Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bicycle Motocross

It's pretty obvious that I've failed miserably at regularly updating this blog so from here on out I'm going to change that. I may just be doing it to unload the endless flow of photo geek thoughts and terminology in my head, but hopefully someone else can come away with something from what I post here and a dialogue can happen as a result. Whether it's a couple of quick shots or a lengthy diatribe, my goal is to post at least once a week. So without further ado...

All of the Northeast snow has melted and in its place is beautiful weather that makes you want to be outside and smile. Being outside more means I've been shooting a lot of BMX lately. Here's a few recent photos and a description of the lighting and setup.

The shot above was taken in Trenton, NJ. If you've ever been fortunate enough to visit Trenton, then you understand the blossoming city that it is. And by "blossoming" I mean frightening in broad daylight. We parked close to the first spot that we planned on shooting at - a courtyard in the middle of a housing project. The little kids playing drug lookout outside of apartment doors were pretty obvious. This spot is a BMX/skate mecca and is basically an accidentally-made skatepark. When we turned the corner to enter, we rolled up to 6 guys smoking blunts, drinking 40s and playing cee-lo. Understanding that a lot of bike riders come to the spot, they told us to "come in and pull out the cameras". I had a 50lb bag full of about $8k in gear on my back so we decided to try someplace else first...

Fast forward to 3 hours later, where we stopped to shoot this quick shot on the way back to the car. Two bare SB-800s behind the rider to the left and right and another SB-28 in front of him slightly to the right. All firing full power, as the sun was still murdering my flashes at this time of day. There's a little bit of blur on him for two reasons:
1) The ratio of flash to ambient is so close that my flashes don't completely freeze the rider the way they would if I was shooting, say, a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio or more.
2)I was firing all of my flashes at full power. With small speedlights, your flash duration becomes longer as you increase the power(the opposite is true for large studio strobes). The SB-800 and SB-28 have a flash duration of about 1/1000th of a second at full power. That's on the slow side when it comes to flash durations and freezing action.

Just before taking this photo, a police officer came into this empty parking lot and told us we had to leave. I could literally see the building where our friends from earlier in the day were getting high, gambling and selling crack out of their apartments. Right away, officer. Rider: Phil Care

This photo was an experiment to try and shoot a sequence of action frames lit with speedlights. The lighting setup here is one SB-800 to the left and another to the right, cross lighting the rider. When you're shooting several frames like this, having the camera on a tripod is a must so the background does not move and the frames can be easily composited together later in Photoshop. I manually triggered five separate frames with a shutter release cable at about 3 frames per second. Shooting at the D700's max of 8 frames per second(with the vertical grip) would have overlapped frames and made them harder to combine. I prefer the look of frames that don't overlap anyway, so it's a win-win.

This sequence required a little bit of trial and error. The problem with doing these shots with speedlights is that if they are spitting out a lot of power then they don't recycle in time for the next shot in the sequence. You'd end up with the first two frames lit correctly, the third lit by one flash and the last two completely black. The flashes simply can't keep up.

So, for this shot I decided to bump up my ISO to 1250 to be able to lower the power output on my flashes to 1/16th. My flashes were happy to fire off 8-10 frames for me at that level. I could have opted to open up my f/stop from 4.5 to 2.8 and save myself the risk of high ISO noise. The D700 can handle a little bit more ISO sensitivity though; and my depth of field was already shallow enough at f/4.5. I didn't want to risk him riding out of the sweet spot and being out of focus. Rider: Justin Care

Finally, here's an icepick that Justin and I shot after we had already gotten what we came for. I set up the first shot this way initially, but there are a million BMX photos taken with a fisheye from the bottom of a rail. If it ain't broke, don't fix it I guess. I wanted something different from the hangover toothpick in the first shot so I switched some lights around and tried to take advantage of the sky color that the dwindling ambient light was giving us.

This shot was taken using four speedlights:
1)SB-800 as a main light high on a stand almost directly behind me
2)SB-800 behind the rider on the sidewalk as a rim/separation light
3)SB-28 far camera left, zoomed tight as a fill on the rider
4)Vivitar 285 camera left, zoomed wide to light the grass a little bit. The ambient light was getting so low that the fall-off of from the SB-28 was too dark and distracting on the ground. This flash helped bring detail back into the grass, as well as adding light to the stairs to soften the shadows from the rail.

More to come soon....


  1. Ryan, I was super stoked to come across your site as I am a self-learning photographer with BMX leanings. I have been looking for a site like this to bounce my thinking off of. If you are looking for any areas to explore to post on here, I would be interested to know how and why you used a light meter and how it helps you to control the look of your image. I have been playing around with a flash trigger and simply adjust flash settings based on the look of the lcd. However, this won't translate well to my newly purchased medium format camera and so need to figure out if a light meter is worth pursuing.

    Look forward to checking out more.

  2. I appreciate the feedback, Josh. Light meters seem to be a trouble area for a lot of photographers so that sounds like it may be a good topic to explore. I'm always looking for ideas for future posts. Thanks for reading.