Capturing the energy, emotion, atmosphere and excitement of a live performance has long been the ambition of many a photographer. The turbulent lifestyles of rock and pop superstars, both off and on stage, have been faithfully documented by concert and gig photographers for as long as Stratocasters and shutters have coexisted.
Being the type of person that’s been interested in tinkering with anything containing an internal combustion engine, I’ve always been keen to combine my passions for photography and exotic transport in an interesting and profitable way. Unfortunately, I tend to divert most of my income towards the relentless procurement of fast lenses and hot bodies, rather the automotive equivalent, so while my own set of wheels might have both a financial and aesthetic value that doesn’t warrant any kind of photographic record, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some really fun shoots that do.
This was a simple road trip. Just two guys, one bike and the open road. Like Easy Rider but more sharing. In this case, a 500 mile trip on the winding roads of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park, myself leaning on the Sissy Bar (that’s bike talk for the passenger backrest) with seasoned biker Leon Poultney of Flat Out Magazine taking the front seat. With the handlebars in the firm grip of my trusted driver, I didn’t have to worry too about piloting this beast, which is good because this Harley weighs as much as your Mum’s Fiat 500 and I’ve only got a teenager level bike license.
But all that’s fine, it leaves both my hands available for snapping duties after all. The brief called for a broad selection of shots, in an editorial style, focussing mainly on a solo ride through the isolated and beautiful Scottish countryside. The emphasis was on making the bike look great and the journey exciting yet achievable, all tied up in a convincing narrative. To make sure I got the bike shots I needed to keep the client coming back for more, I set myself the goal of nailing standard energetic tracking shots, appealing static compositions combined with a little bit of something different.
The Harley is the star here. I wanted to make sure I had a good selection of photos that showed off everything the Street Glide has, we’re talking to converted Harley heads, so they’re going to want all the hot body details. There’s no difficult technical expertise here, other than keeping a wide enough aperture to separate the bike from the background yet retain enough depth of field to keep the bike sharp. The important goal I wanted to accomplish was to make sure I was telling a story about these photos, whether it’s pulling out from a side road, disappearing down a windy road or stopping to take in the scenery.
I made sure we were well into the national park and firmly within the Golden Hour (the last hour or so before the sun sets) so we had some nice warm, flat light which contrasted beautifully with the late summer greenery of the Cairngorms.
One slip up I sometimes find making is getting caught up in the details. In the past, I’ve flicked through the JPEGs from a shoot I’ve just wrapped and realised I didn’t step back enough. I got so caught up in details I didn’t take some time to look at the big picture. At one point I considered getting “Walk Away” tattooed on the back of my right hand, but then I’d have to make sure I wore gloves every time I visited my Grandmother, so the occasional temporary Sharpie tattoo will have to suffice
These wide shots help to set the scene of the trip and add to the solo rider narrative. Of course getting this kind of shots means a constant on-off routine, I was keen to get the most scenic parts of the National Park, but I was like some kind of internal roulette game, out of the corner of my helmet I’d spot a winding stream but know we were about to head through a deep valley right as the sun sets. With this much good looking scenery around it was difficult to know when to start hitting Leon on the shoulder or to wait to see what’s around the next snaking bend.
Bearing in mind this Harley was carrying everything two people needed for three days on the road, I was limited to fitting all my kit in just one of the pair of panniers at the rear of the bike. Normally for this kind of shoot, I’d like to take a large roller bag like the Manfrotto Professional Roller Bag 70, knowing that I could fit all my lenses, bodies and strobes in without any conservative packing, but the nature of this ride meant I had little more than a shoulder bag worth of space to play with. And that included clean underwear. Although I had to forgo a backup body and a few extra strobes, I found my Manhattan Camera Backpack Mover 50 fitted the bill on this occasion. I could pack all my essentials, then when it came to saddle up I could use the internal insert to move all my equipment into the panniers and keep the lighter bag on my back. This gave me quick access to everything I needed while shooting but didn’t force me to wear a heavy bag for the 500-mile trip, because that gets pretty boring, pretty quickly.
Luggage issues aside, next on my list was bagging a selection of shots that add a bit of movement to our story. One way to add this dynamic element to our photos is panning (or tracking) shots. This technique involves remaining stationary while your subject moves, you then follow (in this case) the big white Harley with your camera, matching the speed of the bike and snap away. Although it sounds simple on paper, there’s a bit more to it if you want to walk away with a memory containing some keepers.
First of all, we need some distance between your lens and the bike, the further you are away from what you’re shooting you are, the easier it is to get that blurry background and foreground, which helps to isolate the bike. I’m not talking about a 20-minute hike, as a rule of thumb I grab my 70-200mm and get to a distance where I can use the zoom to get some nice wide shots, as well as some more frame-filling, tighter shots. Don’t be afraid if there are obstacles between you and your subject matter, when panning quickly you will lose all detail in the foreground and grabbing some snaps when the bike is between trees, fence posts or even other traffic can add even more excitement to the finals shots.
