Classic Santa Cruz Mountain Biking

Posted by on June 3, 2015

Classic Santa Cruz Mountain Biking

Redwood trees, natural trail and steep lines – that’s what classic Santa Cruz mountain biking is all about. Order prints >>

Rider: Phil Biagini

I took this photo a few weeks ago when I was in Northern California to photograph the annual Sea Otter Classic bike festival, in Monterey. Although I spent most of my life in the Bay Area, I hadn’t actually ridden there for a few years because I live in Utah now. But since Santa Cruz is one of my favorite places to ride, I made a point of taking my bike on this trip so I could get in a ride, and hopefully some photos. This classic Santa Cruz mountain bike photo of my friend Phil on what I think of as an iconic Santa Cruz mtb line is the result of that ride.

When I lived in the Bay Area, the loamy, redwood forest trails above Santa Cruz were where I did most of my mountain biking. Although I love the high alpine and desert trails of Utah, I learned to ride in Nor-Cal and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Santa Cruz dirt. I also have a fondness for the landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains – the steep slopes, grassy ridges, deep ravines and fog-shrouded redwoods. That scenery was the backdrop when I was learning the craft of mountain bike photography and it will always feel like the essence of mountain biking to me.

I’ve been going through my archives lately, building up a gallery of Fine Art Mountain Bike Photography for print sales. I was surprised and dismayed to discover I didn’t actually have a lot of mountain bike photos from the Bay Area that I was willing to put up for sale. Part of that is because a lot of my early stuff was on film and it’s in storage. I’ve also refined my eye and technique a lot in the past ten years and as a result, my standards are higher than they used to be. Digital camera sensors and post-processing software are far better, as well, making it much easier to get high-quality action shots in low light. And that’s exactly the challenge if you want to capture the essence of mountain biking in the redwoods (see the unedited photo, below).

Santa Cruz Mountain Bike "Before" Photo

This “before” shot is the first from the sequence the final image is from. This one is unprocessed except for the crop. Compare this one to the final image to see how much I was able to squeeze out of the RAW file.

I was excited to go back to the Bay Area with a fresh eye and better gear and see if I couldn’t capture some of the scenes that had frustrated me back when I lived there. I’ve probably ridden the trail in this photo at least 100 times and tried to photograph this spot on numerous occasions, with less than satisfying results. It’s a classic, old school Santa Cruz mountain bike line. It’s steep, rooty and deeply-shaded, under tall redwood trees – very challenging conditions to shoot without a flash, especially if you need to freeze fast action. I’m very pleased with how this photo came out. Compare the final photo at the top with the unedited photo above to get an idea of the photographic challenge I was up against.

My Mountain Biking Camera Gear

My current mountain biking (and ski photography) camera kit – the one I ride with most of the time, anyway – is a Canon EOS 70D mounted up with the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS zoom lens. The 70D is a 20-megapixel APS-C sensor DSLR with a tilt-swivel touchscreen LCD display, excellent auto focus for action shooting, 7 FPS burst, full HD video and built-in Wi-Fi so I can share my photos from nearly anywhere.

Canon EOS 70D DSLR

My standard backcountry mountain bike and ski camera – the Canon EOS 70D DSLR with Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS zoom lens.

There are definitely cameras with better image quality. But one of the reasons I choose the 70D is the smaller APS-C sensor means a smaller, lighter camera body, making it a lot easier to carry on the bike. The 70D’s sensor is also a huge improvement over the sensors in the Canon EOS 10D and Rebel XTi I was using back when I lived in the Bay Area. With those cameras I didn’t like to go above ISO 400 because the image quality would deteriorate so much. But with the EOS 70D I was comfortable pushing the sensitivity to ISO 1250 for my Santa Cruz mountain bike photos. That allowed me to set my exposure to f/4 at 1/800th second to freeze the action and get a good quality RAW file. Using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop I was able to recover highlight and shadow detail from my RAW files that wasn’t apparent in the original, unedited image. I really don’t think this photo would have been possible 8 years ago, when I still lived in California. Sometimes, the camera does matter.

Prints of this Santa Cruz mountain biking photo, and lots more, are for sale in the Photo-John Fine Art Photography Store. I’m also available for commercial action shoots, editorial photography, product photography and event coverage. Please contact me if you’d like to take advantage of my professional photography services.

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Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS Lens >>

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