Friday, September 4, 2009

Pinkbike Article

I was asked to write an article for & thought I'd put it up here to help anyone starting out with photography especially the action side of things.

Hello Pinkbike,

I have been asked to share the story behind my photography & way I go about things when I shoot, so here I am. I often get asked technical questions from keen upcoming photographers, so Jordan & I thought it would be a good idea to cover a few things that should help you out in understanding your camera better & how to get the best out of it. I’m sure that even if photography isn’t your thing it will be interesting to see what’s going on in a photographers mind while you pin it past them or float over some dirt jumps.

So, here we go…

Name: Eric Palmer

DOB: 26 July 1983

Afreakin Photography

I took up photography in June 2007, I was lucky enough to be given a Nikon D70, few lenses & SB-24 flash that has since expired. Photography was not a foreign subject to me, my mom is a professional art photographer & teacher & have been abused with photographic theory for the last 15 or so years & was never too keen to start with film because of the cost & what would I do with a huge collection of slides. It just didn’t seem worthwhile to me, but after studying animation for 3 years & doing a short editing course my interest in media grew quite a lot since I left school & with photography going digital it meant I could play with my shots & get them out there much easier than before.

An old family friend & professional photographer Willem Oets had recently changed from Nikon to Canon & still had his Nikon gear & offered it to me, which was the start of something quite life changing for me. Rollerblading was my life & the reason for my interest in action photography & because of the lack of rollerbladers in SA I set my sights on downhill. I live really close to a track they use for nationals every year & that’s how the bikers got me hassling them… I knew quite a few BMXers from rolling parks with them, so they have me bugging them now too.

2 years later here I am, having spent all my money on equipment & still spending what I don’t have yet on my wish list. Here is what I have at the moment

My D70 is the camera I use for the action the most. The fast sync speeds allow you to shoot at 1/640th with flashes, I can push it further to 1/800th. There is some darkening of the flash light when using the remote triggers, so try to stay below that as much as possible.

My D200 very seldomly gets used for action shots, mainly because I can only sync up to 1/250th & is not very helpful in bright light, so if I do pull it out for action it would be in much lower light usually evening shoots. I use it more for landscape, macro & portrait work when I don’t need the faster syncing. On it is my 105mm Macro lens & also don’t use it for action often, mainly because it’s a fixed lens & I often can’t get to the right spot to get the shot & have to “zoom with my legs”. Is a great lens, extremely sharp & an f/2.8, but I have to run around too much with it to really enjoy it.

My 24-85mm is what I’ve been using the most for longer shots. It has a nice range from relatively wide to a good zoom, but I’m not always 100% happy with the quality of it & am replacing it with a 24-70mm f/2.8 to have sharper images & more control with the wider aperture.

My 10.5mm fisheye. I love this lens & maybe too much sometimes. It handles difficult lighting situations really well & allows you to get really close, but still keep a lot of the scenery in & is also an f/2.8 & a really sharp lens. Lately I’ve been trying to stay away from it & use the longer lenses, but the quality & fun distortion often is what has me pulling it out of my bag a little more often than I would like. That will hopefully change with the 2 new f/2.8 zooms.

My 70-300mm. I hardly ever use this lens for action because it’s never sharp enough, for landscapes you can get away with it, but on people I find I’m always disappointed with the quality, so it very rarely makes an appearance .

My new 70-200mm. This lens is a beast & is pretty much the best lens out there at the moment, super sharp, f/2.8, weather sealed & all the zooming & focusing is internal which makes it extremely fast & quiet. The only downsides to this lens is that the quality doesn’t come cheap & it’s rather heavy at just under 1.5kg. I haven’t had a proper shoot with it yet, but this is the Rolls Royce of lenses & sure I’m going to be super happy with its performance. Have taken random snaps around the house & is amazing so far, but can’t wait to get out & shoot some action with it!

