Setting Up The Camera For Skateboard Photography

A few practical tips in setting up the camera for both general and skateboard photography to get better results and make your life as a photographer a bit easier.

Words and photography: Maksim Kalanep

1. Basic Setup

Make sure you've got the basic things like date and copyright set first when you start using a new camera. These are important. If not set - data will be left just blank or incorrect in all of your images. And in the future - when for one or another reason you might need those to be present in your files - they won't be there. If you bought your digital camera second hand - change copyright straight away or you'll end up with some shots copyrighted under someone's else name.

A good idea would be to change the first 3 letters of the file names produced by your camera as well. A default image file name is usually more or less in the format like this - DSC1234.jpg or DSC1234.raw (each brand has it own .raw extension). You can have it set to PPP1344.jpg or PPP1234.raw - short for Peter Paterson Photography for example. This way you won't mix these files with files from another camera and you will know that any PPPXXXX.jpg file most likely belongs to you.

2. Image Quality, Size, Colour Space & Backup

After you're done with the basics - set the image quality to RAW setting with the highest bit depth number available (12, 14 or 16) and the image size to the maximum resolution output your camera is capable of. Set colour space to Adobe RGB if you have an option to do that. All of this is essential if you'd like to utilise the maximum image quality of your camera.

If your camera has two memory card slots - decide on how you would like to use those. You can use one as a primary slot and 2nd as a backup or you can split Raw files with Jpegs and save them on separate cards. The third option is to set the camera to start using the 2nd slot once the first one is full.

I prefer to use the first method since I always process RAW files and don't require Jpegs. Plus backup is available instantly if I need it. And this way I never have to remove my 2nd memory card out of its slot. By doing this I minimise the chance of damage to it or the pins of the camera. Once I copied the files from the 1st memory card to a safe place - I format both memory cards in camera.

3. Format

Always format - fully erase - files from your memory cards in camera, not on your computer. And don't mix up memory cards from different cameras unless you format them with that camera before use.

4. Auto Focus Button (AF / AF-ON)

Most cameras have the auto focus button (AF) assigned to the shutter release button - the one you use to take photographs. You half press that, camera auto focuses and then when the focus is confirmed you take the shot with the same button by pressing it all the way down. The problem with this method is that when the camera can't confirm the focus point - you literally can't take the photograph. You press all the way down - but nothing happens. It will work eventually when the camera finds the focus, but the moment is gone by that time.

A better practice would be to separate both functions and assign them to separate buttons. Leave shutter release button to where it is supposed to be and assign auto focus function (AF) to one of the buttons on the back of the camera. Not all the cameras will let you to relocate auto focus function to a random button - but if that is possible that will improve your shooting experience since you can take photographs even when the focus is not confirmed. For most of the prosumer or high-end bodies, all you have to do is to take away the auto focus function from shutter release button in the setting menu since these bodies already have a dedicated auto focus button at the back of the camera (usually called AF-On) which you can use from now on.

This will also help with the situations where you need to pre-focus and you don't want to lose that setting by accidentally pressing shutter release button which activates auto focus if you haven't disabled it.

5. Shooting Mode

You can set most of the cameras into 5 shooting modes - Full Auto, P, A, S, M. Each of these modes tells the camera what it can control for you and what you'd like to be in charge of. 

Full Auto - camera will decide what the optimal settings are and set those for a great result.

P or Program - depending on the scene camera sets the optimal settings for you first as in full auto mode, you can adjust shutter speed or aperture and the camera will adjust everything else accordingly to keep the best exposure for that scene.

A or Aperture priority mode - you set the aperture setting and camera controls the rest - shutter speed, ISO, etc. for the optimal result.

S or Shutter priority mode - you set the shutter speed and camera controls the aperture, ISO, etc for the best result.

M or Manual mode - you set everything - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. yourself with the help of the inbuilt meter or external light meter.

Depending on what you are shooting each mode can be very convenient especially when you have no time to adjust things.

For shooting action - manual mode will be the best since you'd ideally want to be in charge of your depth of field (aperture) and shutter speed (1/1000th sec or faster). The only setting left once these two are set is the ISO. Some cameras will let you put ISO into auto mode separately, so once aperture and shutter speed are chosen - the camera can automatically control ISO speed depending on the changing light conditions to give you the optimal exposure. This is very practical when the light changes a lot through the shoot.

With film cameras, this is a bit trickier - since film speed is a set parameter. So if you are already wide open (aperture) and at the minimum shutter speed of 1/1000th sec for the action and then the film is rated at 400 ISO - all you left with if light changes (becomes darker) is to push the film. That means you start rating your film at a higher ISO setting like 800 or 1600. Then when you are done shooting and take your films for developing - you keep them longer in the developer to compensate for the adjustment you did to the ISO setting. Not all films can be pushed, though. And not all the labs will do that for you. Works best with B&W films.

6. Aperture

If you are not after a very shallow depth of field and you have got enough available light - stop down camera's aperture for sharper results. None of the lenses perform to the maximum when wide open, so when you stop them down - you get closer to their pick performance and you also reduce any other optical issues that your lens might produce when at the large aperture - like vignetting, soft corners, chromatic aberrations, etc.

On average most of the lenses perform the best at around f/8 aperture.

This is very crucial for fisheye work - when wide open at f/2.8 - only a tiny central part of the shot is sharp when in focus, the rest of the image is quite soft. For example board and shoes of the rider will be sharp, but the rest of the body - his arms, head, etc. will be blurry. Stop the aperture down to f/7.1 - f/8 and the results will improve dramatically.

7. Pre-Focus

When shooting action - always pre-focus. Ask a rider or someone else to stand where the trick will go down and get the focus point then. This is essential since you don't want to rely on auto focus when actually shooting the action. This is also where a dedicated auto focus button comes in handy - the camera will keep the same focus setting for you even after taking the shot unless you press AF button again to refocus. And you won't ruin focus with half-pressing the release button by accident either.

8. Tripod & Remote Release

For sharper results and to reduce any shake that can be a result of the hand held shooting - use tripod & remote release. This is important for high-resolution cameras with high-density sensors - these are very sensitive to movement and require faster shutter speeds or support of the tripod & remote release.

This combination is also a very useful tool when you have a set composition and want to frame everything precisely. Once set - you can pre-focus and then keep everything intact and shoot with a press of a button on your remote shutter release every time the rider comes in with a new try.