How to film your ride

mtb cycling action photography

You and your mates could be the next YouTube sensation. Here’s how to get the most out of your action cam… and look good doing it.

Admit it, there’s little better than watching yourself look awesome (hopefully) on your bike – it’s a guilty pleasure. That’s why there are so many different ways to capture your two-wheeled adventures. From the GoPro to the Drift, the iPhone to the digital SLR and everything in between, the only limit is your creativity. These days you don’t need to be rolling in dough to get something that can capture professional-quality footage, and with an open mind you can create your Collective, New World Disorder or Life Cycles.

There are many paths to your first bike movie – filming yourself with a helmet or bike-mount cam, a static camera or filming with a friend. What will the story be? What angles will you use? How will you edit your masterpiece? Here we’ll take you through the many options in the hope of inspiring you to get out and film your ride.

The idea
Although it’s easy to attach a cam to yourself, ride all day, download the footage while you have dinner and post it on YouTube before bed, it takes a bit more forethought to make a watchable short film. Do you want to tell a story? Maybe it’s the story of a Sunday spent ripping your local MTB trails, or the beauty of your four-passes road route. If so, you need to think about how you’re going to get that story across. You can film getting your bike and kit ready, making coffee, checking the route and so on – the details often make the movie.

But what if you don’t want to bother with a story? What if it’s just you and your action camera? It helps to visualise the finished film before shooting. Plan the shots you want in it, the angles and the action. It always helps, both to get excited for the ride ahead and for inspiration, to watch old and new bike films as well as some from other sports. Pause them to see why the shots you like work, and how. There’s no shame in borrowing their ideas.

The kit
Helmet cameras
There’s been a revolution in the past few years. You need only look back to the bonus footage of early Kranked and Collective films to see the size of cameras a few years ago – it was like having a chest of drawers on your head. Now they’re tiny, cheap(ish), often waterproof, and bursting with mounting options. The downside is it’s easy to end up with monotonous footage, purely because of their set-and-forget nature. The current king of the helmet cam world is the GoPro. It has the most mounts and, owing to its shape, can, with a little imagination and customisation, be mounted almost anywhere, unlike the bullet-shaped cams.

GoPros can shoot in slow motion, be activated wirelessly and even shoot in 3D (you need two GoPros and a special mount, though). “You can set action cameras up quickly if you know how to, but if you’re not prepared it can be a mission,” advises acclaimed action-sport photographer and videographer Craig Kolesky. “Understand how all your mounts work and what they are supposed to be used for,” he says.

Point-and-shoot cameras
If you find yourself wanting to stay away from the helmet cam revolution, or maybe you don’t want to fork out the cash, there’s a lot you can do with a point-and- shoot camera and a little tripod. Using one of the small, bendable articulated tripods such as the Gorillapod, you can attach your camera to branches, rocks or stumps for a plethora of interesting angles, even if you’re filming alone.

However, in this case you’ll still be setting up the camera, pressing record, running to your bike, ripping past the camera like you’re Greg Minnaar and then pedalling back up the trail again to stop the shoot. It’s a demanding process but, with a little editing, you can still come out with a great video. If you’re joined by a friend, it’s different. You can take turns climbing the trees with your camera or lying nervously on the side of the trails as the other flies past.

Oh, and don’t forget the batteries. “Make sure your cameras are charged,” says Craig. “It may sound stupid, but never just assume your camera is charged; make sure it is actually charged.”

Digital SLR
The second revolution in the filmmaking world has to be the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR), popularly known as ‘a proper camera’ and capable of taking high-definition moving footage. A vast number of filmmakers use them. Kolesky, Sinamatella, Anthill Films, The Coastal Crew and many others have chosen HDSLR cameras over dedicated movie cams, and for good reason: they won’t break the bank, as prices start around R5 000; being able to swap lenses brings huge creative options; and the quality is so good it will even work for TV. One other huge advantage of these relatively small cameras is that you can ride with the camera, a selection of lenses and a tripod on your back quite happily. Not long ago, you’d have needed a truck for all the gear required to get the same results.

If you have a passion for capturing biking the way you see it, whether it be gruelling cross-country rides, all-mountain rips or messing about in the local woods progressing your skills, an HDSLR can take you all the way. And then it’ll take your family snaps when you get home, which is the real reason you bought it, dear – why, of course.

The key is to capture the location. If it’s down your local trails or route, then you want to get the broken parts mashed into the earth, the well-sculpted berm or the pile of dumped tyres (sadly there often is one). They’re ugly, but juxtaposing the blight with the pleasure and beauty of riding can really work. Create a sense of place – try to portray what you feel when you ride there.

