Snap to It!

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

There was a time when you needed to know plenty about how a camera worked to take good pictures. Now, digital cameras with auto-focus and auto-program exposure have taken the guesswork out of the technical side of snapshots. They've made it ridiculously easy to get pretty good results in most lighting conditions and shooting situations. But they've also made it easy to take a lot of really bad pictures too!

Photography isn't just about getting the technical stuff right. It's about composition, subject, contrast, lighting and much, much more. If the camera did everything, then anyone could be an Ansel Adams or Yousuf Karsh - and that's obviously not the case.

Taking good pictures on a motorcycle tour presents an extra set of issues. How much gear to take, how to carry it, how to capture what you see so others can share your experience… and maybe even how to get your pictures published.

First, the basics: Get a digital single-lens reflex (D-SLR) camera. I've tried over the years to make a point-and-shoot work for my photography, but although D-SLRs are bulkier and heavier, they offer much more versatility and flexibility - and that's the key to creativity. Entry-level D-SLRs can take outstanding pictures with a good lens and in the right hands. The compromises are mostly in build quality, durability, sensing systems and image processing. Yes, you can capture spectacular images with a point 'n' shoot camera; but with a D-SLR, you'll typically take more high-quality pictures, and many that a point 'n' shoot could never produce.

Buy the best camera you can afford, but always spend more on the lens. The kit lenses supplied with entry-level D-SLRs are fine for snapshots, but you'll get better results by spending a little more money. The now popular 18-200mm F3.5-4.5 zoom will cover most photo-ops. Again, build quality is important. And if in doubt, heavier is usually better.

More megapixels doesn't necessarily mean better photography. For years, one of the most respected press cameras, the Nikon D2H, managed imagery perfectly well with 4 megs. Six megs is plenty for fine reproduction in a two-page magazine spread. Yes, you'll probably get better resolution at higher megapixel levels, but unless you're making 24" x 36" posters or printing coffee table books, you won't see the difference. And using a cheap lens will definitely negate any benefit you get from more pixels.

Buying used is a good idea. D-SLR technology is moving so quickly that the "early adopters" always have previous generation gear for sale. And as far as I'm aware, there hasn't been a truly bad D-SLR made; in fact, some of my favorite shots were taken with my 2002 Nikon D100. Just be sure to have the camera checked out by a reputable dealer.

Read the manual for your camera and experiment with manual exposure control and manual focus. Often you can get better results if you have time to set up the camera in manual modes. When in doubt, bracket your shots - taking a series of photos of the same subject at slightly different settings. With digital images, this costs next to nothing but may produce better results. Some cameras will do this automatically. Again, read the manual.

The best accessory you can buy - perhaps the only one you'll need - is a polarizing filter: regular type for prime (fixed focal length) lenses, circular for zooms. These cut glare when shooting water scenes and darken skies for those dramatic desert shots. But they also work best in direct sunlight, and when the sun is perpendicular to the lens.
Back up your images at least daily. That doesn't mean you have to carry a laptop. For many years I used a device called an X-Drive, a small portable hard drive that automatically backed up my flash memory cards. My personal rule is to always have images stored in at least two places at once, preferably using different technologies; for example, flash memory (the camera's storage card) and magnetic storage (a hard drive).

Carry and use a tripod. For my D40, I use a Velbon Ultra Max. It's compact and lightweight, and has a quick-release shoe for faster setup. A tripod multiplies your creative possibilities, enabling you to take your own picture (nothing says "I was there" like putting yourself in the frame) and, with the use of a remote control, even shots of you riding. A word of caution, though. If there's any wind, anchor the tripod carefully to avoid a tip-over.

Put a subject in your shot. What may appear scenically beautiful may turn out to be a ho-hum landscape photo without an element of interest added to the view. Try including a nearby tree, a house or barn, or maybe your motorcycle in the frame. Just be careful to control the depth of field. If you don't understand that term, it's time to read your camera's manual again.

Always have your camera ready to use. That usually means either wearing it or carrying it in a tank bag, and neither option is really satisfactory. If you crash while your camera bag is around your shoulder, it could cause extra injury. On top of the gas tank, though, isn't ideal either, due to engine vibration. Modern D-SLRs are pretty reliable, but because they have moving parts inside (principally the mirror), they don't like to be dropped. Lenses don't handle vibration well, either. That said, I've carried a D-SLR around with me on a bike for years, and the only problem I've had was with a lens that went badly out of sync during a particularly rough dual-sport ride.

Clean your camera's imaging sensor before each trip. If you're not clear how to do this (it requires a surgically clean lint-free swab and methanol), take it to a camera store. Many modern D-SLRs have an auto-cleaning feature, but persistent dust bunnies may not be that easily removed. By the way, always turn your camera off before changing lenses: the sensor attracts more dust when energized. There's nothing worse than finding all of your images have a blob in exactly the same place. They can be removed from the image with Photoshop, but that's time consuming.

Thinking of mounting your camera on your bike? This can work out okay with a digital point 'n' shoot, although vibration and road ripples have usually rendered most of the images I've taken this way useless for publication. But don't try it with a D-SLR because of the transmitted vibration. Most consumer camera mounts aren't designed for a D-SLR's weight either. The best and safest way to take pictures while on the move is to have your passenger shoot them.

Finally, the most important tenet to remember about photography is the same one that gets a violinist to Carnegie Hall: Practice. Take a course, too. You'll almost certainly get better results and better value by spending $ 500 on a photography course than paying $ 500 for a fancier camera. Join a club and have the other members give you feedback. In fact, one of the fastest ways to learn is to enter club-level competitions.

So, there you have a few of the basics I've learned from personal experience. I haven't even touched on composition, focal length effects, exposure compensation, or lighting yet. In time though, with enough practice, you'll develop your own "eye" in those regards. With more familiarity, you will also discover that many of the basic rules can be broken to produce different, and often stunning results - but that's another subject for another time.