Motorcycle photography is a great hobby that can help you develop skills behind the lens. Sometimes these skills can transfer into other types of photography.
Whilst these days everybody has a camera at their fingertips, a mobile phone does not give the same flexibility as a proper body and lens camera.
What type of camera do I need for motorcycle photography?
For static shots, phone cameras can be great. They have a small footprint for tucking into pockets. But they lack a viewfinder and easily adjustable zoom and focus settings like on a camera body and lens. This makes it awkward for fast-moving subjects, like racing or road shooting.
A great way to start is by picking up a beginner-level DSLR. A used body suitable for beginners like the Canon 5D or a 7D can be bought for a few hundred pounds. These may come with a lens. Failing that most phone cameras have a ‘Pro’ mode which allows adjustment of shooting settings, which is great for practice.
After picking up your camera, learning about the exposure triangle, is very important in action-packed shooting, particularly with motorcycles.
What is the Exposure Triangle?
Exposure refers to how bright the image is. We don’t want a photo that’s so bright you can’t see the subject, but not enough light we don’t know what’s going on.
Exposure is made up of three (technically 4) elements of how the camera works.
Firstly, we have an aperture setting. If you look at how a DSLR takes a photo, the aperture determines the focal distance (how crisp or blurry the subject is).
Aperture is measured in “F-stops”, basically, what ratio of the hole is open compared to closed.
f/1.4 lets in the most light, but objects in the distance appear blurry, whilst f/8.0 will have most of the image clear and crisp.
Getting the light right
Aperture plays into the exposure triangle because the size of the hole determines how much light hits the sensor taking the photo. A lower f-stop allows more light in, therefore giving a brighter image.
Shutter Speed is the second major component of the exposure triangle. This is how fast the camera will “take the photo”. Shutter speed is important important in motorcycle photography because the effect between settings is drastic on the outcome of the photo.
A faster shutter speed makes the image look frozen in time. A slower shutter speed brings in some motion blur, wheel blur, and background blur.
Higher shutter speeds influence the exposure triangle by limiting the amount of time light has to enter the camera. A shutter speed of 1/60 is 1 60th of a second. Usually, anything lower than this results in a significant blur.
Get good at juggling!
The problem comes with trying to balance the aperture for focus, shutter speed and for the action you’re trying to photograph, and ISO (the next bit) for quality.
ISO is tricky to describe, but if you’ve ever taken a photo in the dark you might have seen ISO in action.
ISO can be described as “how sensitive the camera sensor is to light” although this is a very, very basic description.
A high ISO is used when the ambient lighting is dark. However if there’s not enough light coming in normally, you’ll start to see grainy artifacts in the blacks and shadows of your photos.
The basic rule of ISO is to keep it as low as possible, essentially, 100 or below on most cameras.
Studio photographers get around this by using studio lights, but stood next to the side of a racetrack makes it difficult to use studio lights!
The last component of the exposure triangle is lighting. The key is to use whatever lighting you do have to its maximum.
You can always try and find the perfect lighting, but without a good light source, your images might end up gloomy, dark and pixelated from the ISO straining. Remember it is often easier to make an image darker in post-production than to add light.
Simple photography tricks
Something I genuinely hate is people not learning how to get out of “green square, point and click mode” (automatic mode).
This was even a factor when purchasing my phone, as I sometimes want full control over my image, even before I edit it in any software. The green square mode is ok in one situation and when used properly.
Here’s how: On the first photo of the shoot, use auto mode. Review the photo and look at the setting the camera decided it wanted to use.
Now, go into full manual mode (usually M mode) and copy the settings the auto mode said to use. Adjust these settings based on your lighting preferences, the level of zoom and focus you have (such as increasing or decreasing aperture) and shutter speed for the object you’re photographing.
If you can get away with 1 maybe 2 steps underexposed at a push, but the correct shutter speed and aperture.
You can always brighten the images in post.
Don’t rely on auto mode for shooting all the time.
If you do that, you never have to learn how to actually take a photo, and it just becomes an expensive point and click with an expensive lens on the end.
