“Do you have any portrait experience?”
“Not a lot, no. Not standard portraiture, anyway. The funny thing is I actually feel more comfortable lying all over the ground taking pictures of people doing flips over me than I do shooting someone standing still.”
I was sitting across from an interviewer for Lifetouch at Starbucks at about 7:30 at night. This didn’t exactly classify as a standard job interview, but I preferred it to getting grilled with questions while sitting across from three business-casual managers in a corporate conference room.
I guess the setting is irrelevant because I can’t land a job no matter if it’s with Leanne from Lifetouch wearing a Minnie Mouse T-shirt over coffee or answering to three bad bitches in blazers in a boardroom.
But that’s not the point here. The point is the line I gave Leanne about action photography has been wafting around in my head for weeks.
I’m most certainly not a professional photographer. In college I majored in magazine journalism and only took two (completely optional) photojournalism classes. One was about journalistic photography styles, layouts, photo essays, stories and other multimedia journalism. It was almost entirely hands-off, nontechnical and lecture-based.
The other course featured hands-on shooting where we had a photo assignment every week. We were taught technical aspects of photography and trained to shoot situations as photo stories using journalistic integrity. We were allowed to check out cameras, so you can bet your ass every Friday I was in the photo department getting a camera to take home for the weekend. Assignment or not, I was eager to test out camera settings in my free time as I definitely couldn’t afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a camera in college.
Fast-forward four years, and I received a Nikon D3300 (their former entry-level DSLR) for Christmas. Because I never prioritized using my own cash to buy a nice camera, I was thrilled to receive one as a gift. After dabbling in photographing my cats and some harsh Midwest snow during the winter, I got in touch with a local parkour group during the summer to experiment with photographing them.
I spent a few years in college practicing parkour, so I knew the moves, the form and thought I’d know how to photograph it well. I hate to qualify my own work, but so far I’ve been satisfied with my pictures.
My near-immediate venture straight into action photography is probably not the usual route people go when receiving their first camera. In some respects, I feel like I started running before walking. Or maybe flipping before jumping.
Shooting portraits or still-life pictures is probably where most people start. Portraits and action shots require proficiency in different areas. Standard portrait photography’s strengths lie in the perfect arrangement of lights on a subject and sometimes eliciting an emotional response from the subject worth capturing. Photography’s literal definition is capturing an image with light, so it makes sense. If no light exists, no photography exists.
Although it might not be apparent to an untrained eye, a professional studio portrait can (and probably mostly do) use several artificial light sources to capture a subject — maybe a light above the subject’s head, one on each side, and sometimes one underneath or directly behind. Or at the very least reflectors to bounce light around to make it appear it’s coming from multiple sources. Remember getting your yearbook picture taken in grade school and it required those two big flashing light-up umbrellas? Same thing.
Studio photography is predominantly about lighting. I’ve never used a studio nor a professional lighting set-up to photograph someone. I’d love to, but I don’t have access to a studio nor money to afford my own lighting rig in my apartment.
The sheer emotional logistics of taking people’s portraits can be weird, too. Sitting still while having someone point a big black camera in your face isn’t exactly the most comfortable environment.
Less exposure (pun intended) and practice with standard portraiture as opposed to action is why I excel at action shots right now. This is hardly a revelation. Of course I’m better at what I practice regularly. On any given parkour shoot, I have a few hours to work, several people to photograph and they’re all doing different moves over and over again. If I get an action shot wrong, I just dust it off and try again. The athletes I photograph are always doing something worthy of a picture.
Many factors go into shooting someone flipping over me outdoors that are out of my control, such as sunlight, clouds, wind, temperature and what colors the athletes are wearing, to name a handful. Any combination of those might compromise a shot. Knowing them and calculating for them is my job.
This contrasts with the completely controlled environment in studio photography. In a studio I theoretically have full control over most conditions. That means if I somehow mess up a studio shoot, I’m the one to blame.
I’m probably just looking for reasons to blame any bad pictures I take on other conditions, right?
I think that’s what I’m doing.
If I get into technical lingo here and there about photography, I can’t stress enough that I’m not a classically taught, professional photographer. If you’re someone who considers yourself seasoned at action photography and you’re reading this, feel free to scoff at my attempts to justify my (potentially wrong) technique. But also feel free to offer tips and suggestions.
Photography is an art, so it’s true there’s no “wrong way” to do it. But it also requires knowledge of individual camera functions, such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, flash and lighting – if you’re shooting in Manual Mode, that is. It’s easy to look at photography the way you look at makeup or drawing or graphic design. You might shrug and say “well how hard can it really be?” until you pick up a camera, brush or pen and try it for yourself.
From July to November 2016 I shot parkour about 20 times in single sessions that lasted 2-4 hours each. Sometimes it’s one-on-one with someone and sometimes I’m shooting up to about 10 people. On any given shoot, I take about 600-1200 pictures. I end up with about 30 usable shots (taking into account deleting repetitive shots) and maybe 5 that I consider portfolio-worthy.
Before I go any further, I want to let that sink in for a second. Sometimes I’ll take about 1200 pictures and end up with 5 that I love. That’s a 4 percent success rate. That might sound crazy, and maybe it means I’m a terrible photographer. But it is what it is, I guess.
