How to photograph action sports: Part 1 – Which camera should I buy?

Wil flies past the camera in fading light - taken with the iPhone 5

Wil flies past the camera in fading light – taken with the iPhone 5

Part 1: Which camera should I buy?

Part one in a series of six posts where I’ll be discussing how to get the best shots of your mountain biking friends, kids, and even heroes. We’ll be covering off on what gear works best, and how to use your current gear to the best effect; what camera settings to use; how to frame your shot, and when to add camera movement; Finding the best locations; How to use off camera strobe to make your shots stand out; and finally a bonus post full of other little tips and tricks to help you get the best results.

And while we’re mostly using mountain biking as an example, most of these tips can be applied to any kind of action sport.

So on to part one – What is the best camera?

Your phone

The one that you have with you (thanks CJ – I’ll be using that a lot!). If that’s your phone, then great! I’ve shot some great photos using only my phone, and it’s definitely the camera that I always have with me. A lot of these tips will still be relevant, apart from maybe the next post on settings (although certain apps give you a bit more control, and I’m sure you’ll still learn something, so don’t skip it!).

My picks*: iPhone 5 or 5s, Samsung Galaxy S4, Nokia Lumia 1020 (I know it’s not all about the megapixels, but seriously – 41 megapixels in a PHONE?!)

Wil successfully threads the needle through densely treed singletrack at Lake Mountain - taken with the iPhone 5 in full sunlight

Wil successfully threads the needle through densely treed singletrack at Lake Mountain – taken with the iPhone 5 in full sunlight

Point and shoot

The next step up is the point and shoot – now while these cameras vary wildly in the their size, zoom range, image quality, and how easy it is to access their manual controls, again, all of the following will be applicable. You still want to make sure you’ve zoomed in or out depending on what you’re trying to achieve (covered in part two), how to frame your subject and when to move the camera to follow them (part three), where is the best place to stand (sit/squat/climb a tree!) – covered in part four, when to turn on the flash for some fill (which I’ll touch on briefly on part 5), and even how to use the in-built countdown timer to get great selfies (part six). So if all you’ve got is a point and shoot, there’s no need to feel left out – you can still take fantastic action photos.

My picks*: Fujifilm X20, Sony DSC-HX50V (or the RX100 mk2 if you can swing it), Canon G1 X

Mirrorless Cameras

This growing segment offers up a lot more control over your point and shoot cameras, with larger sensor sizes for greater image quality and light sensitivity, while leaving behind the bulk and weight of the next category, the DSLR. These cameras have come along in leaps and bounds, and I am personally watching this category with a lot of interest – the next camera purchase for me is going to be a tough decision. Some of these cameras are approaching the features that you would typically look for in a DSLR, such as fast autofocus, rapid frame rates, and even weather sealing. Other advantages for action photography you’ll typically gain by going for one of these over a point and shoot are more accessible control over the camera settings (usually via dedicated buttons or dials, rather than delving through menus), often they’ll have a viewfinder, which helps keep the camera more steady (additional contact point). You’ll also have access to a wider range of lenses, giving you better choice over the type of photo you’ll be taking.

My picks*: Olympus OM-D E-M5, Fujifilm X-T1, Panasonic GH3

Digital SLR Cameras

Stepping up to the biggest camera typically seen at these events. This is what you’ll see slung over the shoulders of all the pros. What you’re gaining here is an optical viewfinder, helping with stability when handholding, and also responsiveness – there is minimal lag time between pushing the trigger and actually taking the photo (important for fast moving riders!). You also typically get a vast range of lenses to choose from. Fast autofocus, better accessible manual focus, big sensor so another improvement in image quality – this is the only way to get a full frame sensor (at this stage, apart from Sony’s expensive A7?). Once you move to the higher end DSLRs, you also get weather sealing (great for dusty race tracks, or shooting in the rain). And because you’re not relying on the LCD screen as a viewfinder, you’ll get much longer battery life.

My picks*: Canon 7D or 5D3, Nikon D7100 or D610, Sony A77 or A99

So, which camera?

