I grew up in New Zealand and my interest in photography started when I was about 16, not long after I discovered I couldn’t draw, says Clinton.
I purchased a Nikon SLR for what seemed like a hellish amount of money and set up a darkroom in a pantry cupboard. From the moment I immersed that first print into the developer bath and saw the image fade into view, I was hooked. I don’t have any formal training and, as with any activity, I just kept chipping away until I got better. I held a few exhibitions but ultimately decided it wasn’t a career path I wanted to pursue (read: I’m a nerd and got seduced by computers in the end)
How did you first get into moto-travel, and to the level of being an accomplished moto-travel photographer?
In 1997 I moved to the United States and started a computer company. Over the next 17 years, I spent 60 hours a week building software and hardware products. It was hard work but I loved every second of it. Although I still took photos, I drifted away from photography as an art form during that period.
The bigger problem was New York City can be a very corrosive environment spiritually and even though I’d done relatively well I still felt like a failure. I needed to recalibrate my relationship with this planet and my life on it.
So in 2015, I spent a year selling everything I owned and leased out my house. I packed my camera gear onto the bike and rode out of my street into the unknown.
I was nervous. I didn’t have much of a plan, but I knew I had to do it. Years later an impossibly drunk Irishman who I’d met by chance in a Dublin pub summed things up perfectly: “Clinton, You’re a crazy bastard. What you’re doin’ is a mystery… but what you’re doin’ is right”
Motorcycle travel and photography are two activities that complement each other perfectly. Both take some skill and learning and there is a continued growth in both. Some people just have the ability to tell inspiring stories with their photos and writing.
This is a series of articles dedicated to some of these people. They share an addictive, insatiable passion for motorcycle adventure travel, photography and storytelling.
They are not necessarily the famous types, some are not on social media or well known, many are not good at or not interested in promoting themselves. These are the people that just get on with moto-photo-travel and following their passions.
Where did your love for travel and motorcycling start and where has it taken you?
As a kid growing up in New Zealand I was restless. I was always reading books about far off places and dreaming about visiting them. The world looked so exotic.
One day a guy at the end of the street put a “for sale” sign on an old ’60s Vespa and I decided it might be fun to tinker with. Fifty dollars later it was mine. I spent my teenage years thrashing that scooter about town and taking it on camping adventures around New Zealand.
Soon after my 20th birthday, I purchased an ’82 XT400 and that’s when my lifelong addiction to dual-sport thumpers began.
Fast forward several decades and I can’t imagine existing without a motorcycle now.
My bikes have immersed me in over 67 countries so far. They’ve physically connected me with the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. They’ve brought me love, heartbreak, courage, and wonder.
Nothing is flatlined— For me they’ve been the skeleton key to unlocking this world and gaining insight into what this life is all about.
Little did I know that crappy old scooter would set me on a course that I’d be forever grateful for.
Is moto photography art for you or just a personal memory documentary, is photography a way of storytelling for you, and if so what kind of stories intrigue you the most? How do you document your travels and photos?
It’s all of those things! 🙂 Photography is just this wonderful collision of art and science that provides you with the power to relay visually compelling stories.
It’s also a time machine. When you press the shutter button, you freeze a moment forever. Though it’s a static past, a photo allows you to later step back into the scene, free to relive the people, the sounds and smells that originally encapsulated it. And if the image is strong enough it’ll allow others to take that journey with you.
It’s an amazing thing when you think about it.
From architecture to anchovies, if it prods that part of my brain, I’ll photograph and write about it. And with a bit of luck, others will get some enjoyment out of it as well.
Some of my best stories have come from completely random events, like the time I discovered a hidden dildo blocking the cistern in my eastern bloc hotel toilet.
Many subjects I’ve discovered ahead of time and have hunted out on the bike. I literally google “weird shit in…” followed by the region I’m heading for. Typically I document the subject first with a series of images. Then after a bit of research and reflection, I’ll wrap a story around it. Some photoshoots have taken a week or so. One took four return visits over two years to finally complete.
The first three days in Moscow I spent photographing the metro. My hosts were amused at my focus and finally remarked “Clinton, we also have things to see above ground in Russia!”
The first time I rode Tuscany, I spent most of my time exploring psychiatric institutions.
I can be a little obsessive, haha.
Of course, photography is also a humble diary to record everyday minutiae. As satisfying as it is to capture a solid image with my SLR, some of my most treasured photos are the quick snapshots taken on my iPhone. These are the personal images I look back on and continue to smile at years later.
