Joseph Savant started riding dirt bikes as a kid, got into motocross as a teenager, and during his senior year in high school he developed an interest in photography. When adult life required him to focus on business and family he quit riding and worked in advertising and as a commercial photographer, shooting everything from airplanes to elephants for clients around the world. After 25 years he’d had enough of that life; he moved to the country and bought a used R 1100 GS.
How did motorcycle travel develop for you?
In the early ’90s I overheard a group of guys talking about taking six months and riding motorcycles to South America. I had always enjoyed travel and it stuck in my mind, but I never considered doing it. I moved from the city to a beautiful area of Texas with fantastic roads and a lot of boredom, so the idea of riding again grew and I ended up buying a used BMW, just intending to ride it locally for a few miles. As things would have it, my first trip was from Central Texas to Montana, nervous as hell having never done anything like it before. By the end of the first day I was hooked and by the end of the trip all I wanted to do was travel by motorcycle to the ends of the earth. My travels have taken me through most of the western U.S., Canada, Alaska, Newfoundland, Mexico, and Central and South America.
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.
How did you bring photography into traveling as a motorcycle rider?
I had no friends who rode, so I began traveling alone with just a simple pocket camera. The freedom of riding and not carrying a bunch of gear was refreshing. As time went by, I experimented with small interchangeable lens camera systems to improve the variety of images as I traveled. By the time I headed out for two years of travel in North and South America, I had refined a mirrorless travel setup that gave me pro-grade images in a small package.
Do you think of moto photography primarily as art, or is it more personal, a way of preserving memories?
It’s a bit of both. My photography is primarily so that I can have memories for when I’m old(er) but because it’s also part of my makeup, I try to be as artful as I can when time and circumstances allow. Having spent most of my life creating images in studios and on location for clientele, pure street photography appeals to me as it is the Yin to the Yang of my professional work.
In Central and South America, where a gringo stands out and the local population is extremely camera shy, the challenges are immense. I actually enjoyed trying to capture images under those constraints, though I missed far more than I captured. Previous to my purchasing a motorcycle, I spent many weeks perusing ADVrider.com and especially the Ride Report section, which allowed me to be Walter Mitty for a while. When I decided to head for Montana on my first trip, I jumped into doing a ride report and the daily feedback was really encouraging. I’ve continued to do ride reports for most of my travels, but added a blog site for my trip from Alaska to Ushuaia. I’ve tried to integrate some video into it as well. I’m glad I wrote the reports, because on the occasions when I have reread parts of them, it’s taken me back to that time, as if I were there again.
What do you enjoy most about being a moto-travel photographer?
I’ll be preaching to the choir, but of course, the love of riding is the basis for it all. However, I’ve found that traveling solo on a bike, people are fascinated and engage with you. When I travel with another rider, people don’t come over as much, but when alone, people come to talk, give you suggestions, ask questions, invite you for dinner and more. The challenges of getting good images while traveling are always there, especially when you’re on a schedule and wearing all your gear.
It’s easy to just capture an image for the record rather than trying to assess and recon for good images. I guess what I enjoy the most about it is trying to capture the experience for the people who are following my reports and blogs. It sounds corny, but I’m generally psyched about what I’m seeing and experiencing in new cultures and terrain and want others to see and feel it as well.
Which countries have been your best destinations for motorcycling and photography?
Mexico is always a great place, because it is colorful and festive. There’s always something happening and the brightness of buildings, costumes and other things makes it easy to catch good images. From a riding standpoint, Mexico is outstanding as well, one of my favorite places, and I try to tell others that adventure, beauty and a whole new world is just across the border. If you live in the States, you don’t need to go across the world to have a fantastic experience, but folks are afraid of Mexico from the constant inflation of the media.
Of course the longer you can stay somewhere the greater images you’ll be able to capture. When I was broken down in Cuenca for a month, I wandered the streets constantly day and night and got some of the best images I’ve captured. The most challenging place to capture images of people was Peru, but of course, scenery was a no-brainer. Peru was challenging at every level compared to other countries, yet remains the place I loved the most in the lower hemisphere.
Has your photography evolved over the years?
In my case it certainly has, coming from a studio and using large studio camera systems and flash units to coordinate big productions, to now just enjoying the challenges of riding and capturing the world with a small camera.
What situations have resulted in the best memories for you?
I look back at the most vivid memories of my travels, and some of the spectacular, almost magical moments of scenery in the midst of storms or challenges are very strong. Those moments you get to see and you wish someone else could witness them as well. I especially get a rush being alone in remote areas and witnessing nature. Those are very special, but also the moments of humanity are equally as important. Watching and observing daily life in other cultures, trying to subtly capture those times. One of the great things about photography is its ability to literally capture moments in time forever.
What does motorcycle travel photography mean to you?
In my case, it’s capturing moments and slices of life to paint a picture of what I’ve experienced along the way. I actually find myself shooting relatively few images, because I want to catch the special ones. I take plenty of “record” images, where it’s just a shot of something along the way, when the lighting isn’t great or skies are bad, to flesh out the narrative.
What is your favorite genre in photography?
I enjoy landscapes and dramatic scenes; however, in Central and South America, that transitioned into capturing people and moments. Beautiful scenery is generally something you just take a picture of, and if you cover the technical aspects properly, you can get a beautiful image. However, trying to capture people on the street, moving, trying to avoid you, and simultaneously trying to get the moment when all those variables come together AND get a good composition is a real challenge. I think that challenge is what I enjoy.
How important is post-processing and what software do you use?
