Motorcycle Photography | Shooting the Fast Ones

By Uncle Frank, Photography by Unknown

In a previous article in The Motorcyclist (see the July issue), I pointed out the marvelous opportunities which lay in store for the motorcyclist who is handy with a camera. This time I wish to go a bit more into detail about certain important phases of picture making, feeling that if these suggestions are carried out, your photographic results will be a thousand-fold improved.

The motorcycle is a vehicle of fleeting action and speed. It presents, therefore, problems to the cameraist which are not easily solved without giving them some thought and consideration. You have undoubtedly snapped pictures of your friends while they were riding their mounts. Possibly you were surprised to find, on getting the prints back from the photo-finisher, that everything turned out fine-except that your friends and their motorcycles were more or less blurred. This may have puzzled you, or then again, maybe you realized then that your camera was not “fast” enough to catch the action you attempted to record on the film. You can imagine what the result would be if you were to attempt to photograph a motorcycle race, a hillclimb, or similar activity which abounds in swift action. And then, don’t forget that unless a picture is satisfactory from a technical and pictorial standpoint, it may just as well have never been made in the first place. In brief, why waste film by taking chances, when it is easy enough to assure successful pictures by observing a few elementary photographic, or in this case, I should say physical and optical, principles?

First of all, we must never forget that any object which moves makes a certain impression upon our eyes. We know that if the speed of a n object is increased beyond certain limits, we can no longer see the object plainly and distinctly. We see it only as a blur. The fact that we know what the object is before hand creates in our minds a mental picture of the object, hence we are not often aware of the fact that we cannot clearly see it as it whizzes past us. Just try this out for yourself sometime-watch a horse’s hoofs as he gallops past, or better still, notice closely as a motorcycle zips past you at relatively close distance. You will see what I mean.

This is a law of optics which must be understood before we can apply It to photography. The eye, as everyone who has studied even the elements of physics knows, can see clearly only objects which are stationary, or at best, moving slowly. This peculiarity of the eye is known as the “persistency of vision,” and incidentally, is the basis of the motion picture. Motion pictures do not really move; the pictures are merely a series of tiny “still” pictures, exposed in rapid succession on a strip of film. These tiny pictures are exposed and later projected upon the screen at a rate of from sixteen to twenty-four per second-too fast for the eye to catch the shift from one to the other, hence we have what we call “moving pictures.” Only because the eye cannot catch the substitution of one picture to the other, are motion pictures possible to us. This is a good example in point-that rapidly moving objects cannot be clearly seen.

Now then, as our eyes cannot catch rapid action with any degree of clarity, how can we expect an immobile piece of glass, the camera lens, to record and register this action on our film in the camera? Our eyes are far superior to the camera lens in that they are, after all, flexible and adaptable to various conditions-this cannot be said of the camera lens. We must understand, therefore, that the camera offers certain strict limitations.

It is true that excellent pictures in clear and sharp detail can be made with even the less expensive cameras, although sports photographers use cameras which are more or less designed for speed work. These cameras are equipped with focal-plane shutters which are capable of snapping off the exposures at 1/1000th of a second. This is of tremendous importance to the photographer of speeding objects, for it is actually the key which makes successful speed pictures possible. A camera with a high speed shutter is unquestionably vastly superior to one which does not boast of such speeds, nevertheless, with a little care, satisfactory results can be obtained with inexpensive cameras equipped with much slower shutters.

Take for example the average folding camera. Its lens is mounted in a between-the-lens shutter which is quite different in design from the aforementioned focal-plane shutter. Because of its different design, it is incapable of producing shutter speeds faster than 1/500th of a second at best, indeed, most such shutters go no higher than 1/300th of a second. On the cheaper cameras the shutters go only as high as 1/100th of a second, some not more than 1/75th of a second. It is therefore obvious that wherever possible, it is easier, and increases the chances of success, to use a camera which is able to cope with the situation of speed by being equipped with a speedy shutter.

As to a few principles, regardless of what kind of camera is used, let us first realize that the distance between the camera and the speeding object has a great deal to do with the sharpness of the resultant picture-image. In speaking of sharpness relative to speeding objects I refer of course, to the absence of blur, not out of focus results due to faulty focusing of the lens. We assume in all cases in this article that the lens is sharply adjusted as to accurate focus.

If the camera should be positioned so as to record the object going away from, or towards it, not only is a better picture secured, but the blur can be minimized owing to the fact that the speed of the object is relatively slower. You see we again come across the problems of relativity, which are in fact the basis of our considerations. Also, where the fastest possible shutter speed may not satisfactorily “freeze” the object when photographed broadside, a relatively slow shutter speed will be found adequate for angle shots, such as just suggested. This means that owners of cameras equipped with slow shutters can manage, by selecting proper angles to get clear-cut, sharp pictures of their subjects. A shutter speed of 1/100th of a second may suffice in most cases involving motorcycle races and hillclimbs, although this figure should not be taken too seriously and held as a rule, because some objects may require a faster shutter speed, while others may not need more than 1/75th of a second. So you “gas-twisters” who also click shutters on motorcycle sports, aim your cameras at such an angle so as to catch the object heading towards, or going away from you. You can of course try your luck at shooting broadside, but if the speed is anything to speak of, you will get only a blurred streak running straight across your film unless you happen to be extremely fortunate.

