All images by Sam McGuire. Used with permission
Sam McGuire grew up very punk rock. Those origins influenced his love of skating until later on he embraced his creative side to combine it with photography. Today, he shoots and does loads of tutorial videos for a living. Though skaters are only part of his portfolio, they’re a major passion of his that stems from his roots in Iowa. Sam’s dedication stated while he was young and lead to his learning lighting, composition, and marketing your images.
Along the way, he’s taken quite a few bumps. But he always got back up smiling.
Phoblographer: How did you get into photography then realized that you wanted to photograph skaters?
Sam: I got into photography about 15 years ago back where I grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. My friends and I grew up skateboarding, being little punk rock kids just kinda skateboarding, doing dumb stuff. We’d wanted to film and take photos of the stuff we were doing but didn’t have a camera. Randomly my friend Chris won a camera in a raffle at prom and we started using that. That Christmas I asked for a camera and, being the angel that I was, Santa brought me one!
At the same time we had found an abandoned warehouse that the electricity was still on. It was cold in Waterloo in the winter. Cold and windy. This place was huge and was incredible, so we just started shooting stuff there and then just random stuff around town. It wasn’t anything serious, was just dumb photos of us being dumb kids. I didn’t think of it as a career, at all. I just wanted to get out of Waterloo and see the world. I wasn’t one of those people that everyone knew would be a photographer, I usually always had a camera but more often than not was cause I have a terrible memory and it helped me remember things.
In college I got more seriously into it. I really wanted to be a travel/documentary photographer. Tour with bands and do cool stories for like, Vice, or Esquire. I knew how hard it was to work in skate photography, so I never really set out to do it. I wanted to learn lighting, especially in shooting sports and not to sound like, super white trash but I always thought the glossy colorful and high key lit photos in skateboard magazines looked “expensive,” haha. So, I wanted to take a photo like that and started to shoot my friends skateboarding around Iowa.
Phoblographer: You have different styles of shooting skaters, but in your eyes and personal opinion what makes for a great skate photo?
Sam: This is a pretty hard question to answer. Honestly, I don’t know if there is anything that “makes,” a great skate photo, but I think everyone just knows a great photo when they see one. There’s a lot that goes into it, the location, the lighting, the skater, their style, the trick, the timing. I kinda hate using these buzz words but, there’s an energy you sorta get from a good skate photo, you kinda look at it and think, “oh fuck yeah.”
Phoblographer: Many skate photographers shoot with a wide angle or a fisheye. Why exactly is this?
Sam: I think it just looks awesome. A cool fisheye photo with the skateboard up in the lens, or just a crazy looking spot, I don’t know, I think it kinda puts the viewer in the line of fire and makes for a really cool perspective. There’s a utility to it as well I suppose. Some stuff just isn’t super exciting to shoot on so a fisheye kinda makes it a bit more exciting. Some stuff there just isn’t enough room to get a good angle anywhere so fisheye is the only option to fit it in. Also sometimes it can make smaller things, obstacles look larger, longer, higher etc. It can get over used but, I think in most action sports it’s used quite a bit to make the photo exciting. Same with surfing, it’s great to see a long lens photo of a big barrel but a fisheye photo of a big barrel that is just sweeping over the camera and the surfer blasting through it, can’t beat that.
“I really wanted to be a travel/documentary photographer. Tour with bands and do cool stories for like, Vice, or Esquire.”
Phoblographer: When you work with athletes like this, how do you go about explaining your creative vision to them? Do you have some sort of storyboard or do you just go in with lights set up and shoot?
Sam: I think mostly your at the whim of the athlete with most stuff. They are the ones doing the trick, is sorta up to you to put your spin on how you think it should look. Unless you have a certain project in mind, a spot, a new camera etc. Than you just sorta call them and hope they are cool with it. I suppose with bigger shoots, ad agency stuff, there can be story boards, etc but that doesn’t happen much. There’s so many variables that go into it mostly it’s just, go out with lights and hope it all comes together. Most the time there is a reason for shooting, a trip, a tour article, an editorial piece or an advertisement needed for an endorsement. So, that can dictate how you shoot but, in the end sometimes you have 0 say in it so, just do your best to make it look as cool as you can I guess?
