photography and motorcycles

Photography and motorcycling are not, at first sight, ideally suited to one another. After all, a camera is a relatively fragile device that must be protected against vibration, dust and rain.

 

For many people, though, cameras and motorcycles are a Heaven-sent combination. We have long felt this way. Roger took up photography and motorcycling at around the same time, in 1966. Since then he has owned at least half a dozen motorcycles and ridden many more; he long ago lost count of the cameras. Frances took up both in the early 1980s, shortly after meeting Roger. She has had five motorcycles of her own and has also lost count of the cameras.

 

We have done well over 100,000 miles on one motorcycle alone, our 1978 BMW R100RS (right, at Mont St. Michel in Normandy in the 1980s), and many thousands of miles more on many other motorcycles from a Honda 90 to a BMW K100RS and a Harley-Davidson Tour Glide -- and we still love it: see our other site, motorcycletouringineurope.com

 

When it comes to motorcycling and photography, there are four things to consider. First, what are the advantages of combining photography and motorcycling? Second, what are the best camera outfits for motorcycling? Third, where should they be carried on the 'bike? And fourth, what is the best way to pack them?

 

 

combining photography and motorcycling

We hope we are preaching to the converted here, so we'll just say three things.

First, when we get back on a motorcycle after driving a conventional car, it's like recovering from a disease. Fresh air, the smells, the sights, the sounds (albeit muffled by the helmet); everything is much more real. This can hardly fail to stimulate a photographer's desire to take pictures.

Second, it's cheap: lower fuel bills, lower ferry bills. This means we can stay away longer than we could if we took a car.

Third, you can stop in a lot more places with a motorcycle. In a car, it is all too often a case of "Wow! I want to photograph that! I'll stop as soon as I can!" Then, two minutes and the best part of a mile later, "I suppose we're too far past it now."

 

 

Sunrise, Mahabalipuram

The temples of Mahabalipuram (or Mamallampuram) are among the most famous in India. Our hotel was a few hundred yards (metres) from them: it was our first stop after picking up the Enfield Bullet at Thirovottiyur just outside Madras, maybe 100 km north. Roger shot this on Kodachrome 64 with a Nikon F and the 200/3 Vivitar Series 1 just before it succumbed to vibration (see below).

the best camera outfits

There are two main requirements: toughness and compactness.

 

toughness

Fairly obviously, the tougher the camera, the better. This is nothing to do with format: we have travelled with everything from 35mm (including half-frame) to 4x5 inch, via 645 and 6x7cm.

We are however convinced of the advantages of silver halide, unless you have very deep pockets -- and even if you can afford professional-quality digital equipment, silver still has a lot of advantages. Yes, you have the bulk of the film, but equally, you don't have the bulk of the batteries, chargers and their associated leads. We also find it distressingly easy to forget to put batteries on charge overnight, or to leave them or the chargers or leads in hotels if we do.

The real difference is that there are lots of tough, second-hand cameras of professional build quality around, while anything digital of reasonable quality and toughness will cost anything from several times as much to many times as much. Of course a lot depends on how you pack the camera (see below).

We also greatly prefer battery independence, as electro/mechanical interfaces are one of the commonest places for things to go wrong.

 

 

South of France

Roger used Polaroid Sepia in our Toho FC45 for this shot; the lens was our old 120/6.8 Schneider Angulon (not Super Angulon). The tripod was a Gitzo Reporter weighing about 2 kg (just over 4 lb)

 

 

compactness

This is why we travel principally with rangefinder cameras: they are a lot smaller and lighter than most SLRs. Roger uses Leicas; Frances uses Voigtländers. With the less-used focal lengths, we normally carry smaller, slower lenses rather than bigger, faster ones: 21/4 instead of 21/2.8, 50/2.5 instead of 50/1.5.

We also try to keep the outfit to a minimum, usually one camera each plus a spare for unusual emulsions or (of course) in case of breakdown. It can happen, and does.

If we do carry reflexes, they are usually old ones: Nikon Fs, Nikkormats. This is not only because of the legendary 'hockey puck' toughness of these cameras: it is also because they are a lot smaller than most of the bloated 'professional' SLRS of the last 10 or 20 years. And they don't cost much.

