A Photographer’s Buyer’s Guide

A Photographer’s Buyer’s GuideThe confessions of a gear fiend.By Scott Pommier

You could fill several relatively thick books with descriptions of all the potential gear options available to photographers. This article is far from comprehensive; the goal is two-part. 1. To let you know what equipment is favored by professionals working in the skateboard-magazine industry (and why). 2. To present some (semi) affordable alternatives and where they exist. Of course, exceedingly expensive equipment is not necessary to enjoy photography. All you need is a camera and a dream, or wait, no, you need a camera and some film. But if you have a dream to become a skate photographer, here are a few more things you might want to consider picking up.

Where To Buy

Brand-new equipment is usually very expensive. It’s nice to have a warranty and to have a salesperson help you with your questions, but the premium you pay for these luxuries simply may not be within your means. Fear not, buying used camera equipment does not carry the same stigma as buying used underclothing—even the pros can be found scowling eBay for deals or popping into pawn shops for an overlooked, underpriced piece for their collection. Of course, caution and skepticism are key when it comes to plunking down hundreds of dollars for pre-loved gadgets. If at all possible, bring a knowledgeable photo-nerd friend along.

At the very least, inspect items thoroughly, make sure that lenses are free of mold, that parts move smoothly and easily, that there’re no missing parts, and that items are compatible with your kit. Try and bargain for some kind of return policy, or see if you can run a roll of film through a camera or with a new lens before buying. If you can’t find what you’re looking for used, you’ll be forced to buy it new. While I normally like to support smaller local businesses, I make an exception when it comes to camera equipment, since nearly every camera store is staffed by unconscionable pricks. There are a few exemptions to this rule: The Camera Store in Calgary and Lens And Repro in New York, for example, are excellent retailers with knowledgeable, friendly salespeople, but I can’t think offhand of any others—and let me tell you, I’ve been to a lot of camera stores. There’re huge mail-order companies like B And H, Calumet, and Adorama that sell gear for much less than small retail operations. They’re pricks, too, but at least the stuff is cheap.

Cameras

35mm

The 35mm SLR is probably still the most versatile camera available. SLR is an abbreviation for Single Lens Reflex. What that means in practical terms is that when you put your eye to the viewfinder, you’re looking right through the lens. There’re 35mm cameras that aren’t SLRs—they’re either rangefinders or point-and-shoot cameras. These cameras certainly have their applications, but using them to shoot action photos is often awkward or impractical.

One of the big advantages to the 35mm SLR is the huge variety of lenses available for the more popular brands (Nikon, Canon, and Minolta). Also, the technology has been around long enough that it’s possible to find an older used camera that’ll produce excellent results for a modest investment. Compared to other formats, the lenses are downright cheap. The purchase of the ever-popular 2.8 70—200mm zoom lens will require some serious allowance budgeting and probably an after-school job, but the medium-format focal-length equivalent would require an investment on par with the Kelly Blue Book value of a 1997 Civic hatchback in “fair condition.

Other advantages include the compact size of many 35mm SLRs and its extensive array of features, semi reliable auto-focus, and in some cases a motordrive, which enables you to shoot sequences. For a publishable sequence you’re probably looking for a camera that can shoot six frames per second (fps) or faster.

What The Pros Use

Skateboard photographers tend to for either of the Nikon or Canon flagships. Namely the Nikon F5 or the Canon EOS 1V. Both of these cameras are pretty rugged, have fast motordrives, flash sync at 1/250th of a second, excellent built-in light meters, and fast auto focus. The most commonly used lenses are 15 or 16mm fisheyes, 28—80 2.8 zoom and 80—200 2.8 zooms. It’s recommended to buy lenses of the same brand as your camera.

Note: The sync is the fastest shutter speed that you can use a flash. 1/250th is about the slowest sync speed that you can get away with shooting in the bright sunlight without having your photos come out blurry.

Affordable Alternatives

You simply can’t go wrong with an old Nikon FM2. Nikon has never changed its lens mount, so all of the older lenses fit on all the new cameras and vice versa. FM2s are simple, reliable cameras with accurate light meters, and they sync at 1/250th. And Daniel Harold Sturt still uses one for those jaw-dropping Geoff Rowley Vans ads.