My SB-600 & Pocket Wizard. This combo was a must have for me, Pocket Wizard are the leading off camera flash transceiver brand & are very simple, but work like a charm. Their range is up to about 450m, so can be pretty far away & still have your flashes fire, so if you like using long lenses these are a must have. 1 on each flash & 1 on the camera to trigger the flashes & the only time I’ve had a misfire is when the batteries in the flash or wizard are dead. The SB-600 is a great flash & has all the control you need with intensity settings from full to 1/64th & spread settings from 14m (the widest beam) to 85m (the most concentrated). The only downside to this combo is that the SB-600’s don’t have a PC port on them to connect the wizard directly, so you need an extra little cable to hotshoe & adapter. I have 4 Wizards & 2 SB-600’s & am getting a SB-900 in August & that has the PC port, so I won’t have to worry about fiddly connections.

My backup flash, an old Pentax AF-330ftz. I’m not all that fond of this little thing. It has no intensity settings & spread from 24m to 85m, so you can’t control it all that much & it goes into standby every 5 minutes, which is really annoying. It does help me out in tough times though & when 1 of my SB-600’s was in for repair this allowed me to still be able to use 2 flashes during that time, so is not great, but better than nothing.

Something very simple, but not to forget is the rechargeable batteries. Each wizard takes 2 (they last really long) so that’s 8 for the triggers. Each flash uses 4 (lasts 1 shoot if I’m lucky & each flash often goes through 2 sets on a long shoot) so that’s 16. So now on an average shoot I need 24 batteries & now with the SB-900 coming it’ll probably add another 8 to the equation. Making sure your batteries are all charged & ready to go is obviously really important & having spares is never a bad idea, because as luck would have it it’s at the best time of the day that you run out & can miss the best opportunities if you’re not prepared. The same goes for camera batteries & making sure you’ve downloaded the previous shoot & formatted your card so everything is clean & charged up.

I also have 2 Manfrotto tripods for my flashes, I find they work much better than most light stands because you can position each leg individually & works better on uneven surfaces which is where I shoot 90% of the time.

All that goes into 1 Lowepro backpack that I lug with me everywhere, so the hard work starts long before I even get my camera out & work up quite a sweat just getting to some spots.

I’d like to get into & explain shooting in RAW & it’s ups & downs, strobism, which is basically the use of off camera flashes & how they handle in different light situations & how I go about deciding on what camera settings to use, processing, composition & a bit of my philosophy & way I approach my subject.

Shooting in RAW has some great advantages. The main difference between a RAW file & a jpg is that the RAW stores all the cameras settings with the image so you can fine tune things when you process the image much easier & better than you can with a jpg, because with a jpg the camera settings are merged with the image. The down side to RAW is the file size, a RAW shot is normally about double the size of a jpg. Your cards will fill up way faster, so you need to choose your shots a little more wisely. The other thing is your computer needs to be set up to handle RAW files. Most image viewing programs can’t view RAW’s, so you need a program to view the files, I use Nikon’s ViewNX to select the images I’d like to work on & delete the rest. Then to be able to convert the RAW into an editable file in Photoshop you need a plug-in & that’s what allows you to do the RAW processing & output the file to a .TIFF or .jpg that can then be opened in Photoshop itself to edit further. So it’s a bit more work, but worth it in the end.

Strobism is something I really enjoy doing & makes it possible to get studio type lighting on action sports. It is also quite challenging to get to grips with using more than one flash & shooting with the flashes & camera on manual. I enjoy figuring things out & spent many hours photographing random things in my room just to work out what setting did what on my flash & once I had worked that out I was ready to start with the action.

