Don Sheffler: West Coast Photographer

Don is a rad skate dad and photographer killing it behind the lens. He tells us some of his tricks for getting his unique shots and shares some unique insights on DH skating. Enjoy!

Philip Baker photo

Philip Baker photo

Hello Don, how are you?
Great! Things are good.

How is your weekend going?
Busy as usual. Family and fun. Yesterday in L.A. with my wife and kids. Right now while we do this interview I’m running around charging batteries and packing up to go shoot a slide jam in San Clemente.

Who’s going to be skating there?
Looks like about 150+… all the usual SoCal suspects and a dozen sponsors.

When did you start shooting skating?
A few years ago I chased my son to a downhill race locally and started shooting then. I was mostly shooting weddings and events, and portraits. I had done a little sports shooting over the previous few years, but this – skateboarding – just took off and that’s almost all I do now.
Catalina Condor - Don Sheffler

Did you ever skate as a younger man?
Much younger man. I started and stopped when I was about 8, on a skinny hard plank with metal wheels set about 2.5” apart. We lived on a hill, 4th house up, and I had to stay on the sidewalk. So I would clack down a few houses and bail into the grass at the house on the corner. I fell so often I retired before I was 9.

What was skating about back then?
I didn’t even know really. This was 1971. I believe clay wheels were in use but not for cheap boards sold to 8-year olds. A few years later a ton of my friends were skateboarding and surfing, so I was around that culture but I didn’t actually do any of it. I played baseball and racquet ball.

How has it changed over the years?
Well we could write a book about it, and many have, lol. I recently went to an exhibit put on by Di Dootson, tracing the history of skateboarding. She had boards and trucks and wheels up on the walls from the beginning, along with the magazines and newsletters she was involved in making. There was a separate part of the exhibit for photography of the sport which I was thrilled to see.

Do you enjoy following the history?
Love it.  Since I didn’t pay attention to it back then I am endlessly fascinated with discovering it now. It was all around me as I grew up since I’ve been a SoCal kid my whole life.

Have you got any friends who have stayed in it since you were kids?
Sure but not anyone famous or recognizable.

What has kept your attention over the decades?
Well, for a time, it didn’t. I rediscovered the skateboard scene through my son’s longboarding.

Do you surf?
I did a little in high school, but I was way more into body surfing. And hanging around on the beach. That was the goal every day in high school: Get to the beach.

When did you get into photography?
In high school. I got a Minolta XG-M 35mm shortly before I graduated, and I shot like a maniac for close to a decade. To do that you had to lay down a lot of dollars for film and developing. That’s why you had to learn to do it right. You had 12 or 24 shots, and off to the store to see if you screwed it all up.

What were you shooting then?
Just being artsy.  Friends, shoes, ants, plants.

What lessons did shooting with film teach you?
Proper exposure. You had to know what settings were going to work in the environment you were in, before pressing the shutter.  HAD to.

When did you start taking it serious?
I set down my film camera in 1987, and didn’t pick up another SLR until 2007 when my daughter asked me to go do a camera-club series with her, coincidentally at my old high school with the photography teacher who had been there when I was attending. I picked up a DSLR and was amazed by the wizardry of it, haha. I have not stopped shooting since.

Has digital changed the game
Of course. Anyone can learn while doing. Just check the screen on the back of the device to see if you’re doing it the way you want to.

What’s your favourite thing about the wizardry?
The big difference is being able to adjust instantly according to your needs. Instead of putting in ASA 400 film and then only dealing with aperture and shutter speed, I can change my ISO, and push it to amazing extremes. I can adjust my white balance on the fly. Also now, with off-camera flash, all bets are off on the lighting strategies.

What do you enjoy shooting now?
I really enjoy the skateboarding. I am a ‘do-what-you-love, love-what-you-do’ kind of guy.  So I shoot only what I want, and only in the way I want.  I am sure that’s why my look is kind of uniquely mine.  People might find it funny when I lug lights and stands up the hill but it’s how I want to do it.

What do you aim for to capture with your photography?
The moment. Sounds goofy but more specifically I am trying to capture all the kinetic energy, the movement, intensity, of that moment. I want facial expressions and full extension and general mayhem in my shots.

