Motorcycle Documentary Filming

Another quick update! I've been running around Ontario filming the missing pieces of the motorcycle documentary. 
My producer, Dallas Shannon of Traction E-Rag has been pulling strings and calling-in favours to arrange the specific scenes that needed to be shot. Everybody from the vintage collectors to the motorcycle dealerships have been super accommodating scrambling to get the old and new motorcycles we need.
We've also shot three short interviews of people who know the two main characters of the documentary.

All for now, off to shoot the final scenes!

Sneak peek at the motorcycle documentary

Riding season is winding down - it's gorgeous now but won't be long before the last leaf has fallen and the deep freeze begins. I'll get in as many rides as I can before I have to dig out the battery tender and fogging oil.

Working on the documentary has been fascinating. There are so many elements that come together to make it work. I've been working out the documentary with my producer and we've found that the audio beats the video in importance. We're putting together the story like a radio show - the spoken word is the the structure, the frame, and the video will be placed on top of that frame.

We found that the old fashioned method of shuffling around index cards on a table helped us best in working out the plot. Each index card was a bit of dialogue that our subjects talked about and having them spread out before us really made a logical flow of ideas visible.

Documentary seems to be similar to travel photography; you go out having a rough idea of what you will find, but you really don't know what the story will be until you come back and see what you've shot.

In the meantime, I'm getting deep into learning video editing. I'm taking what I've learned about processing my photos and applying that knowledge to the similar tools in the video editor.
It's all the same things, a bit of contrast, adjusting the white-balance and saturation, a subtle vignette.

Here's a short video made with a bit of the extra footage we shot - just made to teach myself the tools, and give a hint of what's coming. I had fun recording the miniature soundtrack too.
It's all pretty pictures with no story - just the sort of video I was lambasting in the last post!

All for now, I'm off to ride to Ontario for the weekend, see you on the road!

Motorcycle documentary video shoot

Wow, just back from an intense week of motorcycle video shooting in Ontario. I'm creating a short documentary with Dallas Shannon of Traction E-Rag about couple of motorcycle riders we know.
It was go-go-go all week! Up at dawn and out in the woods to shoot.

We got fantastic interviews, plenty of surprises and great stories from both of the riders.
I still can't give away the plot, but I've got a few screen-grabs to show.

I used the Nikon D7000 as the main camera - despite the camera being horribly awkward to shoot video with - the image quality and lens choice was so good I was willing to put up with the difficulties.

The Panasonic DVX100A is a fantastic old camera, but the standard-definition images just couldn't hang with the hi-def Images from the Nikon. So it was pressed into service as an audio recorder with a Seinheisser MD421 studio mic plugged in to the XLR inputs. Nice to be able to let the tapes roll with an assistant (thanks KG!) doing the sound while I concentrated on capturing great images with the Nikon.

Lots of folks generously loaned gear for us to shoot with. It was a real patchwork gear setup with all the "wrong" kit for the job - but I'm thrilled about all the great stories and images we came back with. I think we've really made something out of nothing

(most of the kit - minus GoPro and D7000 - Click to enlarge) 

 Me and the mobile studio:

Screen captures from the raw footage:



The bulk of the work starts now, as we look for the real story, and chip ten hours of footage down to ten minutes or less...

Rene Cormier Presentation and motorcycle video production

Plenty going on lately, time for an update!

On the road and through the cornfields to Ontario...

A few weeks back, I went to a great presentation by Rene Cromier at BMW Moto Internationale in Montreal.

Rene took a five-year, 41-country, 154 000km (95 000 mile) trip, all the way around the world. The amazing stories are endless and he had much practical advice for everybody considering a similar voyage.

What I admire most is how he's taken his experience and turned it into a career that works for him.
Between book tours and leading adventure motorcycle trips in Africa he's able to live life on his own terms.

His book The University of Gravel Roads is a great read, with plenty of photos and thoughts on the way we and others live. It certainly deserves a spot on your motorcycle bookshelf among Jupiter's Travels and Lois on the Loose.

Rene, holding his breath in the South-Atlantic

The front fender of Rene's BMW F650. It was decorated in Pakistan, with layers of reflective vinyl material, cut freehand with a razor.

My next project is a collaboration with a colleague of mine, we'll be shooting a short documentary video in September. I can't give away the plot, but it will revolve around a couple of particularly well-heeled motorcycle riders we know.

I've been absolutely devouring information about shooting and editing video. It's learning from the ground up about video formats and frame rates and codecs, and all that nonsense, but really it's just taking the audio production I already know and combining it with my photo editing skills. I know exactly what I want to do, I just have to learn how the cameras and software do it!

