FEATURE

GETTING THE SHOT

Words & Photos by Brian Plunkett

As a photographer, most of my photos are figured out on the spot during a shoot. Environments are constantly changing, especially in California, and trying to plan a shot beforehand is often unsuccessful. Sometimes the angles don’t work the way you thought they would, the lighting is different than expected, there is foliage in the way, or a feature has been plowed entirely (totally common in California). Some of my favorite images have come from working within the confines of the environment at the spot, creating an image I had never imagined until the photo was on the camera screen.

I like to extrapolate larger truths from the endeavors in my life. With photography, I’m constantly faced with the reality that mother nature is a lot bigger than me. I sometimes find myself banging my head against the wall trying to make a shot work that was in my but just doesn’t fit the environment. Generally, when I let go of that notion and allow myself to take what is given to me, I end up being at peace with myself. I usually end up with a better image as well.

As humans, especially in our current context, it is easy to feel as though everything in the world should bend to our will. Photography is a constant reminder of how foolish that notion really is. Yet, as a human, I still find myself struck with ideas for images that I want to create. Sometimes, while I am at work, an image will come roaring to me and I immediately start to think of how I can make it happen. This is especially true after photo shoots. I get excited for the photos I took, but also see the potential for missed opportunities. It creates a vicious cycle. The more I shoot, the more ideas I come up with, which in turn drives me to want to get out and shoot again. Sometimes the shots I envision are easy to create. There was one shot in particular that I had in mind for months. I knew would require a lot of effort, technical skills that I may not have, extra equipment (which I ordered) and a little help from my friends.

Origins

The impetus of this specific shot came from a makeshift ride/shoot day a few months back. I had just purchased my new camera (Sony A9) and was out running shuttles with my friends. I asked to take a few photos to break in my camera and start to familiarizing myself with its nuances. We shot for forty-five minutes, which allowed me to get accustomed to the camera, but did not allow for anything overly detailed. While shooting, I nabbed the accidental photo that started all of this.

I was shooting a berm shot of my friend George when I caught Nate dropping in behind him as George sailed past the berm. I quickly reacted and swung my camera up to grab a photo of Nate jumping off of a small jump prior to the berm. The resulting photo was decent, but the thing that caught my eye was how much dust the first rider had thrown up. Earlier in the day we had hit a different berm shot, which I think turned out really cool because of the dust kicked up by the first rider. Right at that moment, an image formed in my head. I saw a rider throwing style off of this particular jump while bursting through a cloud of dust from the previous rider.

As months went by, I tried to get a few people to head back out to that location during the day and was unable to find anyone to commit. Not only that, but I needed two riders to come out in order to execute the shot I wanted, which made it even more difficult. This particular location is over an hour drive from my house each way, so getting people in my vicinity to commit wasn’t easy.

Somewhere along the way, the idea of this shot shifted from a day shot to a night shot. I’m still not certain what inspired that change, but it became crystal clear. Right around that same time, I was shooting out in the valley and shot a cave picture in the dark. I’m not sure if that inspired the idea, or if I shot that because I already had the idea somewhere on the back burner.

Regardless, I hit up my buddy Zak Rustigian shortly thereafter with a message, “Hey man, I think I want to do some stupid shit and shoot at night and I have no idea if it will work and I need someone who will do it. You down?”

Zak responded, “Dude, who do you think you’re talking to? Of fuckin’ course I am!”

I figured we’d either get something amazing, or it would be a total bust. Either way, we needed to get it done ASAP. My wife is currently 38 weeks pregnant and I work full time, so there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room. Zak rides for Felt Bicycles and we recently landed POD for a shoot we worked on earlier in the year. We were both excited to try for this shot.

Getting the Shot

I worked diligently to get a second rider, and thankfully one of my favorite local riders, Jarod Hanson, committed to coming last minute after I called him out on Instagram. I work at a middle school and getting out early enough to get all of my gear together was a task in and of itself. It took me over ninety minutes just to get to the location, and it felt so weird showing up for a shoot as the sun was already setting. I started snapping with Zak and quickly realized that this shoot was going to fall on its face unless Jarod showed up. Luckily, about an hour in, Jarod showed up and even brought his buddy, Ryan. Now we had four guys to make this thing work!