Is it the same in other things you shoot?
Kind of, but if I’m shooting a fashion portfolio or a high school senior session or something I am trying to get the moment in a different way. Facial expressions, eyes, poses, just not the mayhem! When I shoot a wedding, yes, there is movement and intensity and grand settings and so on, and during the reception I use the same techniques to get the blur and the mayhem there too.

Is it important to support children in their passions?
Well, you know my answer is abso-freaking-lutely. My kids have all gone into things I wouldn’t have even thought about, and they’ve enjoyed it and been successful, because it’s what they wanted to do.

What do you enjoy about shooting skateboarding?
On the one hand the imagery I get makes me happy; but just as important, the whole scene is great to be around.  The people and the events are a huge draw for me. If it was a scene full of jerks, I wouldn’t have stuck around, but it’s the exact opposite of that.  Full of energetic, happy, helpful people.

Is it similar to shooting other sports?
Maybe some extreme sports like off-roading, surfing, etc., but no, not at all like team sports like football, basketball. The attitude in skateboarding is so much more personal and engaging. Team sports are nothing like it.

Where are you from?
Born in Glendora, California, moved to San Diego when I was 6.

Do you go back to GMR a lot?
No, funny thing, never shot at GMR, haha.

Why the hell not?
Well, I go to events, and there really aren’t “events” there unless you count mass-traffic-citations as a category of event. I have gone with my son and others to some of the local favourites in San Diego, both mountains and coast. But GMR is kind of far, and you really want to get up there pre-dawn or there will be trouble.

What was it like growing up in SD?
San Diego is perfect. I can’t say much more without sounding like a travel agent. But I am sure my childhood, and adulthood, are not too different than a lot of people.

What is the community like there?
Well this is sort of the centre of the universe in that regard. It has spread around the globe but since it pretty much started here and the population is gigantic, there is a feeling of, I guess, swimming in the scene here. So many old-school skaters in the area, helping pump the kids up on skateboarding. All kinds, longboard, pool, ramp, street, anything. Boys AND girls. The women need more support and they are finally getting some attention which is a good thing, I hope it continues to grow.

How does being in the centre impact the shots you take?
It doesn’t really. There is great opportunity to shoot now everywhere. The sport is global, so if I lived in Phoenix or Portland or anywhere else I would get shots. I don’t get snow, so no stalefish through a snowpatch shots for me right now.

Stalefish through fall leaves?
Yes, that works. I did a commercial shoot with Patrick Switzer last year where we were surrounded by Avocado trees.

Are there many women skating there?
Yes, a few here and a few there. It’s too bad, you can generally count on two hands how many women are out there skating all the time and racing in World Cup events all year. It’s is changing, for the better. I am totally stoked seeing all the women coming to the sport.

“Message to all female skaters, I want to shoot you, support your scene, get sponsors excited about working with you and putting money into events.”

Do you get to shoot many lady skaters?
Not as many as I would like to. Message to all female skaters,  I want to shoot you, support your scene, get sponsors excited about working with you and putting money into events.

Why do women need more support?
It’s the way in most sports. The men get the $$. Even world class female skaters are starving to death trying to get to events.

But if a lady won open and Women’s class – she’d make bank!
No, the sad thing is, winning isn’t worth much. In longboarding this actually goes for the guys too to a degree. Sponsorship gets you gear, and into events, and some travel. But only if you are highly ranked really. Ultimately, the people in longboarding, are in it because they absolutely love it. They live it. They live with packing into team vans and sharing houses with 20 riders, because it’s about the skating.  And this is why the scene is so cool actually. It’s about the skating and the people there.

“…the people in longboarding, are in it because they absolutely love it… They live with packing into team vans and sharing houses with 20 riders, because it’s about the skating. This is why the scene is so cool; it’s about the skating and the people there.”

What is worth much?
Some rare instances bring good money to the top riders, but even then the real “worth” from winning is sponsorship, and stoke. At least that’s what I see from my 50-yr-old perspective. I’m not on a skateboard but I see the passion for the sport. That’s what drives both the men and women, not the money.

