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10 Tips for BMX Photography

When I first started with photography, it was about one thing – BMX. An avid BMX rider myself, all I wanted to do was take pictures that would give the average person an idea about the action and lifestyle of a BMX rider. Now, 7 years down the road, I have a bit more experience and insight behind shooting BMX.  I am sharing what I consider to be 10 important tips for photographing BMX and the lifestyle that surrounds this great sport.

Cameron White | Steven Murray's Dirt Jam | Riverside, CA

I wrote these 10 tips as a base guide for the many people who have written in the past with interest in BMX photography. The first three tips are relatively fundamental and basic to photography in general, the last 6 are a bit more specific to BMX photography. I hope these tips are helpful to many of you and, if your interested in seeing more of my BMX photography and the many other different types of photographs I take please visit my main website.

To view my 10 tips for BMX photography click to read

1.  Camera & Lens Choice – For digital and 35mm film, I recommend choosing either a Nikon or Canon system. There are other great camera brands out there, but these two brands are on consistently on the top and have the widest range of lenses and accessories available to them. Many BMX photographers still like to shoot film; especially medium format.  These cameras can produce wonderful looking images, but are costly to own and to shoot with because their film and processing is expensive. This is why I recommend anyone just starting to look into a Nikon or Canon DSLR system.
Regardless of your camera system, there are three types of lenses that I would say just about every BMX photographer owns – a fisheye, a wide angle, and a telephoto zoom. Of course these are all things that we’ve accommodated over time, and you may not have that many lenses to work with.
For  photographers who have more than one lens choice, there is an important thing to keep in mind. At some point all photographers get into a routine where they use the same lens over and over. In BMX it is especially common with fisheyes; It has certainly happened to me before. If you find yourself using a the same lens over and over again, force yourself to switch it up. For instance, if you’re using a fisheye lens way too much then only bring a 50mm lens with you for a week or maybe only a 100mm or longer lens.  It will force to you get out of your routine and creating some different looking images. This also happens a lot with lighting and camera settings, which I will discuss a bit more later.

Alex Gonzales | Downside Whip | Albuquerque, NM | Published in BMX Plus

2. Exposure – One of the most important elements of photography that you must learn to control first is your exposure; regardless of whether your photographing BMX or anything else. Photography, at its most basic form is  capturing light onto either a digital sensor or on to a roll of film. If you cannot understand how to control the light hitting your sensor, you basically cannot control your photograph. Understanding how to balance your shutter speeds, aperture, and film speeds (ISO) is critical to being able to produce a good photograph consistently. There are a lot of great resources online and in bookstores for learning the basics of good photography. Learn the basics, they will always serve you well! That means abandoning that “P” switch on your camera, if you’ve been using it. Just because the camera can tell you what exposure should be, doesn’t mean you should use it.  Switch it to “M” manual and learn the the multiple differences between an aperture of F-2.8 to F8, and so on.

Vidal Vigil | Smith Grind | Albuquerque, NM | Published in Ride BMX magazine

Mario Carrasco | Parking Garage Portrait | Albuquerque, NM

3. Composition – When it comes to composition, there is a golden rule that almost always benefits a photo. It’s called the rule of thirds. I use it in just about all of my photos. Using the rule of thirds as a guide to helping compose your photos greatly improves the image’s overall composition. The idea is to align the subject with the guide lines and their intersecting points. You can see from the example below how the rule of thirds applies to the photo above it. As you scroll down you’ll notice that many of the other photos will have a “rule of thirds composition” as well.
However, even the best of rules are meant to be broken in photography. Although this is a good rule to follow generally, don’t be afraid to change it up and shoot your subject dead center or put them in a far corner.

Mario Carrasco | Vert Wall Carve | Albuquerque, NM

Rule of Thirds - Example of framing a subject way off center.

4. Timing –  If you’re a BMX rider to begin with, this is usually not a problem for you. The most common key to learning your timing with any type of sports photography, is knowing the sport. For BMX riders photographing BMX, this is easy. You know exactly when, for instance, a “turndown” would be at it’s best point to take the picture.

The same idea applies the photo below. As  a BMX rider myself, I knew from the moment I saw the front end of his bike drop after hitting the ramp that he was in trouble. Thus I knew exactly when to press the shutter. Some of the best photographers in any given sport are athletes in the same sport themselves. This is not always the case, but keep this in mind if you’re shooting a sport you are unfamiliar with, learn the sport.

