Our very own Icarus Athlete, Kian Bullock, has put together a little guide on how to take great photos. He has skydived all over the world, providing us with some absolutely stunning images and making us all look our best! This article is for anyone interested in starting a career in photography, wanting to take better photos or those that just fancy a good read.
How to take great photos!
So I am going to start with a disclaimer, what is great for me, might be a little ‘meh’ for you, and likewise. People will find ‘great’ in photos you quickly passed over while others will ignore an image that you spent an hour in post-production on. If photography has taught me one thing, it is that you shouldn’t get caught up on what you think is great because we all see things differently, which is amazing and should encourage us to share more rather than hold onto things.
The image below is undoubtedly my most popular one and it took me about one minute in post production to frame and adjust before posting it on Facebook. For me, the photo was a jump where I was late out the door and was constantly behind on the jump. It wasn’t until a friend shared it that I got an appreciation for what others saw in this image. Had he not shared it; I wouldn’t have submitted it for the Sony Award in 2018.
It’s all about the Light
It is important to remember that all photography is about light. Light will bounce off a subject and enter your camera through a lens and be captured by a sensor. The length of time that light is on the sensor and the hole it passes through, along with a bunch of other things, all combine to give you an image. The ability to capture a moment in time is poetic in itself.
So, I am going to share my perspective on what I do to create a photo. I feel it is equal parts taking the photo and post production, so I have broken it into 2 parts with a third part about how to get yourself in a photo. Here we go!
Part 1: Taking the photo
Master your camera
The question I ask, and get asked the most is, ‘what settings are you using?’. It is a good discussion to have but we should all keep in mind that those settings are based on the type of shot and the light for a moment in time. They are not the settings for every jump and I will generally change my settings at least twice in a day depending on the shot.
Generally speaking if I am after one shot in particular, I will use Manual Mode and choose my aperture and shutter for that shot. In this scenario I will normally over-expose the shot slightly (+0.3) and put my ISO on auto (max 800) to give me a little bit of room. This is infrequent and mainly if I am doing a shot for advertising or a client. My preferred range for all settings is ISO 100, shutter 1/800 and F9, if I can get it. This is normally where I find I get the best quality.
So what setting do I use most?
The setting I use 80% of the time is shutter priority and above 1/500 but preferably above 1/640. My ISO I will try to keep it below 400 but will go as high as 800 if I need to. You can take a couple of test shots on the way up to make sure you are in the right range. I then let my aperture move depending on the light. This is how I get some nice shots with depth in the plane prior to exit. My aperture is nice and open, trying to get all that light in. I will get between 15-25 good shots from a jump with these settings.
Occasionally, if I am using my 55mm F1.8, I will choose aperture priority and open the lens right up to get some nice tight photos of the formation with a lot of depth. These sorts of jumps will have a low number of workable shots with maybe 5-10 if you can find someone under canopy.
The main thing is, keep adjusting your settings, learn what works and check your shots after each jump. If you are using shutter priority and your aperture is up near the top end (F16), adjust your ISO to bring it back down to your sweet spot (lower your ISO so the camera lets in more light and opens your aperture). Likewise, a wide aperture on a sunny day might burn / overexpose your images which might mean you need to use a ND filter and get your ISO as low as possible. Reassess, adjust and learn.
Frame your shot
When flying, make sure you are using a ring sight and make sure it is set up correctly. I will discuss it more in post production but if you know what looks good, then you can frame it in the sky. Placing the subject in the centre of frame, not cutting their legs off, or using leading lines or the rule of thirds is only an option if you know what you are looking at and how you are framing your photo. Once you know what looks good, you can start to see the shot when flying rather than taking what you can get.
Know your surroundings
If you are jumping over a tropical island, it may not be a best use of the jump to leave early and get the exit looking at the plane. It might be better to dive or leave late and get the coastline. Similarly, be aware of the clouds and where the sun is. Know the run in, what direction the formation is moving and what that means in relation to the light and the landscape. If you are running in towards the sunset, leave early from outside the plane and frame the shot with the sunset in the background.
“You will always get something remarkable at the changing of the light, sunrise, sunset, anytime that light is changing is a good time to get out there and capture it.”
Try new things
Once you have your shots for the day, try something new. Slow your shutter speed down and get some movement, open up your aperture and get depth, change your settings, leave early, leave late, think of a shot that you want and try to create it.
Remember to keep it safe
Keep in mind that you are a guest on the jump. To be in the position to get that great shot, you need to be invited on the jump. Not only are you a guest, but you are also an extra person which adds complexity. The sport is dangerous and adding a camera makes some people try things that they otherwise wouldn’t.
Be safe, fly within your limits and use the lens and camera to keep your distance. Talk to the person organising the jump and create confidence in what you do so that you get recommended and invited to future events.
Part 2 – Post production
Choosing the photos to edit
OK so you have your shots. As a rule, I will take about 20 times as many shots as I post. Through a series of reviews (star ratings) I slowly get it down to something that I am happy to edit.
On average, I will take about 100 shots a jump. Of those, half will get cut because the focal point isn’t perfect, it is out of frame or it is a random shot of the ground as the air is pushed out of me during opening. At this point I am at 50 with 1 star, that will come down to 25 (2 star) based on if I think it will make a good shot or not. I will then get 10-12 (3 star) that are in focus, frames well and I can see a shot. Generally in the 3 stars I will have a couple of duplicates, maybe a foot is different, spacing, angle but they are from the same set and only a split second apart.
