Jim Wilson: Photographing Your Bicycle
Congratulations! You've finished building your masterpiece of  Bike Kustom Art. Now you're ready to show it off. First, of course, you show it off to your neighbors by doing a few orbits around the 'hood. Next, you're ready to show it off to the world of kustombike builders and fanciers by sending photos of it to BikeRod&Kustom.

You put a lot of work into building it, so you want it to look its best in the Gallery. This means taking the best photos you can of it. With this short course in bike photography, you can do it.

The Camera
Sharpness is of vital importance for this type of photography. Bikes have lots of details; to capture them requires an adequate lens on the camera. Disposable cameras have bad lenses, otherwise they wouldn't be disposable. Bad lenses are also found on cheap digital cameras. Rule of thumb: if the maker calls it "Focus-Free", it's what's always been known as a "Box Camera". It is almost impossible to take a good bike photo with a box camera, don't even bother trying.
This photo was taken with a 15-year-old Yashica point-and-shoot camera. A camera like this can be found at yard sales,etc. for around $25. The close-up view is the same scale as it appears in the BR&K Gallery.This is not as good as would be the result with an interchangeable-lens 35 MM camera, but it is adequate for most web applications.
This does not mean that you have to use a high-end professional camera. I happen to own a couple of Nikons,
however, when I take photos of bikes I normally use a Yashica "point-and-shoot:" camera we bought when our
daughter  was born, because it usually has film in it. This type of camera has autofocus, auto-exposure, and built-in flash.  Cameras like this usually do not focus closer than 3 feet; which is not usually a problem with bikes. But, for sharp close-ups of details, you may need a camera with a more sophisticated lens with macro-focus capability.
Cheapo Digital Camera-  Except
for digital sensor and $100 price,
it's pretty much the same camera.
Disposable Film Camera- For best
results, throw away before using.
Single-element crappy plastic lens.
Autofocus Point & Shoot Camera
Real lens takes real photos, can be got used for 1/2 the price of a bad digicam
Photography works by capturing light reflected off the subject. As a general rule, the more light, the better. Most lenses give the sharpest result when the iris (lens opening) is reduced in size. The auto-exposure function (or manual exposure setting) of the camera stops the lens down when the lighting is bright. The outdoors is an excellent place to find a lot of light, and it's free.

The best time of day for bike photography is around noon. The sun is higher in the sky then, which makes the shadows fall beneath the subject, rather than behind it, which can be confusing. 
Left shows what happens when you shoot early or late in the day. The sun being low in the sky casts shadows of the frame directly on the wall behind it, making it difficult to distinguish between the frame and shadow.
Right  was obviously taken at mid-day. Notice that the shadows are mostly beneath the subject and out of the way. 
Overcast days give good lighting for bike photography. Shadows are much less pronounced, and the lighting is less contrasty. The lens aperture is opened wider to compensate for the lower light level. You might assume that the camera's flash is not needed outdoors. In most cases, you will get better results by using the flash. It adds more light, which is good, and it acts as a fill light, which lightens shadow areas, reducing picture contrast.

Shooting bikes indoors is problematical unless it is done in a photo studio. With on-camera flash, you are projecting the bike's shadow on the surface behind it (see example above). Since the camera's flash is not as strong as sunlight, the lens needs to be at a wider aperture, which reduces sharpness.
The camera eye is often compared to the human eye. In many ways, this is apt. However, there is a crucial difference- the image processing capability of the human brain.  When we look at something such as a bicycle, it may be surrounded by visual clutter. Yet we tend to filter out anything which holds no interest for us- we see the bike and notice nothing else. The camera captures everything equally. When we look at the photograph, we see everything in it, while filtering out the visual clutter which surrounds the photo itself.

