Motorcycles and photography are a wonderful combination: you see so many beautiful places that even the least keen photographer must surely be tempted. But unfortunately, cameras and motorcycles don't go together anything like as well. Precision machinery and lenses do not take well to the continuous jolting that they receive on a motorcycle, and they take even less well to vibration. And if they are soaked with rain, it normally kills them stone dead for all time.
You need, therefore, to choose reasonably robust cameras, and to pack them in such a way that they get the easiest ride possible. There's not much to say about the former, except that one of the reasons that 'professional' cameras cost so much more than 'amateur' cameras of similar specification is that they are built to take much harder use and abuse.
Fortunately, a lot of 'professional' cameras are bought by amateurs, who cosset them and give them next to no use, then sell them. Used 'professional' cameras are often a very good buy -- and this is all the more true of professional-quality cameras from before the days of autofocus and other automation.
The camera that defines 'tough' is the Nikon F, which ceased production in 1973; mine date from the 60s. They have no automation, not even a meter (you could get metering heads, but the metering circuits have pretty much died of old age by now) so they are completely battery independent. In Marti Forscher's happy phrase, an F is built like a hockey puck. In the Civil Rights era, Marti acted as a clearing house for Fs donated by professionals. He'd rebuild them for nothing, hand them out to brave (or foolhardy) young photographers, then rebuild them again when they were damaged by baton charges, water cannon, etc.
If you don't want an F, which is to cameras what a Kalashnikov is to assault rifles, there are plenty of alternatives: old Nikkormats and Canons of the same vintage, or modern SLRs, or compacts, or even digital cameras. I vastly prefer the quality of 35mm film, which (according to whom you believe) equates to something between 12 and 30 megapixels in digital terms.
We are currently using Voigtlander rangefinder cameras: superb image quality, reliable built-in meters (which the old cameras don't have), remarkably small and light, and apart from the meters, battery independent. If the battery dies (as they all do, eventually) it may not be much fun having to guess the exposure, or go by the instructions inside the film box, but it is better than having no camera at all.
Regardless of what camera you use, there are two ground rules. Keep it dry, and insulate it as much as you can from vibration. A heavy plastic bag, such as a top-quality freezer bag, will suffice for the former.
The reason to worry about vibration is that it can shake screws loose. I once opened the top-box on my MZ 250 to find the back of a Hasselblad almost completely detached, because all the screws had worked lose, and on our 1990 tour of India, an internal lens group on a Vivitar 200/3 Series 1 unscrewed itself partially so that the lens would no longer focus.
To minimize vibration, carry the camera in a pocket (if it's small enough); or wrap clothes around it (the plastic bag will keep the lint out too); or ideally, isolate it with low-density foam, which cuts vibration far better than clothes.
What we do is carry the cameras in the tank-top bag, which has a layer of low-density foam (wrapped in a plastic bag again) in the bottom. This leaves them accessible and well protected. If we had used this approach in South India in 1990, the lens that gave us trouble would probably have been OK.
Paradoxically, very cheap cameras and lenses may present less of a problem because they are glued together rather than screwed.
Digital storage media are as adversely affected by motorcycles as cameras, but you can't see when they have failed. Worse still, they can fail after you have filled them with images. Cheap, simple 35mm film seems vastly preferable to me.
We always carry a lot of film -- a minimum of 10 or 15 rolls -- and it is divided into three parts. The bulk of the unexposed film lives in one pannier, well in towards the centre so it is not at risk of being over-heated. The exposed film is stored the same way in the other pannier. And two or three rolls of film are in the tank bag, along with the cameras, ready for use.
You may not be aware that most of the beautiful colour pictures you see in motorcycle and indeed other magazines are shot on transparency (slide) film rather than colour print. If you want your pictures published, it is worth knowing this.