Remember that 'less is more' -- or at least, it can be. One camera and a couple of lenses means that you concentrate on taking pictures, not on sorting equipment. Resist the temptation to carry any equipment 'just in case' unless it is very small and light indeed (like our 21mm f/4).

 

 

 

The only 4x5 inch camera we have actually taken on long motorcycle tours is a Toho (not Toyo) FC45, which weighs about a kilo: less than many modern 35mm SLRs. We have however gone out for the day, several times, with the MPP Mk. VII that we used to have and its 90/6.8 Schneider Angulon and 150/4.5 Voigtländer Apo Lanthar.

A light tripod can be as desirable with 35mm as with larger formats, especially for night shots. We use both Velbon and Slik top-quality lightweights; they weigh about 1 kg each and will support even medium format cameras if you do not extend the centre column. We carry them on the rear luggage rack. If you carry yours unprotected, beware of losing the camera retaining screw on the head: this happened to us once. Now we carry all our tripods in purpose-made sleeve-type bags with a drawstring at the top.

Don't forget an exposure meter (if you need one) and spare batteries (if you need them).

 

Cafe, Brugge

Forgetting your tripod is bad enough with any camera; with 4x5 inch, it is a disaster. We had to buy a cheap, nasty, second-hand tripod for several times what it was worth. Toho FC45; 120/6.8 Schneider Angulon; Polaroid Sepia (Roger).

where to pack

Essentially, there are six places you can carry your photographic equipment on a motorcycle: in panniers, in tank bags, in top boxes, on luggage racks, in a bag on the pillion and about your person. Actually there are seven if you include trailers but our view is that by the time you have attached a trailer you might as well drive a car.

American readers are requested to read 'saddlebags' for 'panniers'. In English, 'saddlebag' normally means only a soft-side bag, while 'panniers' includes both hard-shell and soft-side.

 

Bike outside chateau, France

The big double-deck Held magnetic tank bag is really too tall for this bike, so we normally use just one deck nowadays. You can also see the BMW panniers -- we used to have white Krausers but they wore out -- and the ex-government kit bag on the rear carrier rail.

panniers/saddlebags

Hard-side panniers are (and have been for 25 years) our preferred way to carry our main or heavy luggage: originally Krausers, now BMW. They are lockable, both onto the bike and individually, and are as secure as anything can be on a motorcycle. We normally use them with 'inners', made-to-measure soft-side bags that fit inside the panniers which are left full-time on the bike.

 

 

Panniers also help to keep the centre of gravity low: lower than any other form of motorcycle luggage. Obviously this has less adverse effect on the handling of the motorcycle than carrying weight higher up. Soft-side throw-over saddlebags are too easily stolen for our taste.

 

 

tank bags

Tank bags are ideal for the things that you want to be accessible, such as maps and (of course) cameras. They are however poor for security. Even if they can be locked (and most cannot) then a sharp knife makes short work of them or of the straps that hold them to the 'bike.

Although they raise the centre of gravity, they keep the weight forward, which again is less harmful to the handling than more rearward luggage-carrying positions because it helps to keep the front wheel on the ground.

top boxes

These score high on security and convenience but have the greatest adverse effect on handling because they are high and a long way back: usually, behind the rear wheel. An overloaded top-box can wreck handling and promote 'tank-slappers' (violent oscillation of the handlebars). We do not use them for touring though Frances's small 'about-town' Honda has a top box.

Boy in tree, South India

We were thirsty, so we stopped at a stand where they sold fresh coconut milk from slightly underripe coconuts, tart and refreshing. Frances used Kodachrome 64 in a Nikon F with 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor for this shot.

luggage racks

We prefer soft-sided luggage (a kit-bag) on a low-mounted luggage rack, rather than a top box. Ideally this should be kept as light as possible. We carry our waterproofs this way, and have been known to carry Polaroid 4x5 inch film the same way. This is also where the tripod goes (see above).

bag on the pillion

If you are not carrying a pillion passenger this is an excellent place for a bag, as it is (fairly) low, (fairly) well forward and the seat provides a degree of vibration insulation. As we always tour two-up on one bike, this is not a realistic option for us.

about your person

Except for very small, smooth, light cameras, this is the worst possible idea. It's convenient, secure and and an excellent barrier against vibration. But if/when you fall off, you can do terrible damage to your cameras and (if you are unlucky) even worse damage to your body. We shudder whenever we see anyone riding with a big backpack on a motorcycle. Bungee it onto the seat or rack!

