Shooting Skateboarders with Micro 4/3
By Tony Zhang
Hello everybody, first of all, I would like to thank Steve and Brandon for providing me with this opportunity to share my thoughts. I am a daily visitor of this site and I really appreciate this opportunity. This is the first time I have written anything remotely formal on the internet so please bear with me and my more than likely boring rant about skateboarding, photography, filmmaking and my gear.
My name is Tony, I am seventeen years old and I live in New Zealand. I discovered photography about two years ago. I am a skateboarder, and about two years ago I wanted to purchase a camera to make videos of my friends and myself skating around and doing tricks. After many hours of internet research later, I decided to shell out my savings on a Canon t4i, kit lens, 50mm f1.8 and a 6.5mm fisheye. My primary interest was video but I inevitably found my way to the world of photography. I eventually sold my kit lens and 50mm and sprung for a Canon 17-55mm f2.8 IS. I was convinced that my setup was good enough(not only in terms of image quality, but also usability, size and weight) for both my video and photo purposes, until I discovered mirrorless and micro 4/3rds.
I feel that skateboarding photography is very different to other forms of photography. For good results, much knowledge about the activity is essential. Knowing exactly what time to press the shutter button, by the millisecond, when shooting a particular trick is essential, a photo early or late by milliseconds is often the difference between a keeper or a throwaway.
Unlike other sports photographers, who are often seen with a behemoth of a DSLR and 100000mm telephoto lens, firing non stop in continuous autofocus mode from the sideline(no offense intended), a skateboard photographer shoots and skates with his friends, he is often down on the ground or up on the roof, in the blazing sun, struggling almost as much as the skateboarder trying to land the trick. The photographer is almost part of the action.
You may notice that for many of my ‘trick’ photos, I use a fisheye lens. The fisheye is a staple in the world of skate photography and it is used to get the camera up close to the spot and skater, to distort the environment, often making the ledge, rail, stair set or other obstacle involved in the trick look much bigger, and hence the stunt more impressive.
Many amateur and professional skate photographers frequently use external strobes and off camera flashes to help freeze the fast-moving action and to light the subject up better. Many amazing skate photos are taken with many external flashes. However, I have never used off camera lighting. Mainly because carrying around so much equipment while cruising around town on a skateboard is a pain, but also because it is a laborious process which somewhat takes the fun out of shooting. (I will also admit that I am a bit intimidated by off camera lighting because it all seems so confusing)
I love skate photography because it captures the life, adventures, talents and efforts of myself and my friends. It is a difficult and special form of photography. I also enjoy the pressures of skate photography, waiting for the skater for hours to land the trick, hoping that the lighting does not change rapidly, getting up high or down low into uncomfortable positions to get the shot, the risk of injury or damaged equipment (my fisheye lens has been hit multiple times by skateboards as a result of being too close), and the chance of getting told of by security, these factors are all parts of skate photography. It is never a controlled environment and I truly enjoy these challenges.
For the first few months, I was very satisfied with my camera setup. However, after learning more, filming and shooting more, I developed the feeling that something was missing, the ergonomics of a DSLR was not ideal for shooting video, mainly due to the lack of an electronic viewfinder, I had to use a large and cumbersome stick on viewfinder when shooting video. A video mode with 60 frames per second is essential for skating due to the need for slow motion at times, and Canon DSLRs only have 60fps in a softened 720p mode, filled with moire and aliasing artifacts. Despite being an excellent all round lens, the size, weight and front/back focusing issues of the 17-55mm f2.8, was irritating. I longed for a smaller camera with an electronic viewfinder and clean 1080p video in 60 frames per second.
