Movement photography using creative flash techniques

Josh Katz turns skateboarding subculture into an urban studio using Canon Speedlites and cameras such as the Canon EOS R6. Here Josh reveals the secrets behind his creative use of off-camera flash for photographing motion.
A photograph of a skateboarder grinding along the edge of a low concrete block, with colourful lines of light radiating out from the centre, taken on a Canon EOS 90D camera by Josh Katz.

“When it comes to off-camera flash, the zoom of my lens and flash are completely different,” says pro skateboarder and photographer Josh Katz. “If I’m shooting a vast scene such as this one where I want widely dispersed light, I’ll keep my flashes at 24mm. If I want one light to hit a selective area of the scene, I may zoom into 50 or 105mm. It totally depends.” Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 33mm, 2 sec, f/10 and ISO160. Josh used two Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RTs at 1/16 power, positioned either side of the subject at 90° to the camera. They were set to Manual Flash and triggered wirelessly by the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT. © Josh Katz

Creatively capturing fast-paced motion is never easy, especially when the final output is a still image. Josh Katz's method is to use Canon Speedlites combined with ingenious flash techniques. He estimates that more than 80% of his photos of the skateboarding subculture have been made using two off-camera Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RTs, and subsequently two Canon Speedlite EL-1s.

"I take skateboarding way too seriously!" says Josh. "I shattered my collarbone a few months ago – I completely deserved it because I was trying to jump down an 11-stair handrail."

Recovery from a serious facial injury sustained during skateboarding was, in fact, the backdrop to Josh first turning his attention to photography. "Every skateboarder is a creative and when I knew I wouldn't be skating for a few months I thought, what else am I going to do but take cool photos with the skating community that I am part of?"

Over two decades, Josh has developed a love of using flash to capture movement, and his run-and-gun ethos means he relies on Speedlites to do this. He says, "With flash there is that sense of control as you are battling the chaos of ambient light – figuring out how to overpower or work with the sun – and it's an exciting challenge. The fact that I can control the environment with the gear in my backpack is so empowering. It's then about being as creative as possible to make those lights work for me, and the Canon Speedlite EL-1s are so powerful for that."

There are overarching themes in Josh's dynamic catalogue: a decisive moment, long exposure motion and multi-exposure sequences. Here we explore these themes and offer flash photography tips.

As darkness falls, a skateboarder performs a trick on large steps in an ornate garden in this straight-on photograph taken on a Canon EOS R6 camera by Josh Katz.

“My typical technique would be to underexpose the image a pinch and bring in lights which make the subject pop,” says Josh. “That technique works if there is a darker background or sky. The goal is to have the flashes either hidden or just out of frame to maximise their output.” Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 59mm, 1/500 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. Josh used two Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RTs set to Manual Flash at half-power and with the flash zoom at 24mm, positioned at 45° to the camera and triggered wirelessly by the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT. © Josh Katz

1. Become fanatical about your subject

Capturing a decisive moment when there might only be one possible attempt with a full-power flash is about understanding the movement that's going to happen from start to finish and figuring out the peak point for the most dramatic frame. "No one can photograph a subculture better than the people who are engaged in it," says Josh.

"As a skateboarder, I've been looking at skating magazines for 20 years now, so photographing it is intuitive for me. It's universally accepted what the 'peak' moment is that explains the evolution of a trick, and that sentiment holds true for most action sports."

There are no shortcuts here. If you're new to a sport like skateboarding, get to the skateparks and become a part of it.

2. Be collaborative

Understanding what that peak moment is and then freezing it – or introducing a creative representation such as motion blur – is also a collaborative process. To shoot an image appreciated by those in sport and cultures like skateboarding, Josh advises letting go of your photographer's ego. "Practicing humility when you are photographing other subcultures is really important," he says.

"It's a collaborative process with a skateboarder. Hearing what they want to do, asking them to walk you through the trick, what is the perfect frame, understanding what their skillset is, deferring to them, bringing your ideas. Sometimes it's just spending a day with people."

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3. Use long exposure movement

Josh has found long exposure with flash a particularly popular technique among the skateboarding community for capturing movement. "Long exposure photography is like a re-conceptualising of time in an image that is just real enough for us to understand and comprehend what's happening, yet also has an incredibly surreal appearance,” says Josh. “Motion blur also adds a sense of speed and movement to an otherwise still image."

First, you need a good amount of ambient light to catch any movement trails and for those trails not to be completely overpowered by the brighter appearance of elements such as streetlights. "I will select a shutter speed as fast as 1/15 sec and as slow as 1/5 sec. It could get down to one second if I'm feeling wild,” Josh continues.

"Tracking the movement of the trick is key – where to start and end, and where among that movement you want the subject to be. If I take the photo and then pan, the movement can be a little jerky, so instead I'm perfectly ready in my body to start panning before I take the flash photo and continue rotating past the key moment."

4. Create light trails

Another variation on capturing motion blur with long exposure flash is emphasising light trails by using a lens zoom motion. The same principles of shooting long exposures with flash largely hold true; Josh starts the zoom motion before triggering the exposure and flash and maintains that motion after the flash has fired.

