action sequence photography :: the skatepark :: fdr park :: philadelphia

Popular these days has become action sequence photography. Today, my friends, I am prepared to give you my rendition of this type of creative work. Of course my path will be that of an unconventional style, askew if you will, but in the end, God help us, I will have hoped to have brought your photographic knowledge to a level, before today, unknown.

Preface

Action sequence photography. What the hell is it? The opening photograph should be a clear clue of how to define this niche of action photos. Basically, the subject of action is shown repetitively throughout their course of skill, from origin to endpoint. The goal of such a photo can really emphasize each movement a subject goes through to complete that given discipline. For instance, by analyzing the photo herein, you, the viewer, can really dissect the rider as he travels though the air. Where his hands are held. How his feet are positioned. How and where the board is positioned. Etc.

Action sequence photography is used throughout many sports, many activities and for many reasons. Education is a biggie. Think of a pitcher in baseball. How useful would it be for his or her coach to have captured, each of his or her movements throughout the initiation and completion of his or her throwing a curve ball? I know I've only created four versions of the skateboarder but with time and patience and some skill, you can really go for broke. As long as your camera can motor drive fast enough, card write quickly enough and, if applicable, your strobes recycle fast enough, you can blast the hell out of the sequence. You are in fact, at the mercy of your gear when it comes to this type of photography.

Another reason for this type of work is advertising. Well, this is probably a case of what came first, the chicken or the egg? I'd probably bet the farm and say action sequence photography was born if not popularized by advertising. I'll even go further.

Back in 2009, Seattle based advertising photographer, director and simply the top dog mack daddy of the photo world, Chase Jarvis released [THIS] video (I advise watching before reading any further). In the video you will see Chase and his crew demonstrate a few things. First, the power of the Broncolor strobes that they plan on using for the action sequence shoot. Chase and his boys show how fast the heads recycle while motor driving at high frame rates. More importantly, they are to demonstrate how quickly the memory card is able to write while rapid firing away, endlessly, at the athletes. More importantly? The end product, the action sequence of the skiers, were used for a SanDisk campaign, promoting their new line of professional memory cards.

Chase's [VIDEO] has, over the last couple of years, gained immense popularity in the photographic world giving recognition and/or birth to what we know today as action sequence photography. Soon after the video grew legs the funny stuff came to follow.

Most in the know, in the photography scene, are aware of Chase's recital of "strobe, strobe, strobe, strobe, strobe, strobe, strobe" in a portion of the video. That's the part he pumps the power of the Broncolor heads. Utter those words in sequence around most photographers and they will immediately associate the words with Chase Jarvis. Less than a year after the video's release, the Lighten Up and Shoot team of Mike and Andy, returned fire with a similar video, only they were being total smart asses. Rather than use a Broncolor head to create the action sequence, they used a much more affordable speedlite. Check out that video [HERE]. The making fun of Chase begins around 3:05 into the video.

The point of all this is that Chase, with his SanDisk campaign, put action sequence photography on the map and photographers around the globe have been giving it a try with various amounts of success. Funny thing is, it can be more challenging than Chase, Mikey or Andy make it seem in their BTS vids.

Ok, that was one hell of a preface. Let's get into the fun stuff, the stuff that has brought us here today.

A Beautiful Afternoon

The day was one of beauty in this late summer month. The temperature was hanging around the mid 70s (Fahrenheit), almost fall like outside in Philadelphia. Ah, a nice sign that the sweltering days are almost behind us for yet another season.

It was a day that called for some personal work. I've been working indoors with food lately and I've been getting a bit itchy, a bit stir crazy, needing to get my gear outdoors.

I decided to head on down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park (a.k.a. FDR park or The Lakes) in South Philly.  Why there? Around the backside of the park, under I-95, is a well known skatepark. You may recall I hit the skatepark a few months back. To refresh your memory, you can read about it [HERE]. Needless to say, a grungy, unkempt, graffitied skatepark such as this is a magnet, a haven, for talent, crime and uniquity. I needed to get down there.

