Just a few notes on the kit I’ve been using for the first bit of the project. It’s something I’ve been experimenting with after a bit of fussing to find a different kind of lensing and light from the canonical skateboarding photography kit.
When i first started shooting — as a matter of fact, the first day I went to the Venice Beach Skate Park — I had a D700 and a the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 zoom. I was wondering about Venice Beach and that seemed reasonable, I suppose. I normally don’t shoot with long glass and rarely with a zoom, so this was new to me. Plus it looks like you’re geared up for war with so much around your neck.
I thought the zoom would fit with the sport with the assumption that I didn’t want to get too close. I had also never paid *any attention to skateboard photography. Nothing. Not a wit. No books, no magazines, no interest *whatsoever.
Of course, the zoom could be fine — if I knew what I was doing, which I didn’t. And it didn’t help to have all that kit when I didn’t even know what kind of photography or aesthetic I was trying to get. Whatever.
In the days that followed I came back with a 14mm f/2.8, which is super-wide, but not fish-y. It’s what the guys in the lab call rectilinear, meaning that it does what can be done to keep the frame rectangular with no curvature. (The lens has a bit of a swerve in the center which you can notice if you shoot perfectly straight lines across the frame.) Right away I was trying to avoid the normal fisheye skateboarding shot. I figured — there has to be something else? I mean, I know every community has its rules and its aesthetic that defines what is good and what is not as far as photography is concerned. What gets in the magazines and what doesn’t.
Straight away I wasn’t into playing by the rules. I went to Montessori when I was a kid so, like..rules? Huh? What? Be different and all that. I figured I should bring something new to the game. Even trying to ape convention as a way to get my feet wet wasn’t all that interesting. This was also around the time that I was watching and listening and learning a whole lot from the skaters there at Venice Beach, which was pretty much the only park I’d go to.
I started pouring through magazines, looking at all the photography. Definitely dramatic stuff; almost always shot with a fisheye, almost always low angle. Also mostly street skating. These magazines are full of photos of guys jumping this-or-that stair set, handrail or working some loading dock.
Now, I don’t want to disrespect the talent and skill and moxie..but it got boring to see the same compositions and the same lensing. That’s me looking at the photography as a photographer, and not even a professional one at that. Just a guy, really. I’m sure it all looks quite a bit different as a committed skater. I’ve even had committed skaters wonder why I’m not shooting with a fisheye. But — I’m trying to take photographs as a photographer and a creative person who sort of defines creativity as doing things that don’t quite make sense to many people, but might some day. Or someone who looks at the world a bit sideways and tries things differently — maybe to be different, but also to stretch and expand the boundaries of “convention.”
So, with that in mind, and in relation to a project in the studio that had us thinking about “how to take better pictures of people” and which included a lot of talk about sensor sizes and depth-of-field and all that — I decided that I’d try to nail a look that:
1. Avoided the grotesque distortion that can come with a fisheye.
2. Created visual pop through an emphasis on the skater/subject through careful use of artificial light.
3. Made the world look like it had depth to it, that it is 3 dimensional even if it’s printed on a flat piece of paper. Try your best not to flatten things.
4. Gave an intimation of an cinematic aesthetic — time is implied even in a still image; drama through a clearly frozen moment in a string of action.
It’s easy to achieve 1. Easy. Don’t use a fisheye. Just put it away and keep it away. Pretend you’re on a desert island and there are no fisheye lenses. Whaddayado? Not shoot? Of course not — you find new lensing and shoot like it matters.
For 2 I had to learn how to use artificial light. Which I basically never had. In my mind that makes things “complicated” and in the past I had mostly shot informally in “urban scout” mode — just a camera and a pretty wide lens. I also didn’t want to get into the business of this “freezing the action with light” thing which I understand in principle, but don’t have the patience for that. I just want to set an exposure and have the flash properly fill the frame with the light completely in sync with the shutter. Nikon’s Speedlight system is pretty awesome, so I got an SB-900 which has high-speed sync and a decent bit of power and started working with that. Pretty soon I realized I was actually working in broad daylight and often the flash wasn’t going to do much against the sun, so I started playing with different exposures and eventually got one more and then two more SB-900s. This posed the problem of getting the flashes to all fire at once. I got an SU-400 which is designed to trigger multiple flashes in all kinds of reconfigurable ways — and does so with an Infrared (low-frequency light) signal which is effectively useless when there’s lots of light around anyway which is pretty much the way things are when you’re outside in the sun. Useless. Useless. Useless. It still baffles me why Nikon or Canon for that matter don’t have their own radio frequency triggers. But, the folks at PocketWizard have one that is reasonably well integrated with the flash system on a Nikon. It’s brand new. It has issues. But it’ll almost always trigger the flashes when you want them to. ((And it’ll trigger them when you don’t, which is annoying and, with enough frequency to be a nuisance, it’ll *not trigger when you want it to.))
