Guest Post: How to Make Photos of Steep Hills Look…Steep

05.26.2011 | 9:18 am

A Note from Fatty About Tuesday’s Post: My “Team Fatty in Bizarro World” post on Tuesday caused a little more heat than I intended. I thought of it as a “joke with a tweak:” mostly kidding around, but hey, this is really how people identify Team Fatty at this kind of ride and I don’t like the confusion. That said, I think Jay’s reply is heartfelt and in the end we’re all working toward making the world better. As in, I wouldn’t even consider taking action against these guys. In fact I just made a donation. (And if they’d like to make an in-kind donation at my LiveStrong Challenge page, that would be an awesome way to say, “Hey, no hard feelings.”)

201105260903.jpgA Note from Fatty About Today’s Post: My friend Adam Lisonbee (Grizzly Adam to all his friends) is a great photographer. Recently I told him about something that bothers me about a lot of the photos I take while biking (both road and mountain): steep trails / roads look like they’re practically flat in my photos. I figured I am not the only person with that problem, so asked him to write a guest post for me. Which is what you’re about to read.

How to Make Steep Hills Look Steep

We’ve all been there.

We skipped the rest stop on the group ride so we could get out ahead of our riding buddies, tossed the bike into the bushes haphazardly, grabbed the camera from our jersey pocket, quickly turned it on and tried to get into that perfect spot to take the perfect photo. The photo that will capture the incredible ability of the riders as they gracefully glide over a mind-bendingly steep trail. You clicked the shutter just in time to capture your companions in what you were absolutely certain would be an amazing picture.

“Did you see how steep that was!”

“I can’t believe I finally rode that section.”

“I got some great photos of you coming down.”

And then you get home and open the pictures on your computer.

And that’s when you realize that, although nice, the photos are lacking something vital. That they are flat. That steep hill looks tame and normal and… “It’s way steeper than that!”

Take the photo below, for example. These ‘cross racers are on a pretty steep run-up. But it looks flat:


Camera lenses flatten terrain features. It’s one of the shortcomings of taking a three-dimensional landscape and representing it with a two-dimensional photograph.

However, all is not lost. Camera lenses are easily manipulated. You don’t have to be a professional photographer to capture pictures that look a lot better than reality. In fact, that’s what photographers do-they make reality look really, really cool. And you can do it as well. It’s easy!

I’m going to share with you a super-secret secret that will help you capture those “look at how steep this trail is” moments. Now, I specifically chose to share this secret here at because I know that Fatty has a large audience, but also an audience that will keep this super-secret secret to yourselves. You won’t just go blabbing it all over Facebook and Twitter. Will you? That’s what I thought. My secret is safe with you.

Oh, and I’m going to give this information to you for free. I could charge you for it, and I know you’d pay. But I’m giving it away for nothing, because, frankly, I’m tired of seeing all the mediocre bike photos that are appearing on the web.

Are you ready? The secret is unbelievably simple.

Just tilt the camera.

I know, I know, right now you are slapping your foreheads and exclaiming loudly (much to the wonderment of your coworkers) “Of course! I’ve been so stupid!”

Tilting your camera will turn even a mundane park trail into a hair-raising, death-defying, gravity-denying, decline.

Just look!

No tilt:


Lots of tilt:


With just the slightest tip of the lens, you can make crazy-scary looking photos. Think of the bragging rights you will own when your coworkers, who probably spent the weekend doing yard work, see pictures of you like the one above. You’ll be the talk of the office!

You can thank me now. Or later. Either is fine. All I ask is that you get out there on your bikes and with your cameras and start shooting tilted pictures. It is, obviously, the only real way to overcome the mountain-flattening shortcomings inherent in the primitive technology of photography.

Oh, and your welcome.

No, Seriously

Wait what? Oh. You wanted actual advice on shooting steep trails? Um.

OK. Let me google that. Hang on a minute.