Medium Format

Most of the still images that you see in TransWorld SKATEboarding or almost any “action sport magazine are shot with medium-format cameras. This buying pattern can be more or less traced back to one man, Atiba Jefferson. I’m sure Atiba shudders at the thought that his influence as a photographer has extended into the realm of “aggressive inline, but there’s not much he can do about it at this point. Once everyone saw how crisp “Hasselfish photos could be, there was no going back.

The advantage of shooting medium format is that the film is larger, meaning it can hold more detail. Also many medium-format cameras allow the photographer to switch film backs midway through a roll of film. This allows a photographer to shoot a few frames of black and white film, switch backs, shoot a few frames of color, and then perhaps switch back again. Also, many cameras will accept Polaroid backs allowing photographers to shoot a test image (or in my case, several test images) to preview the lighting conditions, framing, et cetera.

The drawbacks to these cameras are their size, weight, and cost. The term “medium format covers three different sizes—6cm x 6cm, 6cm x 4.5cm, and 6cm x 7cm. The 6cm x 6cm is the most common in the skateboard world. As you can see, this yields a square image, unlike 35mm cameras—unlike the shape of the page on which this buyer’s guide is printed. Magazines have adjusted by allowing the photos to spill across two pages, but sometimes it’s hard finding a photo that can be trimmed for a cover.

What The Pros Use

Hasselblad cameras are all but universal. Most skateboard photographers opt for the simple 500 series, two backs, a Polaroid back, and a PM 45 prism. A couple photographers have gone in for the 500 series’ pricier cousin, the 203 FE—the advantage being the ability to swap between a focal plane shutter (like in a 35mm SLR) and the leaf shutter in the lens. This allows for faster shutter speeds, especially useful for available-light action photos.

A couple of guys opt for Bronica’s Z series. The optics are decent, and the bodies are reliable. Accessories are far more reasonably priced, but if a lens fails, finding a replacement to rent might be a little tricky. The Rollieflex 6008 is a beauty, but it’s nearly as pricey as Hasselblad, as well as being less common, so repairs or rentals would be problematic, although a 1/1,000th of a second flash sync is mighty appealing. Favored focal lengths include 30mm fisheyes, 80mm, 120mm, 150mm. Zoom lenses are far less common when it comes to medium-format equipment.

Affordable Alternatives

Mamiya TLR—Twin Lens Reflex—and cameras like those aren’t quite as versatile as Hasselblads, but they’re excellent cameras. They’re simple to use, and they can yield very sharp photos. Older cameras in this style sometimes don’t have very good lens coatings, so pictures shot with them can have less contrast. Many TLRs like Mamiya’s 333 will sync at 1/500th of a second, and many are capable of very short focusing distances, but parallax (if you don’t know what parallax is, look it up in the dictionary!) comes into play. Also, there’re no fisheyes for TLRs.

Digital

There’re a couple of ways to look at the purchase of a digital camera. While the Nikon D2H and the Canon EOS 1D (each camera is compatible with the traditional 35mm lenses of the same brand) do enjoy popularity with the pros, their usefulness is somewhat limited. I don’t know of any skate photographers who use these cameras to the exclusion of all others. (Actually, I think Rick Kosick did for a minute. I once told him that I wasn’t all that happy with the results I was getting with my EOS 1D, he told me that my problem was that I was “thinking traditional.) For the most part, these cameras are being used to shoot sequences and little else. I, for one, am glad to be done with 3200 speed black and white film—carrying bricks of sequence film through airport security is just as much of a pain as trying to track the stuff down in some Nebraska hamlet. That having been said, I’m not really overly enthusiastic about most of the digital stuff I’ve seen printed so far. Digital cameras are great in a few respects, being able to see the results from toying with a camera’s controls or moving lights can teach you a great deal about photography in a very short period of time. So in that respect they’re extremely valuable, but as far as producing images fit for publication in a skateboard magazine, don’t believe the hype.

Unless you’re buying two cameras, I’d go with a good old (traditional) film camera. Of course, new technology is always coming out, so by the time this article makes it to print there may be a fantastic new camera that produces images superior to traditional film—still new technology is usually prohibitively expensive.