Why and what makes moto-adv photography so different, engaging, and interesting compared to most other forms of travel and of photography? What do you enjoy most about being a moto-travel photographer?
I know some readers might feel shortchanged to hear my work rarely involves my motorcycle as a subject. Clearly, some kind of clerical error got me included on this list of moto-adv photographers 🙂
Having said that, there is something deeply compelling about moto-adv photography. I think the image of a solo motorcycle traveler braving the elements taps into the modern mythology of the cowboy/girl. Moto-adv photography tells the same kind of story, the aesthetic is different, but they share common themes of boldness, self-sufficiency, and rugged living on the land.
For some, the open landscapes offer a visceral feeling of freedom and discovery that only a motorcycle can deliver; for others, it’s the exhilaration associated with controlling an inherently dangerous machine with the kind of carefree attitude that many people wish they had. Apart from my general love of riding, the motorcycle also provides the autonomy to hunt out and photograph subjects that are way off the beaten track.
I love urban exploration so the sight of industrial wastelands and crumbling man-made structures are catnip to me.
Which countries have been your best destinations for motorcycling and photography and why?
mmm, that’s a difficult question to answer…
For pure, unadulterated geoporn, South America is an obvious choice. Sure the pan flutes will drive you nuts but the continent is cheap, expansive, and home to some of the most mind-melting scenery imaginable.
Standouts include Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.
After my bike got permanently confiscated by the Peruvian government — that’s a story for another time — I built another and spent a further three years exploring Europe. What I love about the European continent is that it consolidates a wide range of cultural and geographical aesthetic into a singularly accessible landmass. The downside is it can be comparatively expensive to explore.
Morocco, Turkey, Georgia, Albania, and Corsica are standouts.
Paradoxically Russia and Ukraine were my least interesting geographically but count as my most exciting photographically. Why? Because they’re an endless source of cold war urban artifacts: Chernobyl, Nuclear Missile installations, Submarine bases, abandoned MIGs, doomsday shelters, etc. It’s fantastic stuff if you’re into that sort of thing.
The thrill of accidentally joining a Russian military convoy and riding with them into Crimea is something I’ll never forget. “Do not take picture of missile launchers, it will end badly for you” was a piece of advice they gave me with a friendly thumbs up. It was electrifying.
How has your photography evolved over the years, has your focus shifted and how did it shift?
My photography has become more personal as I’ve developed confidence with people. One of the things I love about the camera is it forces me to get out and bond with strangers.
I started photographing inanimate objects and gradually moved to candid street shots, and then onto portraits.
Over the last few years, I’ve focussed more on reportage. It’s an unfortunately pretentious-sounding way of classifying images that convey a cultural and social reality in a more journalistic style.
If you crunched the numbers you’d find a significant chunk of my work deals with loss, urban decay, human experiences, and the societal challenges that many people face in this world.
Admittedly, my motivations for immersing myself in dark subjects are a little murky. It’s a question I often confront. My actions say a lot about my need to find context for my own existence, but I like to think my intent is respectful, not exploitive.
Gritty human spaces challenge me, they provide a deeper insight into a world beyond wiki, but most importantly, they fine-tune empathy.
In your many moto-travelling adventures, what experiences would you say truly move you and stay inked on the sleeves of your heart?
The balls-out beauty of this world is a given. One of the great things about the motorcycle is its ability to transplant you into the middle of some mind-melting landscapes that would otherwise be difficult to access.
However for me, and most travellers, it’s the warmth of the human interactions that linger long after the thrill of the geography fades. We humans are more alike than unalike, and that realization is the singular most comforting thing I’ve found so far in this experience called life.
There have been two standouts I think about often.
1. Tusklatubo, Georgia (2018, 2019)
A few years back I rode to Tskaltubo, a once-famous resort town situated in west-central Georgia. I’d planned to photograph a series of abandoned Soviet sanatoriums, but what I ultimately discovered there was gut-wrenching.
Twenty-seven years after the Abkhazian war, displaced Georgian refugees are still eking out an existence within the crumbling ruins of these once grand resorts. Forgotten by the world, their brutal stories of loss have infiltrated my core like nothing else in my travels. I’ve made several return visits and have spent many weeks getting to know them.
2. Chernobyl, Ukraine (2016)
As a kid growing up in clean, green, nuclear-free New Zealand, news snippets of reactor meltdowns, mass evacuations, and abandoned cities lit up my sci-fi obsessed imagination.