All right. Here we go. Wait, no. Maybe this one…

This might take a minute. (Fatty, you told me that your audience just wanted razor sharp wit. I didn’t think actual advice was of any value here!)

Ahh. Here we go. Found it.

You want real advice? I’ll give you real advice…

…that I solicited from outdoor photographer extraordinaire, mountain biker, skier, and purveyor of, John Shafer — aka Photo-John.

He says…

First: “Shoot perpendicular. Instead of shooting up at our subject, shoot from the side. This gives you the actual angle. Make sure to watch the trees and keep your camera vertical. If your slope isn’t actually very steep, this may not be the best method.”

Second: “Shoot across. I love it when I can shoot across a ravine or gully with a long lens. The combination of looking straight across at your subject and the long lens can make a slope look nearly vertical. This is a good technique for making things look steeper. The tough part is actually having a good vantage point for a shot like this. I think it’s easier with super long lenses and ski shots than it is for mountain bike photos. I also think telephoto shots in general imply slope better – as long as you stay reasonably close to the subject. If you’re 200 yards straight downhill you’re just going to flatten out the slope. But if you’re 30 feet downhill you can still get a sense of steepness.”

Third: “Wide-angle. Shooting tight with a super wide lens and keeping your subject near the top of the frame can make a trail look really steep and gnarly.”

Hmm. So maybe tilting the camera isn’t the ideal solution. In fact, maybe it’s cheating. To find out for certain, I set out with my camera, and John’s suggestions, in my pocket. The results? Well, I’ll let you decide. But I thought they were a good start. No tilting needed.

Perpendicular sample:


Telephoto samples:



Wide angle sample:


Now it’s your turn. Go ride your bike, and take some great photos along the way.

Grizzly Adam is the author of Mythical and Tangible: Tales of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Singletrack. He writes regularly at He can also be found on Twitter.


  1. Comment by Up North | 05.26.2011 | 9:35 am

    This truly is one of my big beefs with trying to take photos of cool climbs/descents. Thanks for the tips!

    (Is it wrong that tilting the camera still seems the easiest way to get what you want?)

  2. Comment by Jason | 05.26.2011 | 9:37 am

    Did I post first?

  3. Comment by Jason | 05.26.2011 | 9:38 am

    Haha almost. But good stuff grizzly! I’ll try it out.

  4. Comment by Scott R | 05.26.2011 | 9:54 am

    A very useful post – whenever I try to take pictures at local cross races I often get annoyed that the resulting images don’t reflect how much awesomeness was occurring.

  5. Comment by Clydesteve | 05.26.2011 | 10:00 am

    Adam – These last 4 are nice shots.

    But your tilt-cheat shot gave me the willies – I thought it was 6PM somewhere (Margaritaville?) last Saturday, and the world was sliding into a vast hole in the space-time continuum.

    But it’s not the end of the world, so we’ve got that going for us.


    It seems like another tool to reduce the flattening effect of lenes would be to use a small f-stop / larger aperture. I know that smaller binoculars flatten more than large diameter ones do. I think that part of the flattening effect comes from putting all things near and far into focus with a small aperture.

    The disadvantage of a small f-stop might be that it is, indeed a shorter focal length. – Your focus would have to be spot-on to capture the object bike & rider. But, then, stuff outside of the center of focus would would be blurry which translates as speed, so that’s sometimes cool.

    But, probably, now that we are in the digital age using cameras with only tiny apertures, and all auto-focus, auto-light adjustment, these sorts of tricks are just the ruminations of an extinct species!

  6. Comment by Tom | 05.26.2011 | 10:05 am

    You can still slightly “cheat” by tilting the camera. Look at your first “real” shot “perpendicular.jpg” and the telephone pole. You can tilt that shot 2 degrees counter clockwise and the telephone pole will be straight up and look even steeper. Right now, it looks like you tilted the WRONG way.

