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Sunday
Jun052011

How to Photograph While Bicycling (Video Too!)

 

As many of you know, Elvis likes riding his bike almost as much as he likes making photographs.  Combine the two?  Yowza!

This article will address what type of camera to buy and how to use it when out cycling.

Point and shoot digital cameras.  Has there ever been a product whose life cycle is so short?  As recently as six months ago you could buy a camera and be sure that within a month or so it would be replaced with a newer, better and cheaper model.  Not even PC's get replaced as fast as digital cameras.  Has this got you down, bunko?  Well Elvis has got good news for you; the megapixel wars that drove camera development are over.  That's right, buy a camera today and you will get years of use out of it without feeling that you made a mistake.  This isn't to say that cameras won't improve or get cheaper because they will, but it won't happen nearly as fast.

The other piece of good news is that as this technology has matured and spread out almost any camera out there today will give you good pictures, with the only real differences in models being look, feel and features.  Elvis can almost hear you asking, "Hold on there Elvis, aren't the new 16 megapixel cameras twice as good as the 8 megapixel models?".  In a word - no.  The image sensor in almost every camera is exactly the same size.  This sensor, (which records what you've got the camera pointed at - just like film did in 35mm days) contains tiny pixels that record data.  When 1 million pixels where spread out (1 megapixel) on this sensor there was a lot of room in between the sweet spot of the pixels and this lead to less than stellar performance.  Cameras improved dramatically as manufacturers were able to put more pixels onto the sensor.  But a funny thing happened when they started putting (for marketing purposes) more than 6 or 7 million pixels on the sensor.  In order to put so many pixels on a defined size they had to reduce the size of the pixels and at some point as the pixels shrunk in size - so did their quality.  Camera companies knew that potential customers understood none of this and just thought that more megapixels meant a better picture.  And these companies were naturally happy to have us all replacing our cameras every 6 months or so.

This is an oversimplification of course, and probably more information than you need but it serves to explain why almost any name brand camera that you buy in the 8 megapixel range will give you the ability to make a fine print for hanging on your wall or a lovely electronic image to email to grandma.  

Great.  Now that we know what megapixel size to focus on will the choice be easy?  Unfortunately, no.  There are literally hundreds of name brand cameras to choose from in the 8 megapixel  range.  So what else can we do to narrow our choices?   Well, since we want to be able to use the camera while out cycling it needs to be on the smaller side.  Sure, you could stuff one of the bigger cameras in your jersey pocket.  These are all point & shoot cameras afterall, even the biggest one is small by 35mm SLR standards.  Still, if it's not small, light, easy to get in and out of your pocket and easy to use - you just won't take it along.  And that would defeat it's purpose.

What else are we looking for in a cycling camera?  How about a big and bright screen?  We'll be using this out in the bright sunshine and it would be nice to see what the camera is pointed at, wouldn't it?  How about a lens that has a wide angle so that you can fit all of your cycling buddies into one shot without being a hundred yards out front?  It also needs to have a so-called "dummy" or automatic mode.  A setting whereby the camera does everything for you; focus, set the aperture, set the shutter speed, etc. (truly point and shoot).  And you need to be able to use it successfully with one hand - safety first.

You also want a camera that does not use or need a lens cap.  A lens cap is just something that will get in your way, affect your biking concentration (as you try to remove, keep track and replace it) and eventually get lost.  A camera with a lens that retracts into the camera body when not in use is nice too.  Easier to get it into and out of your pocket without a big lens 'nose' catching on everything. 

We've made some progress narrowing our choices.  But what about brands?  There are about 20 different brands that offer more than one camera that would fit out current list of needs.  When Elvis buys stuff he likes to buy from companies in the business of making the products.  What does Elvis mean by this?  As an example; Nikon is in the camera business.  If they made a really crappy camera you'd never buy another Nikon camera.  Which is to say that you'd never buy anything from Nikon.  Plus, Nikon has decades of expertise in this business.  Sony by contrast, isn't quite as concerned about making great cameras.  They can still sell you a playstation, a computer, television, stereo, music CD's and so on.  Sony, while they make fine digital cameras, aren't really in the camera business.  Elvis has got nothing against Sony, it's just that we need to narrow our choices and sticking with companies that focus (note the pun) on photography is a smart choice.  Along with eliminating Sony, we can eliminate Epson, Fuji, HP, JVC, Kodak, Kyocera, Panasonic, Samsung, Sanyo and Toshiba.  Don't feel bad if you've already got a camera made by one of these companies, our purpose here is simply to narrow our search for the prospective buyer. 

Of of the real camera companies; Canon, Contax, Konica-Minolta, Leica, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax, we can eliminate Konica-Minolta and Contax as being too esoteric and Leica for being too expensive.  Olympus is a very fine camera company that gets eliminated because they force you to use a proprietary memory card (more expensive, not as readily available).