Dj Harris aka O'Doyle | Long Jump Crash | Double Ditch Jam | Albuquerque, NM | Published by Vital BMX

Alex Gonzales | Lookback | Los Altos Skate Park | Albuquerque, NM

5. Flashes – Although you won’t need them for every shot, they are incredibly important to know and understand. There are hundreds of different ways to place a flash to light a picture, but there is one that usually seems to work well for BMX photography. I refer to it as a 45/45 lighting pattern. Basically, from where ever you are photographing the subject from, put two lights/flashes 45 degrees of the camera on both sides. This creates a cross light that evenly lights the rider and causes them to pop out from the background. Varying your power levels on your flashes will create different lighting ratios, but a similar lighting effect.  Again, this is just a suggestion, and all rules in photography are meant to be broken. After you get a good handle on using this technique, try taking one flash and putting it way in the back and pointing it at the rider as a rim light. See an example of that in the metal full pipe photo below.

Perhaps you don’t have two flashes, maybe just one flash; try using that one flash at a 45 degree angle in a way that lights the front/side of the rider and not just the back or side. Seeing the riders face clearly in the photograph is generally a plus. In many of my photos I have used just one flash to light the image and it works out just fine, although I generally like to use two. Again, if you are using one, be thoughtful in your decision on where you place your flash. Consider what direction the rider is going to be facing in relation to the rider and camera.

(Side Note: With flashes, realize that I am referring constantly to using off camera flash, which may not be possible for everyone. I consider off camera lighting to be a major factor in all BMX photography and I encourage those with limited lighting/flash equipment or just on-camera flashes to focus on learning to use natural light until you have the ability to get your flashes off camera. There are several radio slaves available on the market for around $50 (Cactus V4) to $175 (Pocket Wizards Plus II) and a lot of others to get your flashes off camera, and are a great investment. (In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I hate on-camera flash!)

Mario Carrasco | Footjam Whip | Albuquerque, NM

Example of a basic 45/45 Lighting Pattern

Cody McKenna | Full Pipe Carve | Oxnard, CA

6. Lifestyle (Behind the scenes) – Good sports photography never stops when the action has. Some of the most compelling and interesting images are the ones shot behind the scenes. The images that show the viewer something they didn’t know or haven’t seen is really what captivates them. It was really the lifestyle and behind the scenes in BMX that originally inspired me to pick up a camera in the first place. The thought of showing others a lifestyle and places that my BMX bike took me was the whole reason I choose to carry a camera with me every time I rode. So, with that being said, don’t let yourself get too caught up in the action of the sport. Look behind the scenes, into the lives and personalities of your riders, and into the culture and lifestyle of the sport.

Taylor Thompson & Cody McKenna | 5AM riding during a road trip | San Diego, CA

Full Pipe Illumination | Albuquerque, NM

7. Know your Rider – Just as it is important for you to know the sport your photographing, it can be just as equally important to know the rider you’re photographing. The picture below is a perfect example of this. Mario Carrasco and I have been shooting together for a long time and, because of that, I know that he throws his tuck no-handers super quick. Since I knew ahead of time of this, I wanted to be extra careful to watch and make sure I caught the no-hander right on time. It also helps to know what style your rider has. Is a he a tech rider or is he more focused on jumping and style? I personally don’t like photographing super technical riders for the sole reason that you have to shoot sequences to capture the magnitude of a trick. I feel that if you’re going to shoot a sequence, you might as well have just filmed it with video. Especially with all the new HD video options being built into so many DSLRs.

Mario Carrasco | Wallride to Tuck No Hander | Albuquerque, NM | Published in Ride BMX

8. Location -Location, Location, Location. You hear it all the time in the reality market, but it applies just as much to BMX and photography. A good location can make or break a photo. How many times have you seen photos from a skate park? Probably hundreds of times. Sure sometimes they can look great, but other times they fall short because they are just another skatepark shot. I really don’t appreciate being chased around by cops while carrying aton of camera gear, but  shooting riding that uses unique and interesting locations is generally my favorite. However, this generally involves trespassing or riding locations that weren’t really meant for bikes and being prepared to pack up and get out of a location quickly.

The Voodoo Pool | Southern California | Published in Ride BMX

Kelly Bolton | Street Quarter Flair | Santa Monica, CA | Eastern Bicycles Ad

9. Uniqueness – With so many “photographers” in the world, making your image unique is really what makes you a great photographer. Your own unique style along with all the other elements above (and many more) make up the images overall uniqueness. From locations, to riders, to each individual photographers style, we can all create our own unique look. Be inspired by other photographers. I can’t tell you how many BMX photographers there are out there that inspire me –  Jeff Z, Rob Dolecki, Walter Pieringer, Fat Tony, Justin Kosman, Ricky Adam, Mark Losey, Keith Mulligan, and many more. Aside from just websites, obviously look at the BMX magazines and see whats being published and the style of the work that the magazine publishes.  Look at their work, be inspired, create ideas, develop things you like, and go with them.