Also, cameras in pockets can get wet: even if your waterproofs are 100 per cent waterproof, sweat inside the waterproofs can create enough condensation to damage a camera, especially one that relies on electronics.

Kathkali dancer, South India

Our 4000 km (2,500 mile) motorcycle tour of South India was quite possibly the best time of our lives to date. Roger shot this on the late, lamented Ferrania/Scotch/3M 640T with his Leica M4-P and 90/2 Summicron.

 

 

 

 

Picnic beside the Seine

The only thing we ever carry in a back-pack on a motorcycle, and then only slowly, for short distances, is freshly acquired ingredients for a picnic. We have never taken a car into Central Paris, but have been there countless times on the motorcycle. We generally park the bike on the pavement (sidewalk) which is legal in France as long as you do not obstruct the pavement too much -- and 'too much' is interpreted very generously. We chain it securely to as much immovable real estate as possible. Roger shot this on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX with his Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux. This is from a 2005 trip on the same white BMW as appears in earlier pictures in this module; we were in Paris for Frances's 60th birthday.

how to pack

There are several separate concerns here. You need to exclude dust and rain; you need to avoid subjecting the cameras to vibration; you need to keep film cool; and you want the camera to be accessible. Security is also important.

 

 

 

Fixing the Bullet

Yes, it's a mere snapshot; you can barely see what is going on. And yet it is a very precious photograph to us.

We had borrowed an Enfield Bullet from the factory at Thirovottiyur just outside Madras: it is one of the finest motorcycles we have ever ridden.

One of the few problems was that the (German-made) pannier frames fractured under the combined stresses of Indian roads and a 350cc single being ridden hard. Fortunately there are countless Enfield specialists throughout the Sub-Continent; and even when the problem is not strictly Enfield, they can be relied upon to help.

dust and rain

If you can keep out the one, you can generally keep out the other. For really arduous conditions we know nothing better than Zip-Loc or other heavy duty freezer bags. If they are well inside other luggage -- we often pack equipment between T-shirts -- they also serve the purpose of keeping lint and fluff from the luggage out of the cameras. Plastic shopping bags, wrapped around the camera(s), are nearly as good as Zip-Locs and a lot cheaper and easier to find in many countries.

We have also been known to enclose our pannier 'inners' in plastic bin-bags. If you don't use 'inners', but pack directly into the pannier, packing your clothes directly into bin-bags is an excellent idea. Consider double-bagging: two or three separate inner bags (underwear, spare jeans, film...), and one outer.

Another possibility, though bulky, is to pack the camera outfit in a camera bag, which in itself should provide good water and dust protection, and pack this inside the motorcycle luggage. We often do this with a tank bag.

 

A Passage to India

We had passed by here a few years earlier, working for the Tibetan Government in Exile. We knew we would have to come back one day on a motorcycle -- and we did. The road turned into a two-rutter, then a one-rutter, then a dried-up paddy field.

Two men appeared. "Not far from here, they were filming A Passage to India",they said. "Follow us!"

So we did. Across three paddy fields. Frances got off and walked, carrying the upper tank bag to protect it from further jolting. Eventually Roger had to abandon the bike and walk too. This was at the top of the trail.

 

 

vibration

Some roads are better than others -- beware of Romania! -- and some bikes are worse than others. As a general rule, the more cylinders you have, the less the vibration.

Because we take great care to insulate our cameras from vibration, we have only had two significant problems from this cause /over the years. Once, in the UK in about 1980, the back of a Hasselblad that was being carried in a top-box neatly unscrewed itself but was easily reassembled. The other time was rather more serious: an interior cell in a telephoto lens, again in a tank bag, unscrewed itself on a long tour of India in 1990. This rendered the lens useless until we could reach a repairer we trusted back in the UK (Optical Instruments, Balham, Ltd.) Both times, the motorcycle was a single (MZ TS250 in 1980, Enfield Bullet [INSERT LINK] 350 in 1990).

