Photographing le Tour de France

I’m a fan of cycling grand tours such as le Tour de France. This year I was lucky enough to be able to watch three stages of it in France. Needless to say, I took my camera but unfortunately I’m quite disappointed with the results. The reasons are (in descending order of importance) poor technique, poor conditions and poor equipment. I was hoping to be able to publish great pictures of the world’s most famous cycle race, but instead this is going to be an article about common pitfalls of amateur sports photography (amateur photography, not amateur sport).

We saw the Tour on three consecutive days, each with different weather conditions, different terrain and different viewpoints. It’s hard to refine your technique when you don’t get the same conditions twice. I’ll discuss the equipment in more detail at the end, but for now I’ll say that I was using a Canon EOS 600D with a Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM zoom lens.

Stage 4

On the first day we stood behind barriers at the side of the road, about 100m before the finish line of a category 4 climb at Mont Noir. At the roadside you usually have very little idea of what is going on in the multi-hour race but this year I followed @letour on Twitter for updates. I learned that Thomas Voeckler had broken away from the peloton by over a minute and was ahead on his own. We were on the inside of a gentle bend, so I made the assumption that Voeckler would be sticking to the inside of the corner. I didn’t trust the autofocus on my consumer DSLR so I manually focused two metres away, chose a fairly short focal length and stopped down to increase depth of field. I was sure he would be safely within my depth of field.

Unfortunately, Voeckler decided to take the gentle corner wide, on the far side of the road. He’s a bit out of focus in my pictures.

Thomas Voeckler at Mont Noir
Thomas Voeckler at Mont Noir. 20mm, f/9.5, 1/500, ISO800
Thomas Voeckler at Mont Noir
Thomas Voeckler at Mont Noir. 20mm, f/9.5, 1/500, ISO800

Shortly after Voeckler passed, the peloton swept by. As a group of almost 200 riders I knew they would occupy the entire width of the road so I stuck with the same settings – a wide focal length (20mm) and a moderate aperture (f/8) and retained the manual pre-focus at 2m. With the ISO set quite high at 800, the camera chose what seemed to be fast shutter speed of 1/500. Unfortunately, the peloton were too fast and almost all the picture show motion blur. I didn’t want to miss out on the action with my own eyes, so I held the camera in front of my chest in continuous shooting mode. This was the best of the pictures, despite the poor focus and motion blur.

Peloton at Mont Noir
Peloton at Mont Noir. 20mm, f/9.5, 1/500, ISO800

Stage 5

Stage 5 was a very different proposition – the race would pass by on a narrow cobbled stretch. Cobbles are notoriously difficult to ride on, especially in the rain. I knew the riders would pass by relatively slowly in small groups or individually, and could be at any position on the cobbles. Given the previous day’s manual focus disappointment, I decided to try autofocus again.

However, looking down the road at an approaching subject is one of the most difficult tasks for any autofocus system – especially when the cyclist is distant and only occupies a small proportion of the picture. I set the autofocus mode to AI Servo, which should track approaching subjects. I’m not sure whether it was the camera body having trouble taking measurements in the poor light with a relatively slow lens, or whether the lens was just too slow to actuate, but the autofocus missed on almost every shot.

The best of a very bad bunch of photos was this shot of Geraint Thomas, with a mud-splattered face of pure determination. On many of the other shots, the autofocus locked into the brightly-coloured spectators on the other side of the road.

Geraint Thomas at Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes
Geraint Thomas at Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes. 85mm, f/8, 1/90, ISO800

The shutter speed is far too slow and in retrospect I should have shot at ISO1600 or more. I zoomed in to capture Geraint’s face but this only accentuates the problem of poor focus. I deleted over half of these pictures because they were totally unusable.

Stage 6

On Stage 6, the light was brighter but still overcast. The major factor was that we witnessed the départ fictif, where the riders perform a slow, ceremonial circuit of the starting town before racing off. At these slow speeds with somewhat better light, the autofocus did a much better job, although the shutter speed is still too slow.

Départ fictif in Arras
Départ fictif in Arras. 17mm, f/8, 1/350, ISO800

The equipment

I already mentioned that I used consumer equipment – namely a Canon EOS 600D with a Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM zoom lens.

While the 600D uses the same sensor and offers the same image quality as its big brothers the 60D and 7D, it is most certainly not the same camera. The 60D and 7D have more and better autofocus points for faster and more accurate focusing.

The 17-85mm is the kit lens supplied with the 60D. While it is clearly not a professional-standard lens, it should be a step up from the 18-55mm lens supplied with the 600D and its triple-digit ilk. I’ve found the exact opposite to be true, and my copy of the 17-85mm offers terrible chromatic aberration even when stopped down. Presumably it is just a faulty copy and not representative of all Canon’s 17-85mm lenses.

Stopping down to achieve extra depth of field and to remove as much chromatic aberration from the lens as possible obviously means that the shutter speed will be slower. A slow shutter speed is not suitable for sports photography so the ISO must be increased to compensate – and you find yourself trapped in the three-way compromise of the exposure triangle.

If I had had a similar L lens (for example the 17-40mm f/4L), while it is not faster, it can probably be used wide open – thus gaining me two extra stops of shutter speed for the same ISO. An f/2.8 lens would certainly help the autofocus but is likely to cause inaccurate focusing and insufficient depth of field if actually used at f/2.8.

I am not sure whether my autofocus woes came from the body struggling to find focus or the lens struggling to keep up in its actuation, but I am inclined to blame the body. The ultrasonic motor (USM) in the lens should be fast enough.

The lens I used also has optical image stabilisation (IS) which is supposed to help reduce camera shake. Common wisdom says the shutter speed should be no faster than the reciprocal of the focal length. For instance, my photo of Geraint Thomas was shot at 85mm with a shutter speed of 1/90 – right on the brink of acceptability. IS should make this a more tenable situation, but of course it does not prevent motion blur from moving objects. 1/90 is just not fast enough to freeze Geraint Thomas. He’s fast.

Lessons learned

  • Use a fast lens if possible. Even if you stop it down when taking the photos, the extra light wide open will help the autofocus work quickly and accurately.
  • Manual pre-focusing is a valid technique but you have to be sure where your subject will be.
  • Canon’s higher-range bodies (e.g. 60D, 7D) have more sensitive and accurate autofocus sensors which will help any lens perform better.
  • Don’t underestimate the shutter speed required to capture fast action. Increase the ISO if necessary and worry about the noise later. Noise is not as bad as a blurred picture.
  • Set specific autofocus points, rather than letting the camera choose. I think forcing a single autofocus point would have helped me on the cobbles, where the camera often focused on distant spectators.
  • Usually, the Tour de France passes very quickly indeed. You only get one attempt per day to photograph it!

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