How To: Motography
Document your ride with photos.
To start, we’d like to let you know we aren’t professionals. We don’t have any formal training.
However, we would like to give you some tips we have picked up over the years from our experience, research, and helpful tips from other photographers.
So, what is it that makes a great moto photo? Here’s what we think!
The most common question we are asked by far is:
What kind of camera do you use??
Now, this is the wrong question to ask, almost always. Telling a photographer they “must have a great camera” is like telling a chef his meal was so good because he has a really expensive frying pan. Equipment doesn’t make a great photo. However, it can increase the photo quality, which is far different. We’ll touch on that much later.
We all know the old saying “A photo is worth a thousand words”. It tells the viewer a story, a feeling, captures a great moment in time.
The lead photographer of PNWDS, Jesse Felker, says:
“Some of my favorite photos don’t require a caption".
Pick out a recent photo you took. What story does it tell? Why is compelling? How is it interesting?
A quick google search of the “greatest photos of all time” will bring up a ton of powerful photos taken over the path of history. Many of these photos were taken with a simple camera, so how can it be such a great image?
A good friend of ours, Jason Small (an awesome photographer himself), once told us a quote about taking powerful photos:
“F8 and be there.”
Now, that might be cryptic. “F” is a keyword for a certain setting on the camera that controls the focus. We’ll explain it in further detail later in the story, but F8 is a very standard setting for photographers of all kinds. It allows almost everything in the camera’s view to be in focus. So what Jason’s quote is saying is:
Have a camera, and be in the right place, at the right time.
This is the most important factor in photography in our opinion. You can’t just “create” a story, you must capture one. Some of those iconic photos of the past were simply because the photographer was THERE.
This isn’t terribly hard to do on a dual sport ride, since every time you take off on that bike, you are creating an adventure no matter how small. Especially when you are riding with others!
Some of the most popular photos on our Instagram were taken with a cell phone, at just the right time.
Timing is everything.
That being said, how do you tell a story?
Emotion is number one. We tend to stick with positivity when we take pictures. However, any emotion will work for a photo.
A moment someone is totally captured by the activity, a real smile, excitement, laughter. Someone picking up their bike with a big grin you can see, even with their helmet on.
Are you trying to make someone understand a real world issue? Show them the dark side of it. Maybe, torn up ground off-trail in a sensitive riding area in danger of being shut down.
Some photos make you stare and stare. Something very interesting is happening here…but what? The viewer is captivated and asking “What? Why? How?”. For example, a bike stuck in a tree. How in the heck did they do that?
The list goes on and on. Make them feel something. However, this is difficult to do, if the subject matter isn’t important or dear to you. Pick something from your own soul, and project it into a picture.
Capture a real moment in time.
Ok, now you’re thinking…here’s the part where we figure out what camera to use.
Not quite yet.
Now that you have a message, a story, an emotion…what’s next?
If you think your cell phone camera isn’t cutting it, maybe you need to try some new techniques. Modern cameras in our pockets take great photos, and are very easy to use and readily available to us at all times.
Look at Craigslist, for example. Many photos of cars with part of the vehicle cut off, bad angle, and more issues. We really need to see the vehicle for sale correctly.
Always pay attention to what’s in frame, and where. This is something that takes practice, and studying other photos. You want your subject to show properly. Also, leading lines help the eye go to your subject.
Similar to what our friend Tim Burke (a traveling moto photographer) once said in a Podcast:
“Move around, try new angles.”
Most of your favorite photos by professional photographers were probably chosen out of a handful taken, trying to get the framing correct. Every photo is a new experience, and it takes a moment to figure out the right spot to stand, how high or low to be, and so on. We recommend taking a lot at once, and figuring out why your favorite one is your favorite from the set. Eventually, you’ll be taking less photos, and nailing the framing quicker.
A camera is essentially just a detector, picking up light waves bouncing off of objects.
Keep your subject bright, so it can be seen clearly. The eyes always attract to the brightest part of a photo. There are also editing techniques to be found online to increase this, however, we suggest trying to get it as correct as possible with the camera first. We are still working on this trick ourselves, so don’t be discouraged.
You can also use artificial light to make a subject pop. Check out some YouTube videos if you want to learn more. However, this isn’t always an option when you are riding, since all you want to bring is a camera and shoot on the go. This is something we very rarely do, and just rely on natural light such as sunlight, moonlight, streetlights, and more.
As we said before with bright subjects, the most in-focus part of the photo is what will stand out the most. This can be the whole photo, or just the subject with a blurry background or foreground.
Want to show everyone what tire you are using? Make sure it is tack-sharp to capture the detail, and the viewer’s attention to the tire.
You may be wondering at this point, “but how do I make the camera do those things?”.
Most cameras are pretty good at guessing these, but there are times when you need to tell the camera what to do. They do a great job at assessing the frame and setting itself, but a camera never knows exactly what you are trying to show. They don’t have emotion, just calculation.
