A Man and His Machine :: Motorcyle Portraits with Off Camera Flash


I've found that my interest with photography continues to grow as I find new challenges and aspects of imaging to undertake. This couldn't hold more true with my discovery of (and now likely a serious addiction with) off camera flash, and the new levels of creativity it brings to my photography. Off camera flashes in and of themselves can open up a whole new world to a photographer. Then add in the multitude of modifiers out there (snoots, grids, gels, umbrellas: shoot through and reflective, diffusers, reflectors, gobos, etc.) and the creative opportunities really become endless.

I took this approach on a recent gig I had with a local motorcycle racer, who wanted some unique photos of himself with his new bike. I figured the most dramatic effects would be achieved my incorporating off camera flash techniques with well-selected backgrounds. After my experience on the shoot, which ended up incorporating strobes, umbrellas, grids, snoots, and gels, I wanted to share my tale in hopes it might benefit some other photographers who are considering enterting the strobist world.

Now -- before I get into the strobe techniques I used, I feel like I need to dedicate part of this post to the significance that background plays to every photo. I think a lot of photographers suffer from the "I'll just got out and take some shots!" syndrome, which can result in a lot of photos looking eerily similar. This isn't necessarily a problem, but when a client asks you for unique photos, presenting them with 30 prints that look identical typically doesn't create a lot of excitement in the room. And I'm a guy who likes to go after that wow-factor with a client.


Before I did ANY type of scheduling with my racer client, I actually spent the better half of a day doing some location scouting around Denver. What's location scouting you may be wondering? It's simply driving around, looking for places to shoot. But don't just drive around looking for a place to shoot - look at the place, and what's behind it! Sometimes, what you capture behind your subject - is just as important as your subject!

On the flip side, maybe you already have a specific background in mind. In that case your goal will be to find a specific location that gives you a brilliant view of your selected background.

Sloan's Lake - nothing fancy, eh?

Sloan's Lake - nothing fancy, eh?

After a few hours driving around Denver I had a solid list of locations I wanted to hit with my client. These included a lake park, a parking garage, and an empty lot. In and of themselves these might be pretty boring locations, but you literally have to look beyond the location itself to see what kind of overall setting it may provide.

Let's break it down... Sloan's Lake park had a beautiful view to the west of Colorado's Rocky Mountains; the parking lot had incredible concrete columns that stretched from the floor to the ceiling; and the empty lot provided me with a gorgeous vista of Denver's skyline. Taking it a step further, I knew I could time the shoot at the lake to coincide with the sunset. The columns in the parking garage, if lit with some off-camera lighting, could possibly give me some nice leading lines, or at least provide some depth to the image to separate my subject from the background. And as for the Denver skyline... who the heck can complain about a city-scape in their photo?!?


With your locations scoped out, and your client now on hand, it's time to visualize the final product. How do you want your photos to look? Is there existing light at the location (natural or artificial)? Where is the existing light source located, and will you use it to supplement your speedlights? Where will your subject be in relation to all of the light sources? This may seem a little overwhelming, but it's important to really try to "picture the picture" in your head. By focusing on the end result, you'll be able to develop a plan that will allow you to implement your off camera flashes in conjunction with any existing light sources - and this will hopefully help you get the stunning results you're looking for.

Red gelled speedlight for background separation.

Once I had a mental image of what I was trying to achieve, I put a plan in place to create those images I had formed in my mind's eye. For this specific shoot I implemented a key light (speedlight) bouncing off a reflective umbrella aimed at the subject (in this case, a motorcycle), mounted about seven feet above the ground and located 30-40 degrees off-subject. I then used a bare strobe almost 120-degrees opposite the key light to provide some rim light (or fill light - depending on the shot). To add depth to my images, I used another speedlight with gel modifiers somewhere in the background.

In my opinion, illuminating the background with a separate light source can really add some extra "pop" to a shot; it helps by separating the subject from the background a little more - putting more focus onto your subject.

As for my camera setup, every image was shot in full manual mode, with shutter speeds of 1/250th or less to coincide with my camera's flash sync speed. I even dropped down to 1/50th a few times to soak up the ambient light as the sun set further behind the mountains (thank God for IS!). Remember - when using cameras with focal-plane shutters (like most dSLRs) in full manual mode, the lens aperture controls flash exposure, and the shutter speed controls ambient light exposure! So as your background gets darker with a setting sun, you'll need to use longer shutter speeds to expose your sensor to the available light.

My off-camera flashes were all triggered with wireless radio triggers. In one instance, I had to set one of my speedlights in optical slave mode, simply because it was too far away for my radio trigger to activate it. On my speedlights I occasionally applied different color gels to get a specific look I wanted. For those who may not be familiar with lighting gels, I strongly recommend the Rosco Gel Pack and Lumiquest Gel Holder combo kit available from B&H Photo. It's designed to fit on the head of most modern speedlights.


My biggest challenge of this shoot was definitely shooting at sunset. As the sun starts to hit the horizon you do not have a lot of time to take your shots while the sky is glowing its brilliant colors. I had to work very quickly to get the images I wanted while I still had a beautifully colored sky behind my subject. I made some quick setup changes on the fly to alter my lighting effects, and for the most part I couldn't be more thrilled with the results. The parking garage and cityscape locations also provided me with great opportunities for applying my strobist skills; and with a heck of a lot more time to get my setup dialed in since the sun was long gone.

To summarize, this is just one approach to shooting with off-camera flash for one specific project. You are welcome, and I strongly recommend, you try your own techniques for developing your own approach to strobist photography. Once you are comfortable with your strobist technique, feel free to mix-it up a little. Frame your lights inside your shot... or work with your composition angle to get some lens flare, or to blow out some areas of the image if it's an effect you like... add in a grid for more directional light, or turn off your secondary speedlights for a nice low-key effect. There really is no limit to how, when, or where you can use an off-camera flash!

Best of luck in your strobist adventures. And feel free to check out the samples from this motorcycle shoot: