Following up on my piece yesterday about drift shooting, I thought I’d do a little blog on the other relatively new challenge to my shooting skills this year – motorbikes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve shot bikes before. You don’t live on the Isle of Man for five years as a child and not shoot bikes. The difference is I never shot them professionally before last year, and I only did it once then for a round of the Pirelli Series.
So what makes bikes a challenge to shoot compared to cars, and how do you overcome those issues?
To me, there were four main challenges to overcome compared to cars. Number one, motorbikes are simply smaller than cars, so you have to completely recalibrate your sense of scale and your ideas about framing them.
Number two, bikes can be more difficult to focus on than cars, again due to their size. Remember a motorbike is little bigger than a bicycle in terms of wheelbase and height and has vastly less exposed surface area than a car, so you have to be a lot more focused (pun unintended) in tracking them and decide on a focal point much earlier than you would with a car. Holding that focus point steady is the next key skill, as you have very little leeway to get it wrong, unlike with a car when you have metres of metal to choose from and potentially save you should your focal point vary by a few inches.
Number three, bikes brake and accelerate at often different points, and always in a different way to cars. For example, a car will generally brake a bit later and accelerate a bit earlier because they have a greater footprint and thus more grip. They will, however, be slower in the fast corners than bikes.
When it comes to how they brake and accelerate, bikes obviously dive more, and are more prone to get sideways while braking hard. When accelerating, especially out of tight corners, bikes can pop the front wheel as well, raising (pun totally intended) another point you don’t have to think about with four-wheeled motorsport apart from drag racing.
Number four, bikes are actually composed of two completely separate masses – the bike and the rider – with both vibrating like crazy compared with a car and neither ever really in harmony for very long. With a car, the driver stays rigidly seated at all times and in a tin-top, is often hidden from view behind a pretty solid mass of steel/aluminium/fibreglass/carbon. Unless you’re working with open-wheelers, the driver is hardly ever the focus.
With a bike, the rider is almost 50 per cent of the focus, but is also moving around constantly, changing weight distribution to get the perfect line and put the power down as efficiently as possible. In static shots, this only matters in terms of capturing the rider doing something interesting, such as leaning back hard to counteract the effects of the bike’s braking or cranking it in a corner. However, in panning, it means normal car-related techniques go out of the window to a certain degree.
To whit, when panning a car, everything stays together (hopefully) and doesn’t shake very much, so you can go as slow as you like and as long as your hands are steady and technique good, you can get a sharp car and a gloriously blurred background. (This was shot at 1/20).
Not so with a bike. Try dropping below 1/50 or even 1/160, depending on the situation, and you can find either the bike is in focus, or the rider, but very rarely both. (This was at 1/30).
There are exceptions, of course. When the rider is mid-corner, especially in longer curves, they often stay in a constant position to maintain stability, and this is where you can get pans of around 1/50 (as above) or sometimes slower with relative consistency that get both bike and rider sharp, or with negligible difference between the two. That said, this all depends on the circuit; some will have a lot of wider radius corners, like Phillip Island, while others will not, so of course you have to adapt to the circumstances.
This is not to say you can’t get some good shots by dropping the shutter speed and only getting one element of the bike/rider combo in focus. Some of my favourite shots from the World Superbike Championship round at Phillip Island a few months ago were ones where only the rider or the bike were in focus, as reducing the amount of the photo that’s sharp can draw the eye to your chosen focal point better and add a sense of drama.
However, to get everything sharp, you will still need to up your shutter speed. Don’t worry too much about this, though, as similar to drifting, the lean angle of a bike and the fact the rider is completely visible (humans are programmed to focus on other people) will often counteract any lack of drama from the increased shutter speed. Plus, when the bikes are really motoring, you can still get sufficient motion blur at even relatively high shutter speeds to convey movement. I shot this, for example, at 1/400 at Phillip Island’s very fast turn three.
OK, so that’s a brief look at the main challenges I faced recently when shooting bikes and what I learned in trying to overcome them. Hopefully those of you interested in shooting bikes will find some of this stuff useful. Until next time, arrivederci!