Motorcycle Photography Tips

Give it your best shot after learning these motorcycle photography tips

If any man, woman or child has ever owned a motorcycle and not felt the impulse to photograph it I’d be surprised. Like a smiling baby, a naked breast or lions at the zoo, a bike just begs to have its image celebrated, especially if it’s a cruiser. Really, how many of you out there don’t have at least one shot of your beloved in the driveway or front yard? Take that photogenic two-wheeler on a little scenic ride, or better yet, a long tour and the bike is certain to wind up in most of the pics. “Here’s my bike and a’s my bike and a’s my bike and a state trooper.”

We can also tell from the flood of snapshots that arrive at our offices that motorcycle enthusiasts, passionate souls though they may be, are not always the most gifted photographers. Or perhaps the contrast between ga-ga photos and those snooze-inducing snapshots is so apparent because we are constantly looking at professional outtakes of motorcycles shot for road tests and custom features on the same light table with our Readers and Rides entries. In any case, in our collective years as motojournalists, either while shooting for our own stories or dropping muffin crumbs on the shoulders of professional photographers, we've learned a thing or two about what makes motorcycles look pretty.

We guarantee that after reading these suggestions, you’ll never look at your motorcycle the same way. Well, at least through the lens.

Taking the best motorcycle photo
Above: The quintessential 3/4 beauty shot. All vehicles are flattered by this angle. Inset: Action shots require practice. Have your buddy ride very slowly while you get used to panning the camera. A faster shutter speed will help freeze the motion and a smaller aperture will blur the background for a sense of speed.Cruiser

The Standard Shot
There is a shot we've all had taken with our trusty steeds—you know, that one where you're sitting on or standing next to your bike wearing the ol' ear-splitting grin. Of course, if you're the one in the photo, you may think you haven't much control over the outcome of the shot, but if you've set up the camera before you hand it to Jane or Joe or the mailman walking by, you'll be happier with the results. Here are the basics of shooting decent "person with bike" photos, and beauty shots of the bike alone.

Location is Everything: Seventy-five percent of the Readers and Rides photo submissions we receive have poorly thought-out backgrounds. Whether you are on a road trip or your front lawn, do a 360 and check out your options. See where the sun is and make sure it's lighting the shot, not causing shadows. You'd be surprised how many photos we see that feature telephone pole antennae, mailboxes, cars and other complexities that muck up the subject's lines. If you're not trying to incorporate a scenic background into the frame, search out an uncluttered backdrop like tall greenery, an open field or a blank wall.

Getting the best lighting for photos
When you’re shooting in harsh sunlight and your subject is showing dark shadow, use the flash on your camera. Even most automated point-and-shoot models have a “fill-flash” option that allows you to “fill in” shadows.Cruiser

A Little That Way: No matter where you're shooting, one key to decent motorcycle photography is making sure you position the bike at a 3/4 angle from the camera. Thumb through the magazine and you'll notice we hardly ever shoot a single bike in straight profile. The 3/4 angle achieves many things, including elimination of hot spots (bright flares of sunlight) on the chrome and reflections of the photographer. A 3/4 angle is flattering to motorcycles and condenses them into a more solid, aggressive posture by eliminating see-through space, without losing any detail. You can also crop more closely at this angle so the bike or bike and rider better fill the frame. Shot from either the rear or the front, a bike at a 3/4 angle is going to look more attractive than it does in profile.

Get It Up. Or Down: The best shots will also incorporate a little shift in perspective to make them stand out. The photographer will either squat and shoot up, making the bike look more imposing, or he or she will stand on something for that ever-impressive "into" angle. A 3/4 angle shot from a ladder with the afternoon sun lighting the bike is an absolutely perfect recipe for motorcycle and owner portraits.

