Part 1 – Equipment, Technique, Anticipation, Rapport, & Location
When I was a child my grandad bought a Canon T90 SLR, I was transfixed by it, ever since then I knew I wanted to own a decent camera.
A couple of years ago I was finally able to afford to buy myself that ‘decent’ camera, a Canon 350D DSLR. Stumping up the cash was the easiest part, I had no idea just how little I knew about taking photos, I’d always used fully automatic point and shoot cameras up until then.
By chance a colleague introduced me to the website Photo.Net, and for a while the forums on that site provided me with new insights and ideas for my photos. By reading everything and looking at all the examples others were posting my photography improved rapidly.
As soon as I realised that I could recreate some of the stunning photos that I was seeing in magazines I was hooked, and I started to look for things to shoot that nobody else, or at least, very few people were doing.
I’d been aware of Parkour for some time, having seen the BBC trailer (video above) and a few photos in magazines – I had no real understanding of what it was, or the difference between, say, freerunning and tricking, they were all just the same thing to me.
Then one day while I was parking my car at work I noticed some kids climbing up the building opposite, I saw one of them size up a gap and immediately knew that he was going to jump, the penny dropped at that point.
© Ben Anderson.
The result was ‘Leeds Leap’, one of the winners in Tate’s How We Are Now flickr competition. I knew that the jump was being taped by the kids and thought it likely to appear on youtube, a quick search turned up a link to WYPK’s website, www.frpk.co.uk (now defunct, see them on myspace), and I was able to get in touch so that I could go shoot some more photos of them.
That was the start of my education about Parkour, tricking, freerunning, buildering, and much more.
Here are a few of the things I’ve learned along the way, I hope you find them useful:
This is your mantra ‘know my equipment’! Whether you own a digital point & shoot, digital SLR, film compact, or any other camera, the single most important way to improve your photography is to know every aspect of how your camera works – read the manual for your camera, try out ALL the options, when done, read it again. Understanding how your camera works will help you nail the photo that you want in less time and will stop you from missing those ‘must have’ photos.
You should definitely try and master the manual modes that your camera offers, shooting manual takes the decisions away from your camera and gives you the power to decide exactly how you want your photos to look. Why would you want your camera to take those decisions away from you and place them in the hands of its Japanese designers? The automatic modes are there to offer a ‘best guess’ based on average camera use – group snapshots, landscapes, gurgling babies, & pet cats – they don’t have parkour or tricking modes – your brain does, use it!
You can take great photos with ANY camera, but only if you understand its limitations completely. Better gear will allow you to get the photo you want with less retakes and hassle, you don’t HAVE to buy the latest DSLR to take great photos, but it may save you some time if you can afford it.
I shoot parkour using the following: a Canon EOS 5D, a Canon EOS 1DMKII, a Rollei 6008i, and a Leica M6. Each of these cameras allows me to shoot a particular aspect of the discipline more easily than the others (or with higher quality results), but I could just as easily shoot parkour with a typical digital point and shoot – it would take me more time to get the shot I wanted, but I’d get it just the same.
© Ben Anderson
Your knowledge of photography is your ally: Learn as much as you can about photography and you will be 95% of the way to getting good results. Read about the principals of photography, how the relationships between ISO, Aperture, & Shutter speed affect exposure, when to use a wide angle lens, how to ensure everything from just in front of you to far away is in focus, how to draw attention to a detail with very shallow focus, and much much more.
The single best book I’ve found for learning every technical aspect of photography is ‘Photography, 8th Edition’ by Barbara London (9th edition now available – my wishlist), it’s not cheap but it is superb, get it if you can afford it, if not, borrow it from your local library.
Some simple ideas:
Try and keep your shutter speed above 1/250s, the faster it is the more likely you will be to ‘freeze’ the action and reduce blurring due to subject motion. At the same time try and keep your aperture to f/8 or smaller (the higher the f number the smaller the aperture), this means that more of the scene will be in focus, so you’ll be more likely to get a good shot. You should be trying to use your camera’s manual and semi automated modes just as I said in the equipment section, they will transfer the power of decision making to you. After a short period of acclimatisation you’ll begin to realise that the manual modes offer you far greater creative flexibility, and that they will not hinder you as much as the decisions made by the camera in the automated modes.
