Whether you’re an aspiring contributor to Rider magazine or just want to have the best possible visual memories from your motorcycle adventures, these 10 photo tips will help you make better photographs. Notice that I said “make” rather than “take” better photos. Creating good images involves more than snapping a shutter button—it’s a process that combines a working knowledge of your camera’s abilities with the skill, creativity and patience to properly light, compose, focus and expose your image. The more you practice combining and cooking up all of these ingredients to make your images, the better they will turn out, and making them will become faster and easier.
Let There Be Light
The key ingredient in any photo is not the subject, but light. Without light, there is darkness. Use light like you might use paint to color your subject and fill in dark areas. The most important lighting skill is to “front light” your subject, i.e. your light source (most often the sun) is behind or coming from the photographer, shining onto the subject. “Back lighting,” when the light is shining toward the camera, is appropriate for moody shots, sunset silhouettes, etc., but most good scenic and motorcycle images are front lit. If the subject must be backlit (by a window or the sun, for example), try forcing your camera’s flash to fire in order to “fill” in the subject (flash fill). The flash strength is often adjustable on digital cameras. Choosing and/or positioning your subject and background for good lighting goes hand-in-glove with:
Maintain Your Composition
Snapshots of bikes and people preserve a moment in time, but without good composition they are only interesting to the subject(s), photographer and maybe the police. Arrange the bikes and/or riders in the scene to create interest (bring a tripod if you’re alone and put yourself in your images, too). No one wants to see 40 photos of someone with his or her bike without enough of the background included in some to make them interesting. Rather than centering the bike in the composition, position it off to one side, back up a little and include more of that interesting building, mountain scene or ghost town in the frame. You just have to make sure to get the main subject sharp….
Most digital cameras will let you set focus on the bike or subject in the foreground to make sure it’s sharp, then recompose the image while you continue holding the shutter button halfway down to keep the plane of focus locked on the main subject. Once you have the composition you want, squeeze the shutter gently—don’t snap it—to avoid unwanted camera movement. No one likes blurry images. Make yours sharp by using a high enough shutter speed. Unless you’re shooting on a tripod or your camera has an image stabilizer, a good rule of thumb for still subjects is to use a speed double or more in number than the focal length of the lens. For example, if you’re shooting with a 70mm lens, you need to set the shutter to at least 1/140th. Don’t be afraid of the manual side of the settings dial—in fact you should use it most of time.
That’s Really Deep
To achieve good sharpness throughout your image it helps to imagine focus as a flat plane, like a sheet of glass, parallel to the camera back that moves toward and away from the camera as you adjust the focus. You can control the effective depth of that plane by changing the lens aperture. Larger aperture numbers equate to smaller aperture openings and provide more “depth of field”—deeper planes of focus.
So if you want to get everything in the foreground of your image just as sharp as the background, try using a smaller aperture (larger number, f8, f11, f16, etc.). To make your subject sharp but blur the background for emphasis, use a larger aperture (smaller number, like f4).
Proper exposure, or the brightness/darkness of an image, makes a huge difference in its quality. With digital photography you can get away with an image that is slightly dark, since there is an excess of digital information that can be removed to lighten it. But a too bright or “washed-out” image is a lost cause. If you have trouble getting good exposures with your camera, most will let you automatically “bracket” each shot. Instead of a single image the camera shoots three, one underexposed by an amount of your choosing, one normal and one overexposed. Most cameras will also let you override the automatic exposure setting up or down before you shoot until you get the exposure you want.
Go Big or Go Home
For publication in print, as in Rider magazine, or if you want to make high-quality, large prints from your photos, you need to shoot large, “high-resolution” images. Set your camera to produce the largest image or file size, and if it offers it, to the minimum compression setting (often called fine or superfine). For magazines you really need a camera capable of at least 7 megapixels that produces images of at least 2300 x 3000 pixels, or about 32 x 42 inches at 72 dpi. Some cameras also offer the ability to shoot “raw” images, with no compression at all, but these require special processing and are really only necessary for pro-level work. In most cases .jpg or .jpeg type images are fine if they’re big enough.
Different story for the Internet. Your images can be much smaller, but keep in mind that while you can shrink a larger image to Internet size, you can’t enlarge a small low-resolution image much at all.
Tools of the Trade
If you still need to choose a camera for your next adventure, there are plenty out there that offer all of the features you need in a compact size. Look for one that can make images of at least 10 megapixels if you’re shooting for print (more is better). Image stabilization is a nice feature to have, particularly if you want to be able to zoom-in on distant subjects. Good zoom numbers are 16X to 20X and higher, but make sure that this is the camera’s “optical” zoom rating, i.e. the zoom ratio that the lens is actually capable of achieving, not the camera software (digital zoom). The ability to shoot movies in HD quality is desirable, too. Some smartphones are capable of shooting large images, but unless you’re very careful about lighting and exposure, the scenic image quality their lenses produce is not always good enough for print.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Stopping a moving subject in your image and making it sharp requires a higher shutter speed than a still image, and I’ve found that digital cameras need higher shutter speeds than our good ol’ film cameras to achieve the same result. The trick is to make sure you have enough light to use a higher shutter speed along with the aperture required for the desired depth of field. If not you can manually increase the camera’s sensitivity to light (the ISO rating). For shooting action on sunny days you can generally get away with a shutter speed of 1/350th of second and higher on the camera’s Auto ISO setting, but if it’s overcast or getting dark, it may not be able to open the aperture enough for that shutter speed. In that case try manually increasing the ISO to 400 or more. It’s especially important to hold the camera still for action shots (unless you’re panning, which we won’t get into here). Remember to squeeeezze the shutter, don’t snap it.
Long Lens Tips
The chief difference between your smartphone and a good digital camera is the lens. Good glass makes good images—tiny plastic lenses do not. Being able to zoom in on your subject and maintain that image quality is what really separates a good camera from a phone. Look for cameras that optically zoom to the equivalent of 200mm and more and offer image stabilization, though it’s a still a good idea to put the camera on a tripod whenever you’re zooming in a lot. A 20 or 25X optical zoom or more lets you shoot distant subjects easily, and dangerous subjects (bears, erupting volcanos, Richard Simmons) from a distance. Backing away and zooming even when you don’t have to has the effect of compressing a scene, too, making your bike appear to be right at the foot of a distant mountain, for example.
Play It Safe
Unless you like really short trips, you should never look through your camera’s viewfinder or at its screen and walk at the same time. It’s best to leave motorcycle action shots on public roads and/or in traffic to the pros, too. Finally, be wary of storing your camera or memory cards in extremely high or low temperatures, and take precautions if your camera isn’t waterproof. After all, you put a lot of hard work into making those great motorcycling images with your newly learned skills—it would be a shame to ruin them!