The Story Behind the Photo (Week 4)

This week you’re getting one of my photography learning moments that luckily resorted in a photo I could “fix” enough to show off. It was my first time shooting a Superbike race and boy did a learn a lot.

But First…The Story Behind, The Story Behind the Photo
A while back, Scott Sheppard interviewed me over on Nik Radio. It was basically a 30-40 minute interview on how I got into photography and Photoshop, what inspires me and a bunch of other things. Here’s the link in case you missed it. Well, toward the end of the interview, we started talking about how the story behind the photo is sometimes as captivating or interesting as the photo itself. So it got me thinking about a possible series of posts here on the blog. Let’s get started:

The Photo
(click for a larger version)

Location: Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama

Date: May, 2009

The Gear

The Story
A few years ago I was telling Scott that I really love superbikes and I’ve always wanted to get one of those photos where the rider is basically laying down on a turn, with his knee touching the ground. So Scott (being the great friend that he is), got me set up to shoot a race with him a few weeks later.

The day came and we got up at the crack of dawn to catch a flight out, so we could get there in time for the race. We try to minimize our time away from families since we travel a lot for work anyway. So we planned on flying out and back in the same day. We arrived at the track (where we met our friend Jeff Rease) just as one of the qualifying rounds of the superbike race was about to start. The tracks are pretty large, and it ended up taking much longer than we thought to get into a good shooting location. But we did. Now, at this point I still thought we had a whole day of shooting. I knew we had a 6pm flight back home, but it was noon, so I figured we were good to go and lots of shooting opportunities were yet to come.

My First Learning Experience
We get into place, and I’ve got my camera set up on Aperture Priority mode with my Aperture at f/2.8. I look and my shutter speeds are anywhere from 1/1000th to 1/1500th of a second so I know I’m going to get some sharp photos. And I did. There was a turn right in front of me and I was able to get the riders basically laying down on the ground as they went around the turn. I’m thinking to myself, “Man! This is easy!”. I ran over to Scott at one point to show him and he tells me “Dude, that’s great… But… they look like they’re frozen in air. You’ve got to get your shutter speed around 1/200th – 1/250th and pan to get some motion blur in the background”. Ah!!!! It was my first time and I didn’t do my research ahead of time (and was too stubborn to ask anyone first). Basically what Scott was saying is that if you shoot moving things (like cars, planes, people, motorcycles) at too high of a shutter speed, then they look like they’re frozen. 1/1000th of a second is going to freeze everything (including the background), even if you’re panning. So it looks like the motorcycle is standing still on the track.

I Can Catch on Quick
At this point, I’m thinking no problem. I understand what he was telling me and it made total sense. I switch over to Shutter Priority, set my shutter speed to 1/250th and let the camera choose the aperture. Then I start panning with the riders. It was at this point where I realized this stuff ain’t so easy. You’re shooting a moving object while you’re moving your camera at the same time. You’ve got to get your panning motion in sync with the bike in order to keep the motorcycle and rider sharp, but blur the background so it looks like they’re moving. A lot easier said then done, but I felt like I was getting the hang of it. I had a lot of blurry photos so far, but I was honing in on getting a good shot. Then… all of the sudden… it got quiet. The qualifying race ended and I barely got the chance to try out the things I learned. No sweat… I had all day right? ;)

Did I Mention That Thunderstorms Were Forecasted That Day? You See Where This Is Going Dontcha?
One thing I forgot to mention so far is that there had been a light rain happening on and off at this point. Well, as soon as that race ended, it started raining harder so they postponed the next races (which were the smaller sport bikes, not the big super bikes that look really cool). As the day went on it became painfully clear what was happening. By the time the rain ended and they resumed the races that got postponed, we realized the next superbike race wasn’t going to happen until after we left for the airport to head back that evening. Yup… that 15 minutes of shooting that I got earlier was going to be the only 15 minutes I had that day.

