James Wright's journey into motorcycle photography came about thanks to his love for both things. Firstly, his grandfather sparked his passion for speed and machinery through an introduction to motorcycles. Later, his father tried to divert this interest into something he saw as a better option through showing James photography. This is when his passion for both combined and resulted in a love for motorcycle photography. After quitting his day job as an engineer in 1994 to pursue his hobby as a career, 24 years in the industry has given James expertise in capturing power, drama and art. With the upcoming MotorGP at the Silverstone Circuit this weekend, we thought we would delve into what its like to shoot motorcycles and their riders.
Shooting bikes: Starting out in the motorcycle industry
James was introduced to an opportunity to shoot motorcycles at an event where he was asked to shoot the rider that his brother's boss sponsored at Cadwell park. A few shots later and an order was placed for some prints, which kickstarted the movement of his hobby evolving into a career.
The devil is in the detail
After 24 years in the industry, James knows how to highlight everything individual and important to a bike and rider. He explains that a lot of what he does is instinctive, but he is "always looking to keep things fresh" when approaching a bike shoot.
"I love shooting details, just seeing the craftsmanship that goes into some of these bikes is incredible. From my clients' perspective, they need to show their clients their attention to detail. Again, race bikes are very different creatures - they are built for a very specific purpose so although some areas may not be as detailed those of the road bikes, there are other things that are absolute works of art. I feel that it is part of my job to let people who are unable to enjoy my privileged access, to appreciate these details. As with most things, the devil is in the detail and I am a big fan of detail!"
The passion James has for capturing authentic details is evident in his shoots. He recently carefully captured a bike with a hand-stitched Norton seat, a complete work of art in the motorcycle industry.
"The bike is a work of art and the detail in everything, down to the Norton logo being etched into the top of small fairing securing bolts, it is just mind-blowing. The seat is hand stitched, the leather hand selected, the seat support carbon fibre and of course a price tag to match but you just can't ignore it.
I have seen a lot of motorcycles in the last 30 years and sometimes you just sit and look at the details and every time you look you see something new, something different, and you just know how passionate these designers have been, along with the battles they will have fought in the boardroom just to get a minute detail signed off."
Expanding light shaping possibilities with HSS
Race days are fast and furious, which is why James operates very much in the moment when shooting circuits. HSS enables him to balance the daylight and work at an optimum efficiency when shooting on trackside.
"Being able to use the HSS to balance the daylight is a great bonus. I often use the HSS feature to allow me to balance the daylight and flash while maintaining control over basic camera settings. It allows me to shoot ‘wide open’ when without that function I would have to reduce the aperture in order to balance the daylight. It comes in useful for all sorts of situations often without thinking - I can forget about having to use a shutter speed of 1/250th or less and carry on preparing my shot as if the flash wasn’t there."
Where shoots are more predictable, James plans precise angles and a schedule to ensure the bike is captured at its optimum. Lighting plans come with these, where the Profoto B1 is used to enhance the subject, fill dark details that would otherwise not be seen and add to the bike's individual characteristics. James says this allows him to get as close to the brief as possible in camera, without the need for excessive post-production, making his approach entirely authentic.
"When shooting details like seats, lights, controls, engines, and brakes I usually use the B1’s as a fill for the natural light as there are so many shapes and curves on a motorcycle that will cause shadows so usually either a single or two light set up dependant on sunlight position, sometimes fitted with softboxes. I use a single light if I have lots of sun providing the main illumination or two lights if the natural light is a bit flat - I will use one light, usually fitted with a magnum as ‘the sun’, and the other to provide fill, although there are situations where I will light the detail with the flash and let the sun act as the fill, again, depending on the effect I am trying to achieve. However with the Profoto B1, all of these scenarios are no longer a problem."
Shooting on the Portuguese coast
One of James' particular shoots on the Portuguese coast needed just this - light to fill the dark shadows cast over the details of the bike, whilst creating drama at the same time.
"In order to get the compressed perspective and drama of the stormy sea it was necessary to shoot on a 500mm f4 on the Canon EOS 1DxII. The plan was to freeze the waves while keeping the general exposure dark and dramatic whilst maintaining a narrow depth of field to ensure that the bike was the main element of the image. This left little option than to use a large aperture and a high shutter speed - no problem, except that would have left the bike as dark as the surroundings."
James' solution was two Profoto B1s with an assistant, a low stand and a long pole. One Profoto B1 was fitted with an OCF Magnum Reflector and placed on the pole, held almost on top of and behind the bike. The other Profoto B1 was to the right hand side of the front of the bike, again fitted with an OCF Magnum Reflector to provide some fill to the shadows.
The OCF Magnums, as well as adding to the light output of the Profoto B1s, provided James with a hard light that complimented the aggressive design and feel of the campaign.
"The flashes were triggered from approximately 80 - 100 metres away using the Canon Air TTL, which allowed me to change the power of the flash without having to either walk back to the unit or shout to the assistant. Neither would have been practical in this situation due to firstly the volume of the wind, waves and storm and secondly, the 100-metre camera distance was as the crow flies. I was actually on a separate outcrop of rock that was approximately a 400 metres walk."
James explains that radios would have worked, but would have meant the assistant changing the light position each time to adjust the power. He concluded that the shoot was successful due to:
- HSS allowing the ambient light to freeze the water whilst keeping a shallow depth of field
- Air TTL allowing long-distance triggering and individual flash head power adjustment
- Physical size allowing his assistant to be able to support the main light, handheld, on a pole
- Batter power allowing the lights to be portable enough to reach the location without generators or electricity
- Magnum reflectors allowing him to boost light output whilst remaining directional
As with shots of the bikes, James also likes to create drama with the riders themselves. He explains that the riders are under great pressure from their teams and sponsors to perform, which is why headshots need to be taken swiftly and efficiently.
"Each rider has his own way of closing their visor on their helmet - one of those things you only notice if you are really involved in your sport, so I decided to shoot the top riders doing just that.
I positioned a B1 with a magnum 45 degrees front right and a B1 with snoot and grid 45 degrees behind, to add separation from the background. I needed to reduce the background exposure as there was no specific black background available so in this instance, I shot at a small aperture (f11 and 1/250th). I took a couple of test frames using the TTL settings which gave me a base for exposure then set the flashes manually for the remainder of the shoot."
Key steps to ensure a successful shoot
Being a motorcycle photographer requires continuous adaptability and exploration.
"For racing - you can’t really plan - you just have to go with whatever happens and rely on your instincts somewhat, although you always need to have equipment on which you can rely 100%. For commercial commissions, things are very different. Here it is planning, preparation, reliable equipment, having the right people around you, strong communication - especially with the art director, - thorough understanding and interpretation of the brief…..and then a bit more planning. Knowing when to stop ‘forcing’ a shot than having the ability to adapt as situations evolve."
James says experimentation with light shaping is crucial to image creation.
"Use a wall, see what happens with each shaping tool, play with power, angles and different light shaping tools, grids, and modifiers and see what effect each has on a blank wall.
I know I can rely on Profoto products - they built their reputation in the harsh reality of study equipment hire and as a result are built to last. As I said earlier, I am a big fan of detail and Profoto is no exception. The light quality is difficult to explain but it is exceptional, it can be harsh and direct, it can be subtle and soft, but there is one thing it always is - consistent!"