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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.