Whatever camera you currently have will work just fine. But if you’re looking at buying a new camera, and action sports will be a lot of what you shoot (awkward wording), this guide should help make your decision much easier. It’s certainly where I’ll be pointing anyone who asks me “What camera should I buy?” – which is at least a weekly occurence!

Let me know in the comments if there’s anything about camera choice you’d like me to explain further, or tell me what you like to use for any sports photography.

*With the exception of the iPhone and Canon 7D and 5D3, I have not used the cameras mentioned in this post – they are simply my picks of the first cameras I’d look at if I was going out tomorrow to purchase something in each category. Saying that, a friend has recently bought a Nokia Lumia 1020, so I’m looking forward to borrowing it for an afternoon for a quick review. Likewise, if anyone out there wants to lend me any of the above I’d love to have a play and write up my thoughts.

Don't try this at home! No, I didn't really ride one handed down these rocks while taking a selfie - I paused on top of this feature to take a POV shot showing the technical line.

Don’t try this at home! No, I didn’t really ride one handed down these rocks while taking a selfie – I paused on top of this feature to take a POV shot showing the technical line.

Nikon v Canon? Ford v Holden? 26 v 29?

Mountain biking in the flinders ranges at sunrise

Dave arrives at the saddle in time to soak up the warmth of the sun after racing all night.

As soon as I start talking to someone about photography, I know that the Canon vs Nikon question is going to come up.It is as As inevitable as the Ford vs Holden question, or in mountain bike terms, the 26″ vs 29″ (we’re not even going to mention 27.5″). But it’s the wrong question. A pointless question. It really doesn’t matter, so long as you shoot Canon, ride 29″ wheels, and drive a Subaru, we can still be friends. Kidding. But not about it being a pointless question. It’s absolutely about what you do with it.

When I bought my first digital slr, it was my first introduction to the two major brands – Canon and Nikon. I’d previously been shooting on an Olympus OM-2n, mainly because that’s what Dad shot with, so before heading off on my “gap year”, I bought a secondhand one because that was what I was familiar with. Two years later, I found myself on a job in the camera department of a feature film, and the cinematographer was getting very excited about how far digital SLR cameras had come. He was shooting stills on set with a Canon 20d, and using them almost like an exposure metre – judging the overall balance of the shot through the preview on the back of the camera. His reasoning behind going with Canon was that their CMOS sensor handled images a lot more closely to the film that he was shooting motion picture with when compared to Nikon (which I think at the time were using a CCD sensor – fact check this***). Suffice to say, being the budding cinematographer that I was, I promptly went out and bought a Canon 20D for myself! It could just have easily been Nikon, and I really don’t think my path would have been any different. I’m sure that there was something that the Nikon bodies did better than Canon back then, but for my intended usage Canon was the way to go.

And of course I jumped on the Canon bandwagon – oh you shoot Nikon? I guess we don’t have anything to talk about. Of course we have things to talk about! We both take photos yes? We both rely on the interplay between light and shadow to create interesting images! We both use a box with some glass on the front and a hole up the back and some kind of light collecting medium at the end. What wheel size do you ride? I ride a bike.

The upside of course is choice. If you can look through all the marketing nonsense, we as the consumer now have so much choice, and can choose the right tool for what we intend to do with it. Be that a 29″ hardtail for marathon races, or a mid-travel all mountain 26″ for a smaller rider doing downhill enduro events, we now have a wide variety of options to draw on. In the camera world, those choices are becoming very interesting indeed, especially when you see long established professional putting down their large, heavy, solid Nikon and Canon cameras, and looking at the smaller mirrorless and micro 4/3 options coming out from Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony.

My point is a camera is a camera is a camera. And to quote one of my inspirations, Chase Jarvis – “the best camera is the one that’s with you“. With so much choice, and the picture quality that is coming out of these cameras, even out of the smartphone in your pocket, there’s no time to be worrying about whether you’ve got a Nikon or a Canon. Just shut up and take some photos! Or go ride your bike!

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My Story

Director and Cinematographer observing a rehearsal

Shooting super 16mm for our final year film project at RMIT University.

