Friday, September 4, 2015

The Magic Twig (on the Absurdities of Bicycle Photography)

The Magic Stick
Although I tend to avoid those types of shots in general, every now and again I post a photo of a bicycle that appears to be free-standing, posed in the middle of a field or some such, without a kickstand or anything else to prop it up. Inevitably someone asks how I achieve this magical feat. Well. Naturally, I use a magical twig! The technique is hardly unique to me, and in fact I recall seeing this so-called trade secret revealed on at least a couple of other "bike photographer" websites, which I cannot seem to find now. Basically, you prop the bicycle up with a stick against the bottom bracket. Then photograph from the drivetrain side, and later photoshop the stick out. Here is one example of a photo taken in this manner. And here is another.

The Magic Stick
Lest I appear blasé about this technique, allow me to assure you that it did not come to me easily. In fact it was only this past year that I really understood the principle of it properly.

The trick is to start off by letting the bike start falling toward you, and determine which way it "wants" to fall. Then prop the stick so that it pushes against the bike in the exact opposite direction.

The Magic Stick
Surprisingly little contact between stick and bike is needed to achieve an equilibrium.

The Magic Stick
And if you do this right, the free-standing bike is very stable; you can photograph away without worrying about it falling.

The Magic Stick
To do this trick you should be able to use any decent twig strewn about your surroundings. Of course I've gone and grown attached to a specific one, which is now my dedicated Magical Twig for bicycle photography. It's nearly as absurd as the idea of posing a bicycle for pictures in the first place, or that "bicycle photography" exists as a genre at all for that matter.

But exist it does, and many of us love it without even truly knowing why. Of course in the context of product photography snapping pictures of bikes, components and accessories makes sense. But only a mall portion of my own bike shots are taken for this purpose. Oftentimes it's not even about showing the bicycle per se, but more like registering its presence.

There are those who enjoy taking self-portraits with their bicycles. There are those who like to take snaps of interesting bikes they see on the street. And there are those who like to document their bike "visiting" places and landmarks. I once looked at an entire album of photos from a friend's trip to France and Switzerland, to realise there was not a single landscape shot that did not feature her bicycle lurking somewhere in the frame. In each shot it was placed seemingly nonchalantly, as if part of the scenery, with an almost deliberate avoidance of focusing on its make, form, and build details. She was not trying to show off her bike, or even to take bicycle portraits. Rather, it seemed she wanted to capture the feeling, or idea, of having had the bicycle there with her (as a companion?), of the bicycle having been an integral part of the trip.

There are loads of stylistic trends and self-imposed rules when it comes to photographing bicycles - from using the highest aperture your lens can manage, to meticulously avoiding distortions in perspective, to lining up the cranks and handlebars just so for that "perfect" industry-quality shot. But following these rules and trends can make for a photo that is generic and sterile. The cool thing about bicycle photography, is that it isn't really a defined genre, and therefore has no real rules. It can be as personal and wacky as we want it to be. White garage door - or magical twig - optional.

21 comments:

  1. I've not got much of a leaning towards taking pictures, but I sure do enjoy looking at pictures of bike "porn".

    Love the transformation on the Viking, by the way. Very nice looking result.



    Wolf.

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  2. Does my eye spy VO goodies on that purple mixte? Delicious.

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    1. Yup, she is VO-accessorised. More on this bike coming soon.

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  3. Y'know, the problem with a magical lavender yarn twig is that once seen, it cannot be unseen. Seems a shame to Fauxteauxshoppe it out. Also, visible magical lavender yarn twig is much less creepy than magical freestanding bicycle. The latter seems likely to run amok, like a slightly less deadly version of "The Car" (great trashy 1977 movie), salmoning upstream against mallwalkers, mocking school crossing guards and clicking its freewheel ominously next to bicycle mounted law enforcement officers. Visible magical lavender yarn twig might spare us those consequences.

