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Motorcycle smartphone photography

Tips on how riders can tell a better story with quality pictures from their phone

Back in 1999, when we started Sound RIDER!, my film camera had pretty much already been retired to the closet shelf (it’s still there now). Even though the quality of images from a digital camera was still behind film, the savings and simplicity made it realistic to shoot only digital.

For an online magazine, the quality of digital pics was good enough for web format, since most images were edited down to no more than 500 pixels across. Not the case at print format publications that demanded higher resolutions than digital cameras could provide.

So back then, you might take off for a ride with a cell phone and a digital camera. Eventually cell phones got cameras, but the quality and ability was far from anything we’d even consider publishing on the web.

That’s all changing. 2013 was the first year I felt comfortable leaving the house with nothing but a smartphone to document a ride or event.

When I got my latest smartphone (Nokia Lumina 822), I was puzzled as to why it saved photographs in such a large size. 8 megapixels was a sizable image for a smartphone. But after adding a few apps and working with the camera a bit more, it all became clear.

Smartphones are getting much better lenses now. They don’t typically get add-ons like detachable lenses, so zooming is out of the question - more on this in a moment. Digital zooming has never been a good thing, and in fact Nokia and others have abandoned it because it provides nothing but fuzzy images. Instead they’ve boosted the pixel size so you can edit away at it later.

Tools of the new trade

Begin with a modern day smartphone that is lauded for it’s excellent picture taking abilities. A number of riders are still using old technology, but it’s simple enough to turn your old phone in and upgrade to the good stuff today for little or no cost. Do it!

Aside from a modern day smartphone, you’ll want to add one or two apps to your phone, if you want to edit right on location. There are many good ones that cost nothing, or you can get their more robust big brothers for a small price. First decide what you want to do with the apps, then go to your app store and compare the features available in various apps and download to your heart’s content.

At the least you’ll want to be able to:

Crop – Look for a crop tool that offers a rule of thirds grid during cropping – it looks like a tic-tac-toe board. More about that in a moment.

Image: Utilizing the Rule of Thirds cropping technique. Note the 2 vertical and 2 horizontal barely visable lines in the cropping app.

Adjust brightness and contrast – Auto-adjust is typically fine for the casual shooter. There are times when the app and I don’t agree on its auto choice, so having some manual ability here is nice here.

Straighten Image – How many times does it happen that you shoot a nice picture, only to realize later it’s a bit crooked? Having the ability to straighten it is a nice add-on.

All the other gimmicks such as converting the image to black and white, mono-chroming, making it look like a watercolor or painting and otherwise, are entirely up to you.

Keep in mind that you can deal with a lot of other editing chores back at home in your digital darkroom on your desktop, laptop or tablet computer. In fact, there may be more broad based versions of the editor(s) you’re using on your smartphone available for the larger format machines mentioned.

Add a polarizing filter – There are camera cases coming on the market now that include a polarizing filter that slips right over the lens. Polarizing is a great option for outdoor shots, as it helps reduce overall glare and improve the color saturation in many images.

Know the basics when you shoot

So you’re on the road. You might be out with a group, you might have gone to the races, you may be riding through the mountains or otherwise and it’s time to take some pics. Let’s make ‘em good ones by keeping the following things in mind.

Shoot with the sun to your back – As often as possible shoot with the sun at your back. That way your subject(s) will be lit nicely. If the sun is behind them, they will appear more like silhouettes and their features will be dark.

Force your flash when necessary – If you don’t know how to do this already, grab your smartphone and learn how to force its flash on. In the event you want to take a shot, where it is not possible to get the sun at your back, you can highlight the nearby subjects features by forcing the flash on.

Image: With the sun flooding in from behind the riders, we've manged to get some light on their faces, nonetheless, by forcing the flash on the smartphone camera app, as evidenced primarily by the reflective band on the bottom of the helmet in the foreground.

Give yourself some outside margin to work with – Sometimes it’s easy to get right up on your subject and fill the lens entirely. But what happens later when you realize you need to crop or straighten the image? Leave some extra space out on the edges so you can deal with that and not have parts of your subject get cut out during an edit. The nice thing is with the larger image formats and better lenses found in smartphones today, even if you only use 30% of the image, the quality will still be pretty decent for small format.

Make background subjects larger – Suppose you’re taking a photo of a rider with a large mountain behind them. If you’re close to the rider, the mountain will be one size - small. If you step back 20 feet and take the shot, the mountain will be larger in proportion to the subject. You can practice this by placing your motorcycle in the foreground and walking back and forth to play with the perspective.

Image 1: The original close up pic without editing. Note the size of Mt. Baker in the background, the wires crossing through the image and the shadow of the shooter in the lower left.

Image 2: The original 20 feet back from the subjects pic.

Image 3: Same photo as Image 2, only now it's edited using the Rule of Thirds technique. No unnecessary shadows, no wires, the mountain is larger in proportion and the clarity is still postcard perfect! Wow!

Practice moving shots – Getting images of other riders in motion is pretty cool. Unfortunately, most smartphones have a pause on the shutter so it’s not easy to know when it will fire. To compensate for this, once the rider enters your screen, follow them as they move, fire the shutter and continue to move the camera at the same pace as they get closer. This way the rider is more likely to be in focus, rather than the background, which is what would happen and you just held yourself still. You can practice this out on a busy street shooting cars until you’ve got it down. That way you’ll be ready to put the technique to use when you hit the road with your riding buddies.

Go Commando – One of the beautiful things about the camera apps in many smartphones today, is the ability to run many features in manual mode. Many phones now allow you to manually set the shutter speed, ISO, white balance and otherwise, just like the old days of 35mm SLR’s and better modern day digital SLR’s on the market today.

Mastering shooting a camera in full manual mode is an art that takes time to learn, but the results are a nice payoff in terms of final image quality. Move from being a shutter puppet to being a full-fledged photographer.

Editing on the fly

Most image apps will allow you to manipulate the image on the fly, while retaining the original copy. This is nice in case you want to redo your edit when you get back home to your digital darkroom. But in the meantime you can do a real time edit and email it, or post it somewhere online on the spot.

Start by straightening your image, then crop it. Remember that cropping tool has the rule of thirds grid, so use it to position your forward subject into one of the four cross hatches.

Once you’ve done that, readjust the lighting with the auto-adjust tool, or by tweaking the brightness and contrast manually.

Edit complete. Now share it any way you like.

Further down the road

As of this writing, we were just starting to see some optional lenses coming onto the market that would allow for telephoto and macro shots. They sure take away from the simplicity of shooting with a smartphone, but if you’ve got the time and the need for more diversity, give one a go.

Taking photos with a smartphone is a great way to document a ride. As a casual enthusiast, you don’t need pro gear, but a little extra know-how will make your images a lot more appealing and help you document the day much better.

TM/January 14

For more moto photo techniques you can use with your smartphone check out:


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