If you are just starting out with photography, we recommend using “Auto” for a while.
This allows you to work on the basics of lighting, framing, and subject. It also takes away the error of using the wrong settings if you aren’t used to using manual settings on your camera.
Shooting with a cell phone camera does this trick, as most are already in “Auto” as soon as you open your camera application.
Ready to step it up a little?
Going from a cell phone to a stand-alone camera won’t make you a better photographer over night, just as a better bike won’t instantly make you a better rider. You’ll still need to work on the things mentioned before to be able to take a great photo, like learning the basics of the bike on the one you have, first. What it will do is give you better color, contrast, sharpness, resolution, depth of field, and so on. This is why these cameras give you a better “photo quality”.
Cameras have a handful of settings. Landscape mode, portrait mode, sports mode, and more. Each of these is set up to help you with a certain photo situation. Much like Auto, it picks settings based off of the frame. However, it understands a bit more what you are trying to capture. For example, sport mode keeps the shutter speed high, so the subject doesn’t blur in you photo.
Alright, so now you’ve got a lot of things nailed down with many hours of practice. You’re ready to move up to the ultimate amount of control with your camera:
This mode lets you take full control, and the camera ceases to do anything automatically. You now have to control a variety of separate settings, changing them for every new situation you encounter. Each setting takes a while to understand, and also how each setting affects the next one.
Manual is something that takes a long time to adjust to, but it’s what we primarily use to keep full control of what we are trying to convey in an image.
We’ll go over the most commonly used ones.
In the most simple of terms, this tells the camera how long to let light in. A camera shutter opens, then closes, for a set amount of time. The longer it is open, the more light comes in. This changes the brightness of the photo, however, it will also blur an object since it sees it moving across it’s frame as it’s open.
If you are shooting someone riding fast, keep your shutter speed high. It is measured in fractions of a second (1/30, 1/4000, and so on), so the smaller the fraction, the faster the shutter speed. You can brighten a subject that is not moving by slowing the shutter speed down.
You can use “Shutter Mode”, to let the camera run like “Auto”, but only one designated shutter speed.
As we are writing this, we realized we didn’t know how to spell that correctly. Just a reminder that we are always in the learning process!
The camera has a device, much like the pupils of our eyes, that opens and closes a certain distance to choose the amount of light coming in when the shutter opens. This is measured with “F”, followed by a number, such as F8 or F2.8. This gets tricky to understand, especially since the larger the number, the more closed the aperture is. To brighten a photo up, choose a smaller “F” number. To darken it, choose a smaller one.
Aperture is also strange, in the fact that it changes how the photo is in focus. The farther open it is, the less you have parts of the photo in focus. Play around with it a bit to get it figured out, so you can choose your focal depth and subject focus for each photo.
If you want your buddie’s helmet in focus, and the background out of focus, change your aperture setting accordingly.
Cameras also have an “Aperture Mode”, in case you want to lock in one F setting, and let the camera choose the other settings automatically.
From the days of film, this setting was actually a physical property of the film, judging how quickly the film physically got brighter.
Nowadays, digital cameras do this artificially. If you are unable to get your shutter speed slow enough, or your aperture open enough to get the correct brightness, you can use ISO to compensate.
This is a last resort however, as high ISO will cause your photos to be more grainy. Shooting in low light, but don’t want a blurry/unfocused photo? Up this setting. The larger the ISO number, the more brightness you will achieve.
Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for!
What camera should I use?
The short answer is:
The one you have with you.
Now, that’s not what you wanted to hear, is it? Of course not. This rings true to our above statement, it’s not about the camera, it’s about telling a story.
However, we will share with you what we use on our dual sport journeys currently.
We all know that dual sports are not large bikes. So, carrying light is important!
If you are over using your cell phone camera, our recommendation is to either choose a compact camera, or a mirrorless one. These both save space compared to a standard DSLR, which has a large body because of the mirrors inside bringing the light up to the viewfinder, so you can see what you have in frame.
As for safely carrying your gear, we recommend keeping them in a tank bag. In the event of a crash, this is the safest place, as the handlebars keep the tank bag from contacting the ground in the event of a bike falling over. We highly advise not keeping a mirrorless camera or DSLR in a backpack, because it is terribly easy to fall on it. If you are running a compact camera, try keeping it in a chest pocket of your jacket for quick accessibility, so you don’t miss that shot.
We use the Mosko Moto Nomad, since it’s largest pocket easily fits a mirrorless/DSLR and a spare lens. The sturdiness of the bag keeps everything in place by tightening the side straps, keeping the camera from bouncing around.
We hope we made an impact on your photo skills, or at least gave you momentum to start shooting better.
Tag your new photos with #PNWDSPhotos to show us your newly learned skills. Also, we are still learning as well, and would love to hear your tips!
Happy shooting, and ride safe!