What The Pros Use
Eos 1D, Eos 1D Mark IINikon D2H

Lighting

You only need to pick up a copy of Sports Illustrated to see that traditionally sports photography is shot with long telephoto lenses using only available light. Photos in skateboarding magazines are very distinctive because they don’t rely solely on the Earth’s sun or stadium lighting to provide illumination. Under anything but absolutely ideal condition, skateboard photographers furnish their own lights. They generally use small flashes triggered to fire simultaneously with the shutter by radio transmitters (I’ll get to that in a minute). Some fall into the less-is-more camp. I myself am a member of the more-is-more school of thought. Three is sort of a standard number of flashes to provide the coverage necessary, though I’ve seen amazing photos shot with a single flash (like many of the older photos in that Independent Trucks book). I’ve shot some photos that I’ve been very happy with, but I can’t imagine trying to shoot with fewer than six. Bear in mind, I’m crazy.

Handle Mount Flashes

This is the most common style for the working skateboard photographer. They’re a reasonable size, provide a decent amount of juice, and have short enough flash durations (the length of time the flash burst lasts—it’s usually faster than 1/1,200th of second) to freeze the action.

What the Pros Use

Generally, North American skateboard photographers stick to Sunpak 555s and 544s while their European counterparts seem to favor Metz 45s or 60s.

On Camera Flash

Sometimes these are called “cobra flashes because of their shape. There’re countless varieties, with a seemingly endless list of features. Some of these smaller flashes are every bit as powerful as their handle mount brethren, but are usually much pricier. What you want to pay attention too when you’re sizing your options up here are the guide numbers, the duration, and recycling times. You’ll probably want your flash to be able to keep up with your motordrive if you’ve got one. TTL metering (meaning the flash f a second, and many are capable of very short focusing distances, but parallax (if you don’t know what parallax is, look it up in the dictionary!) comes into play. Also, there’re no fisheyes for TLRs.

Digital

There’re a couple of ways to look at the purchase of a digital camera. While the Nikon D2H and the Canon EOS 1D (each camera is compatible with the traditional 35mm lenses of the same brand) do enjoy popularity with the pros, their usefulness is somewhat limited. I don’t know of any skate photographers who use these cameras to the exclusion of all others. (Actually, I think Rick Kosick did for a minute. I once told him that I wasn’t all that happy with the results I was getting with my EOS 1D, he told me that my problem was that I was “thinking traditional.) For the most part, these cameras are being used to shoot sequences and little else. I, for one, am glad to be done with 3200 speed black and white film—carrying bricks of sequence film through airport security is just as much of a pain as trying to track the stuff down in some Nebraska hamlet. That having been said, I’m not really overly enthusiastic about most of the digital stuff I’ve seen printed so far. Digital cameras are great in a few respects, being able to see the results from toying with a camera’s controls or moving lights can teach you a great deal about photography in a very short period of time. So in that respect they’re extremely valuable, but as far as producing images fit for publication in a skateboard magazine, don’t believe the hype.

Unless you’re buying two cameras, I’d go with a good old (traditional) film camera. Of course, new technology is always coming out, so by the time this article makes it to print there may be a fantastic new camera that produces images superior to traditional film—still new technology is usually prohibitively expensive.

What The Pros Use
Eos 1D, Eos 1D Mark IINikon D2H

Lighting

You only need to pick up a copy of Sports Illustrated to see that traditionally sports photography is shot with long telephoto lenses using only available light. Photos in skateboarding magazines are very distinctive because they don’t rely solely on the Earth’s sun or stadium lighting to provide illumination. Under anything but absolutely ideal condition, skateboard photographers furnish their own lights. They generally use small flashes triggered to fire simultaneously with the shutter by radio transmitters (I’ll get to that in a minute). Some fall into the less-is-more camp. I myself am a member of the more-is-more school of thought. Three is sort of a standard number of flashes to provide the coverage necessary, though I’ve seen amazing photos shot with a single flash (like many of the older photos in that Independent Trucks book). I’ve shot some photos that I’ve been very happy with, but I can’t imagine trying to shoot with fewer than six. Bear in mind, I’m crazy.