There are few mirrorless cameras with aspc sized sensors that provided clean 1080p 60fps video, good video and stills ergonomics, a good, wide enough fisheye lens option, and an external 3.5mm mic input. Enter micro 4/3rds, after months and months of internet lurking. I decided that the Panasonic g6 would be the best all round camera for my purposes at a good price point. At the start of 2014, I sold my entire camera setup but kept my external microphone and homemade handle which I use for filming ‘lines’ (a video clip in which I am on my skateboard, following a skater with my camera and fisheye lens low to the ground and close to the skater, filming him do several tricks in a sequence.) I purchased the Panasonic g6, the Bower 7.5mm f3.5 fisheye, the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 and the Panasonic 14-140mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens. For me, this was the best all round compromise for stills and video that I could afford. I chose the g6 over the gx7 due to the external mic jack and overall ergonomics, and the gh3 due to the price difference. I find the difference in stills quality between the g6 sensor and my past Canon DSLR sensor to be negligible, and in fact I find contrast detect autofocus to be more reliable. However the difference in video quality and ergonomics between the two setups is worlds apart. I prefer the electronic viewfinder for both stills and video. The touch pad AF function on the g6 is perfect for my style of shooting, this, along with the accurate contrast based autofocus and the 25mm f1.4 makes shooting much more enjoyable than it was on my Canon. I do not require lightning fast tracking autofocus because when shooting tricks, I prefocus on a spot and lock the focus. Nothing else I shoot moves at a fast pace, and contrast detect autofocus works perfectly for my needs. The 7fps burst rate is very useful and I have the camera set to burst mode almost all the time.
I love the Panasonic 25mm f1.4, I try to use it as much as I can. The depth of field is shallow enough for me and I love the rendering and micro contrast of the lens. I often shoot wide open, and the 25mm is very sharp wide open. I also purchased a polaroid variable ND filter for about $30 USD so I can shoot video wide open during the day, the quality of the filter is excellent for video, there is a slight compromise for stills but I am not at all bothered by the incremental reduction in sharpness. The fisheye lens is compact, sharp and solid, however I do wish that it had a slightly wider field of view and increased barrel distortion. It is noticeably less wide than its aps-c DSLR counterpart which I had. I purchased the 14-140mm zoom planning to just use it for video, but its stills capability is also very decent, I find depth of field at the long end to be very adequate for portraits given that there is enough working distance. The OIS works amazingly, I can sometimes shoot fairly steady handheld video at the very telephoto end. I use it mostly for zooming video shots (unlike in usual filmmaking, many traditional skateboarding clips have some sort of zooming action in them, so video nerds please don’t rip me to shreds), however, I still wish I had a typical camcorder style zoom rocker.
With my birthday money, Chinese New Years red bag money(haha many of you will know what I am talking about), and addition chip ins from my parents for doing surprisingly well in my SATs first try, I purchased a Ricoh GR. I originally had my eye on the Fuji x100s, but it was not pocketable and cost too much. I wanted the GR because of it’s tiny size, ergonomics and it looked fun to use. It is a camera that fits in my pocket, I take it with me almost everywhere in the weekends, often without the intent of taking photos at all. The GR is the camera that allows me to get candid photos of my friends and out skateboarding adventures without me having to take out my big(ger) camera(and often removing it from my homemade handle.) I was originally worried I may not have been able to adjust to a 28mm prime lens and expected myself to frequently use the 35mm crop mode(which by the way is excellent), but I quickly found it to be the perfect ‘storytelling’ lens, wide enough to include many elements in the photo putting the shot into precise context. I also find the 28mm equivalent perspective very dynamic and lively, unlike many telephoto focal lengths which appear distant, compressed and flat(but this is good for many things). I usually shoot in TAV mode with the aperture wide open or at f5.6, and use it typically up to ISO 3200. Much to my surprise, I found the in camera raw developer to be very useful and fun to use, I especially like the positive film effect. The low light performance of the GR is great, the handling and interface are amazing, the sharpness is incredible throughout the aperture range., it is built well and most of all, it is fun to use. The 28mm and 50mm prime combo I have is great for most of my purposes when it comes to stills.
