Skateboarders are dreamers, they’re creative, motivated and most of the time employ the Do It Yourself attitude and technique to make things happen, a common parallel to photography and making photos come to life. Take Chef’s Skate Plaza for example, a backyard masterpiece born out of skateboarding knowledge, construction experience, the willingness to locate the materials and get down and dirty to build it. Chef was kind enough to extend an invitation anytime we wanted this summer for skating, shooting photos and filming, so we took him up on it a couple of times during the warm season.
Driving to Chef’s property takes you through the scenic mountains headed south from Burlington, passing signature Northeast farm lands and forests most have become accustomed to seeing in movies, on postcards and calendars. Just making the drive amps you up to be in the mountains shooting photos of this beautiful environment, all while knowing you’ll be skateboarding within this ideal setting as well! It goes without saying I had to pull over a few times on these drives to snap a photo of this Northeast nature, that’s why I keep my DSLR, lens and tripod out and ready when making these scenic drives.
Chef is a lifelong skateboarder with a background in materials and construction for just as long as he’s been pushing the skateboard around. In talking with him, he explained his method of selecting the ideal location for the skateboarding plaza, while being mindful of the changing seasons of the Northeast USA. He chose to lay the concrete on a sand based section of the mountain, avoiding ‘frost heaves,’ which happen with the winter to summer change in ground temperature, reeking havoc on roadways and sidewalks. However, laying the material down over sand avoids this phenomenon, and it shows because the running surface of the plaza feels and looks like it was laid yesterday, but it’s been seven years since construction finished.
Our mission at the skate plaza is simple, enjoy the day skating with your buddies, try to land a few tricks at this epic location, and for me, snap some quality images the guys would like. Since my transportation was my personal vehicle, I grabbed most of my camera gear in hopes that I would be prepared for any photo situation. If you’re going out on a shoot and you can bring unlimited gear you might as well, at least you’re prepared and luck will usually play to your favor!
On our first mission to the plaza we arrived in the afternoon, skating through sunset and into the evening, staying the night, then waking the next morning to another session before returning home. The second mission in visiting Chef, we arrived just after sunrise, to catch those early morning vibes, then took the afternoon to skate, shoot photos and film. With these varied times we shook up the look and feel of the two sessions, a technique you should definitely implore if you’re paying multiple visits to a photo location.
I primarily shoot with two modern DSLR camera bodies, that being the Nikon D4 and Canon 5D Mark III, both excellent cameras that always get the job done. The D4 some consider a ‘sports camera’ in regard to its 11 Frames Per Second continuous shooting mode, which provides the opportunity to grab that exact moment you’re after while photographing fast moving athletes or objects. The 5D Mark III is nice in the fact it’s a smaller, lighter DSLR that has plenty of megapixels to work with and some will argue a slightly different look than that of Nikon. Preference and opinions aside, I really like shooting with either camera given the situation, I’m sure you would be as well.
Arriving to any location where there’s a lot going on, you can immediately overwhelm yourself with the all photo possibilities that present themselves right out of the gate. With that said, I try and slow the situation down, examine for a bit what’s happening, see the special moments, determine what to focus on first and go from there. If you try and shoot every single thing right away, frustration may set in because you’re trying to do too much, resulting in lesser quality images while breaking the flow of the athletes (yes, human subjects can tell when a photographer is stressed out and trying to do too much). Heed my advice and take your time because you have the time to dissect the action, the athletes and the scene, especially if you’re making multiple visits to the same location. If you only have one visit to a location and there is way too many things to photograph, make a plan, capture what’s really needed and you’ll leave satisfied.
As I let the skateboarding happen, the guys warmed up, they got into the flow and decided on a couple of obstacles to shoot. I chatted with each skater to determine their trick as that would dictate where I’d set my composition to best capture their maneuver as a still life moment. After composition is selected, you then have to locate each flash position to bring artificial light into the frame exactly where you want and need it. Once I have the flashes in place, I snap a frame, check everything about the lighting and composition, make adjustments to tripods and light stands, then snap another and go through the approval process once again, until I’m satisfied and ready for action.
As you can see in the photo above, I positioned flash number one to light the front side of Kyle’s body (1/4 power), the second flash was positioned to send (1/16 power) light on his back side, while the flash number three lit up the foliage in the background of the photo (1/2 power). With proper composition and lighting arranged, I only had to press the shutter button during the peak moment of the trick, which I knew since my background is skateboarding. Knowing the peak moment while shooting action sports is critical in capturing those moments you’re after and delivering that special photo to the athlete or client. If your assignment brings you to a sport you’re unfamiliar with, consult with the talent about the moment they’d like to see captured, which they’ll always be willing to do!
