Behind The Photo – S&M’s Chad Johnston Full-Page Ad

Chad Johnston is an amazing flaltand rider with deep roots in BMX. He has been riding pegless for about four years now, which is a pretty new concept, and shooting photos of it can be tricky. However, when Chad hit me up with a one-day deadline for a full-page S&M Bikes magazine ad I was up to the challenge.

Chad Johnston S&M BMX Ad by Fat Tony

S&M's art director Mark Lepper did a great job laying out this ad. The layout works great with Chad's minimalist style, which corresponds with S&M's straight-forward Intrikat flatland product range.

Lucky for us, Chad and I live two buildings from each other in Downtown Long Beach so meeting up was as simple as wheeling my camera bag a few paces down the sidewalk and up into his parking structure. The day of the shoot Chad had some stuff to tend to around the house and couldn’t leave for any length of time so we agreed to shoot the photo inside the parking garage. Obviously we were pretty limited with the space, so we chose the only bare wall with an open floor in front of it and went for a dramatically lit shot in the dark with a cinder block wall as our background.

Chad showed me which trick he wanted to shoot and we discussed the angle we’d want to see it from. It was important to get the bike at somewhat of a 3/4s front view so you could see the whole frame. It was also important to be able to see the lean of the trick. Then we had to make sure that his foot wasn’t completely hidden so it didn’t seem like he had half of a leg.

I set up my composition as a horizontal shot knowing that the ad would be a vertical image because I wanted the art director to have some room to play with. And since my camera shoots at 21MP I knew it would be no problem to crop in to a vertical composition and retain a good, printable quality.

Since there was a defined line in the ground I chose to line up with it directly in the middle of my shot to give it some symmetry. Chad had plenty of room to work with and could consistently do the trick around the same spot in the middle of my frame, so we were set.

I knew I wanted to shoot as fast of a shutter speed as possible to stop the action as much as I could. However, given the equipment I was working with (Canon 5D Mark II and MiniTT1 Pocket Wizard), the fastest I could sync at was 1/250. If you’ve read any of my other “Behind The Photo” posts you’ll know that in daylight conditions where the rider being lit with flashes is positioned more at the top of the frame I can get away shooting at higher shutter speeds. However, since the flashes were lighting the entire scene in this photo I couldn’t shoot any faster without losing my flash light to shutter falloff. I also knew I wanted to shoot at f/5.6 to have a solid depth of field, so the only other setting to adjust was my ISO. I wanted to keep the background areas and the brick wall dark so I set my camera to 100 ISO. However, after a few lighting tests I still felt the image was a bit too dark, so I bumped the ISO up to 125.

After I picked my composition and had my camera settings selected I started setting up my flashes. The main flash I use for action shots (Quantum Qflash) was off being repaired so I was working with three Vivitar 285s. I set one to full power and put it on my tallest light stand behind Chad and to my left. It was pointing down towards him from above and was meant to give a nice key light on his back and give us some of that dramatic look in the dark garage.

The second flash was set to 1/4 power and positioned around bike-level height in front of Chad and to my left. This flash was meant to light up the side of Chad and his bike that would be the focal point of the image.

The final flash was set up on my rolling Lowepro bag’s built in light stand on the handle and set to 1/2 power. It was slightly behind Chad and to my right. This one was also for added highlight around the edges of Chad’s body and bike and helped give the dramatic, moody effect we were going for.

After my lighting tests with Chad standing in the targeted position we started shooting. We shot the trick a total of 29 times until we were both happy with the outcome. Once we had the shot we were looking for we knew it was the one and called the shoot a wrap. Everything was just how we wanted it…you could see the triangles of the frame, part of Chad’s face, and his leg and foot; and you could tell the bike had a good lean to it as he was carving the one-footed manual in circles. Within about a 30 minute time span we had accomplished what we set out to do so I packed up, walked back home, then went on to process the photo and send out the final TIF file to the art director over at S&M.

Chad Johnston S&M BMX Ad by Fat Tony

Here's a pulled-back overview of what the scene looked like as we were shooting.

January 12, 2011
Location: Long Beach, California
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 USM @ 55mm
Camera Settings:
ISO 125
Flashes: Vivitar 285 (x3)
Transmitter: Pocket Wizard MiniTT1
Receivers: Pocket Wizard Receivers
Light Stands: Random tripod, random light stand, and Lowepro rolling camera bag

Like most of my photos, the processing on this image was pretty straightforward. And again, like most of my photos, I started out in the Photoshop CS4 RAW editing window with my “personal stock settings,” as I call them. For that I set the clarity to 25, the saturation to 10, the sharpening to 125, and the masking and luminance to 50. However, since the photo was in a colorless environment I went ahead and bumped up the saturation to 20.

Then I pushed the exposure up to 25 because the image was a bit dark. However, because of the intense flashes, there were a few hot spots on Chad’s skin so I bumped up the recovery to 30. From there I did a bit of playing around with the fill light, blacks, and contrast until I liked the way the image popped and I felt that it had the moody feel that I was going for. So the fill light ended up being 15, the blacks 7, and the contrast 60.

From there I opened the image from the RAW editing window into Photoshop, and since the photo was for print, I changed it from RGB to CMYK color mode and saved it as a TIF. However, I felt that a few white spots on the ground and a few visible lights on the sides of the brick wall were distracting so I took them out using the clone stamp tool. The image now looked clean and was ready to go. I sent it to S&M’s art director using, and the job was complete.

Chad Johnston S&M BMX Ad by Fat Tony

Here's the original image completely unprocessed.

Chad Johnston S&M BMX Ad by Fat Tony

This is the final image that I sent off to S&M.

Click here to read other Behind The Photo posts where I break down my BMX photos.

4 thoughts on “Behind The Photo – S&M’s Chad Johnston Full-Page Ad

  1. Damn Sam

    Great stuff! But on your photoshop screenshots it shows that you don’t add any “vibrance”. Was it just this particular image that didn’t need vibrance or do you never add vibrance to any photos, and if so, why?

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