So in photography your aperture controls the depth of field (DoF), which is the area of sharpness in the shot. The shallowest DoF will be achieved by the lowest f number e.g. f/2.8 & largest DoF will then obviously be the largest f number, usually f/22, but with digital these days it can go up quite a bit more. The aperture controls the size your lens opens up inside to let the light through & the lowest number will be the widest your lens can open up & highest f number will be the smallest your lens can close down to. I like to compare this to a tap & that analogy has helped me with exposure like crazy. If the aperture is how much you open the tap f2.8 would be wide open & f/22 would be open only a touch to let a trickle through. To get a correct exposure you will need to fill a glass & at f/2.8 you will fill the same sized glass a lot faster than at f/22. So in the same light condition you will get much faster speeds at the lower end of the scale than the higher end & is the reason most people use rather wide apertures for action. Faster speeds will freeze the action & slower speeds will not & you will get a nice shot with a blurred rider. The next thing concerning exposure is the last thing you have control over & that is your ISO. The ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor to light, so keeping with the analogy the ISO would be the size of the glass you would like to fill. A low ISO of say 100 would be a big glass & you would need a lot of light to fill it & get a good exposure. On the other side an ISO of 1600 would be like filling a shot glass & would not need as much light to get a correct exposure. The downside to high ISO’s is that the image becomes grainy, so I generally keep it as low as possible. The last thing you need to keep in mind is the variable, which you are not in control of & that is the strength of ambient light at the time. This I like to compare to the water pressure. In strong sunlight you have a good solid water pressure & will get nice fast speeds, but at night or low light there isn’t much water pressure, so even if you open up to f/2.8 there still won’t be much light coming in & that is where your ISO will help to keep your speeds up. Remember the small glass & that will fill up in relatively good time even with just a trickle of water coming through.

So basically your:

Aperture controls DoF

Speed controls movement

ISO controls grain

& never forget the ever-changing variable, the ambient light at the time of pressing the shutter.

Now when we add flashes to the story, the same applies, but there are a few more things I like to keep in mind. Because the flash burst is so fast, probably about 1/10 000th or so your speed doesn’t affect the flash exposure all that much, because even with the fast sync speeds of the D70 the fastest I can go is 1/800th, so the flash burst has come & gone long before the exposure is over. So to control my flash exposure I use my aperture because the size of the opening in the lens will affect how much of the flash’s light will reach the sensor. If I need to get more light from my flashes when my lens is wide open the only other thing I can do is up my ISO.

So when using flashes the same applies as before, but your:

Aperture will control your flash exposure

Speed will control the ambient light

ISO will control both the flash & ambient light

Lighting set up, using the sun as a rim light.

The result

Ok, so now that that’s out of the way I have a few of my images shot in different light conditions & will explain why I chose the settings I did & flash positioning.

Colin Loudon – NFCC at Dirtopia

Nikon D70



ISO 200

Shooting during the day with bright sunlight can be quite a challenge, but luckily I have my D70 on my side with its fast sync speeds. The sun was quite low & coming from back left & put both my SB-600 bottom right of the landing & both on full & 85m to get as much light on him as possible to balance the strong sunlight & then using the quarter at the end of the line to hide the flashes & add a bit more depth to the shot. I really enjoy using the sun to get a strong rim light & using the flashes as a fill & it’s not often that it’s at the right angle, so was amped that it was working with me for these.

I pushed my speed up as much as I could to underplay the sunlight & opened my lens up to f5.6 to get as much light from the flashes as possible & because of the strong sunlight I left my ISO on 200 (the lowest I can go with my D70).

Malcolm Peters at his local trails Bel Air with a super clicked 3 Table.

Nikon D70



ISO 500

Being winter in SA at the moment trail building has been going off. Malcolm a.k.a Moe has put in a good amount of work here & I wanted to have him riding, but show all his recent work off at the same time. He’s one of if not the best dirt jumper in the country, so is always a treat to shoot him.

For this shot luck was on our side. Between me having some timing issues & him not getting the trick as clicked as he wanted we only got this shot 3rd go, but worked out better that way. The sun just made a little appearance for us at the perfect time & lit the jumps up better that I could have hoped for.