I shoot parkour with my Nikon D3300 and an 18-55mm lens. I have a 55-200mm lens as well, but I find it too restrictive for parkour photography. Using a longer lens means I have to stand farther away from the action. For sports photography where photographers can’t be on the field, long lenses on the sidelines are common practice. For parkour, there are no rules, so I can get as close as I want.
I prefer to shoot at 18mm with my shorter lens because a wide focal length offers distortion (bending, if you will) on the frame’s edges – sort of like how all those cool skateboarding videos from the 90s were shot with fisheye lenses. 18mm is not fisheye, but it’s a mild wide focal length.
I also like shooting at 18mm because it lets me get right up in the action. If someone is executing a jump, spin, vault or flip I prefer to be as close as possible and move my body and the camera in conjunction with the athlete.
Also, as I’ve mentioned already, one of my favorite stances is just lying on my back and shooting nearly straight up on people flipping over me. It’s impossible to execute that kind of shot with anything greater than 18mm for me.
I generally shoot as fast as I can with the lens as open as possible. I hover the ISO from 200-800. My pictures get grainy at about the 1600 ISO mark, so I keep it low if I can. High ISO is used to compensate for low-light situations and brighten them up. However it can introduce grain and noise that sacrifices picture clarity if your camera doesn’t handle high ISO well. The Nikon D3300 does not handle it well, in my experience.
My camera (and most consumer DSLRs, I think?) maxes its shutter speed at 1/4000 of a second, which is more than enough to freeze even the fastest person in place. I can get decent action photos all the way down to about 1/500 of a second. I’m fortunate to shoot parkour during the summer where the sun is usually out. That means I’m never struggling for lighting, so I can afford a high shutter speed.
I usually shoot in burst mode, which means the camera keeps taking pictures as long as I hold down the shutter button. Burst is a gift and a curse, and I liken it to using a machine gun over a sniper rifle. Burst fire means I’m guaranteed to get a range of shots exposing the flow of an entire move. But it also means I might lose the critical apex shot because my camera will miss it between the burst exposures. I think my camera takes about 5 frames per second if I hold the shutter button down. A high-end Nikon (which will run more than $6,000) takes 12 frames per second. Alternatively, single shot (or decisive moment) photography can guarantee I get the climax shot, but I have to be on my alert A-game to take that single critical frame out of someone doing a move that lasts only 2 seconds.
See how that might be difficult? But that’s a big part of what photography is – getting that split-second, perfect shot.
I also use back-button focusing. Cameras generally default the focus to the shutter button, so you press it down halfway to focus and then continue to press it all the way down to actually take the picture. Back-button photography takes the focusing completely away from the shutter button and reassigns it to a button on the back of the camera for your right thumb to manipulate. After doing a lot of research and testing it out, I prefer back-button focusing. I find that it better allows me to keep my camera moving and trained on the subject while keeping him or her in focus simultaneously. I also don’t have to worry about accidentally taking my finger off the shutter button and losing the focus between shots. How a photographer chooses to focus is her or her own prerogative, and there’s no right or wrong way.
Late in the summer, I started experimenting with bumping the depth of field up. My lateness to try this was probably a poor decision on my part. Aperture and depth of field numbers equal out to how much of the total frame is in focus when you take a picture. The lower the f/stop number, the more open the lens is (which lets more light in to support a faster shutter speed) but the more laser-focused and shallow the depth of field is. A higher f/stop number closes up the lens, which requires a longer shutter speed to let the appropriate amount of light in to properly capture an image. A higher depth of field gives greater focus to the entire image – foreground to background.
Early in the summer when I started shooting I was obsessed with the notion that I needed to keep the lens as open (therefore as shallow) as possible to bring in maximum light to support a fast shutter speed. After all, for action photography shutter speed is everything. The last thing I want when shooting parkour is for the people to end up blurry in pictures. I had a die-hard 1/4000-of-a-second-or-nothing attitude.
My open-aperture shots are still fine, but I’ll try to keep my f/stop higher from now on. You live and you learn, eh?
Sometimes I use Adobe Lightroom to edit, but I usually save that for portfolio-worthy pictures or ones that need some love to go from OK to good. So far I use Lightroom for minimal changes. I pull exposure, contrast, clarity and color saturation around, but I try not to highly stylize my shots. I want them to remain pure to how I shot them while punching the color and clarity up some. I use Lightroom in the same way someone might apply minimal makeup to enhance his or her features rather than cover them up.
I think I’ve covered all the bases I can think of for my process on shooting parkour. As I mentioned before, the way I go about shooting might not be the best way, but I have yet to collaborate with other action photographers about their techniques. I’m mostly on my own and learning as I go.
I’m a guy with an entry-level DSLR, two lenses and shooting what I can with what I have. Maybe I’ll experiment with more standard portraiture soon, too. Perhaps on humans instead of my cats. I certainly want to. For now, parkour photography is my main passion. Maybe if Lifetouch ever opens a Parkour Division they’ll hire me. A boy can dream. 🙂
If you’re interested in seeing more of my work or looking at my personal social media pages, you can visit my about.me page where all my links live.