If at all possible pre-focus your camera, and turn AF off – AF can significantly increase the time taken for your camera to decide what to focus on, and it may not choose what you would! This is actually much easier than it sounds, once AF is disabled use the focus ring (or buttons) to focus on an area of pavement or wall that is the same distance from you as your subject will be when it is in motion, by using this technique with the f/8 aperture tip above you can virtually guarantee that your photo will have a crisp, in focus subject.
Don’t forget to set the ISO! The ISO setting adjusts how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light (If you’re shooting a film camera things are a little tougher because you’ll have to switch films), you should always try and use the LEAST SENSITIVE setting that will still allow your camera to have a relatively fast shutter speed (see the shutter speed tip above). So, in the case of my Canon 5D, I always try and shoot at ISO 100 if I can: the reason for this is that the higher the ISO number, then the more digital noise, or film grain, will be in your picture. Every time the ISO number doubles then so does your cameras sensitivity to light – and usually the amount of noise doubles too.
* For moving subjects keep the shutter speed as fast as possible, above 1/250th of a second
* Try and use a small aperture like F/8 (the bigger the number, the smaller the aperture).
* Disable AF and pre-focus.
* Keep ISO as low as you can to avoid noise – adjust to keep aperture small and shutter speed high.
* MOST IMPORTANTLY – don’t be afraid to experiment, don’t treat these settings as gospel
This may all sound very complicated, but before long it will be second nature – honestly!
© Ben Anderson
How do you anticipate what your subject will be doing next? By knowing your subject matter thoroughly! Immerse yourself in every aspect of it, speak to the people who practice it, read what others have written about it: blogs, online news articles, books, forum posts, newspapers, interviews, and TV programs are just some of the sources you can use. In the case of parkour, check out the parkour wiki, visit parkour.net, and perhaps most importantly look to see what your competition is doing – this can also lead you to being original. Of course the best way to understand something is also to participate in it, you can then use your own insights to show your passion for the subject.
© Jéan-Pierre Whitfield
If I’ve learned one thing about getting into the heart of a subject, it’s to build links with the practitioners, learn their abilities, never ask them to do something that they are not comfortable with, respect them and treat them as you would wish to be treated. Be yourself and you will earn their trust.
To the best of your abilities you should always keep your promises, at the very least be courteous enough to offer truthful explanations as to why you have had to change your plans or break a promise. It’s far better to never make a promise that you can’t keep, always set expectations within reality.
Small favours can build a strong relationship, I’ve given the members of WYPK permissions to use web versions of my photos as they see fit, this is great viral marketing since the kids are often more than willing to repay the favour with a link to my website – you may be reading this as a direct result of one of those links! Who better to promote your work than those most passionate about its subject?
The gift of a photographic print is a small token that any photogrpaher should be prepared to make in return for the ability to take that photograph in the first place, particularly if the photograph turns out to be popular.
Location, location, location! Think about your surroundings, try and place yourself so that the environment will help show your subject in its best light – avoid clutter, simple backgrounds make it easier for the viewer to pick out what you want them to see. Think about how light is distributed around the scene, will your subject be adequately lit? Are there any bright areas that will distract the viewers eye? Will the point of view be interesting? Does it convey how you want the viewer to see the scene?
Use geometry to your advantage, lines that converge on your subject will guide the viewers eye toward it, similarly they can also guide the viewers eye around your photograph or indicate a direction of motion. Use geometry to your advantage when composing the shot, by far the simplest approach is to place your subject on ‘the golden mean’: if you divide your image into thirds both horizontally and vertically then placing your subject at the intersection of a horizontal and vertical line instantly adds impact – our brains are programmed to respond to these intersections, so take advantage of them.
© Ben Anderson