Taking the best motorcycle photo
Don’t let things like signs and garbage cans muck up your shot. A minor adjustment and this setup would have been clean.Cruiser

Look Mom, That's Me in the Sidecover!: Yes, we have seen many a photographer in the house of mirrors created by chrome-swaddled cruisers. (You've probably seen us a few times too, since it's so tricky to avoid). The best tip we can offer is using the aforementioned 3/4 angle combined with a session of hand waving from behind the camera. When you lose sight of the motion through the lens, you know you're clear of the shot.

Horizontal or Vertical?: Most people shoot their bike pictures horizontally since a motorcycle's profile effortlessly fits the rectangular format. In fact, most people shoot all snapshots horizontally because, well, that's how the camera seems to want to be held. Be daring. Once you see how dynamic vertical shots can turn out, you'll be using the option constantly. To get started, shoot a vertical frame for every horizontal you snap, or at least turn the camera each time and see what you could be missing.

Taking the best motorcycle photo
Even our professional photographers occasionally brain fade when choosing backgrounds. Dean Groover accidentally gave Evans Brasfield a green Mohawk in this bike test lead, shot in New Mexico. There were no other trees in sight.Cruiser

Up Close and Personal: Zoom baby. Not every shot with a motorcycle in it has to include the rubber at both ends and yards of backdrop. If you're going for a pic of a rider or a passenger, go for the facial expressions—and capture the feeling that comes with riding. You might only see the suggestion of the bike in the shot. On the other hand, if you want the scene, and the bike and people are secondary, think about "negative space" and enhance the feeling of wide-open vista by giving more billing to sky, mountains, water. Also, try not to center your bike, rider or group in every shot. Offsetting the subject always makes for a more dynamic photo. So if you have a beautiful vista, focus on the bike, but then pull out and off the subject for a feel of destination.

Lighten Up: Cruisers beg for rich and bright lighting more than motorcycles that feature bright panels of bodywork. The best time for a sexy shot of your bike is at first or last light. Almost all of the feature photography found in Motorcycle Cruiser is shot during the "Golden Hours" of sunset (since we are a wicked bunch if roused before dawn). For the ultimate beauty shot wait until the very last moments the sun is above the horizon. Have your shot set up and use a tripod if one's handy.

Taking the best motorcycle photo
An otherwise nice setup can be ruined if the sun is backlighting the subject.Cruiser

Group Shot: These are the ones we cherish. When you and your friends pose for your next group shot try for the casual look rather than the stiff pose. Some of you can be seated on the bikes and some standing around. The ideal lighting for people is overcast, because it is soft, doesn't cause shadowing and eliminates squinting. If you are shooting with sun and shadowing is dark, make sure you use a flash to even out tones. Ask your people in your group to wear sunglasses if there's too much squinting and blinking. And make sure you take a bunch of frames, since it increases your odds of having one in which everyone looks good.

Taking the best motorcycle photo
Look before you shoot. Sometimes the difference between a shot that’s terrific and one that’s unremarkable is forethought to background.Cruiser
Taking the best motorcycle photo
In this situation, the bike and rider were in one position, but you can see that the position of the photographer was crucial.Cruiser
Taking the best motorcycle photo
Of these three with the hill in the background, we like this shot best, where the photographer cast aside the conventional full-bike formula and went for a creative crop.Cruiser

And...Action: Next time you and your buddy are out for a ride try to set up some action shots of each other. These are fun to have in your photo album and a refreshing way to provide Point-Of-View when you're on a trip. Panning (looking through the lens and following the bike with the camera until it is in the frame you want to shoot) is the easiest way to get a sharp shot. Have your partner ride slowly at first, and use a high-speed film (400 ISO) that will support a sharp image even if you're not completely steady. If your camera is versatile, you can use the fastest shutter speed your lens can handle to freeze action. Changing to a smaller aperture number (f2.8) at the same time will create a blurred background effect, while a larger setting (f11) will keep more of the scene in focus.

Taking the best motorcycle photo, be careful of reflections
Reflections are the number one nuisance when you’re shooting a chrome-laden cruiser. Snapping from a 3/4 angle helps. Also try waving your hand while adjusting your position.Cruiser