Sixteen Ways To Shoot Bikes Slight Better Than the Average Photo-Joe Does
(updated from an older one. This was one of the entries that got cut from Just Ride)
Bikes with no riders
1. Shoot the drive side, because everybody wants to see the crank and derailers, and it seems to be moving left to right, the same way you read and the most natural way for your eyes to move (since you’re used to reading this way). When you shoot the bike on the street you get the left side of it and it’s pointing left, too. The owners park for convenience, not for your photographic needs.
2. When you can pose the bike, put the right pedal just above horizontal. It makes the bike look ready to go.
3. Back up, zoom in, split the handlebar. Close, wide angle shots distort the bike. Back up at least twenty-five feet and zoom in. Make the bike look like it’s split in half vertically. Hide the left (far) side of the handlebar behind the near side of it, so you see only one brake lever, and there’s as little evidence as possible that there’s even a left-side handlebar. You can’t do this close up.
4. Shoot in the shade…to avoid distracting shadows.
5. Watch your backgrounds. Use a plain background, or at least a consistent one. Brick walls and barn sides aren’t plain, but are consistent. When you can’t control the background, make it blurry and the bike sharp. Some cameras allow that, some don’t. When possible, shoot against a background that’s white, off-white, grey, or black—whatever looks right with the bike. Bright colors draw you out, not in.
6. Keep the cables, crop the wheels (a little). If the bike has cables sticking up, show all of them. But if the focus is the bike’s frame and parts, it’s good to crop a few inches of the wheels out. This enlarges the rest of the bike, and you aren’t eliminating anything that matters.
7. Don’t get too wound up about perfection. The “wound-up” way of shooting bikes for slick catalogues is to show the tires with the labels legible, usually at 12:00 and 6:00, and with the valve stems either at 6:00, or hidden behind the chainstay and the fork blade. When it’s your bike or your friend’s bike, or a shot for eBay or whatever, that’s too fussy. It’s fine to know these tricks, but draw the line where it makes sense to you.
Here’s a bad photo, with tons wrong. I went out of my way to mess it up, but it’s not all that unusual in the real world:
• It’s the left side of the bike. SHOOT THE DRIVE SIDE.
• Shot close-up with wide angle, so front wheel looks huger. BACK UP, ZOOM IN.
• Inconsistent background is distracting. MAKE IT PLAIN.
• Crank is at noon and six. MAKE IT HORIZONTAL and flatten the pedals.
• Too sunny & for pete’s sake there’s the photoguy’s shadow: SHOOT IN OPEN SHADE.
Here’s a better way:
It’s all pretty cool here. Drive side, —- oh crud, I goofed the pedal. I never do that. It must be so smooth that it rocked up. Well, pretend it’s horizontal—-no shadows, “split” handlebars with one side blocking the other. No wheel distortion, because I stepped back and zoomed. Dang that pedal. I usually don’t crop the wheels, but doing so lets the bike be bigger, and you know the wheels are complete…
Riders on bikes (no examples to look forward to)
8. Shoot the bike heading right, and showing the drive-side components. It’s easier to do that in Japan or England than in America, and it’s easier on trails or bike paths than on roads.
9. Shoot riders coming into you, not riding away. It looks like something’s about to happen, not like something just did and you missed it.
10. Try to shoot riders with their pedals close to horizontal. Besides being at maximum flex, it looks more active. Don’t get hung up on horizontalness, but try to avoid vertical cranks. That always looks weird in photos, like the guy doesn’t know how to coast.
11. Tell your friends what to wear. Black and navy blue get underexposed, and make heads look suspended above nothing. White gets overexposed too easily. In color photos, red looks great, and plaid looks great, and if you can combine the two, in a nicely composed scene, it’s going to look fine. Think Paul Bunyan.
12. Helmets in the woods …make the rider look like a robot. Some people get nuts about published photos of helmetless riders, but not every photo sends a message. It can be just an image. Brilliant, super-vented, elongated and aerodynamic helmets wreck outdoorsy bike shots. The least photo-wrecking bike helmets are plain looking ones that aren’t white. Ball caps or other hats with big bills hide faces, often in shadows. Bare heads, beanies, and bike hats look the best. Race team jerseys in the woods don’t belong, either. They’re covered with advertisements and corporate logos, and they wreck woodsy photos.
13. Shoot from below and above. It makes even photos more interesting.
14. Rule of Thirds. It’s an old rule (not law) for any photo. Visually divide the scene into three equal parts both vertically and horizontally, and put the subject at the line intersections. When you have both land and sky in the photo, or road and land whichever one of them you want to emphasize should make up two-thirds of the photo. In this case there aren’t any imaginary intersections to guide you, but there are imaginary horizontal lines.
15. Don’t let the road itself eat up the whole lower half of the photo …unless the road itself is the subject. Otherwise, if you get down low, point the camera up so the road or trail takes up no more than a third of the frame.
16. Shoot blurry or grainy black and white. People are too used to seeing total focus brilliant color these days, courtesy of $80 digital cameras and phenomenal cell phone images that anybody can shoot and everybody does. If you want your photos to be a welcome reliever from all that digital perfection, mess them up some.
Film is a natural for messed up action photos, because it’s easier to screw up and if you shoot 3200 iso film, the graininess is automatic. If you don’t shoot film but you’d like to try, get a Holga for $50 and dive into it. I’m sure there are digital ways to simulate a blown black-and-white film shot, but that’s a phony way to go about it.
This is not the last word, it’s just how I do it, but there are thousands of bike photographers better than me—except when it comes to quickly set-up static shots of complete bikes against walls—that is my domain free and clear. The thing is, if you’re floundering and care a smidgen about improving your bike photos, you can go by this and up your game immediately. Go your own way once you’re comfortable with it all.