One more hint-if you insist on photographing a speeding motorcycle broadside or nearly so, move the camera along with the object and click the shutter at the most favorable instant. This is done best with a view-finder on the camera which permits the latter to be held at eye-level. Most up-to-date cameras are equipped with these direct-vision view-finders, but if yours is an old model with the glass, reflecting type of view-finder, you can easily gauge the range of the camera lens by bending a piece of wire into the approximate shape of the negative area of your film and attaching it to the camera in the most convenient position. This wire frame will serve as a good guide to indicate the general coverage of the lens.

The trick of moving the camera along with the object is one well-known to all news and sports photographers. Simply keep the object to be photographed in the range of the view-finder of the camera and swing the latter along so as to keep the object in the center of the field. When the favorable moment presents itself as to angle, light, etc., the shutter is released-while the camera is kept moving on the object. Don’t fail to do this, or else you will be surprised to find the motorcycle completely out of the picture. Keep the camera moving before, during, and a little after the shutter has made the exposure.

The photography of speeding motorcycles is at once a tricky and highly profitable pastime. After the elementals as outlined have been mastered, attention can be turned towards pictorial and dramatic effects. For instance, powerful, dramatic photographs of motorcycles can be produced by placing the camera at a low position. In some cases, the camera can be placed directly on the ground, lens pointing upward, showing the machine coming head-on. The effect is considerably heightened if the sky, which forms the background of such pictures, is studded with fleecy-white clouds. The sky can be considerably darkened and the clouds made prominent, by the proper use of a filter over the lens. For effects such as this, a panchromatic film and a yellow filter are recommended. For strong sky contrasts, a deeper filter, such as an orange-red, or even light red filter, will work wonders. Such filters to fit your camera lens may be obtained in any photographic store.

On the other hand, a view-point from above the object being photographed results in a dwarfed appearance, thus producing a feeble picture, so to speak. Such a view-point, being the opposite from the “worm’s eye view” from the ground, results in the opposite effect. In the vast majority of cases, however, the normal eye-level will give the most consistently satisfactory pictures, hence should be used most.

In all these matters, it goes without saying that no hard and fast rules can be given. The whole thing is a matter of experience and practice. As you go along, you will soon come to know the limits of your particular camera and will be able to work accordingly. Not only do cameras differ as to make and type, but you will find that lighting conditions vary not only from day to day, but even hour to hour. From this it can be seen how impossible it is to do more than outline mere approximations. Photography is at best, an individual problem, and as such cannot very well be governed by definite rules or laws.

There are details in this business of photographing speeding motorcycles. Take for example the matter of lens diaphragm as applied to the shutter speed, which must of necessity be left unaltered because of the speed of the object. It stands to reason that if the shutter speed is increased, the lens diaphragm (or stop, as some call it) must be opened proportionately to compensate for the shutter. On the other hand, it is desirable to get as much depth of field in the picture as possible, and this is controlled by closing the lens diaphragm. In the case of speeding motorcycles, where a fast shutter speed is absolutely necessary, we cannot close the lens diaphragm down for the sake of depth unless, of course, the sunlight is of sufficient intensity. The whole matter depends greatly upon light conditions. Of considerable help in this matter is an extra fast film which will permit a partial closing of the lens diaphragm for the sake of depth, in spite of the fast shutter speed.

The small miniature cameras are ideally suited to speed work, because, owing to their comparatively short focal length, they have an inherent depth of field, even when the diaphragm is wide open. This, plus the fact that most of these baby cameras are equipped with fast lenses, makes them especially useful for, because of the fast lens, high shutter speeds can be used even on dark, cloudy days, without a sacrifice of exposure. Most cameras used in this work have lenses with a speed of at least f :3.5, and more often they run as fast as f:2, and f:l.9. Unfortunately less expensive cameras are equipped with slow lenses whose speed is around f:6.3, f:7.7, and in the case of the box type camera, such as the “Brownie,” f:11-which is indeed very slow and requires slow shutter speeds in bright sunlight.

A useful accessory when afield with the camera is a lens-shade or sun-shade. This device protects the lens from unwanted, non-image-forming light rays which tend to rob the picture of its snap and contrast. Those hazy pictures you sometimes get are often the result of stray light passing through the lens and onto the film thus veiling it. A good sun-shade is very inexpensive, and is many times worth its cost. By all means get one for your lens and know that all of your pictures will be safeguarded from this insidious defect which is often puzzling and always detrimental.

In short, when photographing motorcycle races and hillclimbs, be sure of your ground, photographically speaking, and you will return home with a batch of fine pictures. You will have no need to make excuses when the gang asks to see some of your results.

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By Uncle Frank
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