And what about the locals zipping past? All these details build a story. Show more than just action; show the whole context of what you’re doing. If it’s a trail you’re filming, be it an exposed cross-country death march or a rooty singletrack

descent, look for defining features. Are there lookouts with spectacular views? Do you pass a dam, a river or a gnarled old tree? Are there people doing other sports on the way – running, fishing, horse riding (as in Tokai Forest, Cape Town)?

All this builds the narrative of the ride and makes the final video much fuller and more enjoyable to watch. You simply need to take your time and register all the details you unconsciously spot on your ride. Once there, it’s time for action.

Action and angles
This is the part you can’t fake; but there are a few solid rules to stick to make yourself or your mates look like you’re riding fast and – if it’s trail riding – going big.

Let’s start off with head cams and the solo filming mission. The key to the most exciting action is variety. The wonderful thing about GoPros and their ilk is the number of places you can strap them – on your helmet facing forwards or backwards, on your chest, on your bars, on the frame, under your seat, on your fork leg…

Craig says, “These cameras are made to be used on angles that you wouldn’t usually have a camera on and which make the viewer think, ‘How the hell did they do that?’ And now with the Wi-Fi apps you can see your shot before you’ve even pressed record, which helps a lot.”

If you’re trying to capture a particular climb or descent, be ready to ride it over and over, changing the position of the camera each time. If there’s a corner you can really rail or a feature you feel particularly good on, take your time capturing it. Whatever you feel best riding on and whenever you’re having the most fun are what will look the best on film.

Once you have all your different shots, you can chop and change them around on your computer to create action scenes from all angles. Don’t neglect to get general footage for the transitions between your ‘hotspots’ – you’ll have to join it all up once you get home. The beauty of making films is that you can create something your eyes could never see. You can build an entirely new story, or you can try to stay as close to the truth as possible. It’s your choice.

If it’s not a solo mission, and you and a friend (or a few of you) are going out to film, all of the above still applies. Whether you’re filming with either a compact point-and-shoot camera or a DSLR, you must think about how you’re going to put together the shots later. A good rule to make things easy when you’re editing is to cover your action in long shots and close wide-angle shots. That way, you get shots which show you, the trail and the surroundings, while the close shots show speed, make jumps look bigger, descents steeper and riders more aggressive.

Creativity is practically limitless. You don’t need lots of money; you just need to think outside the box. Look up, walk around, lie down, and peer through branches. Look for all the angles on the trail, all the elements that go into a ride and the emotions it brings. “I watch many online clips to see what guys are doing with their cameras,” says Craig. “The Red Bull snowboarding production Art of Flight is a good example of the cameras being used to make you feel like you’re part of the action.” It starts with looking at the ride, the trail and the experience in your own way and, prior to filming, thinking of the best possible way to portray the drama you envision.

The final step before you become the next YouTube sensation (and, hopefully, not for your epic comedic face-plant) is editing. There are plenty of software options, from Final Cut Pro to the free iMovie and Movie Maker programs. They all do the same basic job, namely they let you cut up your footage and stitch it together how you like.

Here’s a list of key editing tips, no matter the software you use:

1. Go through your footage first. Get a good idea of what you have and try visualising how it will work together.

2. Trim the flab off the clips so it’s just the action you want, but leave a second or two on each end.

3. Arrange your clips in the timeline. Get the story, if you’re using one, together before you start fine-tuning.

4. Choose your music. This is one of the toughest parts of editing as it determines the mood (it also neatly replaces the staccato clattering, panting and wind-rush of the clips). Is it high action all of the time? A faster or more aggressive piece of music will really bring out the action. If it’s a more arty and mellow story, then an indie or relaxed backing track will bring the viewer into that feeling

.5. Once you’ve placed your track, play it all the way through. You’ll notice that where the cuts between clips fall on a beat, it feels much better to watch.

6. Go through and trim the clips until the cuts between shots fall on the beat as much as possible. If you can’t get it perfect, use a cross-dissolve to blend the shots. It’s an easy way to get smooth transitions.

7. Finally, watch it through again. Hopefully you’re pleased; if not, you’ll certainly have ideas for your next film. All that remains is to upload it to YouTube, ignore the head-on-the-keyboard comments and wait to go viral.

Read some of our camera reviews here:

Garmin Virb

iOn Pro2 Wi-Fi

GoPro Hero3 Black