The golden rule here is that low-density foam absorbs vibration faster than anything else, so if you can interpolate some low-density foam between the source of vibration (frame, tank, etc. -- and don't forget that hard-side luggage transmits vibration very effectively) you should be safe. This, indeed, is our usual approach: a layer of low-density foam at the bottom of a tank bag with the cameras above it. A variation of the same thing is a double-deck soft-side tank bag, with the cameras in the upper deck: the lower deck is an efficient absorber of vibrations.

 

 

 

 

 

Gun emplacement, Normandie

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a young German conscript in June 1944. You realize that an armada of unimaginable size is about to land on the beaches in front of you.

The fact that you are on the 'wrong' side is not important. You are probably unaware that it is 'wrong' and that the Thousand-Year Reich is crumbling fast. What do you do?

More than half a century later, day-trippers come to the site. A small boy is transfixed by the huge gun, the rusting armour. A girl stands further away. What is she thinking? What was your girlfriend thinking on D-Day? Are you still alive? Or does your ghost watch this site?

Motorcycling is a realm of the imagination. So is photography. So is history. No wonder that all three fascinate us so much.

Inside a thick enough layer of other luggage, you can do without the foam and indeed we normally carry our 'spare' body (see above) in a Zip-Loc in the middle of a pannier inner.

Foam 'wraps' like the ones from Novoflex and neoprene cases from OpTech are astonishingly good at absorbing the sort of vibration that loosens screws, and represent a good compromise if you have no room for larger pieces of foam.

temperature

You don't want your film to get too warm, so keep it away from the outside of luggage that will get hot in the sun; well away from exhaust pipes; and clear of any other part of the bike that gets hot, such as the tank on a BMW K-series.

We normally strip the film canisters out of the boxes (to save space) and pack them in the middle of the panniers, surrounded by clothes. A roll or two each -- or however much film we expect to use that day -- goes into the tank bag each morning.

accessibility

This is where the tank bag wins hands down, closely followed by a top box.

security

Security is always a vexed question with motorcycles, and we use a number of techniques.

First, nothing valuable goes in any sort of bag that is (relatively) easily removed or sliced into.

Second, the kit-bag on the carrier is secured with a bicycle cable, so a thief would have to slash into it in order to steal anything. This is a lot more conspicuous than simply removing it.

Third, the main camera gear goes in the tank bag, which either goes with us in its entirely (sometimes in two halves) or is left conspicuously empty, preferably inside a wire 'safe', or even stuffed into the kit-bag on the back. Use a broad shoulder-strap if you are taking the whole tank bag with you: thin, improvised straps soon start to hurt your shoulder. OpTech's neoprene 'weight reduction' straps are very good.

Fourth, other camera gear and film (including exposed film, which is more valuable than unexposed) are stored in the locked, hard-side panniers.

 

Pot, Auberge St. Hubert

This is from one of our last trips carrying a reflex each (Nikon and Nikkormat) as well as rangefinder. We had a couple of Sigma lenses to test, including the 70-210mm f/2.8 Apo with which this was taken. The Auberge St. Hubert in Burgundy was a wonderful place to recover after the truly appalling drivers in Italy. The first time we were in Italy, we were rear-ended within 45 minutes of entering the country: Frances was thrown clear over the motorcycle and would have been killed if she had not been wearing a good helmet. The second time we were there we saw 5 serious accidents in 3 days -- and none at all in the remaining 3 weeks of the tour in the rest of Europe...

 

 

the bottom line

As we say, we hope we are preaching to the converted, and much of what we say is common sense anyway. But we have gone a lot of miles on motorcycles, and taken a lot of pictures, so we hope there is some useful information here even for the experienced rider/photographer, and a lot of useful information for the novice.

 

 

War graves, near the D-Day beaches, Normandy

It is sobering to wonder how many of these young men were enthusiastic motorcyclists, and perhaps photographers as well. Think about that, and you suddenly feel very, very lucky.

Go to the list of modules

or go to the home page

or support the site with a small donation.

 

© 2006 Roger W. Hicks