Interview with Going Wireless Contest Winner Ryan Allan
Q: Here we are talking to Ryan Allan, who’s won the first PocketWizard video contest. Hi Ryan, how are you doing?
A: I’m doing great, and thanks for the PocketWizard.
Q: Great. Hope you use them in good health, as they say. Tell us a little bit about where you’re located and what kind of photography you do and some of the basic details.
A: I’m located in Southern California, I mainly shoot skateboard and skateboarding lifestyle, which basically means I go out and hop a lot of fences and climb around a lot of schoolyards, ditches and back alleys for a living and I originally am from Toronto, Canada and after a few years of struggling trying to make it as a skateboard photographer out there I realized that you need to be where the action is. So I moved to California and here I am. Shooting full-time. (read the rest after the jump)
Q: Well good for you. That’s great. I guess that’s also a little warmer down there where you are, also.
A: Yeah, you get about five months a year to shoot out in Toronto, and it’s a full year here.
Q: That’s right. Let’s talk a little bit about your video that won the contest. It’s absolutely fantastic quality.
A: Thank you.
Q: Tell us a little bit about how you came up with the idea for it. Did you storyboard it? Did you plan it out? That kind of thing. Give us some insight into the creative process.
A: Okay. Well, it’s kind of a funny story. A friend of mine, Joe Crollister, the videographer that filmed it, we were working together throughout the week just on, well when you do skateboard photography you always have a video guy there with you to document the tricks and such. Throughout the week we were talking about, you know “We should really do like a little behind the scenes video.” He’s a photographer as well, a great photographer. And so we pulled up to this one location and the kid that was skating had a little time before he was ready to try his really difficult tricks, so I just said to Joe “Hey, do you want to just want to try and shoot it here?”
And Joe is a real champion with all the HD cameras and dollies and everything, and I really did just set up and he ran around with the Dolly, flopping it down, shooting a couple of seconds and then moving to the next location, dropping it down. It really only took about fifteen minutes to film. The whole idea behind it was that I just wanted to have something that was a little more arty than the usual “Follow me with a handicam and I’ll talk about what I’m doing.” Eventually I do want to film one of those where I’m doing more describing what’s going on, but that was pretty much it. We just, you know, said “Hey, let’s do it,” flopped down the dolly and just started filming and it really took maybe fifteen-twenty minutes. He went home and edited it in about twenty more minutes and I had it that night in hi-res in my e-mail.
Q: That’s fantastic. So it was kind of more of a documentary approach than a lot of preplanning.
A: Yeah. I just set up and shot. I slowed my whole process down a little bit because usually when I’m shooting skateboarding I have to be really quick because a lot of times we’re not really supposed to be where we are. But this place was, you know, it was completely open, it’s an old field out in inland California. The property owner doesn’t care. So we totally had lots of time and I just slowed myself down a little bit. We took our time. Fifteen minutes, probably. Twenty, tops. That was it.
Q: That’s fantastic. Tell us a little bit more about what you just said, and that was “a lot of times we’re in places where we’re not supposed to be.”
A: Well, the funny thing is about skateboarding, when I grew up in Canada, we would get kicked out of, you know, storefronts and things like that for skateboarding. And the police would always so “Oh, go to the schoolyards, go skate there where you’re not bothering anybody.” And here, which is, you know, I naturally go to the schoolyards. There’s a lot of open area, pavement, all that, the police are not happy about it whatsoever that we’re there. I guess it’s just a sheer number of skateboarders here. There’s just so many and the kids see all the videos on the Internet and they all want to go to the exact same spots, so if you have a schoolyard that happens to have a very good handrail or a set of stairs for skateboarding, every kid has seen it on YouTube and he’s going there, too.
So in a single day, a schoolyard can have thousands of kids coming through and it’s just not good, I guess, for property and things like that.