Aesthetics aside, there’s a bit of a technique to this. Of course, we don’t want to freeze the whole scene, just our bike, so we’re going to looking for a significantly lower shutter speed than you might be used to. Ask your driver to stick as close as they can to an agreed speed, I normally ask for 35mph and start off shooting at 1/30s, I find this gives a nice balance between getting decent speed blur, but not being so quick that the bike is difficult to track. You don’t want your aperture to be too large because we’ll be focussing on a fast moving object and we want a decent depth of field to make sure we get the bike and rider as sharp as possible. I like to use something around ##, we don’t need to be gobbling up all the available light since we’ll be using a much slower than normal shutter speed. In fact, if you’re working on a bright sunny day you might find you can’t get your shutter speed low enough, in that case, make sure you’re packing some decent ND (neutral density) filters, these reduce the amount of light that reaches your sensor, allowing you to use a lower shutter speed.
A monopod can work wonders here, less restrive than a tripod, you can easily move your camera in all directions while still maintaining a smoother-than-hand-held pan. However, given the nature of my limited storage space, I shot all these handheld, but there’s no doubt I would come home with more keepers if I was able to travel with the Manfrotto XPRO 5-Section Aluminium Monopod. Now it’s time to give your rider a shout to get moving and get ready for some panning.
Before I start shooting I set my focus on the road where the bike is going to be and lock it off by placing the lens in manual mode. If you’re a back focus button kinda guy, now is the time use it. Although modern cameras come with mind-bendingly fast autofocus and seemingly psychic focus tracking, in predictable situations like this I still prefer to set my focus and leave my mind to concentrate on the other settings that are vital to getting a decent panning shot. Your smaller aperture is going to make sure you’re getting as much in focus as possible anyway.
As soon as you can see, or in this case hear, the bike approaching, get ready to press your face up against the back of your camera and get trigger happy. Spray and pray is the name of the game here, although you’ll be limited by the spec of your body, you need to get as many possible shots on each pass, but remember you’ll be able to get the most movement in your shots when the bike is directly in front of you. With this in mind, be aware of what your camera’s buffer is (you’re shooting RAW, of course) and use this to get an even number of shots from when your subject enters your shooting space, to when it leaves, you don’t want a bang out all your available shots at the start of the pass only to be shooting blanks when it matters the most.
After the first run, take a flick through the shots you’ve taken and see how they stack up. Not enough blur, lower that shutter speed, too much, knock it up a bit. I generally use the first two passes to nail my settings so that I can then confidently shoot away for the rest. One final tip here is don’t believe what that little LCD screen is telling you, shots that can look crispy and deliciously sharp at three inches might look like total garbage when you get them on the bigger screen. I find I get one or maybe two keepers per pass, maybe that’s just my technique, but anyone that tells you they’re only hitting the shutter once for this kind of shot is winding you up.
With my panning shots in the bag, I thought I would utilise my hours as a pillion passenger to get a little bit creative. Bearing in mind our riding to shooting ratio at this point was about 10:1, we had to actually get to our hotel each night, I was spending way more time on the back of the bike than I was shooting it. Given the relative security and comfort of the Harley, I had both my hands free and by day two of riding, I was feeling as confident as one might on the back of such a machine.
With my wide angle lens attached and my camera strap well and truly wrapped around my wrist, I set about nailing some onboard shots. I wanted to get some really powerful images that would add a really nice extra elements to the editorial piece that this shoot was destined for. I wanted that GoPro style shot but with DSLR quality. All my previous photos had kept faithful to the illusion of the solo road trip, so it was important that these also kept to that narrative, or more importantly, I couldn’t be in them.
With the panning shots I had some control over the speed of the bike, but this time I was at the mercy of the road and the rider. I kept my camera on Shutter Priority so that I could easily adjust my shutter to the actual speed we were travelling, I still wanted that nice speed blur, but when our own speed was fluctuating somewhere between 10 and 70mph I had to be able to adjust quickly.
To give the shots the illusions that they weren’t snapped by someone on the back I really exaggerated my angles, as low as I dared or as high as I could stretch. Now, I don’t want to start the obvious but leaning as far as you can off the back of a moving motorcycle probably doesn’t tick many health and safety boxes, but at least our roads were quiet and the person in charge of the throttle well aware of what I was up to.
For me, this shoot was all about documenting a road trip while also being part of it. It would have been a lot easier, and dare I say normal, to have a support vehicle, a trailer, a location recce and an assistant, but this way felt a lot rawer, more real and of course, I had a blast being part of it. So if you’ve got a mate and a bike, get out there and get some shots, it’s a lot of fun.
Last tip? You’ll be amazed just how difficult it is to wash 800 miles worth of insects out of your favourite jeans.