Hold the camera and lens correctly
I used to hold the lens awkwardly but you want to hold the camera in a position that’s stable and allowing you to adjust the settings on the lens. This gives you a stable position, its easier to bear the weight of the lens, and allows you to change your focus or zoom.
Do this by placing your left hand (lens support and adjusting hand) underneath the camera, not to the side as shown below:
Buy the nifty fifty for your camera
There’s a reason why Canon 50mm prime f1.8 lenses are so cheap. Everybody gets one; everybody likes them. They’re great for portrait photos whilst also being extremely compact and small to carry around.
If you don’t know, a prime lens has a fixed focal length, so the nifty fifty is a 50mm focal length. Some lenses are zoom lenses and have a scale, such as a 24mm-70mm or a 100mm-300mm.
The nifty fifty is usually better quality than the bog-standard 24mm-70mm f/4.2 lens you get with the camera and is a great learning tool.
Due to the restrictions of a prime lens, you have to take framing and setting up your photo into consideration more.
It lacks the zoom feature, so you have to work around that, usually by moving further away or closer to the subject.
Some of our best photos have been taken on a 50mm lens, so despite being cheap they’re also great to use and work with.
Motorcycle photography is a learning experience.
Just with everything, photography is a learning game. One of the best and worst instances I have of this is taking a photo of the 2017 Suzuki GSX750. I thought the photo was great until I showed it to a professional.
I had learned about getting my zoom and focus right, getting the bike perfectly lined up and looking good.
The professional found one big problem with my photo, which I can never unsee now. Check the image below and see if you can spot it.
It ruined what I had deemed to be one of my best photos to date, but I learned from it. Never stop critiquing your own work. There are always ways to improve, whether that be on the day doing the shoot.
How you position your bike, the context and framing of your bike, and how you edit your photo afterwards.
Learn Lightroom and basic photoshop.
Photoshop gets a bad rep. We see fake photos being thrown around all the time, but it can be great in removing unwanted obstructive and distracting items in your photos.
(We did this for one of the photos on this page, see if you can guess which photo had a bollard removed, we bet you can’t tell!).
Lightroom is Adobe’s management, organization, and basic editing suite. It can be used to edit the attributes of your photo (brightness, colouring, contrast, etc.) but doesn’t have the manipulation power of Photoshop.
Most of our photos are ran through Lightroom, where bad photos are flagged up and removed, and the good ones get cropped, adjusted, and exported. It’s a really easy tool to learn and can take a boring and drab photo into something amazing after a few clicks.
Rule of thirds….sometimes
The rule of thirds is based on dividing your image into three rows and columns and trying to get the interesting parts of your photo to line up with the intersections.
Some cameras have this built in to help you, but this is usually done when cropping in editing software.
Sometimes though, you don’t want to follow the rule of thirds. Seeing the same styled image all the time is boring. Having a photo with a unique perspective and angle can be great.
Never stop thinking out the box!
Sometimes skill is more important than equipment
One of my favourite series on youtube was back when a photography media company challenged professional photographers to use toy cameras and get high-quality photos.
Here’s one of the videos:
It’s not their gear which makes them pro, it’s how their mind works to position and set up their photos.
Buy extra CF/SD cards, multiple batteries and a bag to carry it all in
One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered is either running out of battery or running out of memory. Without either, your shoot can be completely ruined.
You can get the good quality (not-cheapo) brand batteries for most DSLR’s at places like Curry’s PC world or online, I’d only go with the brand of camera you have, or a well known/respected battery maker like Duracell.
Get 2 or 3 spare CF or SD cards (depending on your camera), you can usually get good deals on pairs of 8GB storage online, so it’s always worth loading up on a few smaller cards to have handy.
Bike positioning is key for motorcycle photogrpahy
Similar to framing, getting your bike looking good for the shoot is also important. The typical convention is “wheel straight forwards”, which is simple, yet effective.
The next general rule is using 45 degree angles to complement the bike, be it 45 degrees from the nose of the bike or the side of the bike.
The next step in this is to always photograph the left-hand side of the bike where possible.
This means the empty space is filled by the exhaust, whereas if you photographed the right side of the bike, there’s an empty gap and you miss showing off that gurgling end can.