Q: So you’re talking, in fact, of the actual skateboarding, not so much as the photographer is in–
A: Well, the funny thing is that I’ve also been kicked out because of heightened security these days people are very wary of someone setting up all this weird camera equipment and believe the way we set up our skateboards doesn’t really look strange. I’ve got tripod bags that, you know, God knows what’s actually in there when you see people walking around in back alleys with those things. There is definitely a concern as to what I’m doing more than what the skaters are doing more and more these days.
Q: It occurs to me that very much your style or your specialty is a sports specialty. And requires an extraordinary amount of timing. How do you develop that sense of timing and how do you apply it to your style?
A: Well, coming from a skateboard background myself, I’ve skateboarded as long as I can remember and I’m 34 now, you kind of learn at what point the trick looks good and at what point a single image describes what the person is doing in the photo. Sometimes you’ll have a photographer that maybe is new to the scene and he’ll shoot a trick a different way than I would and it might not necessarily tell the story as well. That just comes from years and years of seeing these tricks go down and knowing what exact point is going to tell the story.
There are tricks that come out that are new tricks that I look at and I’m like “How am I supposed to tell this in a single image?” And often times I have to resort to, like, a sequence because it’s …(inaudible) sequential image, which is like nine or ten frames. But for the most part I love to try and tell it with a single image because it’s stronger. You’ve just got to know enough about the sport to know when the action is frozen and still tells the story.
Q: Well your work certainly comes through as a very, very exact moment that does tell the story and your work is very strong and beautiful. A gorgeous portfolio.
A: Thank you.
Q: When do you decide that you need flash or artificial lighting and how do you go about visualizing that?
A: I would say for skateboarding it’s mostly 90 to 95% of the time I need lighting. It’s mainly because A) You need to freeze the action and B) you want the action to pop out in the picture. And a lot of times we’re in alleyways where it’s not nice light and also in southern California the sun is constantly beating down on us so we have to separate the guy from the blue sky in the background. So 95% of the time it’s flash.
Q: Gotcha. Gotcha. Which I guess brings us to the question of PocketWizards. How do they come into play and how have you been using them and what have then enabled you to do?
A: Well PocketWizards are what I would consider the only option because a lot of what I do is placing flashes behind walls, around corners and I’m oftentimes fairly far away from them. So I really can’t rely on line of sight or radio. A lot of times I’m in cities and there’s train lines and a million different frequencies flying all over the place. I’ve found the only guys that really cut through all of that are the PocketWizards. With skateboarding you can’t have cords running around everywhere because the guy’s going to run them over, so you really, really need wireless.
Q: Gotcha. Have you found the PocketWizards to be reliable?
A: Oh, yeah. 100%. Rarely do I have anything and usually when I do it’s me putting it on the wrong channel and not noticing. [laughter].
Q: That happens to older photographers, mostly.
A: The thing is, I’m grabbing my gear out of my camera bag so fast– like I said, a lot of times I’ve got to be quick– And as you’re pulling it out you’re dragging it across something and it just switches the channel on you slightly. I usually figure it out pretty quickly when there’s not a highlight on my guy and I can’t figure out why. It’s usually just, you know, human error.
Q: This contest that we recently ran was co-sponsored along with David Hobby’s very well-known site, Strobist.com. Tell us a little bit about what you’re learned from that site and how it’s affected your photography.
A: David’s great. He is amazing for just unloading information, not like the old style where learning something and keeping it and hiding it. He’s wonderful for sharing everything and the community is huge. Just yesterday I was shooting a gallery owner, sorry, a gallery curator in San Diego and my main strobe unit died on me. I use an old Norman 200b for when I’m shooting people and stuff like that because they’re really like tanks, but it died on me. So I had to resort of my Strobist memory and pull out my little FD’s, and light a situation with those and I’m very thankful that I had the Strobist website to go back in my memory and remember how people were doing things. Because it’s been a long time since I’ve just lit people with just little FD800’s, but it worked out great and David and the Strobist website are such a wealth of information.
