Behind The Photo – Travis Collier 2011 Flatland BMX Calendar Back Cover

I’ve always loved shooting long exposure and multiple exposure photos. Because they produce such a unique look I tend to get a ton of questions about them, so I thought this photo of Vancouver, Canada, resident Travis Collier would be a great image to break down in Behind The Photo post.

If you like this one, be sure to check out my other Behind The Photo posts, too…

THE SPOT
In February 2010 Travis came to stay in Long Beach for a weekend to shoot some stuff with me and a few other photographers in the area. After shooting a how-to video and bike check with him for ridebmx.com we headed north to hang out with Bobby Carter and try to take advantage of a really interesting spot at the Caltrans headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles. I previously saw video footage of people riding the spot at night and instantly knew it would make for an amazing photo. I had actually tried to shoot there during the day a few months prior, but ended up getting kicked out before I could even set up.

Although we could see a security guard in the building through the window Travis and I were able to stay out of their line of sight and work quickly and quietly enough to get what we needed without having any hassles.

SETTING UP THE SHOT
I set my ISO to 100 so the photo would be sharp and wouldn’t have much grain to it, and I set my aperture to f/5.6 to have a solid depth of field in the image… I often shoot with the same settings in many other scenarios. The main difference here was the shutter speed.

At this location even with all the wild neon lights overhead if I was to set the shutter speed at a typical action photography setting (1/250-ish) I wouldn’t be able to capture any of the lights because at that fast of a shutter you aren’t allowing nearly enough light to enter the lens and hit the sensor. To a human’s naked eye you can easily see plenty of bright colors, but to a camera’s lens, it’s still nearly complete darkness. So to pick up the light while at ISO 100 and f/5.6 you must leave the camera’s shutter open for a prolonged period of time. After a few tests shots I decided to shoot this photo with a shutter speed of 1.3 seconds. That duration gave me exactly the amount of light I wanted to get from the various colored neon lines. However, leaving the shutter open so long brings up a few issues that need to be addressed: 1) the shake of the camera, and 2) lighting the rider and stopping his action.

Most people can hold a camera steady enough to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/60 without any visible motion blur caused by their natural hand and arm shake. An experienced photographer with a very steady grip may be able to shoot at 1/40 without noticing any movement in the image. However, it’s impossible for anyone to hold a camera completely still for an entire 1.3 seconds, so I mounted my camera on a tripod. Since the camera needs to be absolutely still for the entire duration of the shutter you can’t even manually press the shutter button on the camera body because your hand may shake the camera. Even the slightest movement like that would make the lights and background blurry in this type of photo. To get around this dilemma I used a shutter release cable. With my camera settings in place, my camera mounted on a tripod, and my shutter release cable plugged into the camera I was finally ready to set up my flashes and tackle the task of figuring out how to light up my rider and stop his motion.

Professional Flatland BMX Rider Travis Collier

You can see here what the image looks like with Travis standing stationary in one spot without any flashes hitting him. This was how I tested the shot before figuring out how to light my subject. Click to enlarge.

My tripod was very close to the floor for this shot and the camera was positioned so the building and ground were symmetrical within the frame. I set up my faster, more powerful flash (Quantum Qflash) just a few feet to the left of my camera and a smaller Vivitar 285 flash a few feet to the right of the camera. They were equal distances from the rider. Both flashes were about waist level to the rider. The flash to my left was intended to light most of the rider and his bike. You can tell the angle it was facing by looking at the shadow it cast on the ground behind the rider. The smaller flash to my right was pointing up towards the rider’s chest and face and was acting as a fill flash to help even out the lighting on that side of his body since his torso and head were turned away from the main flash. While I didn’t record (and don’t remember) the exact power level the flashes were at, I can say with certainty that neither was set very high (1/4 or less) because with such a long shutter duration anything more powerful than that would have washed out the subject too much.

With this type of photo, part of the trick is balancing out having enough flash power that it illuminates enough of your subject to see and separate it from your background (ie: make it not so “ghostly” that you can’t see what’s going on), and not having too much flash power that it completely washes out your subject.

