nikon and others ). You will have much more time to make decisions on shutter speed and Aperture, and those decisions make a less of a difference. On a sunny day try 1/400 and F8 if you really need a suggestion – there is time to experiment.

One thing you should remember, for a series of shots when you don’t particularly want a silhouette, make sure you don’t have the sun in front of you. This can often happen when you have two sides of a road and the sun is on one side – don’t get crowd-trapped on the wrong side.

Another tip: if you are using continuous shot then don’t overdo it in the excitement and find your camera stops taking photos while it is writing to the card. I would probably not use RAW but JPG files mostly.  Also best to sequence your continuous shooting (don’t hold your finger down for too long – leave gaps unless you know your camera’s shooting responses extremely well)

We recommend going early  especially in London where crowd control can really mess up your plans. The caravan display arrives earlier (by about 1hour 40 minutes) before the riders so you can find your preferred places during this part (it can take 20 minutes to queue and get across a road but it is worth it. During the last Tour the Mall was taken up by stands reserved for VIP’s so it is worth checking out where you can and can’t go first:  so trying  the caravan first is a good idea.

Here are some times for the  Tour de France 2014 stage 3 in London:

Tower of London
13:52 (Caravan)
15:35 (Race)
Victoria Embankment
13:54 (Caravan)
15:37 (Race)
Westminster Bridge
13:58 (Caravan)
15:40 (Race)
The Mall
14:00 (Caravan)
15:42 (Race)

note that is takes 7 minutes from Tower Bridge to the finish in the Mall – it’s very fast!

Tour de France Photography