Handle Mount Flashes

This is the most common style for the working skateboard photographer. They’re a reasonable size, provide a decent amount of juice, and have short enough flash durations (the length of time the flash burst lasts—it’s usually faster than 1/1,200th of second) to freeze the action.

What the Pros Use

Generally, North American skateboard photographers stick to Sunpak 555s and 544s while their European counterparts seem to favor Metz 45s or 60s.

On Camera Flash

Sometimes these are called “cobra flashes because of their shape. There’re countless varieties, with a seemingly endless list of features. Some of these smaller flashes are every bit as powerful as their handle mount brethren, but are usually much pricier. What you want to pay attention too when you’re sizing your options up here are the guide numbers, the duration, and recycling times. You’ll probably want your flash to be able to keep up with your motordrive if you’ve got one. TTL metering (meaning the flash has the ability to communicate with the camera) is a nice option if your camera is compatible with the flash, but not necessary when shooting skateboard action.

What The Pros Use

Nikon Flashes seem to be the standard. Sb-28s, Sb-80s or Sb-800s—short durations, small, they have built in slaves, and they come with cute little stands.

The “Car Battery Flash

I’m not sure who’s responsible for ushering this one in. I thought I was ahead of the pack when I picked one of these up, but then found out a few other photogs had beat me to the punch. These huge battery pack/flash head combos are only for die-hard gear fiends. They’re heavy, expensive, and heavy (and expensive).

The advantage is that some are capable of delivering 2400 watt-seconds blasts. That’s like a having an army of Sunpak 555s. They also make you look really professional, so if you ever take the notion to approach a member of the opposite sex and ask them if they’d be interested in “sitting for you, you’ve got the props to come off legit. They’re great for portraits, especially when used in conjunction with soft boxes, umbrellas, and other gear fiend toys.

What The Pros Use

Prophoto 7b kit, Elinchrom Ranger, Elinchrom Freestyle, Lumedyne Action Pack

Accessories

Flash Meter

In order to accurately measure the light from your flashes, you’re going to have to get a flash meter. I’ve heard the tale that some skateboard photographers don’t even bother with these things. Personally, I can’t imagine that. I live by mine. If it were to explode halfway through a shoot, I’m sure I could still come through with some usable pictures, but for me, the subtlety of a properly exposed photo really comes down to the skillful use and interpretation of the information that only a flash meter provides. It’s worth spending the money for a good one—you’ll use it time and time again. One with a simple display and operation is ideal, one fewer thing to fiddle with.

What The Pros Use

The Minolta Flash Meter IV is extremely popular—simple, reliable, easy to use. Sekonic offers a model that allows you to fire pocket wizards and has a built-in spot meter. If money’s no object, go for it.

Radio Slaves

If you need flashes to fire remotely, then radio slaves are the most reliable way to get the job done. Infrared (slaves that are triggered by an infrared sender) or optic slaves (a sensor that fires a flash when triggered by another flash burst) may be cheaper, but aren’t anywhere near as reliable. Take it from someone who has endured hemorrhage-inducing conniption fits over finicky flash pops—quality radio slaves are worth every penny.

What The Pros Use

Most everyone uses either the Pocket Wizard Plus Kit, the Pocket Wizard Multi-Max, or Quantum Freewire Kits.

Bags

You’re going to need a nice strong bag to lug all your gear around and keep it safe. Make sure it’ll fit in the overhead storage on a plane (unless you’re scared of flying, in which case look into the carry-on restrictions for trains or buses). The other alternative is to go with either an aluminum case or a plastic strong box like a pelican case.

What The Pros Use

Big Lowepro or Tamarac bags—rolling bags seem to be fashionable as of late.

Affordable Alternatives

You can rig up any bag with padding. Cardboard and tape will do in a pinch, bubble wrap will work in the short term. Luggage stores have cheap bags with plastic dividers—see if one might house your gear in some safe, snug manner.

Tripods And Lighting Stands

In order to get your flashes precisely where you want them, it is usually necessary to affix them to some sort of lighting stand or tripod. Tripods are also great for longer exposures.

What The Pros Use

Usually Manfrotto or Bogen tripods and lighting stands—they’re light and strong enough to do the job. Even small lighting stands telescope to a pretty substantial height.

