Motorcycling vacations are the greatest—but then again, those of us who tour by motorcycle may be just a bit biased. The real challenge is trying to convey all the excitement and adventure of the trip in pictures to your buddies, especially if they don't ride themselves.
So, we take a camera on our trips, shoot dozens of pictures, but alas, when we get home, everything looks somewhat flat and uninspiring. That big, impressive canyon winds up looking like a backyard mud hole. And it only gets worse as you try to explain how great it was in real life.
Fortunately, it doesn't take a huge expenditure on equipment or years of training to improve your vacation photos. Following a few general guidelines will make a big difference for most amateur photographers.
These tips are techniques many photographers employ just about any time they pick up a camera. Remember, though, these aren't ironclad rules. They're more like guidelines that will help you master the basics.
Once you have the basic skills in hand, you have full permission to bend or even disregard the rules in the name of creativity.
Your Photo Gear
Good photos can be made with equipment as cheap as a typical throw-away camera found at most convenience stores. For many of these tips, it really doesn't matter what you're shooting with. But, if you have the means to buy good equipment, it'll make photography much more enjoyable. That means you're likely to take more pictures, giving you a better variety to share.
Obviously, you really don't want to take a lot of bulky camera gear on a motorcycle, so consider a camera that has a zoom feature instead of a fixed focal length. Having a lens that ranges from a wide angle to a telephoto will make composing your photos easier, and it'll give your images more variety. We'll talk later about some of the cool effects you can do with these lenses.
Going digital is another great space-saving idea. You can get hundreds of images on a small wafer-sized disk, compared to the dozens of rolls of film you would need—and the final quality is just as good, if not better.
You also get the instant gratification of knowing you got the shot, and you have the ability to delete the ones that didn't work out. This saves money on printing costs. Some really good digital cameras are small enough, even with a zoom function, to fit in a shirt pocket. How's that for space savings?
Where's the camera?
Keep your camera accessible, like in a tank bag.
If it's sitting in the bottom of a saddlebag, buried under a ton of dirty laundry, you're more likely to just leave it there.
If you can get to it easily, you're likely to use it more, resulting in better images.
Be mindful, though, that some digital cameras, and the media they record on, react quite badly to magnets—such as in the anchors found on some tank bags. Check your camera's owner's manual to be sure.
Where's your subject?
Most folks plop their subject dead center in the viewfinder and shoot away.
It doesn't help that most auto-focus cameras use that very same spot to determine focus.
This generally results in a very static image and will bore your audience to tears.
To create a more interesting shot, most photographers generally employ something called "the rule of thirds."
Imagine a tic-tac-toe board in the viewfinder. Try to put your subject anywhere on one of those lines.
Let's say your bike is parked in front of a bridge. Try positioning your subject—which may be a straight-on view of your motorcycle—on one of those imaginary vertical lines, and then place the bridge on one of the imaginary horizontal lines.
Most auto-focus cameras have a feature allowing you to focus on your subject, and then recompose your image. That'll produce a far more pleasing image.
While on the subject of lines, avoid putting the horizon straight across the middle.
Again, think of the rule of thirds and try the upper or lower horizontal lines.
Usually, something in the sky or on the ground caught your eye. Just make that your focal point.
Also, as you take more images with your bike, consider not putting the entire machine, wheel-to-wheel, in the shot. OK, it's a beautiful bike, but we really don't need to see both fenders in every shot.
Consider putting just the tank or the headlight or any piece of the bike that works in the composition. That's usually enough to create some visual perspective.
Seeing the light
In most cases, you'll want to make sure the sun, or your light source, is behind you.
This way, you avoid the dreaded black hole where Cousin Eddie used to be standing. If it looks like Eddie is just going to have to be in the shadow, consider turning on your flash—this fills in the dark areas.
Also, think about having the light source slightly off to one side of your subject. By avoiding blasting your subject head-on, you'll see the light fade off, giving your subject dimension and shape.
Photographers often talk about "good light" or "pleasant lighting." What they're referring to is that nice warm glow the sunlight has in the early morning or late afternoon. Avoid shooting at high noon. Lighting-wise, it's the ugliest time of day.
Through the glass
Wide-angle and telephoto lenses can be extremely helpful for variety and for situations where logistics hamper getting the shot you want.