Joe Poisson | Full Pipe Carve | Albuquerque, NM

Justin Allen & the alley kids | TV Hopin' | Albuquerque, NM

10. Practice – Okay, so I know this may sound a little cheesy, but practice makes perfect. You cannot improve in anything unless you practice. If you are a BMX rider: did you ever go to the skate park for the first time and land a tail whip, or jump a big spine? NO, you didn’t. You had to go day after day and through crash after crash until you learned new tricks. A good photo is just like a good trick on a BMX bike – you probably won’t get it the first time, but if you keep trying and practicing, you’ll eventually get it and become consistent in producing great images.

Joe Possion | Backflip | Joe's Yard - Los Lunas, NM

Sunset Cruise | UNM | Albuquerque, NM

If this was helpful to you, which I hope it will be for many, I encourage you to leave a comment with feedback. If you would like, you can sign up to receive email updates on when the blog is updated at the top of the page.

Also, thanks to Kyle Carlson at Vital BMX, for his help on this post.

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14 comments on “10 Tips for BMX Photography

  1. Phil Miklovich
    July 26, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

    this is the most amazin website.. thank you for the tips(: imma look at this everyday

  2. Ali
    August 4, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    amazing article bro, it answered many of the questions that I had but I was wondering what is the size of the fisheye lens do you usually use.

    • Sam Adams Photography
      August 6, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

      Thanks for the comments Phil & Ali.

      Ali – I shoot with the Canon 15mm fisheye primarily. Sigma makes a comparable lens, if you are a bit more on a budget. Also, Nikon makes both a 16mm fisheye ( for full frame cameras) or a 10.5 fisheye for the 1.5x digital crop. Anyone of those would be great depending on your camera type, Sigma makes one for both though.

  3. Phil Miklovich
    September 1, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    what nikon setup do you have? flashes, lens, and body. im curious because i have a nikon d3100 and no flashes or fisheye. im probably going to upgrade but what do you have and what would you recomend?

  4. Taylor Thompson
    October 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    I miss you sam! im back in wisconsin. come shred trails!!

  5. Brian Raphael
    November 29, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

    AWESOME advice!! everything you have said could not be more true, and every single image is beautiful!

    feel free to check my blog! brianraphaelphotography.blogspot.com

    • Sam Adams Photography
      December 13, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

      Hey Brian, Thanks for the comment and I am glad you found the advice solid. Checked out your blog, you’ve got a good start for sure.

  6. Spencer D
    February 2, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    Thanks heaps! this is cool i Love the photos

  7. Tracy
    February 28, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    it would have been nice if you would have shared with us the settings on each of the pictures..

  8. Tom
    March 31, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    Great tips, thanks a lot. All of your photographs were not only fantastic, but relevant to the tips.
    One question though. I am hoping to buy a DSLR camera soon, for BMX and general artistic photography. I am obviously new and don’t want to spend too much (i will buy second hand). You recommended Nikon and Canon, but what specific models would you suggest i look at?

  9. Brandon Williams
    August 28, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    I was wondering if you could help me. I’m not a beginner photography but I’ve been having trouble with a new lens choice. My current set up is a Canon T2i with a 50 mm 1.8 II and a tulip lens cap. I also have my first camera I bought its a Canon Xti with a canon 17-85 zoom lens (I rarely use this camera since I bought my new set up.) I use a lowepro backpack. And I have a simple tripod. I’m interested in getting either a Fisheye or wide angle lens. Any help would be helpful. Thanks.

    • Sam
      September 23, 2012 at 8:55 am #

      Hey Brandon,

      Sorry for the long delay in response, it’s been a crazy busy few weeks. As far as the lens go, I would probably invest in getting a wide angle lens. Fisheyes have lots of distortion and aren’t like a good all around lens. Since you are probably aware of the benefits of the F1.8 aperture on the 50mm, I would recommend getting a wide with an aperture of atleast f2.8. Lens like the Canon 24mm 2.8 are a great wide angle to start with because they are sharp, have a wide aperture, and they aren’t that expensive. If you wanted a zoom you could look into the Canon 17-40mm F4, a bit more pricey, but a terrific all around wide lens.

      -Sam

  10. Charlotte
    November 3, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    brilliant thanks:)

  11. carlos garciaphotography
    January 13, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    ami me a ayudado mucho sam ! eres realmente bueno , sigue asi campeon !

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