To finally be allowed to stay overnight and spend several days exploring one of the world’s most infamous locations was a thrill, to say the least. I was very lucky to be granted special access to photograph the highly restricted workings of Chernobyl’s nuclear Reactor #2.
Constant security checks, full-body radiation scans, and omnipresent clicks from the Geiger counter clipped to my belt have added up to one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
Try to define what motorcycle travel photography means to you?
For me, the motorcycling, and the photography that comes out of it, are separate animals. My bike is less of a character, and more a conduit for hunting out stories and immersing myself in this world.
Each journey brings new perspectives, relationships, and an increasing state of self-awareness. They make me a better person; more patient, tolerant, curious, and humble. Motorcycle travel allows me to embrace change and take risks; explore new places, ideas, food, music, drugs, and cultures. Each destination another step toward zero regrets in this life.
And really, that’s what it’s all about.
And if I can get some nice photos out of it then all the better 🙂
Tell us a bit about editing and post-processing of photos, what’s the hardest part – the setting or the editing? How important is post-processing in your opinion and what software do you use?
Most working photographers would tell you that capturing a solid image is the result of 10% talent and 90% hard work.
Most of my current work involves photo essays about the human experiences I stumble across in this world. Because I focus less on a single image and more on a series, I spent a ton of energy researching, hunting out, and ultimately gaining the trust of the people I photograph.
I’ve spent countless hours sitting around waiting for the light to change and I’ve returned to the same location multiple times just to get that perfect shot. On several occasions, I’ve nearly broken up with girlfriends over my obsessive drive to capture an image. There is a reason why most travel photographers work alone. 🙂
The Chernobyl series took several days of grimy, exhausting, and physically risky work, and cost $$$ in “expenses” to capture. The Tskaltubo images took two weeks and three return visits to finally complete. Last year I spent five days riding a network of super sketchy Soviet cable cars to complete the story about Chiatura.
So in my case, the editing is the easy part 🙂
All my images have undergone post-processing. Part of this is my belief that an image straight out of the camera is rarely what I’ve envisaged as the final result. I build up a mental picture of what I’d like to portray as I’m taking the photograph and so the post-processing phase (Bringing out shadows, colour correction, etc) forms an essential part of finishing off the image.
I often see things differently once I’ve got the image on the computer. I think one’s creativity starts with the editing process. Some of my better shots have only revealed themselves once I’d started working them on the computer.
Having said that, if the original unedited picture is not a solid contender, then no amount of post-processing will fix that. Software is no substitute for capturing a technically sound shot to begin with.
I also shoot images in RAW mode rather than JPEG which most cameras are set to by default. RAW image files capture all the data recorded by the camera sensor and provide the most flexibility to edit in post. The downside is RAW files come out of the camera looking relatively flat, so if you’re shooting in this mode you almost always need to tweak the image on the computer.
My go-to apps are Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop running on a MacBook. Adobe has a great subscription deal ($9.99/month) for both these apps.
At the end of the day, photography is a process of expressing what we see and feel, and we all have different ways of getting there. Whether it’s an untouched iPhone snapshot, or something more stylized. There’s no right or wrong. If you’re happy with the final image then that’s all that matters. The goal is to simply share your message with the world.
What type of camera equipment do you use personally? What is your favourite go-to lens and camera? For someone wanting to get into motorcycle travel photography, what types of equipment would you say are essential?
Ha! This is a divisive topic, right up there with tyres and oil I reckon. Everyone will have a different opinion on what’s “essential”
There’s truth in the adage, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” If you can’t access it within 20 seconds then you probably won’t use it. I think this reality is especially important when you’re choosing a camera to travel with.
We’re at a fantastic point in the technology curve. Be it a smartphone, compact, or DSLR, most modern cameras are capable of capturing technically solid images these days.
Find a camera that matches your goals and sensibilities. Think carefully about the role photography plays in your journey. Is it simply a visual notebook, or are you planning to create a coffee table book one day? Is video important to you? Lugging a professional DSLR rig about is going to suck if you’re simply interested in food pictures.
But also think ahead. You don’t want to outgrow your camera halfway through the journey. Finding a passion for Patagonian landscapes when you’re rocking an aging iPhone is just going to be a big old sad trombone.
Will you be happy with just wide-angle shots or do you like to get closer to the action with a telephoto lens? (stepping in closer is not the same)
DON’T wait until three days before you leave to make a camera purchase. You’ll almost always make a decision you’ll regret.
Make the purchase early. Live with the camera. Love your camera. Get to know it so well that you don’t have to consciously think every time you want to change a setting. Take tons of photos before you leave. It’s only then you’ll be confident you’ve made the right choice.