And for skateboard photographers, I get a lot of e-mails about “Hey, I’d love to do what you’re doing, how do I go about it?” The first site I give them is Strobist, because the information there applies to exactly how we light skateboarding as well. A lot of cross-lighting and a lot of small flashes and that’s because we can’t carry around too much gear. So he really is helping out so many people with his site and it’s a great, great resource.
Q: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it’s a new era of information sharing and people don’t keep secrets to themselves and David is certainly one of those people that has contributed to that movement.
A: Yeah, a lot of people as digital started coming out got scared because the learning curve is ridiculously fast. I went to college when Photoshop 1 had just been released and we were shooting 4×5 everything and I noticed that as people learned their digital tricks they were really hiding them and, you know, people’s lighting styles were very kept. And nowadays I think it really progresses the business because everyone is sharing their information and having to develop new styles and new techniques as we go. And I think the sharing of information is great and everyone is really progressing and it’s really pushing it. It’s not taking away like a lot of people might think. It really just makes you think “If I’m going to stand out in this really talented crowd, I’m going to have to go one step further.”
Q: Right. Did you study photography formally?
A: Yeah, I took a commercial photography course in Sheridan College in Toronto. I’m really bad with dates in my life, but I think it was in the early 90’s, in ’92, ’93.
A: It was a fantastic course. I learned a lot and right from there I went for shooting editorially for a skateboard and snowboard magazine.
Q: How else do you market your work other than for the skateboarding magazines?
A: Well, I just started to like really push myself to get outside of the skateboard industry. The skateboard industry is so small and what we call “Bro” that everyone knows everyone and marketing’s almost unnecessary because I know all the people that are running everything and now that I’m branching out further and I’m shooting more editorial and commercial work that’s non-skateboarding, I’m only now just looking at how to market myself with web and print mailers and there’s just so much information that I’m really a little bit overwhelmed at the moment and trying to collect myself in the next year and make a leap out into the commercial world.
Q: Well, good for you.
A: Thank you, thank you. Yeah. Marketing nowadays is a crazy thing. I mean, I’ve always kind of been a monitor of youth culture and how companies kind of attach themselves to it, and I’m not one of those people trying to attach myself to the hip thing and figure out how to get people to pay attention to me, so it’s very, very interesting and it’s an exciting time, definitely.
Q: Your website is beautiful, by the way. I’ve shown it around at the office and everyone is so impressed with it. Beautiful design and treatment.
A: Thank you, it’s funny how that worked out. I had a friend who is a flash web designer and him and I had been talking for a few months about how we were going to do my website. And just as it came time for me to really commit to doing it he got hired at a staff position up in Toronto and I was on my own. So I sat down one night and I thought “How can I pull off what I wanted to do in Flash,” but do it in a way that I could handle because I know very little about web design. And so I just basically made a bunch of JPEGs that I liked the way they looked and had them clickable and that’s why the site’s so simple. It had to be simple. Because I needed to understand it.
Q: That’s fantastic. I thought that was designed by some rocket scientist. That’s amazing.
A: Thank you. I just went for what I know. Make your images as unobstructive as possible and I thought “Well, a book might be the way to do that,” you know? You just flip through the pages and I couldn’t do a flash website that was all flash so I just went very, very simple and clean.
Q: Good for you. What are you going to do with your new PocketWizards?
A: Well, I’m developing a new home studio in true Strobist style in my garage and I want to keep those in good condition in my garage with my home studio and use my other ones that I had previously out in the field. Because they get beat up and I don’t want to beat up the nice new ones. So I’m going to use those here for my home studio and also, being kind of a clumsy guy, I tend to– If I bring my pocket wizards out of my bag and put them in my home studio, next time I go out and shoot skateboarding I’ll reach into my bag and realize they’re not there. So I have to keep things very separate so it actually is a huge blessing to get those because I really need them for my garage setup.
Q: That’s fantastic. Well, we wish you the best of luck in both studio and location work. And it’s been a pleasure talking with you today.
A: You too.
Q: We’ve been talking to Ryan Allan who has won the Pocket Wizard monthly contest with a beautiful, beautiful video, and thank you very much, Ryan.
A: Thank you.