We asked photographer Steve Isaacs, featured on pages 22-23 in our December issue, to tell us about his studio design and the setup behind his motorcycle portrait photography.
By Steve Isaacs
We’ve put together a very effective lighting and backdrop setup, which you see here, for our in-studio motorcycle photography.
To get an idea of scale the back studio wall is 24 feet across and the white roll-up flooring is 12 feet wide by 24 feet long. I set this at an angle in the studio because the concrete floor is not level. In this position the floor is fairly level, making it easier to stand the panels and not have large gaps at the bottom of a panel where it sits on the floor. I had a problem with the foam core bending if left standing for very long, so I taped 1-inch PVC pipe to the back side of the foam core. Those are the white ribs you see against the black side of the panels. This kept the panels light weight, making setup and teardown easy, even with one person. The canvas you see on the floor and under the table provides a surface to roll the bike in and not leave tire tracks everywhere.
The motorcycle studio setup uses an 18-foot truss to suspend three Paul C. Buff Einstein flash heads in soft boxes overhead to provide the main lighting. The reverse side of a 12x24-foot linoleum floor, painted white, serves as the floor and can be rolled up for transport. Foam core is suspended at each side using simple backdrop stands and bars to create 12-foot false walls at each side with angled panels at the front to reflect more light to the side of the motorcycle. We drape black cloth over the setup to black out anything overhead that would otherwise be reflected off the motorcycle.
When I don’t have a motorcycle in studio, I use this gray stool with a 10-foot PVC pipe as stand-in to set exposure and the flash settings. I can check shadows and adjust the light for a usable (maskable) separation from the white background.
It's the combination of all of these white surfaces that produce the even lighting at the side of the motorcycle. The overhead soft boxes create the highlights that accent the curves of the tank and fenders. The back wall is also made of foam core suspended on backdrop stands, making a 16-foot false wall. Additional flash heads at each side and pointed toward the back wall illuminate the wall to create a complete white background when desired. Two more flash heads located at the front of the setup add depth and highlights when creating portraits with the motorcycles. We use Paul C. Buff heads because I can control them using a remote mounted on the camera. This saves considerable effort when adjusting the intensity of the overhead flash heads.
We use two cameras during the session. One camera is mounted on a tripod some 40 feet from the motorcycle and at a low angle (18 inches) for the profile images and stays on the tripod. This is tethered to a laptop computer using a USB interface. We use the second camera hand-held to capture closeup detail images and for the portrait images. An Eye-Fi card in the second camera wirelessly transmits the images to the laptop where the client can view the images as they are being captured. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is configured to automatically import from a watched folder, which simplifies workflow later and shows the images as they are captured.
Having the client immediately see the images live during the session has helped tremendously to produce the images the client wants. Though some photographers don’t like the client to see the images before they're finaled, I find the immediate feedback very important. I liken it to a jazz musician playing to a live audience. I do have to educate the client a bit so that the he or she understands the images are only the starting point for the final result. I don't want skewed expectations to confuse the session.
After capturing the images I spend time in Photoshop to create the composites, which become the final images. This is where my work is distinct from others’.
©Steve Isaacs Photography
This finished family portrait shows the type of composite we’re known for. The bike owner didn't want to have his picture taken, so he had his bike stand in. That’s the family crest in the corner. A local airbrush artist created the Celtic theme, and the bike was built by a local custom house, the culmination of a four-year labor of love. The owner wanted me to photograph the bike before he started the engine for the first time, and the family portrait was impromptu on the spot.
The image above was taken using the prototype portable indoor setup. All of the parts are there and can be loaded into a trailer to be transported to different indoor locations.
This studio setup is one commonly used for advertising and magazine photography. I’d like to construct a slightly larger version of this setup to use with automobiles at some point. With the addition of flash heads with snoots for depth is working quite well for product photography (see below).
Steve Isaacs Photography hopes to unveil a portable version of this studio at the 2014 Inland Northwest Motorcycle Show with a goal of one hour for setup and one hour for teardown. We considered designing a setup that we could use outdoors, but we’ve tabled that idea due to of concerns about wind and rain along with dust control, which would require a tent and additional flooring, making the setup significantly more expensive and difficult to transport and set up.