Being a Conduit



“Every photograph you take is a window to the past.” -Neil Mortensen.

When you are a photographer, or taking or making an image, you are being a conduit.

A conduit to the future, to share what is in front of your lens, to people who might be moved or influenced by what is shown. This is one of the powerful abilities of photography.

You care about civil unrest in the Middle East? Get out there, see how it makes you feel, take the images, find a story, tell it, and get them in Time or National Geographic. It might make somebody take a trip, or send money to help.

Got a buddy who rips a mini-ramp better than Daewon Song? Shoot a few sequences and submit it to Transworld with a bio on him, and you might make a thousand kids go out and imitate what he’s doing.

Have an obsession with the Northern Lights? Spend a month in Alaska, experiencing them with the locals who see them everyday, and you have a full-bleed format photo book with stories to tell, that will make people want to go.

It’s a truly empowering ability. Use it wisely.

Pig on the way to my homestay in Ollantaytambo

Intuition and Photography

I feel that a developed intuition is something that can really make you a better photographer.

The definition of intuition is: the ability to acquire knowledge without inference and/or the use of reason.

To develop this intuition, you have to take a lot of photos. A lot of different types of photographs. Portraits, landscapes, macro, action, documentary, long exposures, etc. This gives you a wide range of experience.

Intuition calls upon your five senses and then any experiences that are similar to the one you are in. If you’ve shot skateboarding in the midday sun, you know you can have harsh shadows on the subjects face, therefore your intuition tells you to use some flash or expose for the shadows. If you have shot macro photos of flowers, you will see it’s easier to shoot in cloudy or overcast light, as details are less contrasty. If your have shot photos of civil unrest in the Middle East, you probably will want a wide-range lens to capture everything without having to switch lenses. Throw on a bulletproof vest for good measure.

Having a strong intuition allows you to quickly size up a photographic opportunity, and make a great photograph. Without this, your photos will continuously come out unsatisfactory unless you luck out.

Composition: Depth of Field

Let’s say you went to your friend’s birthday party the other day, and she got a new camera. Let’s also say you’re only used to phone and pocket camera photos. She starts taking photos with this new one, maybe an entry level dSLR, (on auto or not), and it starts spitting out really nice images. What is it specifically though? If you take a look, it might be the nicely blurred backgrounds, otherwise known as a shallow depth-of-field.

dSLRs even at the entry level easily make really blurred backgrounds. A lot of factors go into making this look, namely the size of the sensor, the aperture, and focal length.


Here are some examples with different DOFs:


Machu Picchu is an awe-inspiring place, I would definitely recommend taking a trip there one day if you’re looking to travel. In this shot, I set my aperture to f/10, and to get everything sharp with a deep depth-of-field, I focused a third of the way into the shot. This technique uses the idea of hyperfocal distance, where




Same idea with hyperfocal distance here.




Here Leo frontside bluntslides on a ledge on the UC Berkeley campus. Had I used a shorter focal length lens, or used a smaller aperture (f/ 6.3 or above), the background could have been distracting. Using a 50mm lens set to f/ 2, Leo was separated from the background, in his own shallow plane of focus. Precise framing helped a bit too.




Here John, the manager of Brickhouse in the Cayman Islands, gets ready to take food to a diner. He is distinctly separated from the busy bakground with an aprture of f/ 1.8, a very shallow depth-of-field.




Josh Ramos nosegrinds the tall ledges at Peace Wall, and using an aperture of f/ 4, with a 200mm focal length, leaves us with a shallow depth-of-field, that along with the off-camera flash and careful framing, separates him from the busy background.




This could have been better had I had a macro lens, but at f/1.8 and being so close-up to the model town, I was able to emphasize the conversation between the two women on the bench.




Hyperfocal distance + f/8 + wide lens= full sharpness of a big rock and bigger mountains.


Stay tuned for more tips!

Composition: Focal Length

Another technical aspect to composition is focal length.

In skateboarding, the staple focal length is somewhere between 8-16mm. Wow that’s really wide, what lens is that?

A fisheye. The lens non-skateboarders and photographers who don’t skate freak out about. “It’s cheesy, it’s too distorted, it’s cliche.”

As long as people have been pushing their skateboards, the filmers and photographers documenting them have used fisheyes.

