I’m no photographer by any means so pretty much non of this comes from a pro perspective. I’m just someone who likes bikes. Maybe you are too. Over years of drooling over bicycle portraits across the internet and in catalogs, I’ve learned a few things about what makes these bikes look so good in photos. It’s not really that complicated but still, even the pro’s get it wrong sometimes. I don’t profess to do it right all the time. I’m just a guy with a Nikon point n shoot. Still, I’ve compiled a few tips on how to make your bike look nicer on photo so that next time you shoot your trusty steed, you really get to show it off in all of its glory.
1) DRIVE SIDE!!! Come on, people. You should know this. We want to see what’s on your bike. The drive side is the important part. Taking a picture from the non-drive side is like photographing a car engine with the hood down. Remember, this is your bike’s GOOD SIDE. I’m pretty sure we’re not missing any important details on the left side of your bike.
A rare example of a bike where I might like to see some of the non-drive side.
2) Clean up the background. Have a neutral, non-distracting background. Any object in the setting that’s removable, remove it. That means trash, leaves, dirty socks, girlfriends (optional), etc. Watch out for hard shadows which can also be distracting, especially if the shadows are cast by the bike. If you’re shooting against a wall, it should be mostly one solid color with no patterns or anything that takes the focus off your bike. Speaking of focus, make sure your camera is focussed on the bike and not a part of the background.
See how important a neutral background is? Here I can show a lot of background and it’s still just about the bike.
3) Clean up your bike. This doesn’t just mean giving it a good wipe-down (which I hope you’ve already done). This also means removing anything that isn’t necessary. Everything in this photo is something that’s representing your bike. So you must ask yourself why you have such-and-such on your bike while you’re photographing it. For example, “What is that removable Knog blinky light really saying about who I am and what this bike means to me?” If you don’t have a good reason for it, take it off.
This is my touring bike, so I photographed it with touring gear.
And now… the nitpicky stuff. These are all the anal retentive details that will make your bike look better because it shows that you paid attention to them. The main reason to pay attention to this stuff is because everything in this photo is there for a reason. You need to make it all look very intentional. Just like how all the features of the bike are built into it for a reason (hopefully). This shows that you are damn proud of owning this bike and that you put thought into how you want to display it.
4) Align your crankset. There’s a few ways to do this. It usually looks best if the crank is lined up with one of the tubes or parallel to the ground. Personally, I prefer lining the crank up with the seat tube. Other people line up with the down tube and some line up with the chainstay. In any of these cases, the non-drive side crank arm should be behind the tube you’re lining up with — obscured by it — so that the line is continued by your drive side crank arm. If you choose to line up your crankset so that it’s parallel to the ground, the drive side arm should be pointing towards the front of the bike. Some people choose to line up the crankset so that it’s perpendicular to the ground but I don’t think it looks that great.
This is how I like to line up my crankset.
5) Align your wheels. This probably bothers me even more than the crankset. Most people don’t even think about this, even photographers shooting bicycle catalogs. Again, this is just so that it looks like you meant to do it. Attention to details! You want to line up your front and rear wheels so that the valve holes are both in the same position — 12 o’clock or 6 o’clock looks the best. This just looks cleaner and also lines everything up. If you’ve got fancy deep carbon rims, the logos will line up. The tire logos should line up too, assuming they’ve been installed correctly. HINT: with clinchers, the tire logos should line up with the valve holes and with tubulars, the valves should line up with the valve holes. And if you’re looking at the drive side of your bike thinking “Gee, my tires don’t seem to have logos”, that means either your tires don’t have logos or they’re on backwards.
Line up your wheel graphics even if the valves say otherwise.
6) Choose your gearing (if applicable). Proper gearing not only makes your chainline look better, it can also make your bike look faster! How? I always set it to the fastest gear (smallest cog, largest chainring). This also happens to make the derailleur and downtube shifters look better. I’ve seen some old catalogs that shoot their bikes on the smallest chainring/largest cog. I guess that’s too show off their incredible hillclimbing ability. I guess that’s cool. If you really want to show off your triple chainset, go for it. I just hate it when I see a bike portrait and the chain is just in the middle doing nothing.
The fastest gear on my classic roadie not only brings the chain to the front but also makes my downtube shifters stand out more.
7) All the other details. I’m not sure it’s possible to be TOO neurotic when photographing your bicycle. Just pay attention to the details. Let’s face it, if you’re reading this chances are you like to look at photos of bikes. Ask yourself what it is about certain photos that you like and compare it to your own bicycle photos. I’m always looking at my own bike photos thinking, “Ah shit I should’ve done this.” For example, I only recently realized that all the photos in 1986 Miyata catalog (IMO the finest example of perfect bike portraiture) have the steering angled so that the bars are perfectly lined up dead-on with the camera. As a non-photographer, it’s a constant learning experience but evidently, even pro photographers don’t have it all down. So basically, don’t feel bad if you get made fun of for the goofy saddle tilt in your photo. Just adjust it next time you take a photo of your bike (unless that’s how you ride it, in which case good luck to your naughty bits).
One day I’ll figure out how to make my bike stand on its own two wheels.
-Ray Dobbins’ Photo Setup
-Bicycle Photography Do’s & Don’ts at Hetchins.org
-Simple Bicycle Photography at The Incidental Cyclist
-Bob Hovey’s Guide to Photgraphing Your Masi
If you’ve got anything to add to all of this, please leave me a comment.