Would you encourage your son if he wanted to pursue a career in skating?
Well, he’s not, but yes I would. Of course I would point out to him that there’s not really a career in skating itself. “Careers” in skating take on the form of working with board companies and manufacturers. Like most people, Noah is going on to whatever career path he wants, and I support him and his sisters in whatever they pursue.

What future would you like to see for the women who skate?
I’m seeing some momentum, a little, where more women are coming to the sport, because of the women who are in it now. The Longboard Girls Crews around the world are a big part of this, and I think their efforts will pay off.
I love “Open” which they just did in Israel. On the pool/vert/park side of skateboarding there is a great documentary by Amelia Brodka called Underexposed, just came out on iTunes. She and other women in that side of the skate scene are providing amazing support to the younger girls entering the sport, like skate schools and sponsorships for events and so on. I would love to see more of that on longboard side too.

Does the world need the LGC?
I don’t know if “need” is the word but anything that provides support to the growth of the scene is good.

How big a fan are you?
Good question. I love ’em, but I don’t have anything to compare them to. There is a paucity of support around the world for women’s development in longboarding, probably because there is a similar dearth in support for women’s development in many aspects of life, beyond sports.

Have you done any work with LGC?
No not really, I send them photos.  Would like to be more involved.

What would you like to do?
I don’t know but I’ll be happy to talk!

Are there any other photographers around you?
A bunch, both old school and new:  just around here are Phillip “Stretch” Baker, Brian Babish recently relocated from East Coast, and there’s Ali Mehraban, who I know you profiled recently. And by the way I really like Ali’s style. I am kind of surprised at how quickly he has developed in photography. I think he first picked up a camera what seems like a week ago.

What is your favourite type of skating to shoot?
I love shooting downhill racing. But I like slide jams and everything else too. Last month I shot the a women’s World Cup bowl event at Van’s Skatepark in Orange and it turns out Iove shooting pools too. So I don’t think it matters exactly what kind of skating, I like shooting.

Mark Golter Photo

Mark Golter Photo

What was the first longboard event you shot?
An inter-scholastic downhill race. A local high-schooler put on a downhill with riders in high school from all over SoCal. My son entered and I shot it. Then I was hooked.

How has your photography influenced your relationship with your son?
My son Noah and I have been able to spend a ton and a half of father/son time together. I couldn’t ask for anything better. He came with me to Catalina last year, and then Maryhill. He’ll be with me (shooting too with his own gear now) at Catalina, Maryhill, Whistler, and Angie’s Curves. None of it would be nearly as fun without him.

“If (my photography) sort of makes you dizzy when you see it, I think it captured what I want it to capture.”

What do you want people to feel when they view your photos?
Movement and energy. When I look at my own shots I want to be smacked with intensity. If it sort of makes you dizzy when you see it I think it captured what I want it to capture.

What has been your favourite year of shooting skating?
The most recent 12 months. It keeps getting better. I’ve been licensing images and getting inquiries and requests to come to events more and more and it’s really getting super fun. I have had photos run in a lot of magazines, and even written articles and provided photos for Thrill Mag in the UK. This year I’m the official photographer at Maryhill and a shot from last year’s final is the event poster. I’m kind of riding a wave right now.

Congrats! How did that come about?
I went to Maryhill for the first time in 2013. So as I posted more and more of my favourites online they came to the attention of John Ozman. Eventually we got to talking and now I get to work with him and his brother this year. I am crazy excited about it.

How high can the wave go?
I’m under no illusion about this being a profitable career on its own. Luckily my wife and I are both gainfully employed. So I can take or leave any kind of photography gigs I want. As the licensing and the assignments pick up, I am getting to travel more. So I am definitely going to Canada this summer, and I might be going to Pikes Peak too. 

Who is your favourite person to shoot?
I don’t have a favorite but I will say I have said a lot that some of the coolest shots I get are of Max Capps.  I could do a coffee table book now with all Max Capps shots, haha.

I could do a coffee table book now with all Max Capps shots.

Why do you like him so much?
Well Max is Max, what’s not to like? But all the shots of him are serendipitous. He just happens to be in the right place at the right time, way more often than anyone else. It’s almost creepy.

Do you need any special lenses to capture such a hard lurker?
Yes I have a special Max lens.

