Some Thoughts on Photographing Bikes

The Golden Hour

I receive quite a few questions about my photos, so I thought I’d share a few details about my approach for those who also enjoy combining photography and bicycling. Since I’m a graphic artist, not a trained professional photographer, I’ll skip over the camera operation stuff and talk more generally about light, composition, and approach. If you’re unfamiliar with the basic manual operation of your camera, there are numerous resources on the web to help in that regard.

Light

My photos are mostly about light. I usually shoot within what is known as the “Golden Hour”, the first hour or two of light in the morning, and the last couple of hours of light in the evening (you can read more about the Golden Hour at Wikipedia). I look for good light first, then when I see it, I get out the camera and I start shooting. I’ve learned that if the light doesn’t trigger some emotional response in me, the photo is not likely to trigger an emotional response in the viewer.

Of course, sometimes we all have to document an event when the light is less than ideal. If I must shoot during the bright of the day, I look for areas of dappled or filtered light (e.g. coming through trees), or I shoot in shadow and let the background blowout. I rarely shoot at high noon in full sun, the results of which are typically harsh and rarely pleasing (to my eye, at least). Unless I absolutely must do so to capture a specific event, I simply choose not to shoot when the light is uninspiring.

Dappled Light

Capturing good light requires that you have a camera available when it happens. This means carrying a camera with me almost anytime I’m on or around bikes. This could be a point-and-shoot camera when I’m busy commuting or running errands, or a digital SLR when I’m riding for pleasure or when I’m specifically on an outing to shoot photos.

Composition

As a bike lover, I make a conscious effort to avoid being too distracted by the bike I’m shooting; the last thing I want to do is hurriedly point my camera at a bike and start clicking the shutter. I try to dissociate from the bike as much as possible and visualize what’s coming through the viewfinder as flat shapes of abstract color and light. Doing so makes it much easier to see the underlying composition of the image. Graphic artists are trained to look at images as grids with underlying geometric shapes, and I think this is a good approach for photographers as well. As a rule, if the abstract shapes in an image form a strong composition, the photo will generally be pleasing, regardless of the surface details.

Seeing Shapes

Balance, shape, symmetry, positive/negative space, framing, and a number of other factors should be considered when analyzing the composition of an image. Basic concepts such as the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Section, and the Diagonal Rule are good starting points. It’s well beyond the scope of this post to get into the myriad details of image composition, but there are numerous resources on the internet if you’re interested.

Subject Isolation

One of the things that most obviously separates a snapshot from a more composed image is subject isolation. Isolating the subject from the background mimics how we view the world with the naked eye, and typically makes for a more convincing and pleasing photo. Isolation can be achieved by placing the subject (a bike in our case) in front of a simple background, or by reducing the depth of field to place the background out of focus.

An Isolated Subject (shot with a point-and-shoot)

SLR cameras are much better at so-called “selective focusing” than point-and-shoot cameras, so I always try to use my SLR when I need to reduce the depth of field to blur the background. When I’m carrying my point-and-shoot camera, I keep an eye out for open areas or simple backgrounds in which to frame the bike since I don’t have as much control over background focus. I’d say the shots published on EcoVelo are split about 50/50 between those taken with a point-and-shoot and those taken with a DSLR.

Selective Focus (shot with a DSLR)

Post Processing

Some people feel that processing digital photos in software such as Photoshop is somehow “cheating”. I don’t agree with this viewpoint at all. In my mind, processing digital images on the computer is essentially the same as processing film in the traditional darkroom (though working in the proverbial “digital darkroom” is greener, less expensive, and more efficient). My approach is to modify an image as much as needed to capture the feeling I experienced when I took the shot in the field. This might involve nothing more than a few minor adjustments to global contrast, color, and sharpness, or full-blown retouching of the entire image at the pixel level.

Before Processing
After Processing

It’s Not About the Bike (or in this case, the camera)

I’m as bad as the next guy when it comes to focusing too much on the tools. Bike riders are bad in this regard, and I dare say, photographers are even worse. Much of what photographers used to do manually is now done by in-camera computers, which makes it very tempting to think a new camera will improve our photography.

I’ve found that much like it is with bike riding—where the riding is more important than the type of bike I’m on—the important thing in photography is to get out there and shoot a ton of photos and work hard on the craft. Afterall, photography is really about inspiration and expression, not mega-pixels or processing power. Keeping this in mind has probably done more than anything to improve the quality of my work.

35 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Photographing Bikes”

  • Bryan Ball says:

    What sort of DSLR do you use? I just finally upgraded my point and shoot to a Canon G11 and need to upgrade the DSLR too soon. My old Rebel XT is getting a bit old.