After 3 stars, the photos will be cropped and adjusted to see if it ‘works’. This gets me down to about 5 where I do my final edits and export. A particularly good jump might produce 10 and a poor jump might only be a couple. The goal is to have given yourself the best chance to get a great shot but sometimes, it just doesn’t work.
Creating perspective and telling your story
Post production is the time where you create your perspective. It is the personal part of skydiving photography where you adjust the levels or the colours to what looks right to you. For me, when I look at the photos unedited, they look too bright with not enough detail. So I will increase the micro contrast, balance the shadow and highlights and desaturate the colours. How another photographer edits the same photo will be different. Some photographers will adjust the white balance to be more yellow while others will be darker. For me, I am trying to recreate what looks right for me. This editing gives photographers a style and it is important that you explore yours.
So, some tips:
TIP 1: Be ruthless in your first cut
You will leave a lot of good shots on the cutting room floor and the best ones will be thrown out in the first pass because they are out of focus or miss the frame. We are all haunted by those photos that were almost great. Let them go, get rid of them and don’t look back.
TIP 2: Find your style and appreciate others
Try not to edit a photo because it is what someone told you to do, try and find what looks right to you. Explore your style. Similarly, look at other photographers and ask yourself what they have done, how have they adjusted the shot and this might give you some insight into how they see the world.
TIP 3: Learn what looks good and why you like different things
Learn the rule of thirds, leading lines, symmetry and how to balance a photo. This will help you frame your shots which you can then take to the sky when taking the photos. Often the biggest difference for great photos is that the person editing the shot understands the basic rules of photography and what makes a shot look ‘right’.
TIP 4: Create depth
Use the subject and background to your advantage. Position your subject in the shot to create foreground and background and lead the eye between the 2. Take the person viewing the photo on a journey to discover new detail.
TIP 5: Share your work
Welcome feedback, get it up and out there for people to see. Ask people what they think about your work and welcome other people’s perspectives regardless if your style appeals to them or not. Not everyone will think your great photos are great, but you can bet that someone will.
And finally, how to be the star of the photo!
With that aside, the part that you stuck around for, how to get in the photos. Here are 3 tips for those that want to get their face in the next great photo.
Be in the jump
If you have camera on your jump, fly to your skill level and fly your strengths. Get a good exit and be in the jump. If you go for that dock that you have never done before, you are likely going to be leaving the formation but a good chance of making it on the day tape. Be there, be tight, fly well and you will have the best chance of being in the shot.
Know the camera person’s sponsors
Flying camera is expensive, a good setup and remaining current takes time and money. We are reliant on our sponsors and they are important to us. If you just got a new canopy and the camera person is sponsored by the manufacturer, let them know, they will probably try and find you under canopy or might even organise a special jump. Same goes for jumpsuits, helmets, altimeters.
Fun jumps are great photo opportunities
If you are doing something fun, let the camera person know. It is more important to us that we get shots of people loving the sport than doing an all-abouty-McTwist. Keep us in mind for things you are doing.
Follow professional photographers
If this is something you are passionate about and you are looking for more advice on how to shoot sports and how to post process, I would highly recommend Jimmy Chin. He is a sports photographer with amazing insight and skill. His work includes the documentary feature Free Solo which won an Oscar and he is an adventure photographer working with high speed sports and amazing landscape. He has a Photography Master Class which is incredible but as a minimum, please watch and listen to his YouTube trailer. It provides a sneak peak into what the Master Class will give you. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
There are a lot of amazing photographers in the sport including our own Steve Fitch who is one of the few still using a flash. In Australia, keep a look out for Scotty Paterson and Sam Millington. Overseas, make sure you check out Keith Creedy’s work along with Roy Wimmer, Gustavo Cabana, Ewan Cowie and a bunch more that have paved the way or continue to contribute amazing perspectives of the sport we love.
Here is a nice website that explains some of the basic rules of composition. As a minimum, learn them so that you can use them in post-production.
Photography has not only enabled me to explore a sport I enjoy but to do it all over the world. For those that continue to contribute your perspective, thank you.
We’ve got more to come!
This is the first guide from Kian Bullock about photography in skydiving, so sign up to our newsletter below to get updates on when his next article is published.
If you love his photos (as we do), then check him out on Facebook
We use his photographs a lot and he has been our main camera flyer for Jyro Boogie – check out the album on our Facebook page
Downunder Dynamics is an amazing event run by our Icarus Athlete Mason Corby, there are camps for all skills both in the sky and the tunnel. Have a look at the Facebook page for more information.
Skydive Oz in Moruya is well worth the trip and the staff are amazing! We got to know them at Jyro Boogie 2020 earlier in the year. Such a fun dropzone 🙂 ‘Poo’ Smith and his staff were welcoming, efficient and put on the best event for us.
Byron Bay is one of the most stunning locations to jump at! Skydive Australia has dropzones all over Australia.
There are always events going on for sport jumpers at Skydive Nagambie.
Skydive Ramblers in Toogoolawah is friendly, social and has legendary parties!
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