Pack It Up, Pack It In, Let Me Begin


I packed up the Xterra with some essentials. I loaded the large Tenba, packed to the brim; D4, 24-70 2.8, 85 1.8, 50 1.4, 4 strobes, Pocketwizards, 24 AAs, clamps, cables, filters and other accessories. Along with the loaded Tenba, I had my Feisol, Westcott Apollo and 10 foot Calumet light stand. Was all this necessary? Probably not but I would rather be safe than sorry. Look, I didn't even take a single strobe out of the pack, let alone four strobes. Not the point. I had the truck, I was able to easily pack some extra gear and had the opportunity presented itself, I would have absolutely brought out the strobes.

I hit the road by about 1 p.m. I was still in need of caffeine and a bit of a snack. I wasn't totally hungry but I wanted to make my belly happy before arriving. I hit one of the bodegas in my hood, grabbed a 20 ounce cup of black coffee and WHAT?! What did I just see before my eyes?!?! BACON JERKY?!?! Look, I'm a HUUGGEEE beef jerky junkie and seeing bacon jerky could mean only one thing... HEAVEN. Sold.

Traffic wasn't bad so I headed south on Broad Street (usually avoided due to horrific traffic) towards FDR Park which lies near the sports complex. I was enjoying a cool breeze, listening to the ambient sounds of RJD2, and about to open the bag to my next addiction. The bacon jerky? What a letdown. As I did anticipate to some extent, it was like eating fat jerky, dried fat. Would I try it again? Probably. Was I impressed? Far from it. I digress.

I hung a right off of Broad St. and onto Pattison Ave. The first left is the entrance to the park. Traffic allows only a right turn, one-way, around the park. It's a couple mile drive until reaching the backside, where the park lies beneath I-95. The route around to the park was scenic in and of itself, worthy of photography the entire way. There are picnicking locations, one after another, along the entire route. Talk about unique, each station had its own colorful group of family and/or friends. The permanent grilling stations at each picnicking spot were the keystones for each family's conversation. Mental note for a day of street/editorial shooting.

In minutes I arrive to the [familiar] skatepark. It's dirty, dilapidated and dark. Probably not a place where you'd want to leave a child alone. The scene was quite different than my last visit. The grounds were just about vacant, maybe five cars scattered around the dusty and glass ridden lot. I pull right up to the concrete structures, giving me quick access to gear if need be. This was a treat as last visit, the closest spot I found was about a quarter mile from ground zero.

As I exit the Xterra I take a scan of my surroundings. I try and quickly recognize where the heavy hitters are hanging. You see, there is always a variety of talent at this park. You can find the polished poser, there to be seen and the dusty dirty hipster, with not a care in the world but tearing it up. He's the guy you want to shoot. He's the one you have to find.

I grabbed my camera and decided to work first with the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and ultimately with the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G. I wanted the faster glass and more compressed backgrounds. Focus would prove difficult if working wide open but I was up for the challenge.

I first made my way to the shorter or the two half-pipes. I took a seat on a piece of wood which seemed to be placed perfectly for my big butt to take a low shooting angle. Moments after taking position, I notice a fellow photographer working her way towards me. She took my lead and also sat on the dirty piece of lumber. I introduced myself and she did likewise. Turns out, Anne, is a photography major at Drexel University. She had passion. I could feel. it. She also wasn't packing light. Anne was shooting a Canon 5d ii or iii, I couldn't be sure. Strapped to her 5d was the Canon EF 24-105 f/4.0 L series. No plastic fantastic for this woman. We spoke briefly before I needed to relocate for better shots.

It was at this point when I swapped the holy trinity lens for the 85.

I work my way to the Back Bowls of the park. Atop these structures is where you typically find the hardcore staking their claim. It's hard to get up there but when you do, you find a plethora of characters doing whatever they please; drinking, smoking weed or simply sunbathing and shooting the shit with a fellow skater, the scene up there would be intimidating to many. As for myself, I feel right at home. My attire is similar of the skaters. My camera equipment, and dirty Chucks are my calling card that I am a "friendly," simply there to get creative while appreciating their talents.

I look around the back end for some approval as I'm not there to piss anyone off. I respect privacy and if they feel my camera work would be a distraction to their dangerous maneuvers, I would happily oblige to putting the gear away.

My move? I hold my camera up high, overhead and let the skaters see what I'm about, why I'm up on their bowl. I received affirmative head nods all around. It's go time!

