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Technical

Speed merchant: James Wright on capturing motorcycle action

Speed merchant: James Wright on capturing motorcycle action

© James Wright

June 2017

British superbike photographer James Wright has earned himself an enviable reputation for catching the thrills and excitement of motorcycle racing. He explains to CPN Editor David Corfield why quality and consistency keeps his customers coming back time and again...

“You’ll never make any money out of anyone that hasn’t got any.” James Wright is giving me a characteristically frank view on running a business. He’s quoting his late grandfather, a motorcycle enthusiast who had a few words of understated wisdom for him when deciding on setting up his own photographic business, Double Red Photographic.

© James Wright
© James Wright

The legend that is Carl Fogarty at Brands Hatch, 1995. Taken on a Canon EOS-1V with an EF400mm f/2.8L USM lens with EF1.4x extender; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/5.6, ISO 100 Fuji Provia film.

He continues: “He also said this: ‘when you start riding a motorcycle you start with two buckets. One is full of luck and the other empty of experience. The idea is to fill the one of experience before the one of luck runs out.’ I still smile at that one and often recount it to new motorcyclists as it is so true.”

That first piece of advice is equally apt for the freelance photographer and Wright knows all too well how sports specialists in particular are only as good as the last picture they took. But he’s been saying that for almost 30 years now so it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two...

Canon quality

A Canon user for over 20 years, Wright is just about to take delivery of pair of brand-new EOS-1D X Mark II DSLRs, and cites Canon and its pioneering autofocus technology that helped him make a name for himself back in those early days...

“Coming to the Canon system was a breath of fresh air,” he recalls. “Initially it was difficult to reconfigure the brain from my previous system to the EOS way but after sitting for every spare minute that I had, I soon familiarised myself with the controls so that when I used the cameras on jobs I didn’t need to think where any of the buttons were. As the EOS system has progressed and evolved, the main control changes have been quite minor, which has made it easy to adapt to each new model. That’s one of the main things I love about Canon; the cameras are very intuitive.”

© James Wright
© James Wright

Racing lines, Silverstone, 2013. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF600mm f/4L IS II USM lens with EF1.4x extender; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/5.6, ISO 400.

Wright thought long and hard before investing in equipment. “I had a fairly basic system from another brand at the time and when I decided to take the leap from a ‘proper’ job [as an engineer] into photography, I knew that the choice of system was going to be one that would probably stick with me for the rest of my career. So I spent a lot of time talking to various professionals and manufacturers and tested a few systems before reaching the conclusion that Canon was better than the competition. I traded in my old equipment and took out a significant loan to get hold of a full pro kit – consisting of two EOS-1 bodies, EF300mm and EF400mm f/2.8 telephotos – cumbersome old things looking back, but sharp – and an EF70-200mm f/2.8 plus a couple of short zooms and two Speedlite flashguns. I must have spent close to £15,000 (around 17,000 euro) at the time. I also remember the other thing that drew me to Canon: the CPS back-up service. In my experience it is second-to-none. Pro photographers cannot afford to be without critical pieces of equipment and things do go wrong – for a variety of reasons. Canon’s pro service has, without fail, provided equipment that has weathered the storm. And on the rare occasions where there has been a problem, they have pulled out all the stops and provided a solution. That, to me, is priceless.”

Changing times

Wright has been shooting bikes with his EOS system since 1989. “I have photographed in excess of 600 British Superbike races,” he quips. “The speed of the bikes is not the challenge for me now, but finding a ‘different’ image when I have shot almost every corner on most of the circuits in the UK under every lighting condition certainly is. Obviously every race is different and trying to predict where someone may make a pass, or where some kind of incident may occur is all part of the challenge. Experience teaches you to ‘read’ a race as it unfolds.”

© James Wright
© James Wright

The five-time British Superbike Champion Shane ‘Shakey’ Byrne comes to grief on a damp track, 2012. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF600mm f/4L IS II USM lens; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/4, ISO 1000.