We started at the top, shooting some jump photos over the lake. For these photos, I wanted to learn how to blend two photos together. I exposed one shot for the rider and one shot for the background and overlaid them on top of each other to reduce noise (the grainy element in a photo). We then tried to recreate the dust shots through the same berm section I had shot with Nate three months earlier. We sent one rider through to kick up the dust, then I shot the second rider. My flashes are not the nicest, I am a school teacher after all, and the recycle time between flashes does not allow for me to shoot multiple images with flash. It was awesome to watch the guys work together in order to get the shot, especially considering what a nightmare it was to hike back up. Each set up was a five to ten minute endeavor. I was digging what we were getting, but got antsy when I looked at the clock and realized it was already 10:30pm. I also started to worry about having to check and replace batteries in my flashes, since I didn’t have enough batteries to replace all three flashes if they died. I started to talk to the boys about heading down to hammer out what I had driven all this way to accomplish.

After some discussion, we decided that I would hike back up and drive to the bottom, while all the riders took a full lap down the trail. I then proceeded to hike up 500 to 700 feet to meet those guys at the jump I wanted to incorporate for this photo. I was so excited and nervous that I got lost out in the dark and had to backtrack a considerable distance to try and find the trail. I was so full of adrenaline that I didn’t stop the entire way up. By the time I got to the top, I was pouring sweat through the arms of my jacket despite it being in the 50s (Fahrenheit) that night.

The Technical Aspect

Once at the spot, I began to suss out how I was going to make the shot actually work. For this shot I was using my Sony A9 with my 24-70 lens and three Godox tt685 flashes triggered from a wireless remote. I used the 24-70 because there was not enough room in the trail to scoot back further to use a zoom lens, so it was really my only option. The flashes were set up on both the left and right sides to evenly illuminate the rider. I placed the third flash behind the jump to illuminate the dust. I then took some test shots and messed with the power of the flashes, as each one of them needs to be adjusted manually. I was lucky to have Ryan stand in to try and get the exposure set correctly, while also manually focusing the shot.

For those of you who do not shoot photos, the auto-focus feature does not work in extremely dark situations. I set my F-Stop to 7.1 and later dropped it down to 8.0 for these shots. Again, for all the non-photographers out there, the higher the f-stop, the more room there is for focus. A low f-stop such as 1.8 will have a very small window of the image in focus, where as 8.0 has a fairly large amount of the image in focus. The reason for this is that I knew approximately where the action would be, but due to the speed of the riders it would be impossible to get the exact spot that would be necessary with a small f-stop. I set my shutter speed at 1/1000 of a second, which was probably overkill, because I wanted to ensure that every part of the rider was completely crisp and the action was frozen. I did not want any blur from the motion whatsoever and a fast shutter speed would ensure that. I set my ISO at 3200; ISO determines how sensitive your sensor is to incoming light. The higher the ISO, the more chance there is of the image looking grainy. From past shoots with my camera, I felt confident that an ISO in the 3200 to 4000 range would yield a sharp image as long as it was evenly exposed and not overly dark.

We started to run through the picture just as I had planned– one rider to kick up dust and the second rider for the actual picture. After running through it the first time, a few problems immediately became obvious. First, there was not enough dust being kicked up naturally to get the look I was going for. Second, the camera picked up the dust almost like a haze, which went against the image I pictured. Normally, I am not a fan of ‘out maneuvering’ nature, but I was dead-set on making my vision a reality. To remedy this problem, I brought out a bag of baking flour with us, and lugged it all the way up the hill. A photographer by the name of Dan Severson used to shoot in Southern California and on one particular shoot he put flour on the lip of a jump to create a trail effect. That idea stuck in my head somehow and I brought my wife’s flour from the kitchen on the shoot. If it were not for the flour, the image would not have worked. Flour clumps differently and picks up the light far more effectively than natural dirt.

The flour throwing experiment

You would never know it, but there is truly an art to throwing flour in a photo. I knew that I still wanted a rider to roll through in front to kick up dust, but that we would also need someone to throw flour before the second rider hit the jump. Thankfully, we had four guys on hand so we were able to make this work logistically. Ryan and I found a good spot for him to stand and we started to mess with it. We started by throwing it from the side and quickly realized how unnatural it looked. It was clear that the flour had been launched from the side of the image and just did not fit what I was after.

We reconvened and started testing different ways of throwing the flour to get it to spread evenly across the shot. I wanted the rider to be bursting through the flour right as the photo was taken. We realized that the best way to get an even spread was to take two handfuls of flour and throw it as hard as you could at the ground right before the second rider rolled through. Unfortunately, flour gets used up pretty quickly when you are throwing two handfuls at a time. Flour quantity quickly became a concern.

