How to photograph bicycle utopias

Dear participants in the 2k12 SchlossyB Copansterdam Bike-topia-palooza,

Look, I don’t want to rain on your holy-moly-denmark-is-rad parade here, but did you know that we are all counting on you?  Are you aware of the extraordinary level of responsibility that you all have?  Are you?

Here’s the deal:  We need to you take really good pictures of the bicycle stuff that you are seeing.

We (and I mean us at home, the home front, good ol’ ‘Murica) need you to do this because we badly need CHANGE for many reasons that Dr. Marcy Marc has told you about in detail, and we are simple so we have to SEE it to BELIEVE it.  That’s where you come in.

Last year I took a few helpful pictures of my time in Amsterdam with the class (see also this blog post).  Not enough.  Not nearly enough.  I wish I had spent wayyyyyy more time and effort on documentation.  So the guide that follows is to encourage you to spend that time and to give you a few tips to hopefully maximize your success and efficiency as you do it.



In several rules…

#1: Take a HUGE number of photos.

This is both the simplest advice and the hardest to follow.  Take an infinitive number of pictures.  Photograph everything, from several angles, several times.  I once heard that for each photo that actually makes it into National Geographic, there are something like 70,000 photos taken of the same story that aren’t good enough.  Aspire to that number.  Don’t be afraid to be a tourist with a camera in your hand, at least some/most of the time.  Like I said, we NEED you to get pictures of the cycle tracks, the riders, the signs, the bike racks, all of it.  And to get good ones, the only sure way is to take a HUGE number.  Seriously do it.

#2: Take some time JUST to take pictures.

Plan it out.  An afternoon of your freetime.  Go out, stand on corners, take a picture of everyone that goes by on a bike.  Roam around and photograph intersections.  It seems like a chore now when all you want to do is go to Tivoli and eat open-face sandwiches and “experience” Christiana, but trust me, you will be glad for all the time you spend focusing solely on taking photographs of the stuff you are really there to experience, the bicycle infrastructure.  Try to take 5 or more hours while you are in each city JUST taking photographs.

#3: Get close.

It’s an old adage of photojournalism: if your pictures aren’t good enough, you weren’t close enough.  Get close.  This is especially important with the kinds of point-and-shoot cameras that you probably went over to Europe with. Let your subject fill the frame.  Wait until oncoming cyclists are RIGHT there before you snap.

#4: Take a bunch of pictures of the same thing.

Don’t just get one.  If there’s something worth photographing, it’s worth photographing several times from several angles.  You will be very glad you did this, later.   If you don’t have enough memory card space for this, go buy more memory cards.  Seriously.  Buy them.  Try to get at least three angles of anything worth shooting.  If it’s a moving scene, see if your camera has a “sport”mode or other mode that takes pictures in quick succession.

#5: Charge your camera.

Every night.  No exceptions.  WE ARE COUNTING ON YOU.

#6: Rule of thirds.

Look, I don’t make the rules.  But there are some things the brain just likes, and when it comes to two-dimensional images, rule of thirds is a key to making an attractive image.  Essentially, you are going to organize your photo into 1/3rd chunks, like this:


As you can see, the horizon line is 1/rd of the way from the top.  The subjects (boat, island) are at the intersection points of the lines that make the thirds.  This is one of the core principles of graphic design, so you are encouraged to think about it.  Images where the subject is dead-center are actually not desirable in general.


#7: Photograph everything

This is rule 1 rehashed.  Here’s the deal: you don’t yet know what point you will want to make to people back here about what you are seeing over there.  Do yourself a BIG favor and get enough evidence of a high enough quality that, whatever point you eventually want to make, you are able to make it.  Taking a huge amount of pictures and generally following the above rules is the ONLY way to do this.

#8: SHARE!!!! NOW!!!!!

Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, dropbox, whatever you please.

OKAY!!!! Please let me know if you have questions or need other support.  We are all just sitting here in America waiting for you to see (AND RECORD) what you need to in order to FIX your deeply flawed transportation system back here. No pressure.  I can’t wait to live vicariously through your HUGE number of pictures.


Ted Sweeney

once-and-future bike-utopia photographer



PS: on video…

Video is good too.  Take some video.  But don’t do it at the expense of still images.  Still images are the easiest to spread and share, and don’t require editing.  If you have the skills to create awesome mutimedia/video heavy stuff, then you already don’t need my advice.  By all means get some nice clips of bike rush hour, intersections, etc.  Just make sure you get LOTS of still images as well.


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