I think it’s an act of bashing authority. Another symbol from skateboarding that shows it doesn’t care about adhering to the standards of other lifestyles.

The lens makes everything look bigger, radder, sicker, gnarlier, and sketchy-er. Perfect for what photographers and filmers are trying to do with skateboarding.

I’ll go into the use of a fisheye in another post.

Back to overall photography. If 8-16mm is a super wide angle-of-view fisheye, what’s everything from 20-85mm? That would be your moderate wide angles, through standard primes, to moderate telephoto. From 85 up to 500, 600, 47500mm, is a telephoto lens.

What effect do different focal lengths have on your composing of a photograph? With a long lens, objects can be more compressed together, and you tend to have less depth of field than a shorter/wider lens. With a shorter lens, objects are more spread out, and have more depth of field.


With this shot of Leo Martinez popping a tall switch flip off the ledges at Peace Wall, I decided to shoot with a 70-200mm lens, with it set at 200mm, in order to separate Leo from the busy background. The depth of field is very shallow, and the difference in light qualities between him and the background helps too.

I was inside editing when I heard a ruckus outside. There was an iguana chilling out on the windowsill. 200mm at f/4 was sufficient to set him apart in the frame.

In this photo, I was set to a focal length of 17mm. This made the tiles in front of me stretch out, and the mountains in the background look more distant.

I then switched to a focal length of 200mm, and framed just the tiled rooftop and three separate ridges. The longer focal length compressed the distance, making the objects seem closer together.

The next post will be a surprise, stay tuned!

The Kickflip Backside Tailslide

The Kickflip Backside Tailslide is a trick that has been executed many times before the one you are about to photograph.

So how do you make it interesting?

Yeah, the ledge is tall, so what?

Couple things you could try.

1) Get Underneath- Whether it’s 100 feet away and the camera has a vantage point below the board, or up close, pointing up at the sky, fisheye, board inches away from hopefully precious glass.

2) Simplify- Get the fucking pole out of your guy’s head. Throw some flash on your guy so he burns into the image.

3) Timing- back foot catch, tail almost in ledge, front foot almost touching the board. That’s a Kickflip Back Tail photograph.

See photos below.

Markel at The Black Pearl Skatepark

Leo Martinez- Switch Stance at Peace Wall

Simon at Peace Wall

Composition: Contrast and Tone

Quiet. Reverential. Contemplative.

If you are going for a feeling like the above with a photograph, the below characteristics will do well:

Soft light
Gray tones
Pastel colors
Curved lines
Rounded forms
Subdued contrast

Loud. Quick. Excitement. Spontaneity. Punch.

With these feelings, the below characteristics will do you well:

Hard light
Black blacks and white whites
Vibrant colors.
Angled lines.
Edged forms
Unrestrained contrast.

Be careful, as heavy contrast is easily overdone. Be sure to check in and feel the emotion you are trying to conveying in a photograph. Some do better with more contrast, some do better with less.


Up near the Fire Trails in Berkeley, I started on a mission to Orinda BART. I don’t know if I’ve been anywhere quieter in the Bay, so I wanted to show that, along with the fog that was sweeping through. Very low contrast between the tree branches created the quiet, mystical, and simple feeling I was going for.


This tide pool in a pocket of ironshore beach was created by a storm that you can see is leaving. I wanted to show the reflection of the stormy sky, the sharp edges of the rocks, so I increased the contrast for more punch and excitement.




Shooting some photos at Berkeley Park for the first time in a while, Dylan was getting creative with a nollie back 180 melon. The sun was going down, and the sky was darkening to the blue shade you see here. I was using flash to freeze the action and light him properly. There is a lot of contrast between Dylan and the dark sky, and the colors of the sunset, creating the bold image I wanted.



In this photo of the mountains surrounding Ollantaytambo, you can see the three different tones in the photo, the first hill, the peak, and the sky. Not much contrast was added, each layer stood out on it’s own.

The nest post will be about: DOF!

Composition: Shutter Speed

Shutter speed. The make it or break it in a lot of photography. Too slow and it could blur action, too fast and your subject may look unnatural.

Shutter speed is a measurement of time between the mirror flipping down, blacking out your viewfinder for a moment. It can range from hours (though not recommended as it can damage your sensor), to 1/8000 of a second on most high end point and shoots through dSLRs.