Whatever camera you choose, make sure it’s robust enough to deal with the rigors of motorcycle travel. Like it or not your camera is going to undergo a barrage of rain, dirt/dust, knocks, drops, and vibration over the years. Ideally choose something with a rugged, weather-sealed body and solid battery life. USB-C charging is a bonus.
Reliability comes first – Choose wisely.
There’s no bigger heartbreak than carrying around a broken camera while being surrounded by amazing scenes to capture.
The “essential” gear you take also hinges on the kind of photography you enjoy. I’m a terrible example. Photography is my primary focus so I carry:
• Two Nikon D750 dSLR bodies
• NIKKOR 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED Lens
• NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR Lens
• NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
• GoPro Session
• DJI Mini 2 Drone
• iPhone 8ish
• Sony RX100
• Slik Sprint 150 Aluminum Tripod
• Samsung T5 Portable SSD Drives
Whew! It sucks. I resent the weight of my gear, but for me, it’s worth it. For most people, it’s way more kit than I would recommend!
I spend a lot of time in physically challenging spaces that are often dark. So a tripod and SLR capable of shooting in low light are critical. I beat my cameras to death, so they need to be physically robust. I also carry a second dSLR body as a backup.
The Nikkor 18-35mm lens is what I use 80% of the time. It’s a magnificently sharp and lightweight ultrawide zoom well-suited to interior spaces, landscape, and everyday walk-around shooting.
The Nikkor 70-300mm lens is my other go-to lens that covers a comfortable portrait-length to telephoto range. Again it’s lightweight and sharp.
The RX100 is a small (albeit fragile) compact I carry in my tank bag. The 20-second rule remember? 🙂
Ultimately, images are less about megapixels, focal lengths, and dynamic range, and more about capturing stories and moments. In reality, most people won’t care what camera you used to capture the local villages surrounding your motorcycle. What matters is you took the picture in the first place.
Travel and motorcycling come with its share of risk for cameras and camera equipment and it can be heavy to just lug it around. Any tips on how you protect your equipment and ways to make it easier to carry on your travels and motorcycle?
I’ll be the first to agree that camera/computer equipment is a pain in the arse to carry about. It’s heavy, expensive, and can be relatively bulky.
If your photography gear is limited to a single compact camera and/or Phone then most of what I mention below won’t be an issue for you.
Theft, physical damage, and electronic failure are my three main concerns.
To minimize the possibility of physical damage I use a foam-lined Pelican Laptop Case to protect my Macbook. I pack my camera/drone gear in a Nanuk 920 hard case that has dividers to keep the items separated. I pack these hard cases into an Ortleib dry bag that’s strapped to the rear rack of my bike.
Like most things moto related, there’s a tradeoff. You want to maximize the security of your camera gear on the bike, but also make it easily accessible for those roadside shots. Again, if you can’t access it within 20 seconds then you probably won’t use it.
In my experience, the greatest threat to camera gear (beyond theft) is physical impact while you’re exploring. When I was in Ukraine I tripped over a tramline and sent my SLR smashing into the cobblestone street. The battery door flew off, the lens filter broke, and it left deep gouges in the side of the camera. I quickly clipped the door back on and was able to capture a fantastic candid picture. 30,000 images later, the Nikon looks like hell, but is still operating flawlessly.
Rain, dust, and dirt can also be the downfall of even the most cautious photographer, so pay attention to a camera’s weather sealing.
Not all cameras are created equal so one thing you can do to mitigate damage is select gear that features a robust build quality. After years of travelling most of my gear is starting to look like it belongs to a war correspondent.
Electronic failure can also be a huge problem in the field. Keep regular backups! I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Samsung’s T5 Portable SSD Drives and carry several of them with me. They’re fast, robust, and the size of a credit card. The perfect backup solution for travellers. I back up my computer twice a week and also keep a regular mirrored backup of the camera’s memory cards.
Probably the biggest threat for camera equipment is opportunistic theft.
A few years back a friend of mine placed his camera bag at his feet while he was looking at his phone. A few seconds later $5000 worth of gear and thousands of images were gone forever.
To mitigate this risk I maintain constant vigilance of my gear. I treat my camera bag like it’s filled with $100 bills. When I set it down next to me in a cafe or when I’m checking in, I instinctively place my foot through the bag strap. This way if someone tries to grab it my leg will stop them.
Don’t be flashy. My Think Tank Retrospective 5 camera bag doesn’t look like a camera bag. If I find myself in crowds I always have my cameras at my chest and/or in my hand, never slung behind me.