Phoblographer: What city do you think is the absolute best for skate photography, and why?
Sam: That’s a tough one. I love shooting in NYC, I get to shoot with some really cool people there and it can just look so amazing. China is really good because there are spots and I think the lighting is really cool because of all the smog and it’s quite easy to shoot and not get in trouble with police or with trespassing and such. I don’t know, I’m weird I just like going anywhere I think that a place like Tallahassee can look unique and cool and so can a place like London, or Newfoundland, or Rio or St. Louis. Guess it’s unique charm, obviously places like Paris have something that say Atlanta doesn’t but same could be said vice versa. Think that’s what’s cool about skating, you can take it anywhere and it can look really cool.
Phoblographer: Tell us about the gear that you typically use.
Sam: For a body I use a Canon 1Ds Mark III, I just happened to get a Canon for my first camera no brand priority. Lens’ usually a 24 or 35mm for walking around and then a 70-200mm and fisheye for action or anything else.
For strobes I really like the Lumedyne action pack series. I have a 400w/s and a 200w/s. The lumedynes have really nice light and they are really really fast as far as flash duration. Plus they are small, pretty light and reasonably priced. They aren’t built super well, and tend to break quite a bit but, I think any super fast high powered portable strobe does so, I still have Lumedyne’s back and would argue if your going to lug around equipment that this is the best to be lugging around. I have a few Nikon SB-800’s as well to fill in where it’s needed.
Phoblographer: Obviously when you’re photographing skaters, it’s very possible that you can get too close to them. Have there ever been accidents?
Sam: Yeah for sure, that’s just part of it I guess. I suppose and most skateboard photographers grew up skateboarding so, you kind of know what to look for. Have had lots of lenses hit, bruised eyes/face from boards hitting the lens and shoving my camera into my face. I chipped my arm bone, blocked a board from hitting me and had my toe broke from a board flying down and smashing into it. If I’m getting hit though, chances are the skater has fallen as well and more often than not they are worse for wear than me so, can’t complain too much. Would rather be where I’m at maybe getting a knick or two than where the skater is at that’s for sure.
Phoblographer: Photographers that want to get into this are usually told to just go to skate parks and talk to skaters. But what other advice would you offer to them?
Sam: I mean honestly the simplest piece of advice is to go where people are skateboarding and take pictures of them skateboarding. It’s that easy, and it’s not that easy. Like anything you kinda gotta get into the scene, meet people etc. Probably the best advice I’d give is just start skateboarding. It’s quite fun and good exercise. Than you can just start shooting photos of people you skate with, will give you a better understanding of it all and you can try out different lighting, different angles. If you want to just shoot skateboarding say, as like part of your book, or to spice up your portfolio, probably the park, or skateshop is a good place to start. I’d probably do some research though, like anything you walk into it without knowing anything your probably not going to find much success.
Phoblographer: Let’s talk business: how does someone go from shooting something like this as their passion to getting sales of images? Is it in the networking? What about marketing through Instagram, Tumblr, etc?
Sam: Honestly it’s probably like, half skill/networking and half luck. Everyone wants the best images of the biggest skaters so, figuring out how to do that. Getting to know magazines, editors, companies, team managers etc. Than just, kind of shooting the right people and being right place at the right time. I think instagram and tumblr help get your name out for sure, so that when you get the photos to the people they kinda know who you are, can follow your work etc. Helps build relationships a bit easier and all that.
A lot of it is just sort of getting the image and then figuring out what to do with it rather than being assigned a specific task, so it’s not totally like other fields of photography where you may get an assignment, a lot of it comes from self-assignments or being motivated. Lots of submissions, lots of asking to go on trips and pitching. You have to be pretty pro-active in shooting skating as far as making a business out of it.
Phoblographer: Where do you usually get your creative inspiration from?
Sam: Good question. As of lately I’ve been getting excited actually shooting other sports other than skating. I’ve been trying to shoot some more surfing which has been insane but really fun. Travelling. Trying new stuff and getting out of my comfort zone. I feel like that one is pretty important, you’ve got to push yourself and try new things to stay inspired. It’s not easy, but not that is worth it is every easy.