Seconds after they allow me into their realm, I know they have found comfort as I immediately see and smell the weed being smoked right next to me, with no attempts at hiding it. They know I'm not a threat.

There were a few talented ones but I'm always looking for the bad ass, the one that will tear it up, the one that I can feel and anticipate their moves, knowing they aren't going to crash and burn every single run. Quickly, I zero in on my mark. I must say he was a sleeper. The guy was dressed more like a prep school kid than a hipster skater. His Vans were whiter than my dirty Chucks. Guys like this I would typically label a poser from the get go. Let me just say, this dude taught me to not judge a book by its cover. Talk about skills. He was killing it!

The Happy Mistakes

This part may in fact piss you off. You see the opener, the action sequence? I had zero intentions of shooting an action sequence. Lemme explain.

The easiest way to shoot an action sequence is to plant a set of sticks (tripod), lock it into place where you anticipate your skater to skate, lock in your camera and motor drive away. This will ensure that in post production, your background will be locked down and you can simply drop each frame on top of the other and simply mask out the skater from each. Once complete you can flatten the layers into one and you have awesome action sequence photography. The key player for the sequence being your stabilized camera atop the tripod system.

If you've been paying attention thus far, where is my Feisol carbon fiber tripod system? Back at the Xterra.

I had no intentions of an action sequence. I did, however, have the D4 cranked up to 11fps, ready to motor drive away. My focus was set to AF-C 3D. This allows for fast focus locking on moving subjects, in any plane of direction. Once he dropped in I would follow him and once hitting a trick, I would then motor drive away.

Shooting him was like a Chinese all you can eat buffet. Easy pickins'.

About 400 frames and a couple of hours later, I was back at my digs, ready to review what I had shot for the day. Again, by this point, I still had no idea that I was going to work an action sequence.

It was about 2/3 into the 400 RAW files when I found this series of images. That's when I had the epiphany, the vision to create an action sequence. The 9 files you are viewing above are the actual, unedited RAW files, opened in Photoshop, simply to help show what it was that I noticed when running through all the images.

I mentioned before that a tripod is paramount when it comes to action sequence photography. Necessary? No. But if you want to make your life a whole lot easier, the tripod is king.

Take a close look at the sequence above. I shot entirely handheld, tracking the subject throughout the trick. You can see this since he is basically center frame in each file. More, in each frame, the background changes due to my panning left throughout the series. Not ideal for an action sequence but with post production skill and lots of patience, very doable.

But I see 9 frames, your action sequence only has 4. What gives Michael? 

With action sequences, overlapping is a problem to some, a variable to others. The time to mask out overlaps are much much longer than those that do not overlap, ESPECIALLY with the unstable background.

I simplified and removed the overlappers.

Mask out?

Damn, I knew I should have saved this article for another year, decade even. The key to producing the action sequence, along with the fast memory card, the camera that can fire like an M-16 and the strobes that can keep up, is the ability to have mastered Layer Masks in Photoshop. Some prefer to load each file into a Stacks but I personally found it easier to drop one layer in at each time for each individual edit.

Let me try to clarify. I begin first with the first RAW file, the skater at the very beginning of his trick. I then drop on top of that primary locked layer, the next frame, slightly further in on the trick. I then add a layer mask to that second layer and hit Command-I on a Mac (I have no effing clue what the PC shortcut is). This will invert that layer mask (black), making that second layer invisible. Next, I grab a white brush, hardness of about 40% and paint in where the skater would be on the second frame. If you paint too much, simply hit X on the keyboard, inverting the brush to black and that will allow you to paint away what you have overpainted. Layer masks are awesome once mastered.

Once you have the second layer perfect, it is time for the third...

Wash, Rinse and Repeat.

Once each layer looks awesome, it it is time to merge the layers and export the file to a .jpg, save and wrap for the day.

BAM!! ACTION SEQUENCE! CAKE! YOU CAN DO IT!!!

Summarization

Never discount what you have shot for a day. You may have gold in there. Never delete files on a shoot or ever for that matter. I promise, from time to time, you will go back and find a gem which you once thought was dog shit.

Anne, good luck with your photographic journey, it is always awesome, I promise.

The skaters at FDR park, I truly thank you.

Until next time...

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