As far as my lighting goes on this, I had 1 SB-600 just next to the landing of the 1st jump (can see it in the shot) set on full & 14m & the other in line with the landing of the trick jump also on full & 14m. I often pull out the built in diffuser to widen the spread, but not put it in front of the beam so that I get maximum strength & width. I had them both on 14m to have a nice wide beam so I could light the jump & Moe at the same time & on full because I wanted to get him to pop & not get lost in the trees.

Malcolm at Bel Air getting his Turndowns clicked

Nikon D70



ISO 400

This shot was a bit of quick thinking, the trick jump is not the best from the front which is usually a good angle for turndowns, so was forced to try something else & tried the 90° approach, but it wasn’t working here because just to the right of the shot as it is now is an opening in the trees & he was getting a bit lost in the sky & it was giving me some issues with exposure, so thought of going between the 2 & getting it at 45° & then the BG was working with me. Some nice shadow area in the trees to make the brighter colours pop, but having a black bike & dark jeans on I needed to rely on my lighting to get that to stand out. This time I had 1 SB-600 just to the left on full & 14m to light his back & side (got a bit of the flare in & am not too amped on it). The other SB-600 was on the far side of the landing to the right, on full & 85m to get a more concentrated beam on him to nearly get a rim light to get his back wheel out of the shadows.

Shooting wider like this means I can’t get my flashes in as close as I might like, so to get as much power out of them as possible I had my aperture wide open, so between f3.5 & f5.6 (this is where that f2.8 puppy will make my life a lot easier) speed was between 1/640th & 1/400th & upped my ISO as I needed for each shot & often wanted more of the flash & ambient light to come through, so went a little higher on this shoot than I normally like to & was anywhere between 200 & 500 ISO.

Pierre van der Merwe flying in Tokai

Nikon D70



ISO 500

I saw this shot on the shoot before this one & had to get it on the next visit.

Pierre’s kit helping me out big time, that green really pops, so with a bit of flash light on him I had no problems in getting him to stand out from the BG. Besides him there were 2 things I wanted in this shot that caught my attention on the previous visit & that was the logs up front & the bush with white flowers on the takeoff. I had an SB-600 next to the takeoff on full & 14m to light the bush, jump & him & the other SB-600 off to the right on full & 85m to get more light on him from the front. It was a little overcast & had my flashes quite far from him, so needed to up my ISO again to get a good balance between the flash & ambient light.

Wayne Reiche – Unturndown at Dirtopia

Nikon D70



ISO 200

For this shot I was lucky enough to borrow 2 of Wayne’s flashes, so had a 4 flash setup on this & was so good to be able to have so much control.

I had 1 flash either side of the landing on full & 14m to light him & the jump & 2 either side of the take off on full & 85m to give as strong rim as possible. The light was pretty low, so could slow my speed down a bit to get some light in the sky… could’ve gone for 1/800th if I wanted a just about completely black BG, but his dark pants would’ve blended in, so went for the brighter option.

Werner Matthee – Turndown at Richwood a.k.a The Farm ---- Front Curtain

Werner Matthee – Turndown at Richwood a.k.a The Farm ---- Rear Curtain

Nikon D70

1st shot on 1/25th

2nd shot on 1/20th

f/4.5 on both

ISO 250 on both

With these 2 shots I had a slower exposure to get more of the sunset colours to come through & when you work with slower shots like this & flash, you have the option of bringing in the flash timing & weather it goes off as you click the shutter (front curtain), or just before the shutter closes (rear curtain). I had one SB-600 to the right on full & 14m at about 45° to the landing & the other behind the jump on full & 85m for the rim light.

There was just about no light on the rider, so the fast flash burst freezes the action, but on the 1st shot I saw that the movement was after he was frozen & liked the effect, but was on front curtain & it wasn’t adding to the shot as much as it could have with my lighting the way it was. I also tend to try to go with rear curtain more often, because it gives the feeling as if the rider is moving forward, where the front curtain often makes it look as if the rider is going the wrong way.