Most smaller cameras include a small zoom that goes from a slightly wide angle to a mild telephoto. The wide angle, just by the way it works, gives you a greater depth of field—meaning that objects near and far will be in focus—and it's also a great way to get many elements into one shot. That's why they're some of the more popular lenses in a photographer's camera bag.
The downside is that far-off objects will appear to be even farther away, or may disappear entirely into the background.
The telephoto has a tendency to compress the apparent distance between objects that are near and far, so things way off in the background will appear to be closer. Let's say you're photographing Mount Rushmore. You can't get your bike any nearer to the presidents' heads, so you zoom in with the old telephoto. Now, place your bike somewhere in the viewfinder and folks will think you rode up the hill.
Also, the telephoto can help isolate a subject because its depth of field is typically very shallow. More on selective focus next.
Focus on the action
If your camera has the ability to focus, you can create images that isolate your subject by making everything else blurry. This is called "selective focus,", and it works best with a telephoto lens.
To make this work, you need a camera that allows you to control your shutter speed or aperture.
Shutter speed is merely the amount of time the shutter clicks open, such as 1/250 of a second. Aperture is the size of the opening. A smaller aperture gives you greater depth of field, while a wider aperture reduces the area that's in sharp focus.
Here's how it works to create selective focus. Let's say there's a long line of bikes and you want your audience to quickly spot yours. Increase your shutter speed, so that you'll obtain the widest possible aperture, pre-focus on your bike, and then recompose the shot. Your bike will be sharply in focus and the others will be blurrier.
With some auto-focus cameras, there is a delay between pressing the shutter button and the camera actually taking the picture. This makes action photos especially difficult.
The trick is to predict where your subject will be, focus on that spot, and then press the shutter the rest of the way down as your subject moves into that spot.
Many pros use this method when covering everything from motorsports to the president walking through the White House—especially if the pre-focused spot carries some interest and you want the two elements in the same frame.
Now that we're taking well composed, sharply focused shots, let's get a little creative.
If you have control over the shutter speed, experiment with slowing it down to get some blur. The appearance of motion can be created by either letting an object blur while everything else in the image is sharp, or by panning, which is following the subject and allowing the background to blur.
How tall are you?
Most photos are shot from about 5 feet, 6 inches—or the average height of most people's eyes.
To get more variety, experiment with kneeling while shooting, or put the camera on the ground to give the image an ant's-eye view.
Also, don't be afraid to flip the camera on its side for a vertical shot. Though we see the world as a panoramic picture, sometimes your subject is vertical.
Look at the background
Remember, there's usually something behind your friend or bike when you take a picture.
It's easy to focus your eye on your subject and not see other distracting elements until you're back home, when it's too late.
Try to avoid having any strange outcroppings or trees growing out of peoples' heads—unless, of course, that palm tree makes George look like he's wearing a Carmen Miranda hat and that's the effect you're going for.
Finally, on the road
OK, you've left the office and you're finally on vacation.
Now's the time to start telling a story with pictures.
Does your bike look really loaded down? Look for some special feature early on in your trip that says, "Adios to home, and hello to the open road."
Thinking about the important moments of the trip that you'll want to remember and training your eyes to look for photo opportunities, instead of just letting the scenery pass you by, will help you get the shots that will add up to a meaningful story of your trip.
I'm home. Is it show time yet?
It's been a great trip, and you can't wait to share it, but try to resist that temptation.
There's one more essential task to take care of—it's time to edit.
While some amateurs want to show every single image they shot, a real pro knows the maximum impact comes from picking only the strongest images to tell the story.
Go through a few rounds to weed out the bad images. Start with the ones that are just out of focus or the wrong exposure. Next, look at the multiple shots of the same subject and leave in only the best.
Lastly—and this sometimes takes another set of eyes to help—take a hard look at what's left and see if the story can be told with less.
By showing only your best photos, each image will have more impact. And your viewers won't miss a really great photo because their eyes glazed over from the 21 repetitive shots of the Grand Canyon.
It's a cliche, but the saying "a photo is worth a thousand words" is what this whole exercise is about. Let a series of good images tell the story of your trip, and some of your nonriding friends might begin to see what they're missing.
At the very least, they might actually want to stick around and see your photos—and you won't even have to bribe them.