Sunday 21 October 2018

The Evolution Of On-Bike 360° Photography

The evolution of on-bike photography from hand
held push button shutter to mounted, hands-free

and distraction-free autofiring shutter.  The photos now
show a rider riding instead of a rider being distracted.
The 360° on motorcycle photographic experiment continues.  At this point I think I've got it down to a science.  What was once an awkward hand held process has evolved into a consistently effective, hands-free automatic process that I could easily set up on just about any bike and get shots with no action needed from the rider.

Initially I just popped the 360 camera into my pocket and went for a ride.  When I saw a nice scene I took it out and pressed the shutter.  The downside was that my arm was in every shot.  Another issue was that I didn't look like I was into the ride because the camera was a distraction, which it was.  All this busy work meant not being able to get photos of the best bits, like bending the bike into a corner.

My first attempts at attaching the camera to the bike highlighted a number of issues.  Out of the various 360 cameras I'd tried, only the Ricoh Theta offered a timed shot option, taking a photo automatically every 8-60 seconds depending on how you set it.  The Samsung Gear 360 and the 360Fly both only offered stop motion video at much lower resolutions and quality.  The Theta is also light weight and low profile, so it works well in the wind, unlike heavier, blockier designs from other manufacturers.

I initially tried suction pad mounts, but I never trusted them in the rough and tumble and windy on-bike environment.  I eventually migrated to a flexible tripod, but my first choice started falling apart right after I got it.  When it let go while we were riding down the road and killed the camera I was ready to give up on that kind of mount, but I went up market and got a Lammcou model that has been durable, strong and perfect for the job.

Now that I've worked my way through testing all the kit, it's so well sorted out that I think I could set it all up on any bike and start the photos going.  When the rider returned I could download all the captured images and see what we got.  Ideally I'd have a camera that takes a photo automatically every couple of seconds, but such a thing doesn't seem to exist.  At the eight second delay on the Theta I don't get every shot I want, but after a ride I get an awful lot of choice and there are always some gems in there.

I'd really like to try this process on something a bit more extreme, like track day riding or off road riding.  As long as the rider keeps the bike rubber side down, I think this resilient setup produces unique shots impossible to get otherwise.  When people see these shots they ask if I was using a drone or was from another bike dangerously close, but the process is much safer and cheaper than either of those things.  I'm surprised that no motorcycle magazine wants to give this a go.  The shots it produces are exciting, original and show riding from a very intimate point of view.  The ThetaV takes very high resolution photos that would work well online and even in print.

Putting together a kit that will do this is fairly straightforward.  The list on the left is all the parts you need to be taking 360° photos easily and well on your bike.  If you already have a smartphone you can skip over half of the costs listed for the ipod.  The camera and tripod are only about $300 Canadian ($225USD).  Getting the photos off the camera is easy enough and the Ricoh Theta software is by far the most stable and easiest to use out of all the manufacturers that I've tried.  Ricoh also offers a pile of accessories including a weather resistant hard case that has easily fended off rain while on the motorcycle.  There is also a new fully waterproof case if you wanted to get some action shots of your next river crossing.

The process for shooting 360 on-bike photographs is straightforward:

  • Wirelessly connect the Theta 360 camera to your device and remotely set it over wifi to fire every 8 seconds (maximum shot speed).  Once this is set you never have to do it again -the camera remembers.
  • Just before the rider sets off start the shutter firing by hitting the start shooting button on the ipod or your smartphone.  Have the rider drop the ipod or whatever device you're using into a pocket and off they go.
  • When they get back you can stop the camera auto-firing and collect up the ipod/smartphone, Ricoh Theta and tripod.
  • Plug in the Theta to your PC or Mac using the supplied USB micro cable and copy the photos over to it.
  • Open up the Theta software and drop each picture into it.  You can move around within the pictures.  If it looks like it might make a good tiny planet photo, then upload it to the Theta360 website and use the online editor to quickly and easily (one button push) make a tiny planet out of the photo.
  • You can screen grab any photo angles that look good.  If you have a typical 1080p monitor these images will be well detailed for online presentation.  Get yourself a high resolution monitor to screen grab high resolution images suitable for printing on paper.  The ThetaV takes the equivalent of 14 megapixel images that display spectacularly on a high resolution monitor.  I use a 4k monitor for print images and they come out sharp and detailed.  Dell's 8k monitor is on my wishlist.
  • Once you've grabbed the angles and images you need you can sort them out in Adobe Photoshop to meet the look you're going for.  The Theta shoots dark but has a lot of detail in the shadows.  An HDR (high dynamic range) filter tool does wonders to pull details out of dark images.
Like anything else digital, experiment with it for best results.  I've attached the camera to my windshield extender, rear view mirrors and tail luggage rack, but if you're adventurous (and have that protective case), why not try wrapping it around your frame in various locations.  Since it's set and forget, you can just go for a nice ride and then see what you caught when you get back.