A Gallery photo of a bike should be perceived as a document of its form and detail. Therefore, we strive to leave  out everything extraneous to the subject matter.  This is the reason that photos of sculpture in art books usually show the piece in nondescript limbo, not surrounded by tourists and architectural elements, as is often the case in real life. Other elements in the picture detract from our being able to appreciate the object itself.  This is especially true for bicycles, which are complex enough to look at by themselves.  Therefore, when making a documentary image of a bike, we should strive to keep out all other visual elements. There is one exception to this rule, which we will cover later.  Here are some photos which demonstrate good and bad backgrounds for bike photography.
This is a beautiful photograph in which a bike appears. Unfortunately, the elements which make it a beautiful picture are the very things which make it a bad documentary image of a bike. The autumn foliage in this image is very colorful. People travel great distances to see sights such as this. However, it is the worst possible background for the bike itself. It is very complex, with many spots of color which are the same as the color of the bike. This background makes it almost impossible to actually study the bike, which is very beautifully detailed, if we were only able to see it properly. 

Here is an example of an easy background- a garage door. It isn't what we would call limbo, as there are details evident in the door itself. However, these details are simple enough that they do not detract too much from the bike. You can still look at the photo and be mostly conscious of the subject matter and its inherent detailing. Other backgrounds of this type are bare walls and fences, especially if they are not very detailed themselves.
Here is an example of an artificial backdrop. We don't know whether this is a cloth drape or a seamless colored-paper backdrop, but it doesn't matter which it is. The important thing is that it is solid and neutral- un-interesting in and of itself. Perhaps this one is too heavy in tone; but still, that doesn't get in the way of appreciating the lovely wood-grain surface and details of the form and its mechanisms.
This photo makes use of a polyethylene plastic painter's drop cloth. Commonly called "Visqueen", it is cheap and found everywhere. Its translucency may be used to make it appear dark or light, depending upon how the light strikes it. Either way, it may be used as a satisfactory neutral backdrop.

Capturing Details
Bicycles are fairly large, but many of the mechanical details which differentiate them are very small. If these
features are important to show, in order to appreciate the bike, you should try to take separate close-up photos of those areas. Unfortunately, this means that you can no longer get by with using a simple point- and-shoot camera. Ideally, you will use a more sophisticated camera with through-the-lens viewing, a lens capable of shooting at close distances, and the camera will be mounted on a tripod.  A tripod is important for close-up work. The act of pushing the shutter button causes movement of the camera, which can result in blurring of the image, even at fast shutter speeds. Experienced photographers develop ways of  bracing the camera and tripping the shutter which can minimize this effect, but whenever possible, the use of a tripod and cable shutter release is recommended. Focus is also much more important in close-up. It is much better to be able to focus on a detail when the lens-to-subject distance is fixed, than it is when the camera is moving around. 
Single-lens-reflex cameras, which permit through-the-lens viewing and focusing, have been around since the '50s and before. In the '70s, it was practically compulsory to own one. Therefore, they are fairly  commonly available in inexpensive used form. Yard sales, pawn shops, and flea markets are crawling with them. Any camera store will also have a good selection of inexpensive used ones.  Any Japanese SLR from the '60s to today is pretty much guaranteed to have a sharp lens- the Japanese government didn't allow
Gordon T. Bradbury
Fred Hajny
Carl Hoots
Peter Dahlberg
Gary Silva
Bradley Wilcoxon
Gary Boivin
Sheldon Brown
Above: Close-up detail photos show important features which would not be legible in a photo showing the entire bike.
SLR Reflex
 Viewing System
  !. Lens Components
  2. Reflex Mirror
   3. Focusing Screen
     4. Condensing Lens
         5. Pentaprism
          6. Eyepiece 
the export of bad ones, even in lower-end brands. Higher-end brands and later models have many more bells and whistles, but, in most cases they have nothing much to do with image quality. If the lens on a particular camera does not focus close enough for your needs, it is simple to buy an inexpensive supplementary close-up lens to screw onto the camera's normal lens. Through-the-lens viewing is the key to success in using these. You would have to spend $1000 on
a digital camera to come close to the image quality you can achieve with a $100 used SLR film camera. I shoot with one of these, have the film developed and processed, and scan the 4X6 snapshot prints. If you must own a cheapo digital camera, save it for snaps of your new puppy. Shoot bikes with a real camera.

