A professional skateboarder for 15 years, Arto Saari is also a remarkably adept self-taught photographer with an unerring instinct for dynamic composition, capturing high-speed action, and sophisticated use of lighting. Given the unlikely assignment of capturing some of the world’s top skateboarders soaring through the air at Helsinki Airport to promote Finnair, he chose the Leica S and an array of Leica CS lenses for a project titled “Match Made in Hel.” Here, in his own words, is the story of how he exceeded everybody’s expectations, including his own.
Q: This project is at the intersection of commercial advertising photography and creative skating photography. How did this project come to be?
A: This project was executed at the behest of Finnair, the national airline of Finland, which is represented by SEK & Grey, one of the oldest ad agencies in the country. They wanted to do something new so they asked me if I wanted to skate at the airport. My first reaction was, “Should I even reply to this email?” It didn’t seem like it could be true. It just seemed like a joke. But I thought I might as well check back with them to see what happened. Well, we started forming a plan and it was real. Within a week or so I was on a plane to assess the site and see what was possible. That’s how it all came about.
Q: You used a Leica S on this project, is that correct?
A: I shot all the images in this portfolio with the Leica S. I had an M with me as well, but the whole project was shot on the S. The image quality is astonishing, but I particularly like its high flash sync capability for action shots.
Q: High flash sync? What speed would that be?
A: A thousandth of a second. That’s one thing that makes it great for shooting action: the images that come out of it are unparalleled.
Q: Did you use the leaf shutter lenses?
A: Yes. I shot a lot with the 180 mm CS lens, and I also used a 50 mm CS lens; it was all leaf shutter lenses. You can shoot all natural light if you want to. If you want to go to a higher sync and just shoot available light all you have to do is set one switch on the camera. Sometimes I want to use available light and sometimes I want to flash, so I just flip a switch. Most medium-format cameras are pretty big, but the Leica S is pretty small for the quality you get. That’s one if its major advantages.
Q: Are there any other characteristics that made it particularly suitable for covering this assignment?
A: The handling for starters, the size. It’s easy to move around and set up. That’s a big perk when you’re moving fast and a lot of things are happening.
Q: Where did all of these skaters come from?
A: They had me pick three skaters that I could bring (pro skaters) and then we had a web contest where people could enter themselves to be selected on the site. I picked the best ones. There were over 250 entries, and we picked four from the contest.
Q: Why does there seem to be such a link between skateboarding and photography?
A: Skateboarding puts you in a lot of unique situations where you think, “Wait, shouldn’t I have a camera to record this?” There’s also a lot of travelling involved when you become a pro, so you want to document some of that anyway. You end up seeing a lot of the cities you’ll go too, looking for spots to skate. You meet a lot of people and end up in a lot of interesting places, so you eventually end up wanting to capture some of it.
Q: You come across as a high-level commercial photographer with a passion for art. Where did you study photography?
A: I guess I didn’t really study it, unless you count in 7th grade when we got to try out cameras and work in a darkroom. That’s the only schooling I had in photography. My art teacher let us go out and skate and take pictures of each other, but throughout my career I was surrounded by a lot of great skate photographers. I would pick their brains and then in the early 2000s I started collecting gear. Being around skateboarding taught me how to shoot.
Q: It’s astounding to know that you’ve picked up that level of execution on your own.
A: During the early 2000s I was shooting mostly available light, skating with a camera around my neck. It wasn’t until more recently that I started to think about wanting to do more and thinking about lighting. I got obsessed with light and started acquiring more lights. It’s been a snowball effect since there. Now I’m starting to understand that you don’t need quite as much light, but you just need to read the situation. In skateboarding you’re always in a different spot or angle. You can’t always choose your vantage point based on what lighting is best. You have to make your choices based on what the talent is doing. And you usually only get a couple of chances to get shots that really work, so you’d better make sure you’ve got it right.
Q: What kind of lighting equipment did you carry with you on this assignment?
A: I had a 30CS2, three B4 packs with a twin head and an extra head too. I also had two B1s. I gotta hand it to the Swedes on this, they know their lights. You won’t hear a compliment like that from a Finn very often, but it’s definitely true in this case!
Q: Let’s look at this photo of the guy ramping off of one of the blast fences.