  • Mark says:

    Very interesting. I appreciate the tips.
    I’m guessing that you describe the “digital darkroom” as being more ecologically sound than a physical darkroom because a traditional darkroom uses various potentially harmful chemicals, right? One could argue that using a computer to process photos is equally bad, since the use of a computer requires using electricity, which is not usually generated from sustainable sources. Further, computers contain various toxic chemicals, and tend require a lot of packaging when they are shipped. I don’t know whether the cumulative impacts of a traditional darkroom are any greater or less than the effects of a digital darkroom, but it’s something worth thinking about.

  • Courtney says:

    Great post and images. I could shoot bikes boards and boats all day long.

  • Karen says:

    You give us good advice and info here. Now if only you could give us that “eye” to visualize those beautiful shots! I will have to just go out and take a lot of shots and practice, as you say. So glad we have digital cameras now.

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    Alan, thanks so much for the great tips. I upgraded to a DSLR a couple years ago, and am still learning to handle it more like my old film SLR than the digital cameras I had in between. And I love the red blinker shot with a point and shoot: shows there’s as much to the photographers eye as there is to the equipment.

    One question on your web site (I tried to use your “contact” page a few weeks ago, but it wouldn’t let me submit): Why have you chose to have so much white space above your photos at the top/banner? I find it a bit bothersome that, even with a fairly high resolution monitor, I have to scroll almost immediately to read any of the content.

  • Eddie says:

    What a great short primer for bike photo enthusiasts! Without being bogged down in technical aspects you up your own experience and advice on how to draw the most out of the emotional aspect of cycling as captured through a lens: composition, focus, light and restrained editing. Kudos!

  • David F says:

    Thanks very much for that Alan! A great guide. I found that sometimes I get great keepers, but 8/10 of my photos are rubbish. I’d been blaming my camera (a point and shoot), but now I realise that how I can make far more of what I have!

  • Lady Vélo says:

    Thank you for those tips!

    I want to start taking pictures of my Pashley Princess with my D80 that will do her justice… I’ve been missing out on the key “Golden Hour” light times thanks to work and crazy-buzy weekends. I’ll take your advice and get to working on this!

    Lady Vélo.

  • Alan says:

    @Bryan

    “What sort of DSLR do you use?”

    Canon 50D

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Mark

    “I’m guessing that you describe the “digital darkroom” as being more ecologically sound than a physical darkroom because a traditional darkroom uses various potentially harmful chemicals, right? “

    I assume most people who are processing photos on their computer are already using their computer for other tasks so I’m not sure the electricity argument holds much validity. Also, many people shooting film (particularly those who shoot color) must either drive or send their film to a lab for processing, so you have transportation to consider. Also, photo labs require electricity as well. So overall, I’d still say processing digital images on a home computer has less of an impact than processing film.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Eddie

    “Thanks very much for that Alan! A great guide. I found that sometimes I get great keepers, but 8/10 of my photos are rubbish.”

    8 out of 10 is a great keeper rate (seriously). My rate is more like 50 to 1… LOL. Keep shooting!

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Karen

    “You give us good advice and info here. Now if only you could give us that “eye” to visualize those beautiful shots! I will have to just go out and take a lot of shots and practice, as you say. So glad we have digital cameras now.”

    Like anything, it’s just a matter of putting in the time. Digital cameras have certainly speeded up the learning process by allowing nearly instantaneous feedback!!

    Thanks!
    Alan

  • Bren says:

    your photos are one of the great pleasures of this site. it is no wonder that they are so beautiful given how much thought you put in.

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  • Don says:

    Your approach reflects a romantic sensibility that is part of what makes your site appealing, particulary considering that the industry has focused too long on cycling as sport and has neglected cycling as transportation or lifestyle–until recently, in part thanks to sites like yours. You want the image to reflect the joy and gratitude you feel for the pleasure biking provides. And we come here for the same reason!

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  • Alan says:

    @Bren

    That’s very kind, thank you..

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Don

    “You want the image to reflect the joy and gratitude you feel for the pleasure biking provides.”

    So true! Thanks for the kind words…

    Alan

  • Kody says:

    I was surprised to see that you have been editting subject matter out of your images, such as the power lines and towers. I think this type of editting is deceptive, unless the images are displayed solely as pieces of art. After seeing your before and after photo, I cannot help but wonder whether your commute to work is as relaxing and beautiful as I thought it might be.

  • Mark says:

    @Alan
    You’re probably right. I was mainly intending to point out the complexities of the whole issue. One of the things that has always bugged me as a conservationist is that it’s rather difficult to say for certain that something is green as such. I think we can comfortably say that cycling is about as close to being 100% sustainable as is possible.
    Happy riding!

  • Alan says:

    @Kody

    That was an extreme example to show the possibilities. Most of my photos have far less retouching done to them (you’ll see those same powerlines in many of my photos). I really liked the composition in this photo (particularly the shadow), but the powerlines kind of ruined it, so in this case I went ahead and took some artistic license and removed the powerlines to salvage the image. None of my retouching is intended to deceive in any way.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    Alan,

    Is there anyway that I can email you directly for feedback on an idea that I have?

