Photographing Cyclocross with Portable Flash

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Off-camera flashes and strobes offer powerful creative options and they solve contrast problems when shooting in difficult conditions, such as in the forest. In fact, pro sports and action photographers often use supplemental lighting in order to make their shots stand out from the crowd. The benefit of using a battery-powered strobe like the TritonFlash over a regular flash is that recycle times are drastically reduced, which means that the light is always ready when you need it.

In this lesson, Dan Bailey showcases the versatility and portability of the TritonFlash when photographing cyclocross racers, and shows you how even just one light can make all the difference in creating dramatic imagery.

Concept and Location
As an active outdoor photographer, I often like to move around and experiment with different vantage points as I’m shooting. While photographing cyclocross this past fall, I typically had about an hour to capture each race. I’d usually pick out a few different locations beforehand and then, once the race started, I’d run from each place to the next, as I chased racers around the course on foot and captured a variety of shots in each location.

My light of choice for this kind of situation is the TritonFlash. Not only is it a powerful strobe with fast recycle time that keeps up with the action, it has a long-lasting battery that keeps firing for hundreds of frames. The TritonFlash Kit is also a surprisingly portable unit that weighs less than 4 lbs, including the battery pack and XS OctoDome NXT soft box. Stick it on top of an ultra lightweight support like the Compact LiteStand and there’s no reason you have to stand still with your light.

Setting up the TritonFlash
The TritonFlash sets up very quickly. Unpacking the head, removing the protective plastic cover, fixing it to the light stand and plugging in the battery and PC trigger cable takes about two minutes. Spend another minute or so putting together the included XS Octodome NXT soft box, which you then slide and twist to lock on to the TritonFlash head, and you’re ready to go. The entire setup fits in my regular Lowepro back along with my camera and some lenses. (I strap the LiteStand to the side of the pack.)

Camera and flash exposure always varies by situation and usually requires simple trial and error. Starting at full power on the flash, I usually set my camera shutter to a speed that matches the action that I’m trying to capture. Also, if I want to freeze the action, then I’ll set the shutter at 1/200th or 1/250th of a second, depending on how fast my trigger and flash will let me sync. If I want to create photos that combine the blur of action with the sharp light from the strobe, I’ll go 1/60th to 1/80th of a second. Also, lens factors into this. If I’m shooting wider angle lenses, I can afford to go with a slightly slower shutter speed.

Once I’ve got my camera exposure set, I do some test shots and adjust the power output on the TritonFlash as necessary. Changing power is very simple – you just dial down to your desired settings with the single knob on the back of the unit. In this case, I found that around 1/8-1/16 power gave me the results I wanted. Rarely do I need full power on the TritonFlash, especially if I’m shooting relatively close. A benefit is that this greatly extends the number of shots you can get on a battery charge.

Moving Around and Maximizing Vantage Points
My goal with photographing these races was to try and shoot from as many vantage points as possible. Since cyclocross basically follows a fixed loop of dirt trails, grass, mud and hills climbs, it offers awesome opportunities for capturing compelling, intense action. In the roughly 50-70 minutes for each race, I’d scope out potential spots that I thought would shoot well, and then I’d run back and forth between them during different points in the race.

Sometimes I’d leave my TritonFlash set up in one location while I ran around to some of the other areas and worked my way back. Other times, I’d simply pick up the entire rig and run with it to set it up in a new spot. Yes, I said “run.” The TritonFlash is light enough that you can loop the battery strap around your neck and then just carry the whole thing by the LiteStand.

Race #1, Setup 1
My first location was the walkup on a small hill inside the forest. In fact, I used the TritonFlash for all of my forest shooting. It’s quite dark under the cover of the trees and the strobe really helps brighten things up and add a dynamic quality to the shots.

You can see how the first shot is pretty dim, with dark ambient light, spotted shadows and contrast. Lightening the shot up in Lightroom just made it brighter, but not more interesting. My solution was to light the riders with the TritonFlash, getting as close as I could.