However, nothing is perfect. Despite all the benefits of my new camera setup, I can still find some noticeable flaws, no deal breakers though. Firstly, the build quality of the Panasonic g6 is questionable. Being part of the entry-level range, the buttons feel slightly flimsy and often have a slight delay, this is especially noticeable when I want to scroll through photos, or quickly change the aperture or shutter speed. It is not a big deal however, just takes some getting used to. I wish there was a flatter picture style for video so I could squeeze out some more dynamic range when filming. When in manual mode, there is no constant exposure preview in the viewfinder and screen, the viewfinder always displays a correctly exposed image, this is frustrating as one of the main benefits of an electronic viewfinder is to have a constant preview of the exact exposure. The eyecup of the viewfinder is also very hard and uncomfortable, and I am unable to tightly press it against my eye for stability, much better than nothing though. The 25mm f1.4 is almost perfect, but I do wish it were a bit smaller and had a reversible lens hood, with the hood attached it is quite big. Chromatic aberration is also a concern, however this is easily removed in Lightroom. When filming with the 14-140mm, I sometimes notice slight shifts out of focus for milliseconds before coming back to focus while zooming, even when in manual mode, meaning that it is not a true parfocal lens. This is usually not an issue, but frustrating at times.
The Ricoh GR, for what it is, is close to perfect, however there is a risk of sensor dust attraction. After about a month, I noticed a slight speck of dust on the sensor, it is noticeable when I shoot a picture of a white wall, however it cannot be seen in most situations. It is annoying but usually not an issue. I also wish that there was a manual video mode, I know it is a camera completely designed for stills but some sort of control in video would be nice. A slightly faster maximum aperture would have been nice, I really like the surreal look of wide-angle photos with shallow depth of field, however I understand that the size of the GR would have been compromised. A pop up EVF would be amazing, I have gotten used to shooting with the screen and it is fine, even in sunny conditions, but after seeing the Sony Rx100 iii, I really wish my GR also had one. Perhaps I am asking for a bit too much here.
Lastly, for those who care, here is my homemade camera rig/handle I have mentioned a few times. It allows me to shoot much steadier video due to the extra weight, as well as to film ‘lines’ due to the top handle. Prior to this, I had the Opteka X-grip, but it felt flimsy, was too big and wasn’t really efficient. I drew a few sketches of what I wanted on paper, then purchased various parts off eBay to put it together. The camera slides in and is connected by the hotshoe screw at the top as well as the quick release plate at the bottom. The height is adjustable and the frame can extend enough to fit some entry level full frame cameras. There is no frame on the left side so my LCD screen can flip out, and I mounted my external microphone(sony ms908c) upside down on the side so the rig fits in my bag without me having to take it apart. The quick release plate is a recent addition. With the plate added, it takes about 3 seconds to take the camera on or off the rig, without it, that time lengthens to about twenty seconds. If anyone is interested in the pieces. required, I am more than happy to send you a list of parts and how to put it together. By the way, the photo of the rig itself was taken on my Ricoh GR, wide open at ISO 1600 in raw and then processed in camera with the positive film effect.
Here is my Flickr- https://www.flickr.com/photos/87200229@N04/
Youtube channel- https://www.youtube.com/user/TonyZhangsChannel
I would really appreciate it if you could view my photos follow me on instagram and flickr, I know I don’t have much content, in fact, hardly any, most of my work is kept to myself. But rest assured that I have been steadily uploading more and will continue to put out more content.
Most of you will probably have little to no interest in skateboarding, but it would mean a lot to me if you could click on my channel and watch a few videos, it would really help me out, even better if you subscribe!
Once again, many thanks to Steve and Brandon for this opportunity, as well as to all of you who have taken time out of your day to read my article. I apologise for my rambling and heavy digression into video. I really enjoyed writing up this user report, it has allowed me to thoroughly rant about my thoughts. I hope that this report has been informative or useful to some of you who may be considering the Panasonic g6 or Ricoh GR, despite all the flaws I pointed out, they are excellent cameras(Trust me, I could tear any camera to pieces). Being able to carry around so much camera gear but still have the overall weight and size of it all being fairly minimal is amazing, especially when I skate around town with everything in my backpack. However, in the end, it is not about the equipment you have, but how you use it and your creative vision. No matter how good your gear is, there is always room for its improvement. People have create amazing images with mediocre gear, so try not to be like me and go crazy about gear, instead focus on the actual process of taking photos and your final product. But let’s be honest, talking about gear is pretty fun :)