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How to Create Stunning Skate Photography

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This post is part of a series called Sports Photography.
Your Guide to Stunning Surf Photography
Up the Mountain: Ski and Snowboard Photography Basics

You're more likely to hear skateboarding called an art or a lifestyle than a sport. Skating is creating and style earns respect. If you're looking for a new and creative outlet to explore, give skate photography a go.

Skateboarding and skate photography both play with the geometry of the built environment; from discovering new locations to experimenting with various lenses and angles and light, there's no one way to shoot skating and that's part of what makes it an endless source of creative images. Today, we're going to look at some of the tried-and-true methods for achieving the best skateboarding photos. We've also included links below with more tips on how to get started with skate photography.

Skater pulling a kick flip on a walkwaySkater pulling a kick flip on a walkwaySkater pulling a kick flip on a walkway

Use a Fisheye Lens

Skateboarding photography and a fisheye lens go hand in hand. The super-wide angle lens achieves an interesting three-dimensional look. It allows you to get closer to your subject—capturing where they came from, what they're doing, and where they're going. With a fisheye lens, your images have room to breathe while still creating a sense of impact.

Skater riding a railingSkater riding a railingSkater riding a railing
Objects in the frame can add interest

Using a fisheye lens is especially great in a pool. Empty pools—either at a house or a skatepark—are playgrounds for skateboarders. Because pools are round, the super-wide fisheye lens emphasizes the curvature and makes the skateboarder look like they're covering more ground.

Young skater in a bowlYoung skater in a bowlYoung skater in a bowl
Young skater in a bowl at Venice Beach, Los Angeles, California, USA.

Try different angles when shooting these bowls. Shoot from the edge of the pool and have a skater ride right up to your lens. Or stand at the bottom and shoot upward as they're in the air. Look for any way to incorporate the curves of concrete into a geometrically composed image.

Just don't shoot everything with a fisheye. It's good to break it up a bit by using a standard wide angle or even a telephoto lens. A standard wide angle won't distort the skater and his trick, but will display enough of the surrounding area to make for a nicely composed image. And a telephoto lens helps to separate the skater from the background, putting more emphasis on them.

Prefocus

This is one of the best tips I learned when starting out in photography. Not only does it apply to photographing skateboarding, but it's also really helpful for any kind of action or motion photography. The tip is pre-focusing.

Skater jumping a sidewalkSkater jumping a sidewalkSkater jumping a sidewalk

How to Prefocus Your Camera for Action Photography

To get sharp images of fast action, turn off your autofocus. Manually focus at the point where you want your subject to be sharp, then wait for them to come to your prefocus spot and shoot.

You can either have the skater stand at your spot to set the focus, or you can just prefocus on an object nearby which is at the same distance as where the skater will perform their trick.

Person performing a skateboard trick in a backyard half-pipePerson performing a skateboard trick in a backyard half-pipePerson performing a skateboard trick in a backyard half-pipe

There are several factors that go into getting a sharp image of a moving object, including overall lighting levels, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. I'm not going to go into detail about basic camera settings. Prefocus works best in bright light with a wider lens, like a 24, 28, or 35mm, using small aperture, like f/8 or f/16, because with this combo you will have a very broad area in front of you in focus. Don't be afraid to pump up the ISO to get the right exposure and shutter speed, if you need to.

Skater catching air at sunsetSkater catching air at sunsetSkater catching air at sunset

Keep a Clean Background

The sky is a perfect background for skate photos. Skaters fly high, and you can get low enough to have the action framed with the sky as the background. The sky also creates a great contrast to the skater—making them stand out at the peak of action. Be sure to include the obstacle and surrounding scene, as these elements direct attention to the skater (think rule-of-thirds).

Skater jumping over stairsSkater jumping over stairsSkater jumping over stairs

Build Perspective With a Telephoto Lens

Another way to achieve a clean background is to shoot with a long lens. Compression of an image brings out the skater and blurs the details of the background. So you don't need a blank wall or blue sky to get a clean composition. The telephoto lens will keep an interesting background while minimizing some of the distracting details.

Skater catching air in a half-pipe, on a sunny daySkater catching air in a half-pipe, on a sunny daySkater catching air in a half-pipe, on a sunny day
A telephoto lens compresses space, isolating the moving skater in the frame

Also try setting a slower shutter speed and panning to blur the background and keep your subject in focus. This is a good way to convey speed and also helps when you have a really cluttered background, like a bunch of trees.

It's okay to have busy texture such as brick walls, trees, graffiti, etc. Just make sure you don't have these elements distracting the subject. For example, a pole in the background that looks like it's coming out of the skateboarder's head is a distraction that could easily be avoided by composing shots properly. You want the focus to be on the skater and the story they are telling.

Skateboarder riding low at night, with light streaksSkateboarder riding low at night, with light streaksSkateboarder riding low at night, with light streaks
Long exposure with a flash, at low angle

Get Low

Changing the angle of your shots is one of the simplest ways to make huge difference in how your images look. And low angles in particular really help to bring skateboarding photography to another level. Taking your camera to ground level increases the height and excitement of the action.

Low-angle wide-angle skateboard photoLow-angle wide-angle skateboard photoLow-angle wide-angle skateboard photo

Just as long as you stay alert and can get out of the way quickly and safely, you can compose images in the viewfinder of your camera. But whenever you're shooting at a low angle, you're putting yourself more in the zone of the skateboarder's path. If they wipe out, it might not feel good for you. Make sure you watch them do the trick a few times in order to figure out where the safest and best angle shot is going to be.

