Snagging great action photos doesn’t require a pro-level dSLR. Your iPhone camera is capable of capturing some brilliant moments, as long as you put in a bit of effort too.
I spent time with two pro skateboarders here in London and put together a set of tips to keep in mind — and some things to avoid — to help you get the best shots out of your new.
While my tips are built around skateboarding, they can apply to most action sports, including BMX, inline skating or mountain biking. And while I used an iPhone X, most of these tips apply to any phone.
Better light means better photos
Light is crucial for photography, of course, but the small sensor on a phone’s camera makes finding good lighting even more important. When an iPhone detects a darker scene, for example, it will compensate by slowing the shutter speed to let in more light. That’s bad news for sports photography as any action in the scene may end up looking blurred.
My first photoshoot was with British skateboarder Helena Long at a skate park underneath a bridge in west London. Typically overcast, dreary weather made the skate spot dark and shadowy, so even though Helena was able to pull off some amazing tricks, my shots of her were consistently dark and blurred.
The one shot I was even remotely happy required a lot of brightening in the editing app Snapseed (see below), which reduces the quality of the picture by adding image noise. As such, the details are extremely mushy when viewed at full screen (click here for the full-size image).
To ensure better light for my second shoot, I met DC Shoes pro skateboarder Dave Snaddon on a sunny day in Stratford in east London. Under bright skies that filled the scene with light, my iPhone X was able to use fast shutter speeds, freezing Dave in action and delivering crisp shots.
Burst mode is your best friend
In skateboarding — as with most sports — the action happens fast. Taking just one photo when your subject tries a trick might not capture the best moment. Perhaps the feet aren’t in quite the right position, or the skateboard has rotated a bit too far. Or maybe you missed the moment altogether.
Using burst mode — by just holding your finger down on the shutter button — lets you continuously take shots throughout the duration of the action. Once it’s all over, you can flick back through every frame, selecting only the best ones and easily discarding the rest.
Emphasise the height by shooting down low
Getting the right angle for a shot can make all the difference in creating maximum excitement in a photo. By getting down low (I laid down on the ground for many of my shots) you emphasise the distance between the ground and the skater. The result is that even a low jump off a small ledge can look much higher and more impressive.
If you’re particularly brave you can even shoot from directly below as they soar over you — just make sure they’re good enough to not land on you!
Get up close…
By getting closer to the action you’ll be able to see much more of the stunt they’re performing. By removing the distracting background, your eyes are drawn to the position of the feet, the motion of the board or the look of concentration on the face of the skater. All of these help to heighten the drama — and the danger — that action sports involve.
Again, make sure to stay safe when you do get in close. Confirm with the skater beforehand exactly where they’re going to land so that your face isn’t accidentally in the way. Always keep one eye on the skateboard itself. It’s all too easy for it to come flying towards your head if they land incorrectly.
…then move further away
While it’s great to get right into the action, it’s also important to move back and capture the whole scene to put your subject in context of the location you’re shooting. For instance, don’t cut the interesting architecture in the background by zooming in too close.
That said, if your location isn’t particularly attractive, there may be certain elements (like a distracting sign, or a garbage bin) that you don’t want to include in your shot. In that case, try shooting from a different angle to remove them from the picture.
Tweak your photos in Snapseed
Even the most exciting shots of action sports can still benefit from being punched up a little in the edit. My editing app of choice is Snapseed — it’s quick, easy and has a wide range of tools to play around with. (Download here for iPhone or here for Android, both free.)
There’s no right or wrong way to edit. For my shots with Snaddon, for example, I wanted to draw more attention to his tricks, so I used vignettes to darken the frame around him, helping him pop out of the scene a little more. I also used the brush tool to lighten him up a bit as the phone had underexposed him against the bright sky.
Protect your phone
This could not be more critical. Taking photos of sports often means you’ll be kneeling, crouching or suddenly diving out of the way to safety. In those situations, it’s all too easy for your phone to take a fall. You might not want a chunkyon a night out, but it’s certainly worth having on a photoshoot.