In the image at the start of this article, there is less ambient light in the foreground, which is why there is no movement blur of the flash-lit skater and his surroundings. Instead, the stronger ambient light coming from the skyscrapers in the background is the focus of the long exposure zoom motion. “Having the subject in the centre of the frame is key because this shot has all of the lights coming in towards the middle, which gives a centralised view,” says Josh.

An action shot taken with a Canon Speedlite EL-1 shows a stunt rider cycling down stone steps, a spray of water droplets caught by the flash.

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A photograph of a skateboarder sliding down railings in an almost deserted city street, taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II camera by Josh Katz.

“I love this dramatic look,” says Josh. “Flash illuminates the foreground, the marble catches the light, the skater is illuminated perfectly and there's backlighting to make him pop.” Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 73mm, 1/180 sec, f/6.3 and ISO400. Josh used two Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RTs set to Manual Flash, at full 1/1 power and with the flash zoom at 24mm, positioned at 90° to the camera and triggered wirelessly by the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT. © Josh Katz

5. Front curtain vs rear curtain for long exposure movement

Front curtain flash fires at the beginning of a long exposure, while rear curtain flashes at the end of the exposure. Practically speaking, front curtain flash for fast movement is much easier. Josh says, "Normally in my head I am visualising the entire sequence of the trick in order to press the shutter at the peak moment. This approach works with front curtain because the second that you press the shutter is the moment that the action happens."

Josh continues, "Sometimes, though, it actually makes more sense to use rear curtain sync, so you see skaters create their own trail behind them, which can be a more dynamic movement. Rear curtain adds another sense of speed and variation."

Rear curtain flash is more challenging because the photographer has to pre-empt the key moment to illuminate the subject with flash. "It's about anticipating rather than reacting," says Josh. "You press the shutter in anticipation of the length of your exposure and having the flash at the peak moment. Panning and anticipating up to one second before is really tough."

A multiple-exposure photo showing three men in masks breakdancing, while another man flip-jumps over them, taken on a Canon EOS R6 by Josh Katz.

"I chose these five frames because they have just enough separation and create this visually satisfying arc that helps you understand the movement of the flip," says Josh. Multiple images taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 13mm, 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO6400. Josh used two Canon Speedlite EL-1s at 1/512 power, set to Manual Flash, positioned at 45° to the camera, with the flash zoom at 24mm and wirelessly triggered by the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT. © Josh Katz

6. Multi-exposure flash photography

The Canon Speedlite EL-1 has a 0.9 sec flash recycle time from a full-power flash, but that recycle time is dramatically reduced by manually reducing the flash output. "When I shoot 'micro' flash at around 1/128 sec or 1/512 sec instead of full power, the recycle time is absolutely bonkers," says Josh. "For the shot above there were about 15 frames to choose from, which was really empowering."

Josh continues, "Normally the decision I have to make is whether I make a single frame with lighting, or a sequence without. And to no longer have to make that compromise with the EL-1 and still have an incredibly portable setup is really exciting. Shooting at night is when this technique can really sing because you can shoot really fast sequences and have every single frame lit up."

The selected shots are stitched together in post-production, and although this looks like a sequence taken with a tripod-mounted camera, Josh shot handheld and made the most of the Canon EOS R6's image stabilisation. Aligning any natural variation from frame to frame into a sharp composite image proved straightforward.

A man sits on a bar of scaffolding several metres above the ground, caught mid-swing around the bar.

7. Multi-shot flash videos

A multi-exposure sequence is not limited to photography. Given the flash recycle times of the Canon Speedlite EL-1 are a fraction of a second when output is reduced, it is also possible to create video-like sequences.

Using virtually the same technique as the 'Flipping Sequence' above, Josh was inspired to make a video comprising flash-lit photos. "The skateboarder showed me this beautiful movement that created its own loop, so I thought it deserved its own endless cycle of spins – that's how it would play on something like Instagram," he says. "I chose to shoot straight-on because of the geometry of the scaffolding and positioned the two Speedlites at 45° either side, which is my go-to for positioning flash."

8. Shoot with Canon Speedlites

The Canon Speedlite EL-1 boasts dramatically quicker recycle times over the Speedlite 600EX II-RT and has unleashed new possibilities for Josh, such as the multi-shot sequence seen above. Canon’s flashgun range has now been further strengthened with the arrival of the new Canon Speedlite EL-5.

"Designed for users of the latest cameras with a multi-function shoe (with the exception of the Canon EOS R5 C), the Canon Speedlite EL-5 has similar key features, handling and performance to the flagship EL-1, but with a still impressive 1.2 sec recycle time,” says Canon Europe Product Specialist, Mark Fensome. “It outperforms the 600EX II-RT, at a much lower price point, making it a very attractive proposition for advanced Speedlite photography."

Incorporating the latest technology, Canon’s Speedlites are making it easier than ever to get out there and find your culture, turn the location into a studio and creatively capture motion. "Speedlites let you control lighting in an uncontrollable world,” concludes Josh. “To create dramatic, studio-like setups in the middle of nowhere with gear that is so light that you can just carry it, that is the power of Speedlites. Having that level of control in the chaos that is the open world and turning it into a studio, that's why I love flash."

Tim Coleman

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