As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been in this image making game for almost 15 years now – starting in high school with making my first video in a Media Studies class, through to today, where I’m freelancing as a photographer and videographer. I also recently started writing professionally, and will have my first review published in the next issue of Enduro Magazine. Along the way, I’ve worked on many Victorian College of the Arts films (Melbourne’s premier school for directors) in both lighting and cinematography roles. You may see me back on the student film set later this year as I try my hand at stills photography for films – very useful for promotional purposes. I was also heavily involved with community television’s Channel 31 for a few years, helping out with RMITV’s live tv productions, including a season of setting up an outside broadcast once a week for 13 episodes of Dawn’s Crack (hit me up in the comments if you ever saw an episode!) – a Saturday morning variety show, shot live to air from the student lounge. I also put in a regular appearance behind a camera at Falls Festival, shooting for the big screen, and lurking around in the photo pit when I could get away with it! Even did a stint at a live stage at the Edinburgh Festival one year. After a couple of years as a camera assistant on feature films and television commercials, I finally settled down at a well known camera rental house for a few years, learning all the gear from one of the best in the industry. From there I spent about four years behind a desk working for the Victorian government, helping them to get their story out via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, right around the time they decided that there were other avenues for listening to the population. And back to now – working for myself. The first year has been great – tough, a lot to get my head around with regard to running a business, but overall very enjoyable.
The idea behind this blog is to give me an outlet for my personal projects, and to share the knowledge and experience I’ve garnered over the years. Often when out shooting I’ll be approached for advice, especially at mountain bike races (cycling is my other big passion). This will be a place to help spread that advice.

I also intend this blog to help me in achieving some personal goals, around the stories I’d like to tell, and hopefully some publications further down the track.

I’d love it if you could tell me a little about yourselves in the comments, or let me know if there’s any part of my background that you’d like to hear more about, and I’d especially love to hear from anyone who might have seen an episode of Dawn’s Crack (Channel 31 circa 2002)!

Timothy Arch Photography blogging take two

sunrise over the bay of fires

Sunrise over the Bay of Fires, St Helens Tasmania – Copyright Timothy Arch 2014

Hi, I’m Tim (or Timothy as my mother used to insist I’d be called). And this is my blog. I’m a photographer and videographer, based in Melbourne, Australia, focusing on outdoors, action, adventure, and the people and stories that surround these ideas. I’ve been involved in image making for nearly 15 years now, in some form or other, from camera assisting on feature films, to shooting live bands at festivals, and covering major mountain biking events; always trying to speak to the people involved. Seeing as one of my main aims behind my photo and video production is to inspire others through these stories, I figured it was high time I started getting serious about writing a blog, partly to help share these stories, and hopefully to help others pick up some helpful hints and tips along the way. I plan to share not only the projects that I’m working on, but also what goes into those projects, the thought process behind them, and some pointers to help inspire your own work.

Some of the areas I plan to cover are:

  • Where to find inspiration
  • How to learn from other influences
  • Camera and lighting techniques
  • Book reviews
  • Gear reviews
  • And all kinds of production tips

I’m also hoping to be able to take you behind the scenes on photo and video shoots, to give you an idea of how I work from concept to shoot, to the final product.

The goal is to update this twice a week, ideally Tuesdays and Fridays, but the schedule may need adapting as I go. I’ll definitely keep you informed as to any changes.

Let me know in the comments below if there are any areas of photography or video production that you would particularly like some help with understanding.

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I want to ride my bicycle

After a weekend of racing my bike (as opposed to taking photos of other people riding their bikes), I’m all enthused to get race fit again. However spending a week in bed with some horrible bug that is currently doing the rounds of Melbourne is not really conducive to getting faster on the bike. So instead I’ve been looking at pictures of bikes. And finally getting around to editing and posting some personal photos from a trip to Italy last year. I know, something about plumbers and leaky taps.





