Michael ONeill is a retired wedding and commercial photographer. He’s also a long-time motorcyclist who did a lot of riding during his four-decade photo career. But—and this might surprise you—a camera wasn’t with him on those travels.
“Riding was an escape from work,” Michael says. “After spending hours in the studio and then out photographing weddings, I didn’t want to look at a camera or think about photography when I hit the road.”
That changed when he knew he would be retiring. “I began taking pictures on my travels a couple of years before closing the studio,” he says. “I’d started doing some really serious, long-range motorcycle trips—three, four, five thousand miles, visiting places like Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Labrador, and for those trips I brought along the camera. When you visit places like that you want to bring a nugget of it back with you.”
These days the nuggets are even more important.
The thing about going from commercial to travel photography is that the beauty shot is still the beauty shot. By definition, it captures the best of its subject, no matter if the photographer is at a wedding, in the studio or exploring the backroads. Michael’s shift in subject matter was seamless because the beauty shot was always the goal, and he carried with him experience, dedication and a command of the basics.
“Whatever you’re shooting, the fundamentals of exposure, lighting and composition apply,” he says, “and a strong background in the fundamentals is what I brought to the new travel pursuit. That, and seeing in the last couple of years of my wedding photography the influence of younger photographers and their emphasis on locations. They were photographing wedding couples on the Great Wall of China and beneath the Northern Lights in Iceland. If I were still a wedding photographer, I would bring my couples back to the places I’m visiting now.”
In addition to his experience and skill, Michael’s evocative images of the highways, byways and whatever catches his eye and interest along the way are the result of observation, curiosity and the very nature of the ride itself. “Travel by motorcycle is an entirely different than travel any other way,” he says. “Get on an airplane and your mission is to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. On a motorcycle, the actual ride is what it’s about. I can take a trip up into the Green Mountains of Vermont by automobile in three hours, but I spent about eight-and-a-half hours on the motorcycle doing it because the adventure is in the riding, not the arriving. I had a basic idea of what roads I was going to take, but no real itinerary, and if something looked interesting, I’d take a turn and explore some backroads.” Maybe he’d run out of pavement and find himself on a dirt or gravel track, but he’d also find himself in spots few others get to see. “You can find extraordinary landscapes just by making the journey the focus of your day,” Michael says. The personal payoff is that with his photographs he can tell the story of what those journeys mean to him.
Whatever you’re shooting the fundamentals of exposure, lighting and composition apply, and a strong background in the fundamentals is what I brought to the new travel pursuit.
Back to Business
When we talked with Michael, we discovered that he has his own definition of “retirement,” and it includes a lot more than photography of his travels by bike. Since closing the business he’s been exceptionally active when it comes to his dual passions. He’s established Roadcraft USA, an “online resource” website dedicated to riding and photographing, for which he writes insightfully of journeys taken and photographs created. He’s published a book—Road Work: Images and Insights of a Modern Day Explorer—that combines memoir, travelogue and photography.
“I set the website up to be an instructional and inspirational resource for photographers and motorcyclists,” he says, “and I post regularly—‘how I got the shot’ tutorials; road-trip travelogue stories that motorcyclists who are planning trips can look at to find out where to stay, where to eat, what roads to ride; and stories about how I travel by bike, safely and with purpose.”
For Michael one of the pleasures of the journeys and the photographs is that they give him the opportunity to inspire others. Get on a motorcycle and there’s an implied invitation to explore, to follow the road or freely diverge from it. Michael instinctively and gracefully adds a commitment to that invitation: to share in words and photographs the adventure and tell its story.