Happy Snappers

Words and Photos (including the bad ones) by Simon Bradley

There comes a moment in everyone's life when you just wish you could get a picture of what's in front of you. And with the advent of smaller and better digital cameras that possibility has got closer than ever before.

But sometimes we all need a little help to get the shot just right. Especially if the subject matter is a little tricky. And motorbikes, especially moving ones, are quite difficult to photograph well. Even stationary bikes pose problems with reflections, contrasting colours and the fact that so often they look wrong from certain angles.

While I'm not about to suggest that you can read this and instantly become a brilliant photographer, or even that I'm brilliant myself, at least I can offer you some pointers and make some suggestions.

This week we'll look at the basics and have a quick glance at the sorts of cameras on offer.

So here we go.

First of all let's look at some basic rules of photography.

Exposure. Many digital cameras deal with this automatically. Sometimes that's a bad thing. Because a camera is never as clever as your eyes, it is limited to the range of exposures it can deal with. Your eye, for example, can look at a reflection and a shadow and a bright outside scene and successfully resolve everything in the image. A camera can't, and will expose the picture based on what it 'sees' as the ideal average. You can often help by knowing which part or parts of the viewfinder your camera uses to work out exposure and then making sure that the most extreme part of the picture is near that point. That will expose for the worst part and you can deal with the rest afterwards if you have to. If you have the option to adjust settings yourself then you have more flexibility but the same basic rules apply.

And if you have to either over or under expose then you're always better off under exposing with a digital camera. Software readily available for both PC and Mac makes it quite easy to bring up under exposed images but over exposed is almost impossible to fix. The picture above is an example of this - the mid-tones are just right but the reflection on the fairing is way over-exposed.

Exposure is made up of two things. Well, three actually, but only two you can readily change. Shutter speed and aperture. Apertures are measured in stops and for some reason are referred to as f-numbers. They are rarely whole numbers but the conventional stops you'll find on lenses or in the controls of your digital camera do actually have some logic behind them. Each stop is allows half (or twice) the light through that its neighbour does. And the smaller the number, the larger the aperture. Shutter speeds are measured as fractions of a second and again are conventionally arranged so that each speed is as near as makes no difference twice or half as fast as its neighbour. Obviously a larger aperture will let more light through so the shot will work with a faster shutter speed. And while a faster shutter speed reduces the risk of blurring it also forces the aperture to be wider. And a wider aperture means that depth of field is reduced. A smaller aperture means that the range of distances which are still in focus is very large - at f/16 for example, taking a photograph of a bike 100 feet away with a 100mm lens will give a depth of field such that everything from 45 feet away to the horizon will be in focus. Setting that same lens to f2 would reduce the depth of field to the extent that only the patch of ground between 85 feet and 115 feet would be in focus. Longer lenses accentuate that effect.

These two pictures illustrate the point. Identically composed and exposed except for the top picture being slower and with a wider aperture. Look how in the first picture the bike seems to stand out more from the background, though the contrasting colour makes it less of an issue anyway.

Now you might think at first glance that you'd want lots of depth of field. And sometimes, of course, you'd be right. But often you want the depth of field to be as shallow as possible to emphasise your subject and to pull it out from the background clutter.

Which brings me onto the next bit. Background. Often the biggest difference between a good photo and an average one is the background. Not just with bikes but with everything. How often have you seen or taken a great shot of something or someone only to discover afterwards that something in the background spoils the effect completely? Me too - the shot below was a great idea and I got the exposure bang on (no mean feat either) but completely forgot about the background. Result? A bike that gets lost in the clutter. And has a swan's head on the tank. I got a better one later having reconsidered the background but then messed up the exposure. One of those days...

So you want a background that is either complimentary to the subject or is easily able to be ignored. Making the background out of focus can help a lot, of course, so we're back to depth of field again.

Actually composing the shot is both the easiest and hardest thing. Getting everything in is usually quite straightforward, but getting it to look right is a challenge. Of course you can do a great deal with digital photos by cropping and rotating images afterwards, but getting it right in the first place is always more satisfying. And it saves a shedload of time, too.

There is an oft-quoted rule called the rule of thirds. In a nutshell it says that pictures work best if you divide them up into a grid like a noughts and crosses table, placing certain key points on or near the intersections of the grid. Personally, I think that for bike shots at least it looks best if the bike is slightly off-centre. I'll often have the centre of the shot somewhere just behind the front wheel, giving the bike somewhere to ride into in the picture. Then again, I'll often do something completely different as well...

Here's an example of one that worked just about right despite not really obeying the rule of thirds. Note how the depth of field is shallow enough that both foreground and background are blurred, though the fact that I was panning to follow the bike helps a bit. We'll look at panning next time.

Finally for this session, don't let anyone tell you that you need a hugely expensive or complex camera to take decent pictures. All you need is an eye for the shot and the willingness to try something different. A great advantage of digital cameras is that you can try a shot, instantly see if it's worked and if not you can delete it and have lost nothing.

Here at MBT we use a range of cameras from the lower end up to professional equipment. Here's a brief rundown on them:

Budget cameras - Fuji A205 and A330. These are 2 million and 3.2 million pixel cameras respectively. What does that mean? Well, if you set your PC monitor at 1024x768, as most people do these days, you are looking at something like three quarters of a million pixels. So either of these cameras will be easily able to take a picture bigger than your screen can display, which means that when you come to resize them for viewing you will have nice sharp images with all the detail staying in. There are several cameras like this on the market, all around the £150 mark. They're tough, easy to use and small enough to slip into a pocket without trouble. In fact, the only real downside is that you will often find a slight delay between pressing the button and the shutter releasing. Which means that although it's fine for slow or stationary subjects, trying to catch a Superbike at full chat is a bit of a challenge.

Next step up is the midrange camera. We use the Fuji S7000 which looks like a full SLR camera but has an integrated lens instead. At up to 12 million pixels, the S7000 can take enormous images which are great for both web and print, and is a fully featured camera that allows almost as much control over your creativity as an SLR. There is still a slight delay on the shutter, exacerbated by the fact that the viewfinder is electronic and freezes when you try to take the shot. The good news is that this feature can be turned off, and the result is an extremely high quality, easy to use camera at a sensible price. The inbuilt lens is a 35-210mm equivalent which is an excellent zoom range, and there are extension tubes available as well. Expect to pay around £400 online or the best part of £700 retail.

Finally we come to our top camera. Also a Fuji, for our serious stuff we use the S2Pro, a 12 million pixel digital SLR. Based on a Nikon body, the S2Pro has all the features you'd normally expect of a professional SLR plus a few extras. For a start, rather than using expensive and hard to get batteries, the Fuji uses standard AA cells for most of the work, relying on industry standard camera batteries for the rest. Lenses are standard Nikon fit which means that there is a wide choice of third party lenses as well as Nikon own brand ones. We use a Sigma 28-200mm for normal and studio work and a Nikon 80-400VR for track and other high speed shots. It's a fantastic camera that rewards effort but it isn't point and shoot and it isn't cheap. The body alone is around £1200 and the Sigma lens was £400. But the Nikon lens was another £1200 on top of that, and that was online too...

Next time we'll look at panning and some other techniques.

But in the meantime, if you have a shot you'd like to show off then why not send it in? We'll run a selection of the best over the coming months so don't be shy...


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