More Happy Snappers

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

So last time we looked at some of the basics and the terms that get bandied around, and got an idea of the kit we could use and the limitations that go with it. This time, as promised, we're going to have a look at some techniques.

A stationary motorcycle is just another machine. Just a collection of machined and moulded parts, and no more worthy of artistic attention than a cement mixer. Now you may choose not to believe that - it's a pretty outrageous statement, after all - but you'd still have to agree that to capture the essence of what a bike is all about you really have to photograph it in action. Don't you?

No. Of course you don't. Probably 90% of the pictures we use on this site are of static bikes. Because that shows off what the bike looks like and removes distractions like a rider and moving background. But what makes the difference between a nice static bike shot and a less nice one?

Ah yes. Now this is a bike that it's actually very difficult to photograph badly. I mean, look at it. It's a fantastic shape, the detailing is amazing and it's one of the very few bikes that actually looks scary, even when it isn't moving. The Cagiva Raptor, for that's what it is, is definitely aptly named.

And yet this photo entirely fails to capture any of that. The details get lost in the fussy background, which is far too clear, and the unimaginative angle serves to flatten the whole bike and lose the aggressive stance further. Then add the slight underexposure that makes the engine and radiator detail disappear into shadow and you get a study in disappointment. When I took this, all I could do was thank God for digital and the facility to check that a shot was OK before finishing the session. If this had been film I might never have noticed, because I'm not an intuitive photographer - I need to see my mistakes to learn from them. Which gets a little awkward if the first you see of them is when your shots come back from the developer...

Same bike, same day, about a mile down the road. Still not perfect - the area of shadow under the tank masks some of the detail more than I'd like - and I should have done something to hide the stone under the sidestand. But what an improvement. The predatory look of the bike is accentuated by the low angle which, conveniently, gets rid of most of the background as well, replacing it with sky. So no confusing details to worry about.

This shot is something of a cliche, to be honest, but it proves one thing - photographic cliches, whether young ladies in wet tee shirts or bikes taken from low down have become established as such because they are an easy and reliable way of showing off the parts of the subject you want to accentuate to the fullest effect. It also shows how much difference you can get from just a foot or so of movement, either up or down, from the normal eyeline.

It's actually quite difficult to get a good shot of a stationary bike. There are lots of shadows, lots of reflections and lots of detail bits to try and capture, and as a result your camera, which is nowhere near as sophisticated an imaging system as your eye, struggles to get everything balanced. So remember to review your shot, assuming you can, before moving on to the next thing.

And the next thing, of course, is moving bikes. Now this is an area which, paradoxically, is both easier and harder to do. It's harder to get the composition of the shot right, but it's easier to make it work when you do.

Being in the right place at the right time is always useful, and this shot was completely spontaneous - I happened to be there when Toseland came into the pits. As he swung across into the garage, though he wasn't going very fast, the movement relative to everything around him was enough to give a great impression of action. I love this shot.

Actually, I've just unwittingly let you into one of the secrets of bike journalism. Get the angles right and you can create the impression of going very fast indeed when you're actually not. This is surprisingly useful. Unfortunately, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Conversely, I've taken plenty of shots where my subject has been absolutely flying...but it has looked as though there's all the time in the world for me to have done it in oils instead.

This shot, by the way, also illustrates two other points. If there may be something around then never turn your camera off or put the lens cap on. Because you'll miss something, for sure. And if you can possibly get something with a motor drive then do so. This shot is one of a sequence of five, and it's the only one that worked properly.

This little gem, taken at Brands Hatch in 2003, shows what happens when panning goes wrong. I'm using a fast enough shutter speed to lose the movement of the bike in the frame, but basically I'm not moving fast enough. I set the shot up, panned with the bike, released the shutter this.

I probably ought to explain what panning is. Just in case. Very simple, really. It's a flash term for following the subject with the camera. Or, more likely, with your entire upper body, because that's the way you're most likely to be able to track the subject, see through the viewfinder and avoid dropping the camera. These are all important. To make panning work you need to get the subject into the viewfinder way before you take the shot, then follow through until the subject gets to where you want the shot. then keep panning while the shutter releases. If you're a purist then you will have manually focussed your camera at the point you want the shot, and will know when to press the button. This may also be the case if your camera doesn't have an autofocus facility. Otherwise, try to keep your subject in the middle of the viewfinder because usually that is the sweet spot for focussing.

Same day, same bike, same corner. This is the shot I was aiming for and a couple of laps later I got it. The composition is wrong for a classic shot - remember we talked about the "Rule of Thirds" before - but the rest of it seems to have worked OK.

There is a simple fudge to make panning easier. I've actually used it here to an extent, but it's more obvious in the next shot. If a bike (or car or bird or whatever) is moving fast in front of you then you have to pan fast because the angle is changing fast. But if you move so that, instead of just crossing your field of view, the subject is coming towards you as well, you reduce the angular velocity and so make it easier to pan.

Of course, this technique relies on you either having a camera capable of staying in focus on something moving towards you at high speed or your choosing a point to take the shot and manually setting the focus to get it. If you're going to do that then you need to find a convenient reference point in the background that you'll see through the viewfinder...

Here's an example of what I mean. Cooper Straight at Brands Hatch is a critical part of the circuit and it's fast, too. At this point the riders are just braking for Surtees, the long left hander leading to Pilgrims Drop, the fastest part of the circuit. My position allowed me to minimise the panning I had to do to get sharp shots.

The other thing you can do, and I used this here as well, is to distance yourself from the action. A fast moving object further away doesn't cross your view so fast and so is easier to track. Obviously you'll need a bigger lens and the downside is that, like here, the picture gets flattened rather, losing a lot of depth. But if a race is close, as it was here, you can use that to convey how tight the competition actually is as well...

Finally for today. Don't be afraid to try something different. You never know what might happen. For this shot I lay down behind the crash barrier and took the shot as the riders went away from me. It took a few goes to get right but I think the result was worth the effort...

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