Affordable Alternatives

There’re any number of tripod manufacturers—it’s sort of a “you get what you pay for deal. Remember, these things are going to be in the line of fire from stray boards and such. You want something sturdy so it won’t get knocked over, but light enough to carry and not so overly expensive that you’re moved to tears when a leg gets accidentally tagged by an errant board. Plastic video tripods are plenty strong enough to hold up a flash. They’re usually pretty cheap—the only drawback is they don’t fold up very much. Or you could just have your friends hold them for you. Jody Morris has been running this one for years.

Film

There’re many varieties of film available. You need to select a film that suits your needs and fits with your tortured-artist vision. The film you choose will define the look of your photos.

What The Pros Use

If you’re looking to shoot photos that resemble what you see in TransWorld, then you want ISO 100 transparency film. Most of the time I shoot with Fuji Provia 100, which I then push a stop. Pushing film means that you treat the film as if it had a faster speed than it is rated at. If you are pushing 100 film one stop, then you set the shutter speed and f-stop as if it were for 200. When you have the film processed at a (reputable) lab, you tell them that you’d like the film pushed one stop. They’ll adjust the developing times accordingly. Pushed film has slightly more grain and has a higher degree of contrast. Black and white films can be pushed as well. Some films can be pushed more than others—consult the film company’s Web site for specific information. Transparency films such as Fuji Velvia and Kodak Ektachrome SW, as well as black and white films like Kodak Tri-x 320, Tmax 400, and Ilford Hp4 are also excellent films.

As with all of the above-mentioned gear, you’ll have to experiment to find what you like. But hey, that’s all part of the expense—I mean, fun—of photography. Go get ’em, tiger!

the ability to communicate with the camera) is a nice option if your camera is compatible with the flash, but not necessary when shooting skateboard action.

What The Pros Use

Nikon Flashes seem to be the standard. Sb-28s, Sb-80s or Sb-800s—short durations, small, they have built in slaves, and they come with cute little stands.

The “Car Battery Flash

I’m not sure who’s responsible for ushering this one in. I thought I was ahead of the pack when I picked one of these up, but then found out a few other photogs had beat me to the punch. These huge battery pack/flash head combos are only for die-hard gear fiends. They’re heavy, expensive, and heavy (and expensive).

The advantage is that some are capable of delivering 2400 watt-seconds blasts. That’s like a having an army of Sunpak 555s. They also make you look really professional, so if you ever take the notion to approach a member of the opposite sex and ask them if they’d be interested in “sitting for you, you’ve got the props to come off legit. They’re great for portraits, especially when used in conjunction with soft boxes, umbrellas, and other gear fiend toys.

What The Pros Use

Prophoto 7b kit, Elinchrom Ranger, Elinchrom Freestyle, Lumedyne Action Pack

Accessories

Flash Meter

In order to accurately measure the light from your flashes, you’re going to have to get a flash meter. I’ve heard the tale that some skateboard photographers don’t even bother with these things. Personally, I can’t imagine that. I live by mine. If it were to explode halfway through a shoot, I’m sure I could still come through with some usable pictures, but for me, the subtlety of a properly exposed photo really comes down to the skillful use and interpretation of the information that only a flash meter provides. It’s worth spending the money for a good one—you’ll use it time and time again. One with a simple display and operation is ideal, one fewer thing to fiddle with.

What The Pros Use

The Minolta Flash Meter IV is extremely popular—simple, reliable, easy to use. Sekonic offers a model that allows you to fire pocket wizards and has a built-in spot meter. If money’s no object, go for it.

Radio Slaves

If you need flashes to fire remotely, then radio slaves are the most reliable way to get the job done. Infrared (slaves that are triggered by an infrared sender) or optic slaves (a sensor that fires a flash when triggered by another flash burst) may be cheaper, but aren’t anywhere near as reliable. Take it from someone who has endured hemorrhage-inducing conniption fits over finicky flash pops—quality radio slaves are worth every penny.

What The Pros Use

Most everyone uses either the Pocket Wizard Plus Kit, the Pocket Wizard Multi-Max, or Quantum Freewire Kits.