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Lest we Forget

As tomorrow is ANZAC day here in Australia, I thought I would post some photos from my last trip to Europe. My fiance and I did some hiking in the Julian Alps, on the border between Italy and Slovenia. We were staying in Italy, but on this particular hike we found ourselves straddling the border on two occasions. These photos are from Sella Robon (1865m), where we found ruins from a WW1 outpost and what must be a marker in memory of the 11th day of the 11th month. As we sat amongst these ruins taking in the scenery, with no civilisation in sight, we had a tiny glimpse in to what it must have been like to sit in these bunkers, watching and waiting.

Lest we forget.

WW1 ruins in Italy, Julian Alps, Sella Robon

WW1 ruins in Sella Robon, Julian Alps, Italy

WW1 ruins in Italy, Julian Alps, Sella Robon

WW1 ruins in Sella Robon, Julian Alps, Italy

WW1 ruins in Italy, Julian Alps, Sella Robon

WW1 memorial in Sella Robon, Julian Alps, Italy

Enter the danger zone

Sometimes when shooting downhill mountain bike races, to get the best photos, you have to put yourself right in the path of any rider who might be unfortunate enough to crash. Fellow photographer Jason Stevens (in the blue shirt) was in one of those spots during Saturday’s practice runs during the final round of the Victorian Downhill Series at Mt Beauty. Just before this rider went down, Jason was talking about changing lenses – fortunately he wasn’t mid-change when this happened – talk about dust on the sensor!


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RIP Film acquisition in Australia

To commiserate the closure of the last lab in Australia to process motion picture film, I though it appropriate to dig up the first (and now most likely last) film I shot on 35mm. Shot on a noisy old Arri 35III with a bunch of short ends salvaged from various productions, it was a great experience being limited to two, sometimes three takes at a stretch. I think the closest thing to being forced into these limitations these days would be participating in a time-limited film competition, such as the various 24 hour film challenges going about. Of course you could always just set yourself some rules, and try and stick to them!

There is a language warning on this one.

Dead from Tim Arch on Vimeo.

Ride me a river

Road trip! After a shaky start, including a mid-freeway passenger handoff, I made the 7+ hour drive up to the Nation’s capital – a fitting place for a weekend of racing that would decide Australia’s champion mountain bikers for another year.

Tasked with chasing the Kona Factory Team around the course, I was free to concentrate on just the downhill aspect of the weekend. Taking full advantage of this, I skived off on Friday to enjoy actual riding of a mountain bike, instead of watching and photographing others. The delights of Sparrow Hill kept me suitably entertained, although with the new-to-me road realignment it seems we have lost the fantastic Bobsled trail that was always a fantastic way to finish off a ride.

Saturday and Sunday could not have displayed a more different track. From dry, dusty, and incredibly windy for practice runs on the Saturday, the heavens opened up on the Sunday. Rain off and on all day gave a preview of what was to come, and as if right on cue the rain came bucketing down bang on four o’clock – just as the downhill race runs began.

The photos above tell the story of the dry vs wet track, and be sure to head over to the Kona Factory Team race report for video and more photos.

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Mt Buffalo

After working professionally with cameras in various capacities over the last ten years, I have recently been given the opportunity to make the move into full time freelancing. With a strong background in video production, about five years ago I ramped up the stills photography side of things, initially drawn into it via mountain bike racing. I’d been racing semi-seriously for a year, and would often notice the photographers out on course. As race entry fees were getting more expensive, and my race results weren’t getting any better, I figured I’d give race photography a try. This was a great way to practice – as the competitors rode around the course you’d get endless subjects, allowing me to work out the best angles and lighting for each location. It also turned out to be a great way to combine a love of the outdoors with a love for creating an image that conveys the sense of being out there.

I’ve carried with me this idea of conveying a feeling, or inspiring an action, through everything that I shoot, be it still or video. Trying to inspire my audience to get out there amongst it – if just one image can result in one person downing tools and heading out on their bike, or start planning that epic ride for the weekend, then I’m happy I’ve done a good job.

I want this blog to help me to deliver on that further. Initially posting twice a week, I’ll be telling you about my own adventures, and providing tips on how I go about documenting them, including gear reviews, articles on workflow, and ideas on places to go (looking forward to researching this one!). If this sounds like the kind of thing you’d be inspired by, then please subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog, and keep an eye out for my newsletter subscription.

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