Including People: 
In the section on backgrounds, you saw that we recommend keeping extraneous elements out of bike photos. There is one exception to this: sometimes it's good to have a person in the shot. After all, a bike is designed to be a human/  machine combination.  We here at BR&K really like bike photos which have the bike's builder in the saddle.  It is good to document the bare bike, of course, but it is also good to have a shot of yourself, looking proud in the saddle, taken by a friend, or using the camera's self-timer. We also like to see photos of the recipient in the saddle, if you built it for a friend or your child. What we don't like is a shot of a perfectly-nice bike with some slutty-looking babe in a bikini, included to make the photo sexier. A good-looking kustom bike is automatically sexy; it doesn't need a babe to do the job. 

Above Left: Keith Moss sent in photos of his bike in profile, with and without himself in the saddle. As our main shot we picked the one with, as it was a more interesting shot. We also ran a photo, taken from another angle, which showed the seat. Above Right: other examples of photos which show the builder in the saddle. The human element is an improvement. Again, we like to see bikes both with and without humans. 
Point Of View
There is a tendency people learn from taking snapshots, of holding the camera while standing erect. For snapshots of people, this is usually fine, as the camera is at the subject's eye level. A good portrait of a bicycle is best done with the camera much closer to the bike's level. Therefore, when taking a photo of your bike, take it while you are in a squatting position. Those whose knees are troublesome might use a milk crate or cement block as a seat. You will capture a much better view of the bike that way. 
Patrick Engeman
Carl Hoots
Todd Brunengraber
A person's garage reveals a fascinating amount of information about his life. Archaeologists would find this scene invaluable for clues as to a life lived in suburbia at the turn of the century. However, most people wouldn't travel very far to see it. And it certainly makes for a really confusing background for a photo of a really interesting KustomBike
Maybe You Should Actually Finish the Bike 
Before You Shoot It and Send Us the Photo?
Quite often, someone will send us a photo of a bike which hasn't been painted yet; this is usually someone who has done radical frame reworking. They do the reworking, then put it together for testing purposes. They are proud of their work, and photograph it at this stage. They always say they'll send another photo after it's painted. They never do, because it's too much trouble to take it apart again, and by then, they're working on another project. BR&K's Gallery is now rejecting photos of unpainted bikes.Most people don't consider a KustomBike finished until it has a nice paint job on it.  Our advice: 
after your shakedown cruise, when your neighborhood has admired your cleverness, take it back apart and give it a proper paint job.  Then photograph it when it's fresh and beautiful, and share it with the rest of the KustomBike world. 

Sending Photos To BikeRod&Kustom:
Before you send them, rename them in a way which makes logical sense. That way, we won't go crazy trying to figure out whose photo goes with which description. When an E-message with attached photos comes in, we save the message as a text file, labelled with the name of the sender. We save the text and photos in a big file for the next issue. Maybe a month later, we go in and start putting gallery pages together from these raw materials. This is fairly simple if the text is labelled "Jones" or whatever, and the photos are labelled correspondingly- "jones1, 2, 3", etc. That's the easy way. The hard way is if your photos are labelled in such a way as to make no sense whatsoever. This is especially true if you send digital images which are labelled "dsc_10897, 8, 9", etc.  That's when things go awry. Invariably, when doing new gallery pages, we have to e-mail at least one person asking for a resend of the photos, because we can't find them, or can't figure out which photo is from them. 

As long as we're on the subject of making it easy on ourselves, how about sending them to us at a size which doesn't require that we take it into Photoshop and resize it to our needs? Our ideal photo format is 6" wide at 100 pixels per inch. If you send us a photo at 600 ppi by 1", or 72 ppi by 8", this may be the same thing, in the long run, but we still have to waste time messing around with it. We usually have to do other things to it anyway, but why should we have to do all the simple work?

Many people send us photos at the right size, but at 72 ppi, because that's the default resolution setting for their crappy little digicam. If you want your photos to look like trash, go ahead and do this. We will put extra work into
futzing with your images, and they still won't look as good as if you shot them at a decent resolution to begin with. Everyone has some sort of image editing software, especially if they have a digicam, because they usually come bundled with the software. Even that stupid little MS Paint program that comes with any windows computer can be used to edit size and resolution in an image. Use it, please. We will all be happier I assure you.