Placing the light to my 90 degrees at left, pointing straight across the course, I stood a little bit farther up the hill with my 80-200mm lens. The telephoto allows me to shoot tighter crops and exclude more of the contrasty forest. Dropping my camera exposure down a bit gave me a darker background, while the TritonFlash really highlighted the intensity of the racer and provided interesting shadows on the curves of the racer’s face, body and bike.

Race #1, Setup 2
For this shot, I left the TritonFlash where it was. However, I moved to the other side so that the light would be at camera right. I crouched down low and shot as close to the racers as I could while they sprinted past me up the hill carrying their bikes. Actually, for some of these, I shot from my extended arm so as not to get run over. The wide angle lens lets me grab shots without having to even look through the viewfinder for every frame. You can see in the first shot, which has no flash, that the ambient exposure alone makes the shot completely unworkable. It’s way too dark, and a bit blurry as well.

Adding the TritonFlash totally rescues the shot and adds a huge amount of drama to the scene. The fast relative motion of the bikers compared to how close I was creates the blur, but since the TritonFlash fires at over 1/3000th of a second, it freezes part of the image, giving the shot that ghostly, sharp-motion feel. The camera was set to 1/80th of a second with a 24mm lens. The TritonFlash was set around 1/8th to 1/16th power. In this case, the flash made ALL the difference.

Race #2, Setup 1
During this particular race, I found two locations where I thought the TritonFlash would really help. But unlike the first race above, these two spots weren’t right next to each other. They were about 200 feet apart. My solution? Shoot a few frames, then pick up the light and run with the LiteStand to the new location. Set it up, shoot for awhile and then run back to the first location to capture the next lap.

In order to maximize my photo shoots, I always try to experiment and try out different compositions so that all my shots don’t look the same. In this first location, I shot with a 24mm lens, 1/80th of a second at f/4, panning with the motion so as to get a blurred action shot. The TritonFlash, placed just off the trail to the right, provides just enough light to isolate them against a slightly blurred background. You can see in the first shot that going without the flash made for a much less interesting photograph.

Race #2, Setup 2
My second location was on a curved hill where most of the riders were pushing their bikes. Only the strongest racers and those with the most knobby tires managed to ride up. I tucked my LiteStand and TritonFlash in the small trees just off the trail to the right, propping it up amongst the willow branches. One of the things I love about Photoflex gear is that it withstands the punishment that an outdoor photographer like me will inflict on it. Tough fabric on the soft boxes resists tears and punctures and the TritonFlash will hold up to being knocked over in the dirt. Believe me.

Switching to the telephoto lens, I shot at 1/200th of a second at f/5, and around 1/8 power on the TritonFlash. In the first shot, which was made without the flash, I had to bring the camera exposure up in order not to make the racer too dark. However, that didn’t do much for the excitement of the image. You can see in the second that adding the TritonFlash to the mix makes for a much more dynamic image. Also, I was able to darken the ambient background a bit, which helped to isolate the subject from the darker trees.

Final Thoughts
A single off-camera light can make a huge difference when shooting sports, especially when you’re dealing with extensive shadows and dark ambient light. Any of these photos above could be made with a regular camera flash instead of a battery powered strobe, but the advantage of using a powerful light like the TritonFlash is that it recycles so much faster than a speedlight. If I had two riders, with one right behind the other and just a regular flash, I’d probably miss the second shot because the flash wouldn’t recycle fast enough. With its ultra fast recycle, the TritonFlash was always ready, even after shooting hundreds of frames in the course of a couple hours.

As for me, by the third race of the season, the whole cyclocross thing looked like so much fun that I decided to jump in and try racing myself. For the next few Saturdays, I’d race the first heat of each day and “cool down” by running around and photographing the second. By the end of the season, I’d amassed a huge collection of cool imagery and earned a third place finish overall in my division. A perfect example of the power of photography.

Camera Equipment

  • Nikon D700
  • 80-200mm f/2.8 lens
  • 24mm f/2.8 lens

Written and photographed by Dan Bailey.

Outdoor Portraits,


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