It's a real soup-from-a-stone production - we're borrowing nearly all the equipment required.
We've got an old Panasonic DVX100A video camera for action shots and audio recording, an Sennheiser md421 microphone to record interviews, A brand new Nikon D7000 to shoot gorgeous HD video, and as many GoPro helmet cameras as we can get our hands on. And it will all be put together with an obsolete copy of Final Cut Pro on a G5 Mac that I got for free from an office.
I sure do enjoy the challenge of making something from nothing, but money for food, gas and video tape will have to come from somewhere...

Panasonic DVX100A - Great camera, but only shoots in standard definition
There's a lot of the same skills used in photography and video, but the big difference seems to be that video needs a story, or a change, or something to move it along.

A photograph can stand on it's own as an interesting image. Photography is pure image-making - the composition of, shape, line, texture, colour.

You could make a compelling photo of a motorcycle tire, but a video of a motorcycle tire?
There's so much more you'd need to add to make it worth watching.

Ontario enduro rides

Lately, we've seen so much beautiful footage with SLR cameras that shoot video. The images are gorgeous, but often the videos are devoid of story.
After the ohh, ahhh, has worn off there's nothing there. An empty shell.

The short documentary we're working on is going to be very much character driven. The subjects are lively and interesting people. There's already a thousand stories there, the challenge will be choosing what to focus on. It will be a compelling story first and visually interesting on top of that story.

Here's a clip of the footage we shot to test the equipment. Still some technical kinks to be ironed-out but it was enough to convince us that we can do a great job on the real shoot.

I'll keep you all posted on the progress!

Baja Revisited - Post processing for a vintage look

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain...

One of the amazing aspects of modern photography is the range of creative possibilities that digital post processing offers. We have the entire history of photography to pull inspiration from. Daguerreotype to Polaroid, Kodachrome to HDR.

With this series of photos from Baja Mexico, I'm drawing on old album covers, dusty basement collections of National Geographic, antique shop photographs, 1980's Robby Müller movies. A haze of nostalgia to mask the cinical clarity of an unprocessed digital image.


The first experiment was to restrict myself to a square 1:1 crop ratio. The photos were not taken with a square crop in mind, so it took a bit of work to find photos that worked well with this ratio.

I use Lightroom 3  to process all my images, and here I used a mix of the basic exposure tools, the tone curve, split toning, and the effects panel to achieve the vintage look.

I used quite a bit of fill light and much less contrast than usual to give a faded appearance, and adjusted the colour temperature towards yellow for a warm tone.
The tone curve was used to gently bring back a bit of the lost contrast, and the split toning was used to bring a coloured tone to the shadows - another characteristic copied from the imperfection of vintage photos.



The surprisingly good film grain filter built-in to Lightroom takes the edge off the digital clarity and adds to the old look at stronger settings. 

After the photos were exported from Lightroom, I used Photoshop to apply a black frame from the Flickr Noise and dust through the viewfinder pool with a multiply layer.

I recommend John Arnold's excellent Photo Walkthrough website for tutorials on the finer details of Lightroom and Photoshop.

You can find the full gallery with larger images here






From Estonia With Love - Part Three

Part three of the From Estonia with Love interview. Motorcycle travellers Margus and Kariina talk about hand-held panorama photography, shooting video documentaries of their adventures, recording audio, food, music, border crossings and more...

Be sure to check out Part One and Part Two.

Now something I really like is your hand-held Panoramas. You don't trim the edges - so they are jagged where the individual panoramas overlap - but the freedom of the compositions is incredible! You grab everything that catches your interest. It looks really unique.

(Click any image to view full size and higher quality - All photos copyright Margus Sootla)

Personally I’ve hesitated making panoramas because I was convinced the results would be terrible without a pano-head on a tripod, finding the convergence point of the lens, all that stuff. I mean that’s really too much work when you’re dealing with life on the road.

I know there’s the parallax error issue that will mess-up objects that are very close to the camera, but you seem to avoid that problem in your compositions.
Have you got any tips for composing handheld panorama shots?

Not really, I can't even describe it since all panoramas need different techniques. Just practice a little with handheld panoramas, give each frame some overlap and try to stitch them later and see if it works - many times you need to stitch them manually. You'll learn the small tricks in the process.

So are you shooting your panoramas in manual mode, so the exposures match?

Most of the time the camera is in manual mode, but recently I've started to use a polarizer on the panoramas. This makes things more complicated - I change the exposures over the frames plus I play with the angle of the polarizer to even out each frame. Sky is the most difficult and even with very hard trying you can't get the ideally smooth panorama in terms of exposure, but I've started to kind of like the "dynamic" feel in those panoramas. Maybe it's an acquired taste too.