I quickly changed to rear curtain & on his next run got the same shot, but this time I feel the “shadow” & rim light work together much better & the bright rim against the black makes him stand out much better & as I mentioned it gives more the feeling that he’s moving forward. I also slowed my speed down a stop for the 2nd shot, because obviously the later it got the lower the light was, so had to slow it down to get the same exposure on the sky & left the aperture as is for the flash exposure & pushed my ISO up 1 stop on both to get the flash exposure stronger.

Damion Devlin – Hip Boost at Richwood a.k.a The Farm

Nikon D200




It was just about pitch black when we got this & needed a really slow shutter speed to get some light in the sky behind him. The orange glow was from Cape Town’s lights reflecting off the mist, so had to slow down a lot to get some colour out of it. Once again a rather wide aperture to get enough light from the flashes on Damion & the jump & upped the ISO a bit because the flashes were rather far away from him. I had 1 SB-600 to the right on full & 14m almost at 90° to the jump to get nice harsh shadows & bring the texture out of the jump & the other on top of the jump to the left on full & 50m to light him & get a bit of light on the landing also nearly 90° to get good shadows that side too. The timing of the flashes/trick needed to be spot on & because of the long exposure I opted to go with front curtain so when I clicked I froze the action & movement happened after. There are 2 other options I could have gone with. The 1st would be quite tricky & that would be to use rear curtain & click as he hits the jump & hope the timing is good enough that the shutter closes & flashes go off as he’s at the peak of the air, but as I said, that will be tricky to work out where to click & was dark already & after a long session, so fiddling with that wouldn’t be too fun just then. The other option would be for me to put my cam on a tripod, take the trigger off my camera, possibly slow the shot down even more, click the camera as he leaves the jump & trigger the flashes manually at the right time, freezing the movement & then have the “shadow” trail go from the jump to the landing with him frozen in the middle. That was not an option for me at the time as both my tripods were under my flashes, but I’m keen to try something like that out in the near future. Have done it with friends just fooling around, but not with any serious action.

Gary Barnard – George DH Nationals

Nikon D70



ISO 200

Another thing flash can help you with is panning & helps the most when your subject is in the shade. Just like the last shot the flash burst freezes the action & there isn’t enough ambient light to give much of a blur if you don’t follow the rider perfectly. I had 1 SB-600 to the right on full & 14m (can see the difficulty of using off cam flashes & fisheye, I got the shadow of my wizard on the floor to the left.) & the other o the left on full & 85m to have stronger light on his back & help freeze him with the stronger burst.

I kept my ISO down so I could get the slowest speed possible, aperture for flash exposure again & speed for ambient light in the treetops & just click & follow as well as possible, but mainly rely on the flashes to freeze the action & the movement is more to blur the BG than anything else. For these I use front curtain, because again I want to freeze the rider as I click & not as the exposure ends.

Pierre in Tokai --- Processed RAW & Unedited

Edited image

Nikon D70



ISO 200

I would also like to touch on a very controversial side to photography… the post processing. Most people think that if an image has been through an editing program like Photoshop you have cheated & the image is “fake”. If you are one of those people I’m addressing you specifically. In the analogue days you would take your film to a processor & the next thing you see is a roll of slides or envelope with prints, because you were not aware of what they did behind the counter, the fact that your image had been “worked on” didn’t even enter your mind. Now when you do the exact same thing in Photoshop today people do not accept it, mainly because those people have no clue about Photoshop & have probably never opened the program up. So ignorance is a big factor to Photoshop’s bad rep. Fine, you can do more with an image in Photoshop than you can in a darkroom, but most of the time you don’t want to spend hours doing crazy adjustments to your images & I try to shoot correctly as much as possible to shorten the processing. I shoot quite a lot & try to get out at least twice to 3 times a week & if I got 15 good photos from each shoot & spent an hour on each I would spend my entire week editing, which is the last thing I want. I will admit though, in the beginning I did like to play with my shots more, but mainly because my skill behind the camera was lacking & to make up for it I would work more on my shot to get it how I wanted… but this is not the norm for 99% of professional & amateur photographers out there. A minor tweak in contras & colour is pretty much all I do to my images & every image of mine goes through Photoshop no matter how small the adjustment.