What are your weapons of choice?
I shoot Nikon. D600 and D7000, and sometimes for fun a D40 because I hack it so it doesn’t know I have flash on top and I get unlimited sync speeds. I have a bunch of cheap flashes all on manual, and radio triggers. I set them up on stands and/or hold them in my hand while I shoot.

I always use flash. Like, always! I shoot a little differently than a lot of people… I usually shoot in shade or from the dark (shadow) side of the riders if I can. It’s how I can light up inside their visors. Hopefully I haven’t blinded too many of them.

How important is light?
Artificial light? I always use flash. Like, always! I shoot a little differently than a lot of people. The sun is only one source. I usually shoot in shade or from the dark (shadow) side of the riders if I can. It’s how I can light up inside their visors. Hopefully I haven’t blinded too many of them.

What do you choose to achieve with the lights?
Well, the use of the lights comes from my wedding and portrait shooting. I think my goal on every shot is to get a facial expression or something that conveys what that rider is going through at that moment. Flash gets me inside the visor, and lights up the leathers, and it allows me to be creative with blur and background in a way that isn’t possible if I just use the sun as my main or only source of light.

Kevin Kennedy Photo

Kevin Kennedy Photo

When did you first do a tour?
Last year I hit Angies Curves locally and went to Maryhill the next weekend. That was my whole “tour”.

How was Angies?
Crazy. The course is insane, and the riders attacked it and it was a blast. Plus there is the whole campground scene when you are at a big event like that. It’s really a great part of life I’m glad I’ve been able to experience.

Where is your favourite place to shoot?
Maryhill so far. And all the local spots here, I always have a great day shooting.

What gave you the biggest smiles last year?
I was going to say something about “likes” on Facebook, or seeing my work published, but I’m remembering a couple of the coolest moments last year having to do with my photography: After Catalina, and after Maryhill, my son turned to me and said “Dad, best weekend ever.”

What are your plans for this year?
I hope to get plenty of images of riders into mags, and I want to write a little too. I’ll go to local outlaws and events, and to World Cup tour stuff. The Muirskate Downhill Disco for starters. Actually, for starters I am super late to an event at Talega right now, lol.  OK, then Catalina in May, Maryhill and Whistler in the summer, hopefully Pikes Peak later, definitely Angies Curves in the Fall.  As far as other kinds of shooting, I have personal projects I am trying to pursue this year, environmental portraits of skaters and other extreme athletes.  I am also shooting more bowl and vert skating too.

Do you enjoy writing?
I do but it’s painful. I sweat over getting each paragraph right. Come to think of it maybe I don’t want to do any writing this year.

What do you do when you’re not shooting?
I am a teacher. I substitute 6th grade through 12th grade, pretty much any subject. I have a love for history and humanities and the arts (my degrees), but a strong background in math and science. So I do it all. I also teach at a couple charter schools, including photography.
Other than professional pursuits, I have an awesome family and we spend a lot of time together. I have kids in college, high school, and middle school.

Pick 3 numbers between 1-19.
5, 9, 19

5 – what’s the scariest thing that’s happened to you?
I would have said the car wreck I was in when I was 18, but if I think about it I was experiencing it like I was reading a book, calm as hell, thinking “So this is what it’s like” to die.

9 – what would you choose as your last meal?
Anything that ends with a chocolate sundae.

19 – Who would be in your dream race heat?
I don’t care who is in it, just if it comes around into that spot I can get a good shot!

Don! Thank you for being such a rad dude. Love your photography! Sorry I’ve made you late for the race. Looking forward to sharing more stoke from you!
Thanks Gbemi – totally enjoyed it.
Any last words?
Oh yeah! You didn’t ask about my favorite photographers, I wanted to list a few: Besides the few I mentioned above, Olivier Seguin-Leduc, Max Dubler, Aaron Breetwor, Dustin Damron, Khaleeq Alfred, Scott Wipperman. Also a couple old schoolers and street shooters, Jim Goodrich, J Grant Brittain, Ryan Allan, Ray Zimmerman!

My facebook is best since I am HORRIBLE about updating my sites:



One Comment

  1. Pingback: » Jeff Suchy: God Of Biscuits Thane Magazine

Comments are closed.