The Post-Processing
Post-processing was key here. Since I didn’t have a sharp photo with the background blurred, I had to fix this one in Photoshop after the fact. I made a selection of the background and applied Photoshop’s Motion Blur filter to it. It wasn’t easy though. It takes a bit of painful brushing to get the motion blur right up against the edge of your selection and get it to look realistic. Trust me, I wasn’t proud of having to do it that way. Don’t get me wrong. I actually like post-processing work in Photoshop. I enjoy the nature of working on my photos. But, in this case, I felt like it was more of a fix to take a bad photo and make it good – rather than using Photoshop for what I prefer which is to take a really good photo and make it great. It’s like replacing skies. I’m not happy about it. But hey, if I gotta do it, I’m not above it ;)

Lessons Learned
It’s simple. Ask for help early on :)

Thanks for stopping by today. I hope you enjoyed the story. Have a good one! :)

  • Ian Macey

    Hi Matt,

    very interesting article. The main thing I learnt when starting off taking motorsport photography was research. Find out about the track you are going to (i.e. good places to shoot from), get hold of a timetable so you know what is happening during the day, keep an eye on what the forecasters are predicting the weather will be.

    I have now been photographing motorcycle racing for 2 years but still have a lot to learn.

    Rgds Ian

  • Dennis Zito


    Boy, I thought you were writing an article about me there for a while.:-) I still can’t get the hang of panning a shot. I can also relate to the time factor … never enough time when you’re trying to learn something new. My granddaughter is a really good ice skater and I’ve tried for two years to get a decent photo of her skating, but no cigar! Many, many blurred photos. Any chance you could do a tutorial on how you fixed the background? I’ve tried and my look like heck.:-)

    Great story and photo! I really like this new series you’ve start “Story Behind the Photo”! Keep’em coming!


  • John Hamilton

    Great work, Matt. I have similar issues shooting rodeo, and have resorted to using the motion blur filter on rare occasion. You did a really nice job of making it look shot in-camera.

    • Matt Kloskowski

      Appreciate it John. It took longer than I would have hoped ;)

  • Kevin Stohlmeyer

    Great results Matt. As with anything done well in Photoshop, had you not told the story, I would not have guessed you did post-processing blurs in PS. Nice!

    • Matt Kloskowski

      Thanks Kevin! Doing any singing lately? ;)

      • Kevin Stohlmeyer

        Seriously – here and there. Not planning on doing any at PSW. Lucky you!

  • jim

    Hey Matt… good stuff. I shoot quite a bit of off road motorcycle and quads racing. I have recently been playing with panning and agree – “still” shots look just so – static – after having gotten some really cool results from panning.

    This is from a couple of weeks ago @1/30th of a second. :)

    That is as captured and as framed. Yes – some work in lightroom but not a whole lot really. (slight color adjustment, clipping at both white and blacks, noise reduction… not much other than that though )

    Anyway — just saw your article. I’d love to shoot a superbike race…. :)

    -=- jd -=-

    • Matt Kloskowski

      Very cool Jim! It definitely takes some getting used to :)

  • Nicholas Wall

    Ha. I would never have know it was blurred in PS. Cool shot!

    Barber is an awesome motorsports park. It’s beautiful! I’ll be going back there October for the Barber Vintage Festival. Hopefully photo-documenting the event for the volunteer group that puts it on.

  • Wade

    This is very timely for me Matt. I’m shooting my first motorcycle road race in less than 2 weeks (amazing what can happen when you just ask nicely). I think you just increased my odds of getting a decent shoot by 1000%. Thanks!

  • Ramon sanchez

    Just Awesome, Matt, and thanks for sharing with us your experiences.

  • Patrik Lindgren (@Kplindgren)

    I make a living on shooting cars and motorsport and boy have i trained on this during the years. To me it´s like running water nowadays, but i´ve done it a couple of times. :)
    If i may come with a suggestion, it´s always easier to use a telephoto lens than a wideangle. Try to use a shutterspeed that is equal to your lens focal length. If you use a 200mm lens try 1/200th of a second. Use following/continous autofocus. Stand with your feet wide apart facing the area where the subject is gonna pass. Follow it from far away and start pressing the shutter when you feel ready and keep it pressed until it has passed.
    Use either a shutterprogram and let the camera set the aperture or use manual mode and do it all yourself.
    I sometimes hold my breath to keep myself calm when i use really long shutterspeeds, it works for me.
    Use a lens that has VR or IS if you can, it is often times very helpful.

    When you start to feel comfortable with this you should start experimenting with longer shutter speeds. Challenge yourself, otherwise it will start to get boring after awhile. :)

    Check out some shots i did not long ago of a really cool car, have a look here:

    There is both panning and car to car shots, all of them done with a fairly long shutterspeed. The car to car shots are actually a 1/13th or 1/10th of a second. All it takes is practise, trust me.

  • Enam Kunutsor

    Hello Matt, interesting story there….i also love super bikes and hope to one day get the chance to shoot them. Keep the stories coming, YOU ROCK!!!