The 1st of the 2 is an unedited shot, only the RAW adjustments have been done & the 2nd is the edited one, so you can see it’s only really minor adjustments & on this one there was a little bit of root on the bottom left corner that was bugging me, so removed that, but I generally just crop edge problems out & very seldomly remove objects like this.

On the technical side I had one SB-600 behind the log on the right on full & 85m for the rim light on his left shoulder & the other just to the right of the landing on full & 14m to get light on him & under the goggles. I was lucky with the sun again & it was coming from back left & gave a good rim light on his right shoulder & top of his head. Again a fast speed & low ISO to underplay the sunlight & a wide aperture to get the most out of the flashes.

With all the technical aspects of photography one usually forgets about the most important thing in photography… composition. I have the luck of growing up surrounded by art photography & photographers & think that has given me a great advantage. Most riders get caught up with just framing the rider in the shot forgetting that the scenery is just as important if not more so than the rider. I always like to compare a tightly cropped shot of a rider with no scenery to a shot of a cricket ball against the sky. You have captured the action, but nothing else… you won’t know who is playing, where or how many spectators there are etc. A picture can say 1000 words… does yours say what you want? You need to think clearly of what you would like before you even touch a button on your camera. I often just walk around at a spot & watch the riders to see what looks good from where & how I can include the elements in my image. I then don’t need to struggle quite so much with my lighting & positioning of my flashes, because I see my shot or at least potential angles before I set anything up. Another important thing is to know the riders so you can find out what they are going to do so you can get a good angle for the trick & spot. Being a rollerblader I have had to learn all the BMX tricks & technicalities of DH lines etc. It is really important to know about the sport/subject so that you can capture it properly. Most of you on here won’t have that problem because you ride yourselves, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind when approaching a new subject.

I try to handle my subject from an art point of view & have the rider in the scenery rather than go for the tight shots. Don’t get me wrong, those are fun too, but I find that each spot is unique & offers different interesting elements & using them will give you much more variety in your work that just having a rider in the sky with maybe a little bit of the top of the jump or a DH rider tightly cropped in a berm… those type of shots generally look the same no matter where you shoot them & find I get bored very quickly if I shoot like that. I also like to try to get my work to be different & as unique as possible so that it stands out from the crowd. I don’t want to follow in any professionals footsteps, because that style has been done & then, just like copying a riding style you will always be 2nd best to whoever you are emulating.

There is so much to cover in photography that I could go on forever, but think this is a good start to understanding what it takes to get good quality images. So the next time you want to copy someone’s work without their permission, just think of them carrying 20kg’s of gear up a mountain or the years it takes to get the knowledge to capture that image or the amount of money they’ve spent on gear to be able to capture it & that’s not even touching on the drive to get to the spot. It’s so easy to say, “Chill man, it’s just a photo.” To the photographer it’s loads of money, sweat & years of hard work & is not very nice to take that from them… remember, we make you look good… it’s in your best interest to keep us happy so we can keep you happy & looking good! ;)

I’m hoping to stay with action sports & make a career out of it & work for the big international mags like Dirt, MBUK, RideBMX, etc, but wanted to get my work to a certain standard before I approached them & get top of the range gear to produce images worthy of being in those top magazines. I think I’m just about ready. I have already been asked for some photos by RideBMX & had 2 shots in the April issue, which I’m really stoked on. So… so far, so good. Hope it keeps going that way & that my dream of traveling the world shooting the pros & meeting great new people will become a reality.

Thanks for taking the time to read me rambling on about what I love to do. Hope this is helpful to any aspiring photographers, educational to the rest & explains my take on things…






wow man, the part with the flashes was helpful, thanks.
just need to get one now

Jimbo said...

nice article Erik, this would have take you long to write but probably will help lot of people out there.