    Thanks,
    Courtney

  • Alan says:

    Hi Courtney,

    Please drop me a note via the “Contact Us” link at the upper right of this page.

    Thanks-
    Alan

  • David F says:

    @ Alan: Now we need a post explaining how you keep your bikes better-than-showroom clean!

  • John Nelson says:

    I would agree digital is friendlier to the environment than film. But as a professional who’s shot a lot of both digital and film I can say digital is not less expensive. But what I really wanted to mention was that shooting film, for me, is more akin to riding a bicycle. Digital provides instant gratification. But I’ve found that constant chimping (and it’s almost impossible not to look at the rear lcd on the camera after you take a picture), takes away from enjoying whatever it is you’re photographing. The process of film is slower and more contemplative. The fact that you have a limited number of exposures forces you to notice the details and exercise more care before tripping the shutter. Then there’s the anticipation (and even excitement) as you are forced to wait to see your results. Whether you process your own film or have the lab do it there’s a mandatory waiting period. Also film tends to have a bit of serendipity, the unexpected, (as does riding a bike). So for me shooting digital is like driving a car and film is just more fun (plus they do look different.)

    PS I agree with Kody, I too am a slightly disappointed to learn that you have on occasion manipulated your images in photoshop more than the usual tonal and contrast controls. You may not mean to be deceptive but now we have no choice but to wonder how often and how much you manipulate your images in photoshop. Your photographs are presented as photographs and not illustrations. In some of your posts you have felt obligated to post a “full disclosure” statement as to be open and honest with us. But you have not as far as I know (and there lies the problem) printed a “full disclosure” statement on any of your images. It now leaves questions and doubt about all the images on your blog.
    I realize this is your blog about cycling but this is an area of concern and interest to me (a fan and regular reader). You have cultivated a following and positioned yourself as a good and respected opinion as a blogger. I would hope that you would re-consider or consider how all the content you post affects your relationship to us, your readers.

  • Alan says:

    @John

    Thanks for your input, John. I’ll be sure to make a mention if/when I ever manipulate a photo to that degree again and post it to the blog. As I mentioned to Kody, that was an extreme (and in retrospect, poor) example to make a point. Rest assured, that level of retouching represents only a tiny, tiny fraction of my output. The fact is, even if I wanted to (not that I want to), I could never manipulate a large percentage of my photos to that degree because it takes way too much time and effort.

    Alan

  • Chris Curnutt says:

    Thanks very much for these tips and ideas. I tend to shoot at high noon and living in Texas means the blazing sun is going to wash much of the color out of the photo. I’ll choose my time of day more carefully!

    The photography on your site has always been an inspiration to me for my own site, so this is very helpful. Thanks again.

    Chris

  • Alan says:

    Hi John,

    I wanted to add that I think part of what should be considered in this discussion is art versus journalism. It’s probably naive and a little risky to do so, but I freely bounce back and forth between trying to do both. In some cases, I want to express the feeling I experienced in a particular situation with the hope of sharing that experience with my readers. At those times I tend to be more free in how far I’ll go in processing. On the other hand, when I’m photographing bicycles and products for review, I do my very best to show those products in the greatest detail so that the reader has an experience similar to actually holding the product in their hand (I never retouch product photos – period). In both cases, my intention is to communicate clearly, not mislead.

    Alan

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    Regarding post processing: I remember when the Ansel Adams exhibit came through San Francisco (I think about 20 years ago) and I discovered how much post processing he did in the darkroom. His “Moonrise, Hernandez, NM” included a significant amount of darkroom work (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2cPfjBPTOA for his son talking about his work). The video above includes a quote from Ansel Adams, “The negative is the score, the print is the performance.”

    So, as Alan says, there is a difference between art and journalism; but even journalists will touch up a print to bring out what they want. The line between “bringing out details” and “altering reality” seems to have a wide range of interpretations.

    Lee

  • Dottie says:

    Great post and pictures!

    Bike commuters are lucky: we are outside riding during the “golden hours” on the way to and from work :)

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  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    Hi Alan,

    Just wanted to share with you comments of a “golden hour” photo I took. I teach high school physics and was telling my students I was going on a 6-day tour over our spring break. They wanted to see a photo of my bike with bags, and I happened to have one online. One of them said “Oh, you got the lighting just right.” I took the photo after reading your post, and I thus took it shortly before the sun went down.

    Thanks for the great tips!

    Lee

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    Oh, here’s a link to the photo: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=RrzKj&page_id=141952&v=F

    I didn’t even think it was that good (I was rushing to get some taken before the sun went down behind a building), but it’s certainly not that bad either :-)

 
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