Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How to shoot motorcycles with all that blinding chrome?

It’s all about light – that’s not too heavy, is it?  I don’t mean the weight of the motorcycle, but the light reflecting off the machine.  In a staged studio set-up large amounts of very soft light is positioned above the motorcycle such as in the custom motorcycle shoot at the Sturgis Motorcycle rally. 

However, out in the field, you won’t have that much control, unless you choose the setting and the time of day.  Some of your best images of shiny motorcycles will NOT be on those bright and glorious days when owners like to show off their scoots.  Instead, an overcast “verge-of-rain” days are best for capturing the bright colors and reflective surfaces.   It’s about as close as you can get to a staged studio set up.   It was what I was blessed with when I shot vintage motorcycles in South Dakota a couple years ago. (Tip: a good software program such as one of the Photoshop or Corel programs can enhance dull colors if it’s too overcast of a day.)
You can also use a neutral density filter, but my choice is a circular polarizing filter. However, if your light is soft enough, as mentioned above, you can probably save yourself a few bucks and shoot without.  If you already have one, though, use it!

Watch out for shadows on the motorcycle you are shooting. These can come from trees, people or the bike parked next to it.  They can be hard to minimize or eliminate – except by asking the biker to move his machine to a better location.  Of course, that’s not always possible if you’re shooting that one bike on main street parked next to a few thousand others.  It is possible to carefully use a speed light, but then you run the risk of getting those nasty overblown reflections.  (Again, a good program such as Adobe an merge those two shots, or parts of them in to one evenly lit subject.)

If it’s one bike parked uniformly in a row with others, look for patterns that might enhance the image you’re shooting.  Is there a kind of infinity mirror pattern?  Is the bike next to it is the same color, or a different color?

Get down
Of course that bike caught your eye when you were standing, but can other angles give you a better shot?  Crouch down, sit down, or even lay down to get that scooter from a different angle, one that can highlight its unique features.  Decide this: What is the key element you want to shoot? Is it the paint job? The chrome? The entire vintage machine?  Get in on that part of the machine.  Is it a 1957 Indian, then shoot the identifying features? Is it a 1964 panhead Harley-Davidson?  Shoot the pan, the rocker covers, shoot the wheels, shoot the paint, shoot the leather – but focus on that element that sets this machine apart from others.

Avoid the stadium shot.  You don’t need to shoot the whole football stadium just to show off one player.  The machine you’re shooting should fill the frame – or some would say, fill three-quarters of the frame.

I can see for miles and miles and ….

What is that in that chrome? Is that you standing there, all distorted in the curvature of the chrome?  Sometimes reflections are desirable, such as the bike next to it, but are you sure you want that beer sign reflecting in the air cleaner cover?  Are you in the reflection?  Notice that guy crouching down in the air intake elbow in the top photo of the red custom bike?  Or how about his guy in the headlight bucket?  Oops!

While we’re on the subject of unwanted images – check the background before you click the shutter.  Are you sure you want that fat lady in the fluorescent green pant suit standing behind that motorcycle?  (Yeah, what’s she doing at a motorcycle rally anyway with that green polyester 70’s left over fashion?)

One more time
Like always, especially in photography, just get out there and do it. Practice, refine, and practice some more. You may not get it right the first time, but that’s okay because it’s not your last time.


  1. Hi Mark -- Although an amateur, I got serious about taking pictures at motorcycle events a couple of years ago. I learned pretty quick that getting a decent shot is not easy. I have had to think about the angle, what to do about bright overhead lighting, the people, and funky orbs that show up in some of my shots. That sort of thing. Seems my best shots still require a lot of filtering and editing in PSE. Your practical advice may have pole-vaulted me up the learning curve in time for an upcoming swap meet. Thank you for sharing your excellent tips and awesome photos! I'm sure they will help a lot of people out.

  2. Cool! Cool! Cool!
    It's a lot of trial and error, isn't it.