Explore the art of skateboarding photography and find pro tips on capturing photos that highlight this dynamic subculture born out of California.
Once referred to as “sidewalk surfing,” the sport of skateboarding as a way to mimic surfing on land emerged in Southern California in the ’50s and is alive and well today. Skateboarding as a counterculture is thriving, with recent films bringing skateboarding back into the spotlight as the OG (original) cool kids’ sport.
Within the creative industry, you will find films like director Crystal Moselle’s “Skate Kitchen” featuring a group of teenage girls in New York City finding themselves through skateboarding in the city. Or Jonah Hill’s directorial introduction “Mid90s,” a fictional but realistic homage to the California skateboarding of his youth. Films like these have resurfaced our love of the sport, which is why it’s more important than ever to capture images of skateboarding as a culture through photography.
We wanted to know how the pros capture kinetic, authentic photos of skateboarding? So, we asked the, for their advice. In the following article, we speak to three professional skateboard photographers on their tips and advice for fellow photographers who want to create skateboarding images. Here’s what they had to say.
French Pro Skateboarding Photographer
An internationally-recognized figure in the skateboarding world, Fred is a self-taught director and photographer acclaimed for his images of skateboarding and street photography. When asked about his tips on shooting great images of skateboarding, here’s what he had to say.
Fred’s Pro Tip: Recognize the key moment of a trick
“It’s crucial to understand when to shoot a trick,” says Fred Mortagne, adding that there’s a “key moment for all of them. If you shoot just before, or just after, the picture will be of no interest. That’s a typical mistake people make.”
Mortagne is considered one of the legendary photographers and cinematographers of today. 37 years ago, he was an 8-year-old French kid when he first stepped on a skateboard. Today, he does commercial work for brands like Redbull, Hermes, and Leica. And his first tip: adapt to every situation. “When I know that a great shot is ahead of me, I don’t let myself be stopped by a fence, to have to climb on a rooftop, or to have to lay down on some dirty ground.”
Fred’s Pro Tip: Composition is Key
Mortagne shares that composition is “probably the main ingredient in [my] photography,” adding that a “well-composed image makes such a difference.”
He noted how location can sometimes be decisive. When you pay attention to the location you commonly shoot in rather than simply focusing on the skateboarder, you will soon develop your own style. “I haven’t been shooting on every spot or session I’ve been to. I’ve only done so in highly photogenic and minimalist places, involving great architecture… locations with a certain geometry, free of visual pollution,” shares Mortagne of his decision on where to shoot. “I found my style when I literally took some distance from the spots, creating images with tiny skateboarders evolving in grandiose urban environments. As opposed to classic skateboarding photography, I based my work on the style and aesthetics of the sport, rather than the performance.”
Fred’s Pro Tip: Capture the relationship between the skater and the location
As you pay closer attention to the locations that attract you, Mortagne says that another aspect is to capture the relationship between the skater and the place where the skater does their trick.
“Skateboarding is about doing a trick on a spot, especially obstacles that were not designed for skateboarding,” he says, adding that one of the most classic mistakes that many mainstream press photographers do is to “shoot a skateboarder from down below, over a sky background.”
Mortagne says it depends on the intention and outcome and for him, it’s always been all about creating your own rules. “That’s what I did about my images, which didn’t follow the classical guidelines, and therefore I could build a unique body of work with images that stand out of the others,” he shares.
Known for his black and white shots that fuse skateboarding and architecture, Mortagne says he’s always wanted to bring something different than what’s common in magazines. “My images can speak to people who don’t know anything about skateboarding. I mostly shoot only easy and basic tricks. It’s more a universal approach, not attached to any skateboarding era or trend… and that’s why I used b&w, to reinforce this timeless feel,” he shares. “It brings an artistic and poetic feel to the images. It changes everything.”
Photographer based in Manila, Philippines
Mark Cristino is a Filipino photographer based in Manila. He shoots news and sports for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) for a living, but his relationship with skateboarding started around summer of ‘99, just after high school graduation.
“I started taking photos when I fractured my ankle in a freak football accident,” he shares. After getting his first camera, a Nikon d40, Cristino began photographing his friends and their love of skateboarding.
Mark’s Pro Tip: It’s (a lot) Easier If You Skate
“It’s a big advantage if you actually skate. Knowing the basics and fundamental tricks makes it easy,” says Cristino when asked about important things new photographers should know. While you can get away with magazines and Google research, it’s advantageous if you know how to skate. Crisanto also noted that when shooting the skateboarding scene, it usually falls in two categories: art photo and advertisement photo. “Art photo [is] for your own visual pleasure, while the ad photo will be for the sponsor,” he shares. “But sometimes you can mix it up.”
Mark’s Pro Tip: Show your images to skateboarders
Cristino says that labelling a shot as “great” is subjective to the viewer, but skateboarders know which shots work. “Show your picture to the skater you’re shooting and they’ll tell you if it’s good or not. Most of them will ask you if you can take a photo again or another trick that they would like,” he says, highlighting the importance of communication between subject and photographer.
Mark’s Pro Tip: Try different lenses
While fisheye is the most common lens for skateboarding, Cristino advises folks to try different lenses like prime lenses 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and a telephoto lens, and to play around with strobes. Essentially, be creative. Go outside the box. It’ll be fun.
Photographer based in Toronto, Ontario
“I was capturing the skater as they wanted me to,” says Mike Manis. After hanging out a lot at local skateparks and building friendships with the skateboarders, Manis shares how they would, “give me tips on what to capture, when to capture, and how to capture it.” From this, he learned that one of the most important aspects of skateboard photography is asking permission.
Mike’s Pro Tip: Ask permission before you shoot
“Always ask permission. Get to know your skater. Know the name of the tricks. If you’re not sure about something, ask the skater” says Mike. Mike Manis is a skateboard photography enthusiast who is big on connecting with the skaters. For him, it’s not just about shooting. It’s also about communicating. Not being ashamed to ask questions. We are all learning, after all.
Mike’s Pro Tip: Practice, practice, practice
For Manis, practice is the biggest advice he can give. “I bought my first DSLR in 2008. I’ve shot celebrities, cars, motorcycles, fashion shows, and sports, and I’m completely self-taught,” he shares. Utilizing social media is also helpful as Manis suggests to follow pro skateboarders and skateboard photographers alike. Being inspired is the first step to deeply learning about something.
Mike’s Pro Tip: Experiment with gear
When it comes to gear, Manis shoots with an oldie but goodie Nikon D3 full frame camera. His go-to lens is a Nikon 8-15mm fisheye and he plays around with four different off-camera flashes for fill in light. Manis says camera settings can be tough because “it always changes,” but it’s all about practicing and experimenting.
You won’t learn how to take great skateboarding shots overnight. That is one long journey. Finding your own definition for ‘great’ skateboarding shot is, is yet another long journey. But if you love what you do and you’re open and willing to learn, you will find yourself enjoying every step of the way.
Top image by Wirestock Images.
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