Installing a Turn Tech Lithium Iron Phosphate battery in a KLR650

I admit to being neglectful when it comes to my motorcycle battery
Dumb-luck has saved me in both British Columbia and El Salvador.

Dead battery in El Salvador

The 19th century alchemy of a lead-acid battery is a mystery to me. Fill the cells with distilled water at midnight during a full moon till the lead begins to bubble... 
As far as I'm concerned, the starter motor either turns the engine over, or it doesn't.
Maybe it's the fact that checking the water level of each cell requires the removal of the panniers, two side panels, the seat, the battery holder and the +/- terminals. Not something I'm likely to do at the end of a hot day in Honduras.

Way out West-1300972

Back in Canada, the battery I had bought over a year ago in El Salvador was beginning to fade. It wasn't holding a charge and very nearly left me stranded after a fill up at a gas station when I was given an opportunity to try a 5Ah Lithium Iron Phosphate, (LiFePO4) battery from Turn Tech - a one-man outfit based out of the USA. 

The Turn Tech battery is related to the batteries you'll find in your laptop or your cellphone, but apparently they use iron as a cathode rather than graphite. Which is great if you understand things like:

Like I said, the bike starts, or it doesn't - Check the Turn Tech FAQ if you need the nitty gritty.

Joe Turner of Turn Tech was quick to answer my uninformed questions by email; 
  • Is the battery big enough to start my KLR650? 
  • Can I run accessories like an electric vest with the Turn Tech battery? 
  • What about long term storage?

"The answer to running accessories off the battery is yes.

One note though, if the accessories are left on the battery will be drained. If the battery is drained too far it can be damaged.

The bike has more than enough power to everything while the bike is running, with the bike not running the battery will drain fairly quickly (a little more than 1 hour).

For storage I suggest putting it on a tender overnight, disconnecting one leg, negative or positive, and then just let it sit. When getting it out of storage put it on a tender while you get the bike ready, then reconnect 
the battery."

So from what little I've read, I'll be expecting:
  • Longer operating life out of the battery
  • Ten times longer "sitting time" before the battery will go flat
  • No distilled water to worry about.

And yes, it is tiny: 1.9lbs for the Turn Tech, while the stock battery weighs in at 9.6!

The Turn Tech battery is not model specific, this 5Ah battery is intended to be used in many different motorcycles. The upright positioning of the Turn Tech battery posts don't match well with the KLR wiring harness- The terminals are specially shaped to fit a stock battery and the leads are stiff, without enough slack to twist the wiring into place. I don't want to modify the stock harness, in case I have to re-install a stock battery somwhere in the back of Bolivia.  A couple of 3" extension leads made-up of parts from the auto supply place should do the trick. 
I plan on using extra open-cell foam leftover from my Pelican cases to fill the void space and to keep the tiny battery from rattling around. It might be worth fabricating a plastic frame to support the battery and to make an emergency stash compartment for bulbs, fuses, brake pads etc. I have even seen a few reports of bikes that use the half size 2.5Ah battery ditching the battery box altogether and installing the battery inside the airbox...

I couldn't wait to try the 5Ah Turn Tech on the KLR, so just to be able to connect the leads I flipped the battery upside down  - orientation doesn't matter once you've ditched a lead acid battery. The bike started right up with gusto, noticeably quicker than a charged stock battery, which surprised me.

I'll update this post with photos once the battery is properly installed and will report back on the Turn Tech batteries' reliability and performance. I have a feeling that no news will be good news... 

*update* I'm learning more about amperage, and discovering that 5Ah might not be enough current for the battery to keep itself charged on the KLR. I believe Turn Tech makes custom batteries, I may need to go that route and have a 14Ah battery made. More research to be done yet...

From Estonia With Love - Part Two

And we continue with part two of our From Estonia with Love interview, with world travellers Margus and Kariina.
Be sure to read Part one of the interview here

(Click any image to view at higher quality - All photos copyright Margus Sootla)

So Margus, you do the bulk of the photography. You’re shooting with several cameras; you have a pretty serious medium format Pentax shooting film, a compact camera and a couple of video cameras as well.

Let start with the compact cameras - you’ve been through several!
You started with a simple Canon PowerShot A710is - Lost it to pickpockets in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Then you upgraded to Canon PowerShot G11 in jakarta. 

Now the G11 is an advanced compact camera - you can manually adjust all the settings. I noticed that your "snapshots" got a lot better after you bought the G11 - Did having a more capable camera encourage you to try harder with your digital photos?