A: Yes, those are used to catch the exhaust from the airplanes as they go by. We modified them to be able to skate them by putting a ramp at the bottom.
Q: Did you use flash?
A: There is one light on it, a B4 twin pack, on a very slight angle, kind of behind the skater, to light up the front of the wall.
Q: And which lens did you use for that?
A: That was a 180. I especially like shooting in Europe for the quality of the light. It’s always just a little different. I love how these images came out. It was slightly gloomy since it was October.
Q: I’m looking at this picture where there’s a vehicle with a frame on top of it and this person is hanging off the edge of it. Can you tell me about that shot?
A: That’s Larson, the kid from Denmark. He was one of the contest winners. I wasn’t exactly sure what we could skate on and what we couldn’t, but we found that vehicle in one of the hangars and he’s sliding on the edge of it. That was pretty neat. A guy showed up and asked if we wanted to use it. He wasn’t even sure what we could use it for, but we were all for it. He moved it around to set it up at the ideal angle and we just went for it.
Q: There’s one image of a skateboarder sailing over a Finnair plane. What would happen if you smash into a plane and damage it? That’s a multi-million dollar object.
A: That picture is actually a kind of an optical illusion. That’s the beauty of the compression effect you get with the 180 mm lens; the plane is actually pretty far back.
Q: A compressed perspective?
A: Yes. In one of the original meetings about this project they asked if it would be possible to get an image of someone jumping over one of the bigger planes. I told them it was possible but we would need a really big ramp to get over it. We probably would have blown the whole budget on that one ramp so it was out of the question. However, they really wanted a photograph that represented flying over one of the planes, and that’s how that picture came about.
Q: Aside from compression, are there any other characteristics of that particular lens that you like?
A: When you’re shooting wide open the shallow depth of field you get with the 180 is beautiful. I like that, but you take the risk that whatever you’re shooting might come out a little soft. But if you can nail the shot, it’s really incredible.
Q: Were you using auto or manual focus?
A: I was using both. If I knew exactly where the shot was going to be I would pick the focus point with auto focus and just leave it right there. I used autofocus for a lot of it.
Q: And the autofocus function of the Leica S was up to the task?
Q: Now I’m looking at this great shot of seven skaters facing the camera. I notice that you output this image in black-and-white. Of course, the camera captured it in full color. What is it that you liked about black-and-white for this image?
A: I’m a big fan of black-and-white. I mostly shoot that way. I think color is a lot harder. A lot of portrait stuff I do is in black-and-white so I thought it would be fitting.
Q: Here we have a shot of the tails of two planes with the Finnair logo and then there’s a skater down near the ground, airborne. How did this guy get off the ground? There doesn’t seem to be a ramp visible.
A: That’s actually one of my favorite images from the whole set. I shot it between setups, while they were doing a reset. I saw a couple of planes close by and really wanted to do something with them. We weren’t even supposed to be on the tarmac because one of those planes was about to leave for Asia. We got in touch with a Finnair representative and they let us get down there for a couple of quick shots.
Q: What are you going to do with these pictures?
A: We’re going to assemble a gallery of them at the airport.
Q: Do you have any other projects that you’re working on right now? Are you shooting anything other than skateboarding?
A: I’m doing a shoot with a singer/songwriter from New York. We’ll be doing portrait and lifestyle stuff for her new project. I’m getting into a lot of portraits, but I keep really busy shooting for the commercial skating world. I shoot for Volcom and they keep me moving. I also ride for New Balance who makes skate shoes now.
Q: I notice that on Instagram you choose to crop some images and not others. Why is that?
A: It’s a constant battle whether to crop or not. Some images work better cropped than others. It just depends. I would rather not crop ever, but sometimes you just have to.
Q: Have you ever thought about doing an online or in print book on skateboarding?
A: It has crossed my mind but I think I need to shoot for another 20-30 years to get more comfortable making one. I had an art show about a year ago that was a lot of fun. My friend Bonnie forced me to do it, but I’m glad I did. It was at the Icon in Los Angeles. It’s super rad to see your images printed large!
Thank you for your time, Arto!
– Leica Internet Team
Learn more about Match Made in Hel here. Watch a video documenting the project here. Connect with Arto on his website, blog and Instagram.