Chances are you’ve been pedaling through some incredible scenery, pulled out your smartphone and started snapping away. I’m betting you’ve been pretty underwhelmed. You may have even captioned the photo “this doesn’t do it justice.” The suggestions and tips in this article will have you returning from your adventures with less boring photos that you and your friends are sure to be stoked on.
I realize that most folks have already spent all their hard-earned cash on a bike that’s pushing the worth of their car, which doesn’t leave much spending money for a camera that costs another few thousand bucks. That’s why this guide will be tailored to the rider who is already carrying their phone. The best camera is the one you have with you, so why not take advantage of your Strava KOM recording machine.
The first thing you need to understand for shooting better photos on your phone is that it has some limitations. Not to get all technical on you, but cell phone cameras have smaller sensors than traditional cameras. This means they don’t handle low light or backlight very well. Phone cameras aren’t going to give you a very shallow depth of field either — this is where the subject is in focus and the background is blurry. They also struggle when it comes to dark shadows and bright highlights caused by midday sun. These limitations, though, can be overcome with some clever thinking.
So, here’s a list of tips that will help you take better MTB photos with your phone (or any camera).
- Find a rad subject and put it in front of a rad background. That’s the easiest way to make a rad photo. Bonus points if you can find some rad light. If you look at any successful photo, it’s going to have a great subject in a great setting with some nice light. Look for epic settings like snow-capped peaks, stands of golden aspens, mossy forests or red rock deserts. Then, find your fastest or most stylish riding buddy and make him or her lap those sections of trail for you. A cold beer and free lunch make people more open to this idea.
Shoot in the early mornings and late evenings. #lightbro. This is probably the easiest thing you can do to take better photos. It requires very little skill on your part other than knowing how to set an alarm. It’s one of the tips that requires the most work though. You might have to wake up before the butt crack of dawn to be on the trail when the light is good. You might have to skip dinner or finish your ride in the dark. It will be the most beneficial thing you can do to take less boring photos. Just show up around sunrise and sunset and your photos will be roughly 300,000x better. When it gets a little too dark, your camera’s shutter speed will struggle to keep up with the action. If your photos come out blurry, have your friends ride a little slower. If that doesn’t cut it, this would also be a good time for the cliché holding the bike overhead shot.
- Bonus Tip: This is where your phone camera can start to struggle. You’ll have to get creative to overcome its limitations since your camera won’t handle the low light or high contrast situation very well. Instead of trying to properly expose your subject and the sky (extra tricky with a phone), try shooting silhouettes. You’ll need to figure out how to change the exposure in your camera. For an iPhone, tap on your focus point, then drag the slider up or down to change the brightness. Most other phones have this same ability. If you don’t know how it works, a quick Google search should clear it up. So, point the camera at your buddy, tap the screen to focus on him or her, then drag the slider down until the sky looks great and your buddy is all shadow. Make sure you have clean lines because if there’s a tree or bush intersecting your friend’s leg or head, it’s going to look really weird as a silhouette. Pay especially close attention to the feet and ground. It’s a little easier if they’re slightly elevated on a ridge or boosting into the sunset.
- Learn the basics of composition. Your phone won't give you a shallow depth of field or handle tricky lighting situations very well, so you need to nail your composition. Composition is the way everything is arranged in a photo. You may have heard of the trusty rule of thirds. Use it. If you haven’t heard, it basically says to divide your photo into a tic tac toe board and put your subject (mountain biking buddy, your cool new sled, a sixer of craft beer, or trail dog) on one of the intersections of lines. To make it even more simple, don’t put your buddy’s face in the dead center of the photo. It makes it look like a scene from Call of Duty or something, and it makes for a boring photo.
- Use lines to direct your eye to the subject. Your eyes are really good at seeing in 3D, your camera isn’t. Your camera takes a 3D world, and with the click of a button, turns it into a flat 2D image. Using lines can help your photos not look so 2D and boring. A diagonal line can add a lot of “energy” to an otherwise boring photo. Sometimes lines in the real world can be tricky to find. Luckily for mountain bikers, we have trails. Trails are awesome lines that can lead an eye to your subject. Remember, with a phone camera, you need to do everything you can to make your subject stand out; a strong line will do just that. Don’t just shoot lines willy nilly though. Make sure your line leads to your subject or connects your subject to that rad background we talked about. Horizontal lines are boring. Look for diagonal and “s” curve lines.
Make your buddies wear bright colored gear. Sounds kind of like a stupid tip, but if you browse through a biking magazine, you’ll see that almost every rider is wearing red, yellow, orange or blue. That’s because those colors really pop. Especially when you’re shooting on a phone camera. When you’re outside shooting biking there is a lot of brown, green, black and grey. You know, the dirty earthy colors. What happens when you put a bright red shirt in a field of brown dirt though? It pops. That’s exactly what you want.
- Bonus Tip: With a little planning you can coordinate your colors. For example, if you know you’re going to be riding through aspens in the fall, pick a complimentary color for your buddies to wear. Something like blue or teal would look great. Think Yeti ad.
- Change your perspective. As humans we are really good at seeing things from six feet above the ground. That’s one of the worst places to have your camera. It’s boring because it’s the perspective we see every day. Mix it up. Climb a tree and shoot down on the trail. Lay in the dirt and point the camera up. Frame your shot with some leaves or grass between the camera and the subject, partially blocking the frame. Hide right under the lip of a jump and point straight up as you pray your buddy can clear you in the gap. Get creative. Take a minute to walk around and scope out all the angles before you tell your friends to send it.
There you have it. Six easy tips to make your MTB photos less boring. Remember, the reason we ride bikes is to get outside and have fun. Try not to be the Instagrammer who forgets to have fun because they’re constantly worrying about likes and hashtags.
Hey, I'm Conor. I’m a photographer by trade and the kind of mountain biker that spends more time in the dirt than most. Half of the time, I'm lucky enough to call that "work." I get to live in the amazing mountain town of Salt Lake City, UT, literally surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes — not to rub it in or anything. I've got a thing for being outside, getting dirty and spending time with good people. I usually ride with some sort of camera other than my iPhone. Most of my mountain biking photos have been shot on either the Sony a7s or the a6000. Both of these cameras do an amazing job, especially considering their size and weight. You can reach me or see more of my work at conorbarry.com or on my Instagram account.