Behind the Lens: Shooting Moto with Remote Flash

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Behind the Lens: Shooting Moto with Remote Flash

Behind the Lens: Shooting Moto with Remote Flash

By James Lissimore


Hey everyone, this week I thought I’d drag “Behind the Lens” out of mothballs and share some fresh photography info and stories. I’m going to try and make this column semi-regular again, when I have any ideas or photos to share. If you have any photo related topics you’d like to see me address here in this column, feel free to email me at


This week I wanted to talk about the use of remote flash in moto photography. I use remote flashes a lot in my work. When people think of flash, often they think of the blown out, deer in the headlights look that your point and shoot camera provides when shooting your friends at the bar but by using flash remotely and getting it off the axis of the camera lens, you can really add depth and dimension to what is a two dimensional photograph.


A lot of my flash work is related to portraiture and creating a certain mood for magazine features and such but when it comes to doing an action shoot, my first thought is always to see if it’s possible to use flash to create the image. Growing up, my influences were heavily borrowed from the skate and snowboard world, where flash photography dominates most magazine coverage. The ability to use auxiliary lighting to highlight the parts of the image you want to emphasize really help to create imagery that stands out and, especially in this day and age of over saturation of photos on the internet, standing out is key.


The first thing you need when it comes to remote flash photography(other than a camera) is at least one flash and a means to trigger it. I’m a Nikon shooter so I always carry at least three of their flash units with me(SB-910 is the current top of the line flash but almost any of their units will work). I will use both the Nikon flashes and larger Elinchrom studio flash units depending on how much light I need and how far away I have to put them. The smaller “Speedlight” style flashes are great because they’re super light, run on AA batteries and you can stash them almost anywhere but the downside is that they’re not really powerful enough to overpower the sun on a bright day. In those situations you really need the bigger studio style flashes, which add some complexity to the shoot.


You also need a means to trigger them. The Nikon system contains a pretty good optical system that will fire your flashes remotely, as long as they’re not too far away and it’s not too bright out. The upside is that if you’ve got the camera and the flash, you don’t need anything else. The downside is, the light from your camera has to see that little window on the side and if it can’t, you’re screwed. In that case, you need wireless triggering and the industry standard is the Pocket Wizard system. They’re pricy at approx. $200 a piece but they’re rock solid and you can usually get at least a 1000ft out of them if you really need it.


From there, it’s just a matter of experimenting and seeing what looks good. The sky is practically the limit when it comes to the different combinations of ambient and flash exposure you can try out. Play around and have fun!


Here are a few different variations of flash photos I’ve shot over the years.


This is where I do the majority of my flash photography in motocross. Portrait of Shawn Maffenbeier in Pemberton, BC.
Socked in, overcast conditions don't make for the best light so sometimes you can salvage it with a bit of flash. A pop from my Elinchrom studio flash helped to make Shawn stand out from the background.
It was another cloudy day when I shot this image of Dean Wilson. On this one I tried to really underexpose the background and highlight Deano, making it appear a lot darker than it really was. The directional light of the flash really makes the color "pop" a lot more than the soft overcast light on a day like this.
Arenacross is one of the few places where I actually shoot race action with remote flash. Instead of lighting the whole arena, I like to selectively light a scene to add drama, like I did with this shot of Colton Facciotti.
A rare outdoor race shot that I photographed with remote flash. It was quite a dark this day at Moncton a few years ago and this corner, sheltered by trees was even darker, making it a good spot to stick a flash. Lighting Tyler Medaglia with the flash helped me underexpose the sky and keep it from blowing out, adding depth to the image.
Having enough power to underexpose a sunny day is the domain of the larger studio flashes. Using a generator, I managed to light this shot of Kyle Beaton down in Beaumont, California a few years ago with the help of his mechanic, Mike, holding the flash stand and aiming the light at him as he passed over.
You can use the smaller speed lights to shoot jump action once the sunlight starts falling, such as this shot of Ronnie Renner I took at his place in So Cal, just after the sun had set.
Freestyle is a common thing to shoot with remote flash, since you're able to have a lot of control over the shoot. I shot this image of Kris Foster as the sun set in Vernon, BC using a remote studio flash quite a ways away from him.
I also shot this whip by Ben Milot down in Beaumont, California. Ben was boosting high enough off of this hip that even my studio flash at full power was barely illuminating him in the setting sun.
I wanted to close out with this image of David Vullemin that I shot years ago at Washougal because, well it's not a flash image. By wandering into the forested section of the course and looking for a pocket where the sun was shining between the shadows, I was able to find natural restricted light. So, that's some else to look for if you don't have a flash - if you look hard enough you might be able to replicate it without them.


Thanks for the great info

Thanks for the great info James

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