As the session moved on into the evening hours, this would provide the photographic opportunity to make the images all about the use of the flashes. The skate plaza has adequate light for the skateboarders to see the terrain during the evening, but it’s a little too dark for non-flashed still images.
When shooting moving objects at night, you’re going to have to consider using flashes and / or strobes to produce the image you have in mind, at least those pictures where stopping the motion is essential to the image. Preparing photographs with the use of artificial light at night is the same as my preparation during the day, as I explained above, with my only addition being a headlamp so I can quickly read any and all dials on the camera gear.
For the image above I used two flashes at ¼ power sitting on Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 Tripods, positioned on the same line as the skateboarders, four feet out on each side. A common practice of mine (during action photos) is to position the flashes at a ninety-degree angle to the lens, which produces better light (most of the time) and helps reduce motion blur commonly associated with flash use and fast moving objects. It’s a rare instance when I can’t position a flash at the preferred angle to the lens, so I do my best in finding a location for the flash that will still enhance my image. In snapping this photo I was focused on the skateboarder grinding the ledge, taking the picture during his peak moment, hoping the skater jumping over the bench would be at his peak moment simultaneously. The difficulty of grinding the ledge is far greater than jumping over the bench, so I simply encouraged the skateboarder on the left to work his timing to the guy performing the more difficult maneuver of the two. It took a few tries for them to dial in their timing, but it eventually worked out and the kids were super stoked on the photo.
As the skating was winding down, I noticed some of the guys would sit on the stairs while checking out the session, a perfect spot for grabbing a non-staged portrait. During a break in the action, I positioned a flash a few feet behind the stairs, just in case somebody sat there and I could flip my camera around and snap a quick photo. This one worked out great and having the flash pointed towards the lens directly behind the subject allowed me to employ a backlit feel. These are the moments you can’t plan for, but if you’re prepared, keeping an eye on the scene and having some equipment in position, the random flicks will happen.
The evening session was over, high-fives were slapped all around, big smiles filled the air, everyone so stoked on a great day and night of skating the plaza. I had one more photo in mind that was a portrait of the skateboard, so I got to work on grinding out this final image before the lights were shut off. After taking up my camera angle using the Manfrotto BeFree Carbon Tripod, aligning the skateboard along the steps and positioning two flashes to accent the subject matter, I began the process of dialing in that artificial light exactly to what I had in mind. After this somewhat tedious process, I then began to work in the background element of a skateboarder in the distance, out of focus, yet still a big part of the overall image, lighting provided by a flash on top of the wooden structure (1/32 power). A few snaps with varied body positioning of the skateboarder and that was a wrap, an amazing day skating and shooting the plaza.
We woke up the next morning, busted out the Jet Boil for some fresh coffees, then started to push around to wake up and get the pop back in the legs. My idea for the day was to capture any photos that I hadn’t had the chance to grab or something, which hadn’t happened yet. As I said in the beginning of the story, take your time, chip away at the moments and you’ll end up covering the mission in its entirety.
During any skateboarding mission there will always be a filmer with you recording motion footage, as we had at the plaza, so I wanted to capture that relationship between the guy doing the trick and the man with the camera. ‘Follow Cam‘ is a commonly used practice in skateboarding where the cameraman is skateboarding alongside, behind or in front of the skater performing their maneuvers, making for a great clip just about every time.
Another common skateboard filming angle is the low angle, positioning the camera where the skater leaves the ground and following him in a smooth motion (left to right / right to left) which puts accent on what he just jumped over. I positioned myself above their scene to give the viewer a sense of what was happening in its entirety. Due to the time of day, the morning sun cast a nice shadow, adding to the overall vibe of the photograph.
During the early afternoon on our second trip to Chef’s, I had remembered the shadow opportunities that I took advantage of on trip number one, sparking another idea. I presented the idea of shooting only the shadow with one of the skaters and they agreed to help me out until I had what I wanted, so we got work for fifteen minutes of flat ground tricks, producing what you see above.
As we did on both occasions visiting Chef, we thanked him at least nine hundred times upon departure for letting us skate his amazing DIY location, he was just happy we visited and got to enjoy the fruits of his creation and labor.