If I plan to go out for a drink I leave the SLR behind. People often lose their cameras or have them stolen during a night on the town.
Buy insurance. After all, it’s way better to spend money on plane tickets than new camera equipment!
Many motorcycle travellers will not invest in expensive camera equipment or take an in-depth photography workshop, but still want to have decent photos from their trips and to share with family and friends. What would you suggest are three easy things any motorcycle traveller can do to take better photos?
Well, the good news is photography is 80% creativity, the rest is just gear! The other good news is you’re probably already carrying a camera that’s capable of capturing technically great images.
Photography, like any art, is highly subjective, so many things influence whether or not an image is considered “good” or not. However, an eye-pleasing photograph will always have good composition so that’s the first place to start.
1. Learn the basic rules of Composition.
One of the most important is the rule of thirds. The visual composition is often more pleasing to the eye when its elements (ie a bike, horizon, cactus, etc) align to an imaginary grid that breaks the frame into 3 equal parts vertically and horizontally like a Tic-Tac-Toe board.
On your camera, find the setting to enable this grid over the preview screen, it’ll make it much easier to compose a picture that follows this rule.
2. Less is way more
Whenever I’m taking a photo I constantly think about what can I leave out of the picture to make it stronger. Minimizing visual complexity is one of the most important secrets in photography.
Before you hit the shutter button, quickly scan your potential photo, and ask yourself if there is an alternative framing that would remove some of the visual clutter. Pay attention to the background, is it competing for attention, distracting from the subject?
Robert Capa, a famous war photographer once said, “If your images aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” which bears a lot of truth. He was referring to the act of removing distractions and drawing attention to your subject so the viewer knows the reason why the image was made. Having said that Capa did die by stepping on a landmine, so there’s a limit to how far you can push this.
3. Invoke an emotion, tell a story.
Consider these three common shots of the same motorcycle.
a. The bike is parked at right angles in the middle of a remote road.
b. The bike is heading toward you.
c. The bike is heading away from you.
You’ll notice the three variations of the same scene will invoke different emotions. Which one is more visceral to you?
I’ve shot my bike from all angles during my travels and I almost always choose (c) the one of it moving out of the frame. It gives the impression you’re travelling into unexplored territory rather than returning from somewhere. The image raises questions. What lies ahead?
And while we’re on the subject. Take two pictures, one with the bike, and one without!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an adv photo and thought “wow that’s such an amazing image, it’s a shame there’s a bike in the shot” 🙂
Portrait and street photography is part of motorcycle travel photography. How do you deal with the ethics and what advice and tips do you have for people who are shy to this and to act ethically and courteous when approaching people and difficult situations?
For me, the camera is more than just an instrument for creating photographs, it’s a conduit for building relationships.
1. Show empathy
Step one is to form a personal connection with the subject. A smile is one of the easiest ways to signal you have good intentions. Then, show a genuine interest in the person you want to photograph. Spend some time with them without the camera. Don’t be fake. Your attention is your most valuable asset, so be generous with it. Once this social connection is made, the rest is easy.
One of the lines I often use is “I’m travelling the world and I like to take photos of people I meet so I can remember them. Do you mind if I take your picture?” This question is always received positively if you’ve put in the time with the person first.
2. Think about your motives.
Why are you taking the photo in the first place? If your goal is to simply get an “edgy” picture of someone weak or vulnerable then the resulting photo will feel exploitive. But, If you show compassion and interest in your subject, then it will shine through in the image.
Photographing a stranger has to be a symbiotic experience. Remember you are “taking” an image, so one needs to give something back. How you do that is up to you. It’s what separates good street photographers from the average.
3. Make people look good.
A few years ago I spent some time in a tiny Peruvian town. Each morning I’d go for a walk and say hello to a man with no hands who spent his days grasping a flute with his stumps playing for spare coins. I eventually gained his trust and he let me take some photographs of him playing. The image I showed him was a deliberately framed headshot that excluded his handicap. He looked like any other person in the street.
The man was so overcome with joy he openly wept. I’d made him look normal.
Interviewed by: Michnus, GenX’er born and bred South African product. Known on ADVrider for his epic ride report Michnus & Elsebie Piki-Piki Around the World. Not known to follow or believe his own advice; however, he loves to share stories and inspiration with others. Michnus and his better half left South Africa 10 years ago on an initial 6 month planned trip up to Europe through Africa. Sold the family pets and mom, hit the road motorcycling on a semi-permanent basis to this day.