The most important reason for shooting slides is that they are camera originals: the actual film you shoot in your camera. Not only does this deliver the maximum quality of which your camera-lens combination is capable: it also means that any variations in exposure, or any filters you use, are faithfully recorded. If you want a lighter, airier image, you over-expose a little; if you want a darker, more saturated image, to 'pop' the colours, you under-expose a little. Try this with print film, and the printing machine will 'correct' it so you'll never see the difference apart from slightly inferior quality.
Slides are also cheaper than prints: not in amateur terms, but professionally. Magazines will reproduce from prints, but they have to be good-sized, professional-quality, colour balanced prints. Having one such print made is likely to cost more than an entire roll of slide film, including processing.
The easiest way to become a better photographer is to shoot more pictures. It's that simple. Don't just shoot one picture of a subject: shoot several, from different viewpoints, closer, further away, higher, lower. Don't leave the film in the camera for more than a week. Finish it: 'waste' film, because it isn't a waste, it's a crash course in how to shoot better. Get it processed immediately. Even ten films won't cost you a fortune, and you'll learn far more from shooting ten films than you could any other way.
When you get each roll back, go through the pictures. Make three piles: successes, failures, so-sos. Ask yourself what made you put a particular picture in one pile instead of another. Is a failure a technical failure (poor colour, poor focus, camera shake or subject movement)? Or is it an aesthetic failure, because it doesn't convey what you saw, what you felt? If you could shoot it again, what would you do? Go closer? Move to one side, to 'lose' something that is irrelevant, but plays far too large a role in the picture? Simplify it, so that you are not distracted by other picture elements?
Equally, why is a success a success? Is it because it is very easy to tell what is going on? Is it because the shapes in the image are pleasing? Is it purely sentimental?
The so-so heap can tell you even more than the successes and failures. These are the pictures that are almost there, but not quite. How do they fall short? Again, how could you do better next time?
Discard the failures (unless they have so much sentimental value that you can't) and keep right on shooting. You'll learn. Fast.
Meanwhile, look at other people's pictures, too -- especially the ones you see in magazines. Do they stand as single images? Or do they have to be part of a picture story, with other photographs, to give them context and meaning? Do they need words, by way of explanation?
If you can, go to exhibitions and look at original prints. Even a local camera club can teach you a lot. Some of the pictures may be tiresomely formulaic; others will be self-consciously avant-garde, quite possibly in the style of a decade or more ago. But there will be some with which you almost instinctively connect. Ask yourself why. What subjects really interest you? What do you remember about places you have visited in the past? How could you represent those memories in a photograph?
You may be surprised, too, at how many of the pictures you like are in black and white. Do not automatically assume that this is too difficult, or that you need to have your own darkroom to make black and white prints. Look instead for 'chromogenic' black and white films that are processed in the same chemistry as colour print films (Kodak C-41 compatible). Far and away the closest to a traditional black and white look is Ilford XP2 Super, but others include Fuji CN400 and several Kodak films, especially Kodak T400CN. The quality that different labs deliver from these films will vary widely, but at best they are very good indeed.
Nor should you automatically assume, after visiting exhibitions, that larger prints are necessarily better. Many amateurs, and quite a few professionals, make the simplistic assumption that because bigger prints are technically more difficult, they are a proof of photographic competence and therefore inherently better. Not so. If a picture does not look good by 5x7 inches or 13x18cm, it may well fail to improve with still greater enlargement.
This is often true even when there are no obvious technical flaws -- which will, of course, be magnified as the print is enlarged still further. There are exceptions -- incredibly detailed shots, or pictures where the principal subject is tiny and surrounded by a great deal of texture -- but it is commonly the case that the superior sharpness and tonality of a smaller print create a 'magic window' into the photographer's world, while an over-large print loses the photographic quality of the image and becomes a rather inferior piece of graphic art.
Show people only your successes -- and winnow out the near-duplicates, where you can't decide which is best. Make an arbitrary choice, if need be: just don't bore people with too many variations on a theme. Remember: you are not judged by the pictures that you shoot, but only by the ones that you show. Many professional photographers owe their careers to this simple truth.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
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last updated: 04/11/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks