Jay P Morgan: Urban Skateboarder Portrait, Part I

In coming up for concept for this lesson, I was excited to shoot an action skateboard shot with a skater jumping a trashcan. I had shot a group of skaters for stock the week prior, but had not loved the location. It was cool and all, but I wanted something a bit more intense.

During the time I was thinking about the location, I saw the movie "Max Payne". I felt that the sets and "film noir" look-and-feel of the film were much stronger than the actual film. I loved the alleys that they shot in and decided to shoot in a downtown LA alley. Action shots like these do not need epic backgrounds to be powerful.

Here, I've included a simple version of the shot captured against a dark background. Its just as powerful, but did not have rats to contend with. I'll talk about the rats later...

Finding The Ideal Angle
The first step upon arriving was to find which portion of the alley would give us the most interesting background. What is behind the subject can be as, or even more important, than the subject itself. We roamed up and down the alley looking for the right spot to shoot. The area that I was most interested in had a BMW parked right in the frame. I kept looking and tried to find some better angles, but that was the best spot. So, we simply framed up the shot with the car in it.

Still, we needed to get it moved and out of our way. The simplest way would have been to rock it until the alarm went off, but I'm sure that wouldn't have made the owner too happy. So instead, we sent an assistant off to look in the nearby shops to see whom it belonged to. It took a while to find the owner, but fortunately it didn't slow us up in setting up the shot. We started setting up our lights around the car. I wanted to create a view looking down the alley so we could have a deep background with dark space for the skater.


Unloading all the Gear
While our assistant was off finding the owner of the car, we started unloading the truck. I bring far too much equipment. It's the old "suspenders and a belt" approach. I want to have plenty of equipment so I'm prepared for whatever may come up.


Setting Up Garbage Can and Finding the Perfect Camera Angle
As the assistants unloaded the equipment, I set up some padding for myself to lie on. I knew I wanted a low angle to make the skater look more dynamic. It would also give the trash coming out of the can more presence. I put a furniture pad down to lie on so I did not have to lie on the ground. It's an alley in Downtown LA, and who knows how many people have... well, you know what people do in alleys. I found the right spot for the trash can and propped it up with a small board. One of my assistants then acted as a stand-in for the skateboarder.

Creating "Floating" Trash for the Garbage Can
We did two different things to create the look of flying garbage. First, the stylist attached some trash to long pieces of wire that were then taped to a board. The board was placed inside the can. The trash was suspended on the end of heavy wire and looked like it was being thrown out of the can on impact.

Secondly, since this trash was stagnant and didn't move, we needed to add more trash by hand, throwing it into the shot. This secondary trash would be rendered as blurred as it was thrown into the shot. I had two assistants on this detail. They would throw the trash as the skater passed over the can.


Roughing In the Lights Before the Talent Arrives
On every photo shoot, we set up the lights before the models arrive. We "rough in" the lights so that they are in the configuration we want, but know that we still need to refine the lights once we see how the talent looks in the set, as compared to how our stand-in assistants look.


Making A Sturdy Camera Mount
Once I found the camera angle I wanted, I decided to make a homemade camera mount so that I wouldn't have to stay crouched down in an awkward position during the entire photo shoot. I simply attached a tripod head to a piece of wood with a 1/4-20 bolt that you can buy at any hardware store. I then balanced the setup with sandbags. This held the camera in place low to the ground and provided a stable platform from which to work for some of the long exposures.


Capturing Blue Sky for Composite
The sun was setting fast and I knew I wanted a blue sky in the final shot. So right when the skaters arrived, I took a couple exposures to capture the blue sky before it was gone. As you can see, the lighting for the skater was not resolved yet. All I needed was a clean background to be composed into the shot later.

Setting Up Rim Lighting
With respect to lighting, the main idea was to rim-light the skater from both sides, which would help to separate him from the dark background. The first rim light was positioned at 90° right and raised to approximately 6 feet high. It was then angled down just slightly. For this light I chose to use a StarFlash 650w monobloc strobe set at half power.

Controlling The Light
This light with no modification was all over the place. It was spilling onto the ground and into the camera, causing lens flare. This meant we needed to control the light with a couple of flags. A flag is a black square of material that does not allow any light to pass through it. The material is mounted on a metal frame that has a metal rod that fits into the head of a Century Stand or "C-Stand". We placed the flag at the same height as the light, in between the light and the camera. This prevented the light from shining directly into the camera and eliminated the flare.

I also noticed that there was too much light on the ground below the strobe head, causing the scene to looked over-lit. I used a "scrim", also known as a "net" (similar to a flag, except that it allows some light to pass through it) to cut the intensity of the light on the ground below the strobe. You can get scrims that cut the light by one stop or two stops. Here, we used a one-stop net.


One-Light Result
This light rimmed the subject from camera right and was a good start to our lighting setup. I chose a long shutter speed in order to burn in the tungsten lights on the alley. I was shooting at f/8 with a one second shutter speed. The White Balance was set to about 4500 degrees Kelvin, which made the alley a bit cooler.

At this point, the alley was very dark and the rats -- yes, rats -- started to come out. We saw a few at first and then they started to come out in full force. At one point, while I was kneeling on the ground, a rat ran between the stylist and me, and we were only about two feet apart! It almost ran over my legs! It became clear that they owned the place and that we were not going to keep them from their dinner. Every shoot I do typically has some strange or peculiar element to it. For this one, it was the rats. They were just cool.

Stopping the Action
To stop action, it's necessary to shoot at a fast shutter speed. My set up shots were taken at slow shutter speeds in order to expose the tungsten lights in the alley.

Figure 18, on the other hand, shows a skate shot I did using a faster shutter speed. The shutter speed for this shot was at 1/60th of a second at F 7.1. This faster speed helped stop the action. The lighting for figure 18 was essentially the same lighting we had for this shot. It was lit with 2 rim lights (one right and one left) and a fill light at the camera.

A Note on Strobes and Shutter Speed
You can't use a faster shutter speed than a 1/200th of a second if you want to sync with the strobe lights. Some digital SLRs have a sync speed of 1/250th of a second, but for most curtain shutters, a 1/200th is as fast as you can sync with strobes. The reason for this is mechanical.

A curtain shutter has two curtains that move across the film plane. Curtain 1 goes first and opens all the way up. Curtain 2 waits to close until the shutter speed time expires. If the shutter speed is one second, curtain 2 waits for one second and then closes. When shooting at speeds faster than a 1/200th of a second, curtain 2 will start to close before curtain 1 is fully open. This means that there isn't enough time for the whole frame to be open when the flash occurs. If you shoot faster than 1/200th of a second, you'll get part the frame exposed with the flash and part of the frame unexposed. This is the main limitation when syncing your camera with strobe lighting and trying to stop action. It's a dance.

Tips on Freezing Action
Catch the peak of the action. Be ready to shoot the moment the action slows down. For example, when a person jumps into the air, there's a brief moment when they essentially stop in mid air -- where they're not going up and they're not going down. Train your self to anticipate the peak and then shoot. It doesn't work with all action situations, but does with many.

Also, don't shoot with your strobes at full power. Full power has a longer flash duration, which can blur the action. Lower power settings on your strobe heads yield shorter flash durations, and short flash durations can freeze action as effectively as short shutter speeds.

Adding Front Fill Light
The next step was to lighten the shadows on the skater's face. I decided to use a StarFlash 300 with a 45" silver umbrella. This was placed directly behind the camera about 4-feet high and pointed straight at the skateboarder. Below, you can see the two-light result.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this lesson, in which JP develops the shot even further.

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