For 3 This is tricky. I can’t think how to create depth when you shoot super wide because an ultra wide lens flattens everything. Something to do with the physics of optics or something. Put on a wide lens and everything falls into focus. Hyperfocal distance or something. Basically — you have sharp from super close until forever off in the distance. And by depth I mean a sense that the photograph has a foreground that you can tell is not part of the middle ground, and that in turn is not part of the background. You can do this with a combination of lighting and depth-of-field. I decided to do it with both, and that was a challenge. It meant that I either shot with a portrait lens, like the 85mm f/1.8 I’ve had for a decade, which is nice even though it auto-focuses relatively slowly. Or, I ran some numbers to see what was the widest lens I could get with a large aperture (less than f/1.8, surely) and that had good bokeh and a hyperfocal that would lead to the possibility of a shallow depth-of-field. I found one that was relatively new to the market and so rented it for awhile to test it out. It’s the Nikon 24mm f/1.4. It worked great. Or — it would possibly work great once I figured out how to work with it properly. It required shooting quite wide open (less than f/2.4) which is hard to do in lots of sunlight, so it meant an ND 0.9x filter. I also ended up stacking a circular polarizer on top of that to do things with the light in the background, especially the sky and clouds.
For 4 I thought that the “pop” of light that freezes a moment would maybe make the image look closer to a paparazzi freezing a moment of excitement or a hastily captured image in a dramatic, busy scene. I also insisted never to capture motion blur at all. Completely frozen — the implication of movement should come some other way, perhaps through this crack of sudden light. Of course, one has to assume motion in all of the photography, except for the more life-style portraiture or candids. To do this in some of the photography I let the flash overwhelm the foreground without overexposing it and deliberately kept the background relatively dark.
So that there up there? That’s most of the photo gear I take to shoot skateboarders skateboarding or just sitting around. Basically a Nikon D3S for most of the shooting. It’s the big honker in the back left. I also will bring a Nikon D700 for backup but mostly in case there’s someone else who can help shoot more contextual photographs. I use the Leica M9 rangefinder for situations in which shoving an enormous loaded-for-bear SLR in someone’s face would make them soil their pants. The M9 is for candids. In homes. Any situation in which an SLR would be considered some kind of declaration of war. It’s just a heavy, metal battlebot camera.
I bring three SB-900 Speedlights usually ganged together on one bit of hardware to blow out the sun as much as possible. I’ll carry four lenses — a 24mm f/1.4 which I use most of the time; a 14mm f/2.8; a 16mm f/2.8 fisheye; and an 85mm f/1.8.
Then there’s a selection of neutral density filters (0.3x, 0.6x, 0.9x) for the 24mm and 85mm. Nothing will fit on the 14mm or the 16mm — and, anyway, I shoot with the NDs to allow me to shoot wide open and get some depth-of-field. The 14mm and 16mm will never get that kind of depth-of-field — their hyperfocal is too close no matter what the aperture.
A (new to the market) Nikon PocketWizard set-up that’ll do high-speed sync. There are four of the bigger FlexTT5‘s which are the transceivers that attach to the flashes themselves. Then there’s one MiniTT1, which is only a transmitter. That one gets attached to the SU-800. (I recently got the PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController which does the same thing as the SU-800 for the PocketWizard set up, but is much smaller and needs no batteries.)
SU-800 wireless flash commander that’ll control the power and program of the PocketWizards by controlling the radio signal on an attached MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 Spare batteries for pretty much everything. Extra CF cards. Soft lent-free wipes. Flash sync cable for when the Pocketwizard mucks up. A big lupe that’ll fit over the LCDs of the cameras to chimp when the light is too bright to see the LCD. ((It’ll also help when trying to shoot video on the D3S, which uses the LCD for a viewfinder, where you also need to focus. They need to figure this stuff out properly.))
The miscellany is perhaps useful to mention. I carry a tube of dry-touch sunscreen and pant legs to wipe your greasy hands off on. Plenty of opportunity to get sunburned on any given day shooting outside. I bring a pair of these cool non-polarized astronaut sunglasses I got at Optics Planet. You’ll want to have non-polarized sunglasses cause the polarized will make it difficult to look at many types of LCD screens, like your camera displays and readouts and your phone.
And the thing over on the back right my G-Drive RAID 1 1TB portable backup drive for backups while on multiday trips. I definitely don’t bring this if I’m staying local but on the road it’s nice to have one copy of photos on the CF card (I don’t erase them until I get home and back photos up to the home back up drive and to my cloud backup. That might take a week or two so I keep extra CF cards handy and don’t think too hard about it all.)
On road trips and sometimes even close to home, I trundle this all around in a Pelican 1510 case for protection. I got the check-in size so I can carry it on in the overhead.