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Extreme sports photography is a discipline all of its own.
Each sport has its intricacies, rules, and set of specialists who operate in each arena. Me, I am a long time skateboarder. I’ve been a skate rat since I was a kid. I’ve looked at thousands of images, know how a trick should look and know what the rider is looking for. Put me with a BMX rider and I may have an idea of how they want the trick to look, but I will be unsure of exactly what they’ll be doing. The key, like any genre of photography, is to know what you are shooting and work with your subject to form a bond of trust.
To those who haven’t shot extreme sports before, it may look easy. But the truth is, unlike posing a model in a studio, sports photography is unpredictable and extreme sports, even more so. With this in mind, here are my top 5 tips to up your extreme sports photography game.
Ever photographed a ballerina? If you have, you know they will pick out the minute detail in a photo you take. Finger placement or how high they are on their toes will dictate whether a photograph is one they love or one they hate. Extreme sports athletes are exactly the same! The best way to know what a great shot looks like is to start by doing your research. Look on websites such as Thrasher and Ride BMX. See what their photographers are taking. Look at where the photograph is taken from, try to figure what lens they used and how it was lit. As with any photography, breaking it down and visualizing how you want things to look before you shoot is key. The only difference with extreme sports is that the person you are taking a photo of will more than likely be risking personal injury for your photo. You need to be ready, know what settings you want to use and have an angle in mind. Which brings me nicely to….
To quote my all-time favorite movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.’
Extreme sports is fast. Whole tricks last barely a second. And you need to freeze an incredibly small percentage of that. There are two ways to freeze motion in extreme sports; one is to use a high shutter speed, the other is to use a flash with a small flash duration. Unless you know what you are doing with off camera flash or are shooting at night, using a high shutter speed is a much better option when you are starting out. You need to have your exposure nailed quickly and a high shutter speed will be the easiest way for you to do this.
You should put your camera into ‘Shutter Priority’ and aim for a shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second. This will mean your images will not suffer motion blur, which is important to capture those beautiful moves. The obvious pay off here is aperture and ISO. I would personally suggest when starting out to use a higher ISO and keep a wider aperture. This gives you a larger depth of field to work with and a higher chance of a sharp image.
This is great when shooting outdoors, but when shooting at an indoor skatepark, you need to think about using flash. Plan your shoot accordingly.
In terms of focus mode for your camera, you should aim to use Ai servo mode. This is designed for shooting action and will give you the best chance of getting the rider in focus. An alternative to this is to pre-focus and then switch to manual focus to keep it locked. This technique involves getting your rider to position themselves where you anticipate taking the photo, focus on this point, then flick over to manual focus. As with everything, read your camera manual, experiment and see which works best for you.
As I said above, extreme sports tricks can last less than a second. By the time you see the perfect moment in your viewfinder, it is already too late. You need to trust yourself and shoot just before the peak moment. Anticipate what is about to happen and trust your instinct. Your instincts will sharpen with practice. With most extreme sports tricks you will have more than one chance to get the shot. In some cases, you may have too many tries. You can help cure your boredom by changing angles if you think of something different, or you can tough it out. However, the unwritten rule of action sports is that the trick must be landed. This argument has been going on for as long as the sports themselves. The rider must make the trick in order for you to put the photo out, otherwise, they are just posing it. Now the even bigger question is: does the photo have to be of the one they landed? This is up to you. Personally, I pick the best photo.
The best angle for shooting tends to be down low. This adds height to the object and power to the person in your photograph. This technique is one you will see a lot of in magazines, but there are no hard and fast rules. When you get the spot, look around, try taking photos from different angles, until you find the one that makes the trick look powerful.
In terms of composition, to allow the photo to make sense to the viewer you need 3 key things: where they started, where they are and where they will land. I have lost count of the number of photos I have seen of riders in the air. It has no context, you may as well have just composited the rider onto a sky background. Context is key.
The third and final tip for composition is to avoid the butt shot. The key to a good extreme sports photo is to be able to see the riders eyes. When finding the angle for your shoot, look at which way the rider approaches the trick and plan accordingly. By getting their face in their frame, you will always get a better photo.
To answer the question that some of you might be asking, which lens is the best for extreme sports photography? It is the full frame fisheye. The lens gives that wonderful distortion that we associate with this kind of photography. However, this means you are incredibly close to the action, which brings me to my final point.
You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times, even if you are shooting with a long lens, there will no doubt be more than one person at the skatepark or spot where you are taking photos. This means people and skateboards will be flying. It is incredibly easy to take a rogue skateboard to the ankle (and incredibly painful) but when shooting with an extremely wide angle lens, such as the fisheye, you can risk taking a rider, board or bike to the head. While it can be easy to feel secure when looking through your viewfinder, you need to remember that being a photographer can be as dangerous as being the rider if the trick goes wrong. Just keep your eyes open and remember a photo is not worth the pain of being hit in the head with a skateboard when a rider misses a trick. Trust me, I know!
Have you tried extreme sports photography? Do you have tips or photos you’d like to share in the comments below?