“But when I cover road racing events such as the Isle of Man TT races, they throw up a whole new set of challenges. With an average speed of over 130mph (209kph) for a 37.73-mile lap, the speeds are phenomenal and you can often find yourself looking through the lens at a motorcycle approaching at 160-170mph (257-273kph). You need your equipment to respond, and you need it to respond fast! If you actually stop and think what you are asking your equipment to do in order to give you a sharp image, it is incredible: lock on to the subject, calculate the speed at which it is approaching the camera, establish where it is going to be and move the glass inside the lens to focus, and to make sure this all comes together when the shutter is released - all within a fraction of a second.”

He continues: “Safety is paramount at these events and there is no time to move should something go wrong and you may only get a couple of frames off – especially shooting with longer lenses. Even though I have been covering the TT for over 25 years, the speeds never cease to amaze me and it definitely takes a day or two to get into the swing of things. When I have an open brief, I love shooting the TT because there are so many dramatic angles, chinks of light through trees, riders on the limit and scenic shots. But unfortunately, many clients want or need the iconic Isle of Man TT angles which restricts creativity somewhat as getting from one spot to another is not easy, and even the longest races are only six laps long – so there are not many opportunities for trial and error.”

© James Wright
© James Wright

Isle of Man TT legend John McGuinness rides through a cloud of concrete dust covering a patch of oil, Isle of Man TT, 2003. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D with an EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens with EF1.4x extender (effective focal length 420mm); the exposure was 1/640sec at f/6.3, ISO 200.

Colour and depth: file quality

A closer look at Wright’s work reveals a bold use of colour and light in many of his images. He is quick to point out that many of his shots emerge from cameras unadjusted and with minimal post-production. Wright is old school and proud of it. If it can be done in camera “the proper way” then that’s his preferred route. “The depth of colours and the options for adjustment through Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software basically means you can customise the files coming off the camera to your own liking. Due to the nature of our business, we usually shoot JPEG but for commercial projects we will shoot RAW (CR2) in order to provide the Art Director with files from which he can extract the maximum detail.”

Wright continues: “I usually work with an assistant when shooting superbikes and the workflow depends on individual requirements. If we have a need for getting images out quickly, I will use a CamRanger [wireless control unit] and transmit using 4G, but to be fair, there has to be a compromise somewhere. If I am downloading and transmitting I am not shooting, and as our clients are not usually working to really tight deadlines I prefer to leave the editing to the assistants.”

“We very seldom do any post-production to our race images unless we have a valid reason. We know the EOS-1D X bodies produce a good image straight from camera. We often see photographers in press rooms – many of whom these days have never loaded a roll of film in their life – tweak levels and crop/rotate in post, so they have not learned many of the basic techniques needed under the pressure of shooting film – especially transparency. I still firmly believe that as a photographer, you should do everything possible to shoot as if you were shooting film, and Canon’s EOS cameras are easily good enough to let you do this.”

© James Wright
© James Wright

PR shoot for Kawasaki quad bikes, southern Spain. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens at 135mm; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/16, ISO 200.

“My early career was in engineering so I guess I’ve always been used to doing things myself and solving problems on the go. That’s the kind of skill you need to do the job I do. That, plus a knack of knowing when to press the button. I’m happy as a photographer – my career has taken me to some great places and I have met some great, inspirational individuals – I am just an ordinary guy who is lucky enough to capture extraordinary people doing amazing things with their lives!”

James Wright’s motorcycle kitbag

Cameras:

2x EOS-1D X Mark II
2x EOS-1D X

Lenses:

EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-105mm f/4L USM
TS-E24mm f/3.5L II
TS-E90mm f/2.8
EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF200mm f/2L IS USM
EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF500mm f/4L IS II USM
EF600mm f/4L IS II USM

Accessories:

2x Speedlite 580EX II flashguns
Gitzo carbon-fibre tripod

Biography: James Wright

James Wright

One of the most experienced motorcycle photographers in the UK, James Wright has photographed most makes of bikes and superbikes for editorial or commercial clients during his career. Always striving to offer a totally professional service at all levels, he has expanded his business and team members over the years to offer a complete photographic service including a large studio and printing facilities plus video production. He lives near Lincoln in the UK and travels all over the world on commission.



Showcase

Kawasaki at speed, Circuito Guadix, Spain, 2009. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 48mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/13, ISO 200. Remote Speedlite flash fired on left-handed corner.