Photog Nils Nilsen’s Tips for a Cover-Worthy Bike Shot
Including the secret to getting your bike to stand up on its own in photos.
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If you’ve accumulated a stack of Triathlete magazines over the years, you’ve probably noticed that most of our cover shots are of people. And rightfully so—after all, the people are what make this sport so great. But once in a while, we give the spotlight to the gear—specifically, the bikes. Our most recent issue highlighted our annual Win This Bike promotion, which lets us hook up one lucky Triathlete reader with a completely swagged-out ride. And, frankly, that’s worthy of a cover shot.
For 2022’s Win This Bike cover, we tapped veteran photographer Nils Nilsen to shoot the newest Quintana Roo V-PR. But this was no ordinary studio shoot. Nilsen, who lives near the Ironman St. George course, staged a cover photo that showcased both the beauty of the bike and the beauty of the upcoming Ironman World Championship race.
“I know St. George pretty well,” Nilsen said. “I’ve been covering the Ironman events here for over a decade. St. George, and specifically Snow Canyon, was picked as the location for the shoot because the Ironman World Championship will be held there this May. This will be the first time in history this event has moved away from Hawaii, so all parties involved felt it was timely and appropriate to shoot on the bike course.”
RELATED: Our “Win This Bike” Contest is Back!
How do you get the bike to stand up on its own?
Over the years, Nilsen has honed his camera skills at hundreds of races and photo shoots (many of which have made it onto the cover and in the pages of Triathlete). One of the most common questions he gets: How does he get the bike in a photo to stand up on its own?
“Witchcraft, for sure,” Nilsen joked.
Sometimes, getting the shot is a delicate dance of the photographer and an assistant. At the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship event, where Nilsen shot a series of pro bike galleries for Triathlete, that assistant was Kelly O’Mara, editor-in-chief.
“My favorite thing about shooting pros’ bikes is that a lot of times the super-sophisticated technique is to hold it while letting the photographer get totally set up,” O’Mara said. “When they’re ready, you let go while they shoot super-fast, and then you catch it before it falls.”
If that sounds nerve-wracking, that’s because it is. After all, damaging a pro’s bike before their biggest race of the year is one of the worst things that could happen. “When we were doing the St. George bike galleries pre-race, I made Gustav Iden’s brother hold the Norwegians’ bikes [Iden and Kristian Blummenfelt], because there was no way I was doing that,” O’Mara said.
For the V-PR shoot, however, Nilsen worked solo. In the shot, the bike stood on its own, but in reality, it was propped up by a heavy-duty C-stand (“A photographer’s best friend,” said Nilsen) and lots of fishing line, all of which was retouched to give the final shot.
How to take a cover-worthy shot of your bike
If there’s one thing triathletes love, it’s showing off their bike on social media. But Nilsen says you don’t need fancy camera equipment to take a cover-worthy photo of your gear. In fact, many smartphones today are capable of capturing beautiful pictures. To make the most of your camera, use these tips to take a photo so pro, you’ll want to frame it.
Choose soft lighting
“Bikes are typically very reflective,” Nilsen said. “You need a large, soft lighting source to make it look its best.” Photographers often create soft light using lighting equipment and large reflectors, but natural light sources, whether from a window or by shooting outdoors in the morning or late afternoon (to avoid the harsh mid-day sun) also work well.
Stage the bike before shooting
If you look at most bike photos, you’ll notice many of them are staged the same way. Setting up the bike in a specific way helps to showcase all the features of the bike. To make your bike look extra-pro:
- Face the drive side (derailleur, cassette, cranks, etc) toward the camera
- Put the front derailleur in the big chainring, and rear derailleur in the smallest gear on the cassette
- Place the crank at 3 o’clock
- Turn the wheels so the valve stems are at 12 o’clock on both wheels
- No water bottles in frame cages (front or rear hydration is fine)
- If you really want to go full “bike geek” (and who doesn’t?) one of the tire labels should be centered over the valve stem.
Choose the right angle
“Finding the angle of the bike that makes it look rad is key too,” Nilsen said. “Bikes are like people, they have their ‘good’ side.” Play around with angles by shooting up high, from low on the ground, and from different perspectives on the bike itself.
Want to win the bike on the cover of the March/April issue of Triathlete? Entries for the “Win This Bike” promotion will be open until April 30, and then one winner will be randomly selected to win a Quintana Roo V-PR in their size (not the same one we shot on the cover), worth $11,400!
NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A PURCHASE OR PAYMENT OF ANY KIND WILL NOT INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW. MUST BE 21 YEARS OF AGE OR OLDER; US RESIDENTS ONLY. NOT OPEN TO RESIDENTS OF NEW YORK OR FLORIDA.