Bags

You’re going to need a nice strong bag to lug all your gear around and keep it safe. Make sure it’ll fit in the overhead storage on a plane (unless you’re scared of flying, in which case look into the carry-on restrictions for trains or buses). The other alternative is to go with either an aluminum case or a plastic strong box like a pelican case.

What The Pros Use

Big Lowepro or Tamarac bags—rolling bags seem to be fashionable as of late.

Affordable Alternatives

You can rig up any bag with padding. Cardboard and tape will do in a pinch, bubble wrap will work in the short term. Luggage stores have cheap bags with plastic dividers—see if one might house your gear in some safe, snug manner.

Tripods And Lighting Stands

In order to get your flashes precisely where you want them, it is usually necessary to affix them to some sort of lighting stand or tripod. Tripods are also great for longer exposures.

What The Pros Use

Usually Manfrotto or Bogen tripods and lighting stands—they’re light and strong enough to do the job. Even small lighting stands telescope to a pretty substantial height.

Affordable Alternatives

There’re any number of tripod manufacturers—it’s sort of a “you get what you pay for deal. Remember, these things are going to be in the line of fire from stray boards and such. You want something sturdy so it won’t get knocked over, but light enough to carry and not so overly expensive that you’re moved to tears when a leg gets accidentally tagged by an errant board. Plastic video tripods are plenty strong enough to hold up a flash. They’re usually pretty cheap—the only drawback is they don’t fold up very much. Or you could just have your friends hold them for you. Jody Morris has been running this one for years.

Film

There’re many varieties of film available. You need to select a film that suits your needs and fits with your tortured-artist vision. The film you choose will define the look of your photos.

What The Pros Use

If you’re looking to shoot photos that resemble what you see in TransWorld, then you want ISO 100 transparency film. Most of the time I shoot with Fuji Provia 100, which I then push a stop. Pushing film means that you treat the film as if it had a faster speed than it is rated at. If you are pushing 100 film one stop, then you set the shutter speed and f-stop as if it were for 200. When you have the film processed at a (reputable) lab, you tell them that you’d like the film pushed one stop. They’ll adjust the developing times accordingly. Pushed film has slightly more grain and has a higher degree of contrast. Black and white films can be pushed as well. Some films can be pushed more than others—consult the film company’s Web site for specific information. Transparency films such as Fuji Velvia and Kodak Ektachrome SW, as well as black and white films like Kodak Tri-x 320, Tmax 400, and Ilford Hp4 are also excellent films.

As with all of the above-mentioned gear, you’ll have to experiment to find what you like. But hey, that’s all part of the expense—I mean, fun—of photography. Go get ’em, tiger!

pretty substantial height.

Affordable Alternatives

There’re any number of tripod manufacturers—it’s sort of a “you get what you pay for deal. Remember, these things are going to be in the line of fire from stray boards and such. You want something sturdy so it won’t get knocked over, but light enough to carry and not so overly expensive that you’re moved to tears when a leg gets accidentally tagged by an errant board. Plastic video tripods are plenty strong enough to hold up a flash. They’re usually pretty cheap—the only drawback is they don’t fold up very much. Or you could just have your friends hold them for you. Jody Morris has been running this one for years.

Film

There’re many varieties of film available. You need to select a film that suits your needs and fits with your tortured-artist vision. The film you choose will define the look of your photos.

What The Pros Use

If you’re looking to shoot photos that resemble what you see in TransWorld, then you want ISO 100 transparency film. Most of the time I shoot with Fuji Provia 100, which I then push a stop. Pushing film means that you treat the film as if it had a faster speed than it is rated at. If you are pushing 100 film one stop, then you set the shutter speed and f-stop as if it were for 200. When you have the film processed at a (reputable) lab, you tell them that you’d like the film pushed one stop. They’ll adjust the developing times accordingly. Pushed film has slightly more grain and has a higher degree of contrast. Black and white films can be pushed as well. Some films can be pushed more than others—consult the film company’s Web site for specific information. Transparency films such as Fuji Velvia and Kodak Ektachrome SW, as well as black and white films like Kodak Tri-x 320, Tmax 400, and Ilford Hp4 are also excellent films.

As with all of the above-mentioned gear, you’ll have to experiment to find what you like. But hey, that’s all part of the expense—I mean, fun—of photography. Go get ’em, tiger!