Once the flashes were in place and everything was set I could test out what the image may look like with Travis just standing still. However, this didn’t give me a very accurate account of what I was trying to achieve because when the rider is moving and the flashes go off, only what’s going on in that small fraction of a second that the flashes hit him will be lit. And since he continues to move out of that position the instant the flashes go out, the remainder of the 1.3 seconds that the shutter is open will just capture darkness, which is why you get the “ghost” where you can see through Travis and his bike.

Professional Flatland BMX Rider Travis Collier

Here you can see what the photo looks like with the flashes going while Travis stands still.

This same technique is used to make multiple images appear in one long exposure photograph by simply by popping the flash more than once while the shutter is open. For example, the photo below was taken using this method, but I initiated three flash bursts by hitting the trigger on my PocketWizard three separate times while the shutter was open. And this brings me to my next point…using the pocket wizard to capture your moment instead of using your shutter release cable.

Three images of the rider created by three flash bursts.

When shooting a photo you normally use the shutter release to capture the exact moment you want to appear in the photo. However, with long exposure shots you use the flash trigger to capture this moment. With the multiple exposure shot above and the image of Travis we are talking about in this post I used two hands to shoot the image. I used my left hand to press the button on the shutter release cable, which opened and closed the shutter, and I used my right hand to hold my PocketWizard transmitter and pressed the “test” button on the transmitter to fire the flashes simultaneously. This technique takes a little getting used to, and definitely takes precise timing. With an exposure of several seconds it isn’t as tough, but with only 1.3 seconds to work with, you have to press the shutter release then immodestly press the PocketWizard button, and of course you have to press the button on the PocketWizard during that split second of peak action that you are trying to capture in the photo.

Adidt M1 Remote Cord

After ten shots Travis and I reviewed the photos on the back of the camera and decided we had a keeper. We exchanged high fives, packed it up, and headed out to Little Tokyo for some Japanese food and ice cream. Mission accomplished.

PHOTO INFORMATION
Date: February 27, 2010
Location: Downtown Los Angeles, California
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 15mm f/2.8
Camera Settings:
ISO 100
f/5.6
1.30 seconds
Flashes: Quantum Q Flash with Turbo 400 w/s battery pack and Vivitar 285.
Transmitter: Pocket Wizard MiniTT1
Receivers: Pocket Wizard Receiver
Shutter Cable: Adidt M1 Remote Cord
Light Stands: Random tripods.
Tripod: Slik Pro 340DX

SELECTION
Since I had 10 similar images of the same trick, how did I choose which one to use? Part of that comes from knowing BMX and what makes a trick and rider look good, and part of that comes from being a photographer and knowing what little details in a photo make it stand out from the rest. With this particular set of photos, the one chosen was the only one where Travis’ head wasn’t in front of the lights. In the other photos you couldn’t see his face and expression nearly as good because it was ghosted and overlayed with background lights. Also, in this photo the foot that is off the bike is clearly visible and it is easy to tell where his leg is. In many of the other photos his leg was hard to make out, as it also got lost in the lights and through the “ghosting” effect. Luckily for me Travis is fair-skinned and was wearing blue shoes, both of which pop out and make this photo work well. Once I selected which photo I was going to use it was time to process the image.

PROCESSING THE IMAGE
Like most of my photos, the processing on this image was very 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.

The only thing that really needed attention in this photo was Travis’ skin tone. He was a bit washed out and needed to have some color brought back to his flesh. I moved the brightness slider down to 25, then the recover slider up to 15. Finally, to bump up the blacks and make the image pop a little better I moved the contrast slider up to 45. The horizon line seemed just a tiny bit crooked, and since that’s a huge pet peeve of mine, I used the straighten tool, drew a line across the frame from one point along the horizon line to another, and fixed it right up. And with just those few minor tweaks the image was ready to be opened and saved…

Since the photo was going to be used for a printed piece I changed the color mode to CMYK and saved it as a TIFF. From there it went into InDesign where it found its home on the back cover of the 2011 Flatland BMX Calendar.

Professional Flatland BMX Rider Travis Collier

This is the original image without any processing or alterations. Notice how pale and colorless Travis' face is and how the image as a whole looks a bit too bright. Click to enlarge.

Here is the final photo that ran on the back cover of the 2011 Flatland BMX Calendar. Click to enlarge.

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