Get close but be ready to jump out of the way. Shooting skating requires you to have quick reactions!

Also, know your true distance when shooting with a wide-angle lens, otherwise you could misjudge the distance you are to the skater. Be sure to keep one eye in the viewfinder and the other on your subject. That way you can predict what will happen.

Storytelling: All About Angle

Experiment with different angles such as titling the camera, shooting from a distance, or framing parts of a ramp or rail in the shot. The more creative you get with your angles, the better the trick looks. When composing your images, think about how the composition frames the story the skater is telling.

Where is the drama in the way they're skating? How does your composition communicate what the skater is doing? If you can see where they took off from, you can anticipate where they're going, and from there make the split-second creative decisions about how to react to the action with your camera.

We talked about shooting low, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't shoot high as well. In fact, getting on ladders and standing on walls is an excellent way to achieve good composition. Try using a ladder on the side of a pool to shoot down. The concrete makes for a nice clean background as the skater banks along the side.

Warping a perspective usually gives images a disorienting feeling, which can match the action in the photo. Skaters are moving fast, flying, and balancing—feelings you don't get by walking. A standard perspective often just doesn't cut it for skate photography. Make sure that whenever you're composing a shot, the elements in the image are aligned for a clean composition no matter the angle.

Take a look at the image below. How do you think our reaction to it would be if the angle was straight on? The slight tilt is a subtle way of putting us in the skater's shoes. It's almost as if we are seeing the world from his perspective at that particular moment. Hopefully viewers of your skateboarding shots feel as though they're part of the action—not merely a spectator.

There's one more thing about camera tilting, though: be careful with horizon lines. If you're shooting at an open skatepark or somewhere not blocked by buildings, having a crooked horizon may just look like a mistake.

Lighting With External Flashes

Using multiple external flashes gives more three-dimensionality and texture to your photos. The point of having more than one flash is more angularity. You want the subject to pop from the background and not just simply look like a light is on them. This includes light coming from above, the ground, and behind. Each shot will require a different setup, but do keep in mind that flashes work best when placed at a different angle than your camera.

For action like skateboarding, you want a combination of a fast flash duration and a high output of light. This ensures that you're freezing the action and getting a sharp image. If you're getting some blur with your daytime flash shots, it means your flash duration is too slow, and that the ambient light is too strong and it's overpowering the flash.

Skateboarding photographer Matt Price uses shoelaces to hang flashes so he doesn't need to use light stands. This is great advice especially for photographing skating on the street. When you're moving around a city it can be a lot better to have a setup that's easily portable.

He also notes how placing a flash on the ground creates shadows and enhances the rough texture of the ground. Just another method of giving your skate photos a more three-dimensional look and more intensity.

For a more elaborate setup, you can place your flashes on stands. This is good for when you're shooting at one location for a longer period of time and want to be able to place the light exactly where you want it. If you do use tripods to support the flashes, make sure the shadow doesn't appear in the photo.

Another way to use a flash is to just hold it in one hand and shoot with the other. Since a lot of shots require planning ahead, you can position yourself where you need to be wait for the skater to ride by. Also don't forget about those nighttime photos. Use flash at night to create contrast between a skater and a sea of darkness. The isolation of the skater that the contrast achieves makes for a dramatic image.

Avoid Cutting Off Heads and Limbs, Please

Okay, so this is a basic rule-of-thumb for portrait photography, but when shooting high-flying skaters, you must plan your framing, otherwise you will crop off heads or limbs.

Keep your subject in frame by planning shots. Have them stand in front of the camera at the distance they'll do a trick to get an idea of how much space you need. Most skate tricks happen in the air, so remember that your planned shots are only a reference.

Picture what it will look like in the frame when they actually do the trick and then compose the shot for that. Always having the skateboarder in frame makes for professional, polished photography. It also forces you to shoot wide and include backgrounds and obstacles that make for better composition.

Get Feedback

Skateboarders are creative themselves, so it's a good idea to collaborate with them on your shots. Talk with them before you shoot and show them the photos after a few tricks. They'll probably have constructive advice for how your shots can be even better.

The best insight they can give you is which part of the trick is the best to capture. Remember that when you show a photo to someone performing a sport, they're critiquing themselves. If they don't like the way a photo looks, you might have captured the wrong moment of action. Even if the lighting is great, it's still about the trick being performed; and that's a very important aspect of capturing skating.

Break the Rules

Be creative. Skateboarders are. They'll find perfect places to skate when all someone else sees is a dumpster or a wall. As a photographer, you can work with skateboarders to come up with new ways to shoot. Use this guide as a reference, but feel free to break the rules. Photography is creating and so is skating. It just makes sense to push the boundaries of what you can do.

And above all, have fun. Skateboarding is constantly evolving due to the creativity put into it. It will keep you wanting to make great images. Check out skateboarding magazines to get familiar with the kinds of approaches professional skate photographers are using. Just don't hesitate to do something different.

Child in helmet at skatepark at sunsetChild in helmet at skatepark at sunsetChild in helmet at skatepark at sunset

A Few More Recommended Tutorials for Skate Photography

Here are a few tutorials to help you keep learning the photography skills we introduced up above:

More Resources to Help Make Skate Media

Here are a few more resources to help you make skate photography, posters, and video.

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