Let's review.  What we want in a camera are the following specifications;

Around 8 megapixels
A screen at least 2 inches wide, and bright
Lens that retracts into the camera body and uses no lens cap
Has an "auto everything" mode
Wide angle of 40mm or less
Easy to turn on/off with one hand
Easy to take a picture with one hand
Smaller is better
Made by one of the following; Canon, Nikon, Pentax

The rest of the specifications that fill the sales brochures, things like; DIGIC III Image Processor, Face Detection Technology, Super Sport Mode, One Shot Easy Print Mode and the rest really don't matter.  It's all just marketing B.S.  Don't concern yourself with them.  Just grab a camera from one of those three manufacturers within the specification range as provided and go have fun.

Here are some tips for using your new camera;

- Never push down on the shutter button.  This motion will cause the camera to shake and the result will be a blurry picture. While your index finger is on the button, gently squeeze the camera between your index finger and your thumb (which is under the camera).

- Leave the lens at it's widest zoom setting.  Not only will you get more of your cycling world on the picture, it's also the point at which most lenses offer the best quality imaging.

- Never use the 'digital zoom' settings.  On or off the bike this is just a gimmick and will ruin your photos.

- Preset your camera to the auto mode so that you don't have to concern yourself with f-stops, shutter speeds and ISO settings.  Off the bike you do worry about those things, don't you?

- Always have your camera set for the highest image quality.  This will be under the picture/quality/resolution menu.  Just set it for the biggest number or "Fine" or "High".  

- Memory cards are cheap.  Arm yourself with a 4 gig card and you will be able to take hundreds of photos.  Don't rely on the memory card (if) provided with the camera.  It's stupid small.  Elvis Kennedy recommends that you get a 4 gig memory card.  You could save 5 dollars by buying a smaller card but that would be silly.  And if you stick with Sandisk or Lexar brands you won't have any trouble.  This will add about $20.00 to your camera investment.

- Set the ISO (don't ask, doesn't matter) of your camera to 100 and leave it there.  A higher number will add significant noise to your images.

- Play around with the video mode of these cameras.  It's fun and easy, and you will (should) always have it with you since it's so portable.  The quality is surprisingly high.  Just look at the video below shot on a bike with a little Canon.  If you always have a little video camera handy you never know what you'll be able to do with it.  Maybe you'll catch your boss doing something he/she shouldn't be doing.  Then use the video to make one of two things; 1) yourself the boss after he/she gets fired, or 2) lots of blackmail money.

- When in video mode try not to do any zooming, and hold the camera still.  Otherwise you'll get a crappy movie.  Pre-zoom for composition before hitting the record button and then hold the camera steady.

- In warm weather keep the camera in a little plastic baggy when on your bike.  Otherwise it will get full of sweat.

- For heaven's sake - be careful!  Especially if you try this while riding.  Make sure that you practice operating the camera before taking it for a ride.  Keep it in an easily accessible location.  Have any settings set in advance.  Pay attention to your cycling and your surroundings at all times.  If you have to, guess by pointing your camera at it's intended target.  Don't stare at the image screen (before or after shooting).  You don't need perfect composition here and you'll have plenty of time to review it later, safely on your couch.

 

 - Here's what Elvis does to get a good shot while riding.  But first, a disclaimer.  Elvis Kennedy does not recommend that anyone attempt to take pictures while riding a bike.  It's dangerous.  Don't do it.  Really.  Elvis Kennedy will not be responsible for anything bad that happens to you.  Or any one else.  Ever.  Driving a motorcycle?  Don't be stupid.

Some have asked how Elvis does it and here goes (This is an outline of what Elvis sometimes carefully does, not a recommendation for what you should do.  You want a recommendation?  Don't do it.)

1) Have an idea of what photo you want before whipping out the camera.  If you just pull it out and start shooting you're unlikely to get anything worthwhile and you'll be thinking about photography instead of cycling.  A front or behind shot of your cycling buddies is almost always a good choice.  Especially with cool scenery around.

2) Look ahead for a smooth, open and empty stretch of road.  Slight downhill is good so that you don't have to pedal.

3) Make sure that you're steady on the bike and get your camera out.  Since you've preset everything (you did, didn't you?) and since it's already on auto mode (because you paid attention to the earlier comments) all you need to do is turn it on.

4) Carefully position yourself for the shot.

5) Maintaining a steady position, bring the camera up, point it at your desired target and shoot.  You can briefly glance at the display to get a rough idea of your framing but don't stare at it.  Never forget that you're on a bike.  Remember that you can crop and straighten your pictures at home on the computer easily and more safely than you can while riding.

6) Take multiple shots.  Since the road is bumpy and you're guessing at framing take 3 or 4 shots.  Your odds of getting something worthwhile will go up.

7) Turn the camera off and put it away.

8) If you're not comfortable taking pictures on the bike don't fret.  Just ride ahead, get off your bike and take the shots of your buddies as they roll by.  If the scenery is pretty - stop and smell the roses.  Then take a picture.

9) Never do this in traffic, in town, in big groups, in races or with cyclists who would rather you didn't.  Or anywhere else or in any manner that is unsafe.

10)  Some of the best shots are pre and post ride.