This paragraph will address primarily skateboarding photography. Looking at your subject, what are you trying to do? If you want to keep your guy and the whole image sharp, go with a faster shutter speed, 1/800 and above. If you want to show movement, try 1/250 and below, and pan with the action. Your guy will stay sharp, and the background will blur out, effectively separating him from a potentially distracting background. You can use a flash, on camera or off, to further this effect.

In landscape photography, most of your subjects will be still, besides the wind blowing your subject, and flowing water. If you are trying to keep a moving object sharp, just make sure your shutter speed is fast enough.

Water deserves its own paragraph. When I first started shooting photos, I went out after it had rained, and experimented with 1/8000 of a second. I shot the water coming out of the gutters on my house, and got a shot with a super sharp stream of water, separated into blobs. Had I used a slow speed of 1/50 and below, the water would have blurred nicely into a wispy continuous stream.


Shutter speed of 1/800 at least. Another factor of using shutter speed to freeze action is how much of the frame your moving subject takes up. Here it’s not super close, so I could get away with a slower shutter speed.


Here, I was using flashes to freeze the action. I’ll go into this on another post, but no panning was necessary to achieve this shot. The shutter speed was 1/200, but the flash duration was approximately 1/2000, from two Vivitars.


In this shot of Aramis getting a backside carve on the wave, I wanted the water spray tack sharp, so I used a shutter speed of 1/2000, maybe more.

Shooting at Potrero one day, this dude came hauling ass frontside through the air, and I had my Lumedyne out, so I decided to show how fucking fast he was going. Shutter speed of 1/100, I panned with him, the Lumedyne at 1/4000 and a Vivitar at 1/2000.


I actually was running next to Colin, and shot this. Little blurred, but I like it. Had my fill flash on camera to help light his face. Shutter speed was 1/200, Vivitar at 1/2000.


Aramis slashing frontside on the Wave at The Black Pearl Skatepark, I wanted all the spray sharp like in the above surf shot, so my shutter was set to 1/2500.


I took this right after the 2012 Pirates Week fireworks show. I was on the dock, and the water was choppy, so I thought it would be cool to show the chaotic flow of it. The exposure was a few seconds long.


It was late at night, and the stars were magnificent at this state park in Northern California. I didn’t want them sharp, which a shutter speed of 30 seconds (depending on focal length) would be good for, but I wanted them to trail, so I left the shutter open for a couple minutes. Trees stay sharp, stars trail nicely.

P.S. I realize this post was technical, but almost every camera you pick up can control shutter speed, or at least it shows you. On those frustrating automatic point and shoots, just put it on Sports. “Why is my action blurry??!”…”Just put it on Sports…”

The next post: Contrast and Tone…

Composition: Balance



A majority of the photography world likes to fixate on the gear and equipment aspects of photography, but for some reason composition isn’t talked about as much.

People are led to think that a certain lens, or certain camera, or certain softbox will make them a better photographer.

This is frustrating, because if everybody understood basic composition rules, Instagram might not be filled with so many shitty photos.

I used to think about the technical/equipment side of photography a good deal, because I worked at a camera store.


So I figured I’d write a number of posts about composition, and relate it to my work, Skateboards and Landscapes.


In this post, I’ll be covering the rule of Balance.




In this photo of the bench overlooking Downtown Oakland, I placed the bench in the left side of the shot, and used the trail leading to the bench to balance it out.



In this shot, the bulldozer causes an imbalance because of it’s size and importance in relation to the trees in the background.





At the top of a hike near Ollantaytambo, Templo de Luna, a large cloud came over part of this hill that was across the valley, creating imbalance between the hill and the plateau. This dark shadow makes the hill look much more ominous and challenging to ascend.


On the path down from Machu Picchu heading up to Huaynapicchu, a potentially dangerous fall was on the right side. Having a higher perspective and placing the fellow hikers on the bottom left causes imbalance, making the viewer uneasy about the drop.




In this landscape photo, the rock on the left side is balanced by the clouds in the the top right.




Here Connor half-cabs over this chain into this rough bank. With the little girl standing next to the tree, this photo becomes more balanced, than if she wasn’t there.


My next post will be about another rule: Shutter Speed.