Oooooh, Shiny! Minimizing reflections in motorcycle photography

Shaweetz from Canada says:
This comes up a lot for me. I doubt there is a magic solution, since this is usually solved in the studio with a special box.
...Bikes have lots of shiny convex bits, which invariably means that many of these shots are self-portraits. Damn it is hard get yourself out of the photo.

So you're on the road, or maybe just in your garage, and you certainly don't have access to a seamless white background, blackout curtains and studio lighting...
The first thing we can do is to move the motorcycle outside, into the shade. Be sure your flash is turned off too.
Indoor lighting or direct sunlight is just too much. The highlights are too bright, the shadows are too dark.
Cloudy days are actually the best thing, the even light wraps around all the nooks and crannies of the motorcycle. This is why studio photographers shoot through umbrellas and white fabric.

Hmm... KLR650, just back from a 30,000km trip to Panama. Not the shiniest of motorcycles, but it will do for this example.

What you'll need to tone-down the mirrored reflections is a polarizing filter. Good ones are not cheap, but it's the sort of thing you can buy once and have for the rest of your life. It will never be obsolete! Cough up the cash for a quality polarizer.

Here's an example, the left is with out the polarizer, the right with. The polarizer rotates on the front of your lens, and you dial-in exactly how much reflection you want to eliminate. Note how much clearer the "KLR" is and how much richer the red appears.

The second trick is to keep yourself out of the reflection. Shoot from an angle rather than directly on the side, or shoot from far away and zoom in. Any reflection of yourself will be too small to be noticeable.

If you just have a point n' shoot camera you can try this out with a pair of polarized sunglasses. You'll have to rotate the glasses to the right angle. This is easier to do if you look through the glasses at arms-length and rotate to the correct angle, then hold the camera up to take the photo.

It can work surprisingly well! The only problem is you'll often get a nasty orange or green tint from the glasses, and scratches and reflections on the sunglass lens are often visible on the photo. It's still fun to try though. The sunglass tint can usually be corrected in the computer.

Of course the easiest thing is to shoot bikes that ain't shiny!

8 Response to "Oooooh, Shiny! Minimizing reflections in motorcycle photography"

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I like how your first example shot is a deliberate self-portrait. Sweet.
    Curious, was there a polarizer on for this shot?

  2. josh.sylvester Says:

    I've been using the sunglasses as a polarizer trick for years! great info!

  3. HTWoodson Says:

    I just found your blog after being bumped here from the MCN website. I just wanted to say nice blog and great photos; please keep it up! I'm looking forward to future posts.

    May I make a request for a topic? In the last photo on this page, the black and white photo with the BMW, it appears that the photographer was up close and down low with a wide angle lens, making the BMW seem large and aggressive. If he had been further back and shooting with a telephoto, the bike would have appeared very different in relation to the rider, correct? Could you discuss this further and make some suggestions on how to make your bike appear faster, more aggressive, etc.. For example, how to you make your bike appear "fast" when it's parked?


  4. Anthony - Motojournalism Says:

    Good call HT!
    Adding focal length to the future post list...

  5. Anthony - Motojournalism Says:

    Hmm, I think I had a polarizer on for that first shot. It didn't make much of difference with the chrome though! :)

  6. shaweetz Says:

    To add another two pennies to this for those shooting micro 4/3.

    I've considered adding a polarizer to my u4/3 GF1, but haven't yet. The reality is that taking quick shots in direct sunlight, while wearing sunglasses, you can just barely see the shot you are composing in the LCD, unless of course you have the EVF option, which is probably not mounted, because the GF1 is in your pocket, right?

    I concluded that it would be pretty tricky to rotate a polarizer and make accurate choices under these conditions. So there is a potential limit of the new u4/3 cameras to consider.

    Probably I should have gotten one anyway. Next time!

  7. Anthony - Motojournalism Says:

    Hmm, good point! I love the idea of the GF-1, but not having a viewfinder is a pain, no matter how big the LCD is, you're just not "in" the scene. I wouldn't mind having that 20mm f1.7 and an old-school optical viewfinder for the hot-shoe, rangefinder style.

  8. Lisa Walker Says:

    Nice tips, I've been getting into more and more bike photography and your right, it's hard to shoot them in the sun. Just stumbled on this blog for the first time, will follow it with interest, nice work!

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