After some trial and error, everything finally started coming together: the lights were in the right spot, the exposure was set, the focus was correct, and our flour-thrower, Ryan, had perfected his technique. We set up the shot, the riders rolled through AND….I missed the shot. With the riders coming right at me in complete darkness, it was extremely difficult to tell when to shoot. I nearly cried when I realized I biffed the image. This frustration was compounded by the low flour reserves. I talked with Ryan and he estimated that we had two more runs at it. We set up the shot again, only this time I held a small flashlight towards the riders in my hand as they dropped in. The riders dropped in, Ryan threw the flour perfectly, and I snapped the image at the peak. I knew I got it before I even looked at the camera. I was so ecstatic I felt like crying, as silly as it sounds. It was such an amazing feeling of validation and triumph to have the exact image in my head show up on the back of my camera screen.

After going through all of the flour, we began test-taking the shot with dust. We filled the flour bag with dust and began throwing it at the ground exactly as we had been doing with the flour. It turns out that throwing dust and throwing flour are very different. The dust did not bounce and stayed low to the ground, forcing us to throw the dust in the air (right at the rider’s face). We took a few shots like this and realized that it just was not going to work like the flour had. At one point, we even began scraping used flour back into the bag to get one more shot at it. Luckily, we got the image I wanted. My only complaint is that his arm covers his eyes, which is a bit frustrating, but alas, not all things can be as you want them. We finally called it at 11:30 and hiked down to the car.

The Aftermath

After the initial feeling of triumph, it’s been a weird week sitting on the image that I worked so desperately to create. I realized a couple things: first, just because I put a lot of effort into something does not mean it will be everyone’s favorite image. My wife is a tough critic, and although she liked the image, she was not as over the moon about it as I was. This was a tough pill to swallow, especially considering she was the first person to see it edited, on a computer screen. Second, after months of thinking about this image, years of storing up little photo tips and secrets and hours upon hours of time, I realized that people would spend all of five seconds looking at the image before scrolling by.

That last part left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It is frustrating to spend so long to create something that will inevitably be appreciated for such a fleeting sliver of time. I know that sounds lame, and maybe even a little vain, but it’s true. People comment, “sick shot!” and in my mind, I am thinking, “man you have no idea how much time and effort went into that shot.” Thus, I decided to write down everything that has been swirling around in my head and how it all came together into one still frame of light and dark.

It has made me think back to past creative photos, or video segments and the amount of blood, sweat, tears, and time that went into something I casually consumed as I continued on with my day. I went back through some old shots and video clips while trying to allow myself to appreciate them in a new way. I watched the UnReal dirt blizzard segment again, I went back through the Brandon Semenuk Rad Company rain video edit and thought about the story behind those productions. I now have some cognizance of how many people those segments must have taken to complete.

As a full time teacher and soon-to-be father, I do not have the time or money to create something that difficult, but I feel proud of creating my version of those segments. After all, we all have to work within the confinements of our situations. The thing that often gets forgotten is the amount of human knowledge and effort that goes into turning in ingenious idea into reality.

Although we ultimately create for ourselves, I think it is important, now more than ever, to try and be present and enjoy things as they enter our lives. Our world breeds detachment, and in turn, discontentment. This experience has allowed me to appreciate human effort and creativity a little more, which has also allowed me to overcome the sadness that comes along with something when it concludes. A part of me is bummed that this shot is locked down, but I am excited for whatever ideas lie ahead, just waiting to be unlocked in the future.

ABOUT THE PHOTOG
My name is Brian Plunkett I am a freelance photographer based in Orange County California. I started riding bikes in 2010 and have had the opportunity to ride all over the western United States and Canada. My father-in-law took me riding the first few times and he is the reason I also got into photography. He rode for over fifteen years and had almost no photos of his adventures. I did not want that to become me when I got older so I began to take pictures of my friends and me for posterity. I then began accumulating gear, absorbing tons of information online, studying other photographers and shooting more and more frequently. I have slowly worked my way up from shooting friends to shooting professional and sponsored riders around Southern California. I started shooting professionally early in 2017 and my work has now been used by over a dozen different bike companies for various projects. The drive to create exciting images that ignites people’s imaginations keeps me going out and shooting week after week. I want my work to encourage people to get out and ride their bikes as I firmly believe spending more time in nature will bring out the best in all of us. To see examples of my work or my rates please visit, WWW.SHREDDYSHOTS.COM