Liebe Leser, normalerweise schreibe ich diesen Blog auf Deutsch. Da ich diesen Artikel aber speziell für die Mitglieder eines amerikanischen Motorradfotografie-Forums erstellt habe, ist er auf Englisch.
-End of preface-
I am in a motorcycle photography group on Facebook, the Motorcycle Photographers Forum. One of the administrator is a professional photographer who makes a living out of motorcycle photography – Don Kates from Shooters Images. In one post he shared an insight on his lighting setup and equipment. He uses only the most exquisite equipment which lives up to the highest standards of magazine photography. While the list is mouth-watering, it is not the standard gear collection the masses use due to the high cost. With this post I am sharing my gear collection in order to give another viewpoint. Please keep in mind that this does not have to be the best solution in the world. It works for me personally, but yet I am still constantly looking for ways to improve my workflow with better (or other) tools.
DO NOT FOCUS ON GEAR! The slogan sounds corny, but the gear is just a tool and YOU are the one creating the image. I maintain that any DSLR and mirrorless on the market is technologically capable of capturing great images. What you need to know is how to manipulate and set the light.
End of disclaimer.
Enough of the introductory blabla, here we go!
My lighting equipment consists of standard Nikon Speedlight strobes. I own two SB-800s, one SB-910 and a SB-700. The strobes are small, light, and powerful for their size. If you buy the flashes second hand they might cost 200-250 Euro per piece (230-290 USD). They are powered by four AA batteries and those last a several hour long shooting if fully charged.
The Speedlights are triggered with Yongnuo flash triggers. They are cheap (35 Euro/40 USD per piece) and reliable. Before I owned the radio triggers I fired the flashes with the Nikon CLS system, which means that the popup flash of the camera acts as the commander, sending out a kind of morse code to the slave flashes. That worked pretty well for a while, but since I had issues triggering when shooting out on an open field (the light got lost in the surroundings), I decided to go for the radio triggers.
I am either using 80×80 cm softboxes (31,5×31,5 inch) or – start throwing tomatoes – no light former at all (more on that later).
The softboxes have a popup design (you know, like those spring-loaded tents you throw into the air, they fold out and you never know how to fold them back). The one I use are from Neewer, they are cheap (again around 40 USD each) and well made for the money. They are very portable as they do not take up much space and can be assembled in roughly a minute.
Pro tip: When packing the softbox back up, take out the diffusor screen before folding the softbox to avoid wrinkling of the fabric. Gently roll up the diffusor screen and pack it separately. These wrinkles will leave „trails“ in reflections of closeup shots as the wrinkles will appear a little darker than the smooth part of the fabric. Yes, you can also get rid of that in post, but with a little effort – rolling the screens – you can save time in post.
A while ago I used shoot-through umbrellas (see title image), but ditched those as they leave ugly reflections and are even more prone to falling over in the wind than softboxes.
As stated above, sometimes I use no light former at all. I employ this every time I do not want or need these big reflections on the painted parts. Then the flashes are “naked” on the light stands and off we go. Here is a good example of the flashes being fired without light formers. The matt finish of this Ducati Diavel Dark lights up very nicely with the flashes being so far away. From this distance an even light pattern reaches the bike, and the matt finish of the bike does not show punctual reflections (on a glossy finish the flashes would leave a small white dot as a reflection, if they are visible at all).
Lighting is a complex issue with countless possible variations. If I had to compress my most freuqently used setup into a paragraph, it would read like this:
My standard setup consists of two flashes, one to the left, one to the right. Sometimes I use a third flash to give the background an additional dash of light. Most of the times I aim the light towards the bike in a steep angle, so that the contours come out nicely.
My rule of thumb for setting the lights is to determine which parts of the bike are exposed to the camera and then aim one light at each main body. If you are shooting a side view, one flash aims at the front half of the bike, the other at the rear half. If the front of the bike is facing the camera, one flash takes the bike head on, the other one illuminates the side of the bike.
Tripods and stands
My camera tripod is a Manfrotto carbon fibre model. The aluminum version I had before was also very good, but since I like cool stuff I bought the carbon fibre version 😊 I use a Novoflex MagicBall head. It is heavy, but absolutely robust. Due to the simple twist-and-align action you can compose the image very quickly. Also I like the blue colour of the ball 😉 On the downside you can break your fingers when tightening the screw. Also shooting in portrait mode is not possible with this head, unless you have a lens bracket. When turning the ball head sideways for portrait mode, the weight of the lens forces the camera to rotate downwards as it is only held in place by the screw (you can’t tighten the screw enough with your fingers, so those two things are connected)
I use standard foldable lighting stands, see image to the right behind the doggo. They (the light stands) are cheap and do the job, but without sandbags they are prone to falling over when wind is blowing. If I were using studio flashes instead of small camera strobes, I would opt for the more robust C stands. But since the Speedlights and the softboxes I use are comparatively lightweight, the standard light stands are good.
Hauling the stuff
I prefer to be mobile on a shoot and tend to change the location during a shooting several times. Sometimes we only move a few metres, sometimes a few dozen or a hundred, but nevertheless all the equipment needs to be moved from one place to the next. I have two big cases for all my stuff. The first one is a Pelicase with a padded divider inlay (Peli 1560. 51x39x23cm, 20×15,3×9″). Note: Those are sewn divider pads, not the foam system. The dividers are attached with velcro, so you can Tailor the layout to your Needs. The Peli holds all the cameras, lenses, batteries, flashes, radio triggers, a small travelling tripod and all the auxiliary stuff a photographer needs like filters, a blower to clean the lens etc.
The second box is a studio suitcase, here all the tripods and light formers find their home, also the Yongnuo YN360 LED stick I use for lightpainting. Moving both boxes at the same time is not practical, so an assistant comes in handy (or you have to run twice). I am not that happy with the studio case. It is so big that it does not smoothly fit in the back of my car (Toyota Verso family van). Also the sewn on carrying handles are not well placed. If you pull the box by one handle the seams will protest. I’ve heard one or two stitches pop already, let’s see how long this lasts.
What I found to be very handy is the use of a collapsible cart like the one on the left. It folds to a very compact size and can hold quite some equipment. The photo was taken before I got the Pelicase, so my equipment is crammed into a box usually used to buy groceries (yes, that’s very basic). The Peli 1560 fits snugly into the cart with some 20 cm left to one side. Only the transport of tripods and stands is problematic, as they won’t fit in the cart. I already thought about using two hooks on the side, onto which tripods can be placed, but did not realise this solution (also because this is not my cart, it belongs to our neighbours :-D).
Cameras and lenses
I shoot Nikon full format, owning a D800 and a D750 with a variety of lenses. The D750 is my workhorse and I like it a lot as it is a little slimmer than the D800 and it has a tiltable screen, which I use very frequently. I am blessed to own the „holy trinity“ of Nikkor lenses, the 14-24 f/2.8, the 24-70 f/2.8 (workhorse) and the 70-200 f/2.8 (should use that more often). I also have some other lenses like a 12mm fisheye and a 150-600 mm, but those I use seldom for motorcycle photos.
I hope this post gave you an insight look on the technical and logistical aspects of my photo shoots. This post is meant to give you a perspective on what a set of lighting equipment could look like. I am constantly searching for better options, but this is the setup I’ve been shooting with all year long and it worked fine.
Recently (as in “this week”) I bought battery powered studio flashes, so a major shift in the lighting equipment is imminent. After collecting first experiences with this new equipment there might be changes in the logistics (bags, cases) again. Always strive for the better!