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    1. Ha. The lavender yarn was to mark it as "not for disposal/ fireplace" in my household; it is impressively hi-viz

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  4. “White garage door – magical twig – optional.” No they are NOT! If you ever – EVER – post a photo of a bicycle in front of a white garage door (except as satire) I’d stop reading your blog, in which case I’d be bereft, so please don’t. Just stick with the magical twig if you don’t mind. ;)

    Seriously, “meticulously avoiding distortions in perspective” – how do you do that? I take it you’re referring to side view photos I’ve seen where the wheels appear to bend away from the lens and look oval. That’s spoiled many a photo of a lovely bicycle (though not yours). What’s the trick?

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    1. Heh. I don't have anything especially against the WGD other that I find it a distracting background. Rivendell does the look pretty well though!

      Distortions in perspective, let's see - anything from foreshortening/ camera tilt, to the "bend" you're talking about, which is caused by using a wide angle lens while standing too closely. Basically, if you want to take a photo of a bike where everything is deliberately aligned and proportional you need to: use a lens with the appropriate focal length (35-50mm for a bicycle, if you want it to fill the frame or nearly), position the camera at the horizontal *and* vertical center of the bike, and make sure to hold the camera level (all of which, ideally, means using a tripod). Of course you will also need to make sure the bike itself is standing perfectly upright and that the wheels are in alignment. That sort of thing.

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    2. Some - not all - bike colors show well against old yellow brick walls. Now that I know the technique, the magic stick is definitely something I plan to try.

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  5. Photographing bicycles is like other subjects: you can work in the shadow of common rules, but, to avoid boring classic pictures a small magic touch is a useful way.
    The last picture is very pleasant so I guess you enjoy yourself to see bicycles at circus ... don't you?
    Btw, it reminds me a picture from you showing a guy sitting on a handlebar: without trick or with twig, that's a question, ah ah.

    L.

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  6. Whenever I restore a bike for a friend, I always include a special, extremely versatile, log kickstand, which is a lot like a Swiss Army Knife for cyclists. If you drop it in a lake, it floats. (Just try that with your double-legged Pletscher!) If you're stranded in the woods, you can build a fire with it.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/50507836@N02/12024235546/in/dateposted-public/

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    1. A most useful item, though I suspect some are holding out for the carbon fiber version.

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  7. I never cared for the magically-standing-with-no-support bicycle photos for the simple reason they don't make visual sense and therefore look wrong. For lack of a better analogy, if you saw a photo of a car with only three of it's wheels on and yet sitting level, you'd immediately think it was an obvious photo shop job simply because it defies logic. The lavender yarn, however, is quite nice.
    PS: That's the rhetorical "you".

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    1. For me it's not so much a matter of the bike looking unnatural, as it is of the stylized pose dominating the composition, if that makes sense. Still, if the goal is to display the machine without distracting overlap, there are few alternatives, so it's a useful method to know.

      I am making socks and hats out of that lavender yarn, if anyone is interested.

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    2. Will take (1) hat please, sized large. Please include Lovely Bicycle logo. On 2nd thought, make it (2) - my wife will also want one.

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    3. And 1 navy blue please, no logo, any style you choose. Email sent!

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    4. Thanks - I will put a batch of them up online soon - like next week, hopefully. No logos incorporated into the design, but there is a small (and removable) "LB" label sewn into the inside.

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    5. Ooooooh (rubs hands together)you taking orders for parts again?

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  8. How fortunate that you should bring this up. I once met this guy out on the trail and he carried a collapsible kickstand in his jersey pocket so that he could photograph his bike "anywhere anytime"! He told me the make of this instrument and where he bought it, but by the time I got to work I forgot and have not seen one since. Perchance you or one of your fine readers know?

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    1. I know the one you're talking about, though I did not think it was sufficiently compact to fit into a jersey pocket. It attaches to the rear wheel axel, right? Can't recall the name, but let me have a look-around.

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    2. Maybe it was a Click-Stand? http://www.click-stand.com/products-and-ordering.html

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