Over the years I’ve tried to shoot fewer images so that I have less to edit, because of the time involved in post-processing. I’m generally writing a story at the same time and when traveling it can be a pain to spend all that time behind a computer with a cold cup of coffee. I’ve finally settled on Adobe Lightroom Classic, though I resent the subscription plan and it has caused issues when out of the country. Still, it is the best overall package as it organizes your work by date, allows you to adjust colors and do reasonable edits in a simple user interface. I don’t edit the images much, generally for technical limitations of the sensor such as blown highlights or a sky color that isn’t accurate, though it is capable of more than that. I’m a purist in the sense of natural looking images. I don’t get into the filter thing as it will look dated someday and I also think people use it as a crutch for boring images. Not that it can’t save the occasional crappy image, it’s just not my style
What type of camera equipment do you use, and what types of equipment would you say are essential?
I’ve been through several iterations of travel cameras, from the high end pocket cams to DSLRs, always with my focus being to find the best quality image in the smallest package feasible. Compromises have to be made – a short regional ride can let you get away with a bigger camera system, but a nine-month trip somewhere means you have to carry a lot more things with you and a bulky camera system takes up a lot of space, not to mention worrying about theft off the bike, etc. A pocket camera is the easiest and some are very good, however the lens limitations and depth of field make your images look very similar.
From my background, I need a variety of looks to make me happy. I ended up in the Sony A6000 series of mirrorless cameras, as they offered the most resolution and features in the smallest package at the time. I’m not a fan of Sony’s colors; however, it was the best compromise for what I needed. My travel system is two bodies and five lenses, which fit into a 12″ x 12” x 4” leather bag I had made in Mexico. It takes up about 25% of my top case on the GSA. My favorite lens is the Sony 85 mm f1.8, but I use a Sony Zeiss 16–70 mm 75% of the time.
My recommendations are for those who are fairly serious about photography, in which case I suggest a good mirrorless system. Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Canon, etc. are all good and just find one that fits your space requirements and budget. There are no magic pills and all cameras now take great pics. Carry extra batteries if you shoot much. I only carry a small, solid tabletop tripod. It has some limitations, but you can set it on a pannier or rock or dumpster if you need and it eliminates having to carry a huge piece of gear on the bike that is unused 95% of the time.
If photography isn’t your hobby, look for a good high end prosumer pocket camera, and if you just want to record your trip, any pocket camera is fine. A cell phone with a good internal camera is a great all-in-one package and you can’t get any smaller footprint for something that can take pics, videos, texts, calls and function as a GPS.
Any tips on how you protect your equipment and ways to make it easier to carry?
This subject brings up the luggage debate and I fall into the hard pannier camp just for the added security when off the moto for brief periods. I worked to minimize the size of my system and as mentioned it takes up about 25% of my top case. Out of sight and out of mind, and though anything can be broken into, I rest better having a locked metal case. Soft luggage can be sliced open easily unless you wrap it in a PacSafe mesh, and I try to minimize my gear and motion.
I’d rather just unlock my rear case and pull out my beat up leather satchel than have to deal with strapping cables and mesh bags over things, then unlock and unthread, etc. But that’s just me and I’m on a BMW GSA and not single tracking on a DR350 somewhere in the Alps. A pocket camera eliminates all that worry if you keep it in your jacket. As to shooting on streets, try to minimize your gear, using an old messenger bag or old backpack or something that doesn’t scream “I’m full of $5000 worth of camera gear.”
As working pros, we carried our gear in old converted suitcases, or put our camera bags inside old cheap gym bags to camouflage what we carried. We’d also take pieces of duct tape and tape up the cameras so they looked used, beat up and held together by tape.
Underneath it was the new and awesome camera but petty thieves didn’t want to steal a piece of broken crap. I know it goes against your desire to wave your shiny and expensive gear in front of the world to show how awesome you are, but reality is a hard partner. The same concept is good for the streets whether in the U.S. or foreign countries. My leather pouch carries two bodies and five lenses but just looks like a well-used travel bag. I can access the camera quickly then put it back in and under the flap immediately. It advertises less.
What are three easy things any motorcycle traveler can do to take better photos?
The first thing for someone who knows nothing is to make sure the camera is on an Automatic setting – they’re generally so good now that it’s hard to mess up a photo. Sounds obvious but if you don’t want to learn, pick a setting and tape the dial in place. Aside from that, MOVE IN CLOSER to your subject and fill the frame. Majority of folks shoot too far away from their subject. Third suggestion is to be aware of the light – look for interesting light and work on your composition skills.
How do you deal with the ethics of photographing people on your travels?
Much thought has gone into this, as I feel first and foremost when I’m in a foreign country that I’m representing other travelers or citizens and I don’t want to be just another foreign jackass. That said, I do want to capture images of the local people and their lives. I generally feel like if someone is out in public, they are pretty much open season for photography, as long as you’re not being an obvious jerk about following them or something. I respect how people feel and they generally give you some sign that they don’t want to be photographed or that they may not care.
If I’m unsure, I will almost always ask them if they mind a photo being taken. If they’re okay with it, I’ll shoot a couple of quick photos and then hang around, occasionally snapping an interaction or something but not taking advantage of their courtesy. If I get a good shot I’ll often show them the LCD image or even in some cases I’ve had a cheap print made and given it to them the next day. Just depends on the person and situation. I’ve also found that when you first enter an area, people are very aware of you (especially foreign countries) but if you just hang out they get bored and forget about you. That’s when I’ll start shooting.
I’ve been known to use the remote camera app and have my camera just sitting on a table or bag. Folks usually think you’re texting rather than shooting. Again, that is typically in public places.
Connect with Joseph https://www.facebook.com/joseph.savant1
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.