    Good advice otherwise, I’ll use it :)

  7. Comment by KM | 05.26.2011 | 10:23 am

    I like the tips, these will make me look awesome! Also, Noooooooooooooooo!!!!!!! You can’t lose more weight. I feel the Superfly slipping away……. I’ll pay the Runner good money to feed you Ensure while you sleep…’ll never know. Email me….

  8. Comment by J | 05.26.2011 | 10:23 am

    Fatty, hats off to you for the way you handled the rip off of your jersey design. You’re response to the situation and overall perspective on life is the reason we all come to YOUR blog.

  9. Comment by MattC | 05.26.2011 | 10:34 am

    Uhm, Fatty, you’re apparently NOT eating your cookies…aren’t you even a LITTLE bit hungry? I’m having a TASTY Vanilla Chocholate Chunk muffin (Costco) right now…mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!

    Isn’t your kitchen just down the hall or something?

    i DID get those cookies, Matt, and I ate them all in one sitting! luckily for me, it was the day before the marathon, when i was intentionally pigging out anyway. But please, send more. Those were DELICIOUS! – FC

  10. Comment by MattC | 05.26.2011 | 10:35 am

    Oh, and I forgot to say: total class in how you are taking the jersey thing. You Da’ MAN!

  11. Comment by lynn e | 05.26.2011 | 11:18 am

    Total class Fatty. I heart you.

  12. Comment by Fifth Column | 05.26.2011 | 11:34 am

    I believe you meant to call this post “how to make mundane trails look epic” because I’m making all the bike paths in my area look like they’re built on 30-degree angles with the tilt trick.

  13. Comment by roan | 05.26.2011 | 1:59 pm

    I’ve not tried this but…what if you lower the camera to near ground level. Even better if there is a good vertical reference, tree, pole, people and the camera is actually on the ground at the angle of the slope an across the trail picture should show the steepness. Unless of course Fatty is the subject of the photo…then it all will turn out flat (or flat out) if at all. The latter is the result of his speed and you missed him.

  14. Comment by Stan | 05.26.2011 | 2:45 pm

    There’s something to this. I think when we’re taking pictures, we have an unconscious tendency to tilt the camera the same way as the hill. You can see this in this picture I took at the Fargo Street Hill Climb in Los Angeles:

    That’s a 33% grade, but it doesn’t look all that steep. But look at the wall of the house across the street. So I rotated the picture to make the wall of the house vertical, and this is the result:

    That’s how steep the hill really is.

  15. Comment by Jim B | 05.26.2011 | 8:29 pm

    I haven’t taken any cycling photos, but 20 years ago when friends and I would go rock climbing, I did take photos. Same problem — if you take the photo in line with the subject (above or below), it looked like we were climbing sidewalks.

  16. Comment by Grego | 05.26.2011 | 9:42 pm

    Good magnanimous blogging Fatty – good work.

    Great photo tips too.

  17. Comment by Dan O | 05.26.2011 | 11:56 pm

    Cool post. Gotta give it a try…

  18. Comment by Angie | 05.27.2011 | 7:32 am

    You never cease to amaze me. You keep coming up with subjects that I’ve always wondered about, but never voiced.

    I gotta try to think of a few on my own. Here are some blog ideas you might want to use…

    The subject of how long it takes to suit up with all the gear mt bikers use (what happened to the way kids just hop on their bikes and go).

    The subject of how amazingly pleasurable it is to get a hot shower after riding (cleaning off all the mud, sweat, road grime, bug spray, sun tan lotion, poison ivy protectant cream, etc…)

    The subject of how addicted we are to biking (and how completely the rest of the world does not get it).

    Question: What kind of a sport is biking if a person like me can do well in it? I’ve never competed all my life, I was not in sports as a kid, and I have asthma. So, now that I’m 37 (and only biking for 2.5 years) I race Elite in XC mountain biking. Does that make me an athlete? Really?

  19. Pingback by May Review | 06.8.2011 | 8:06 am

    [...] “How to Make Steep Photos Look… Steep” My guest post at the Fat Cyclist. [...]


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