The red thing just below and left of my head is the top of the flexible tripod holding the camera onto the rear view mirror.  It's triple wrapped around the stalk and doesn't move even at triple figure speeds.  The other two arms of the tripod are arranged to help brace the tripod and still leave 70% of the mirror unobstructed, so even the rear view is still good (the Tiger has nice, big, and not buzzy mirrors).  The nature of the 360 camera forces perspective back around the base, so I usually angle the camera away, which also uses the length of the Theta to push the lenses even further away.  The result is a an image you couldn't get any other way. 

A 'tiny planet' photo done using the online Theta360 website.  It's the easiest way to get this effect I've found.  Again, a unique perspective you would find hard to duplicate any other way.

Saturday 13 October 2018

Motorcycle Philosophy: Antoine Predock on Ride With Norman Reedus

Riding a motorcycle is episodic.  You experience thermoclines of temperature... the rush of cold air in a pocket, it's exhilarating.  In life that's a good thing too, surrender to conditions rather than mind managing everything and see what happens.

Season 2, Episode 4:  Ride With Norman Reedus (quote is from the episode)

Finding The Edge

I turn fifty in a few months and the nature of aging occupies my mind.   The increasing worry is that I've done everything I'm going to do of note and the rest is just living in those memories, but I'm not happy with that diagnosis.  The way of things seems to be that as people get older they become increasingly cautious, especially physically, until they are maintaining themselves to death.  If all I have left is a continuous receding of activity into a safety cocoon designed to keep me alive as long as possible, I'm bereft of hope.  If that's the trajectory I need to do something about it because it's causing me a great deal of anxiety.
This isn't so much about thrill seeking as it is about finding meaningful ways to challenge myself.  I'm not looking for overt or pointless risk, I'm looking for ways to engage and challenge myself physically and mentally.  Motorcycling, for me, is a lifeline to that realm of vital engagement - it can turn even a simple commute into an adventure.  To accept the challenge of motorcycling well you need to acknowledge the risks and manage them effectively.  You can't do it with one hand on the wheel and your thoughts elsewhere as so many other road users do; motorcycling well demands that you live in the moment.

The meditative nature of riding can't be overstated, especially in my case.  It's taken me most of my life and my son's diagnosis to realize I don't think like most people.  Whereas others find great traction and joy in social interaction, I've always found it confusing and frustrating.  People are takers who are happy to demand my time, attention and expertise and offer little tangible in return.  I spend my days in this social deficit where many  around me seem intent on using me for what I can do for them but are unwilling to offer anything in return.  The only currency many of them trade in is this slippery social currency, which I find difficult to fathom and so avoid.  Given the opportunity, most people disappoint, and often do it with and edge of cruelty and selfishness that I find exhausting.  Nothing lets me find balance again better than a few hours in the silence of the wind getting lost in the physical and mental challenge of chasing bends on my motorbike; the machine is honest in a way that few people are.

I started riding a motorcycle just over five years ago, after my mother died.  It was a secret as to why motorcycles were forbidden in our family.  A death no one talked about produced a moratorium on riding that prevented me from finding my way to this meditative state for decades.  I didn't realize that the motorbiking gene was strong in my family until I bypassed my mother's fear and found my way back to that family history.  Riding is something we've done for generations, but a single accident produced fear that kept me from what should have been a lifelong passion.  Wondering about what could have been is another one of those traps that people fall into as they get older, but rather than wonder about it I'd prefer to make up for lost time.

There are many aspects of motorcycling that I'd like to try, from exploring the limits of riding dynamics on a track to long distance and adventure travel journeys, or even retracing family history.  Last year I did some off road training and I don't think I've ever seen a photo of me looking happier.  Doing something new and challenging with a motorbike is where I find the edge.  It's also where I find the head-space that eludes me in my very socially orientated professional life.

Unfortunately, I live in the wrong country for exploring the challenges of motorbiking.  Whereas in the UK you can find cheap and accessible trackdays for bikes all over the country, in Canada they simply don't exist.  My only option is to pony up for a thousand dollar course that puts me on a tiny, underpowered bike for one weekend.  In the UK you can green lane and trail ride all over the country, but in Canada that's called trespassing.  We also happen to have some of the highest motorcycle insurance rates on the planet  and one of the shortest riding seasons.  In the UK you can ride virtually the whole year around and the range of biking interests are wide and varied.  In Canada riders are thin on the ground and often interested in aspects of riding that I find baffling.

As I'm getting older I hope I can continue to find ways back to the meditative calm of riding.  It isn't an end in itself, but it sure works as a tool to help me manage my other responsibilities, and as fodder for writing and photography I haven't found much better.  Motorcycling lets me plumb Peisig's depths and clarifies my mind.  Along with that meditative silence, motorcycling also offers a direct line to a thrilling and challenging craft that demands and rewards my best efforts.  Even the most mundane of riding opportunities offers a chance to find that edge, and it's on that edge that I'm able to find my best self, the one I want to hone and improve.  Being able to bring that refined self back into the world doesn't just help me, but everyone that has to put up with me too.