What is important for outdoor action and adventure sports photography? – part 2
Here you can read the first part of this article with thoughts about the photographer's knowledge, involved people and locations regarding outdoor action and adventure sports photography.
You also find all the pictures at the end of the article and can enlarge them by double-clicking.
Probably everyone has already looked at an amazing landscape, taken a photograph of it – and then was disappointed because the photo didn't look good at all... Probably in this case the light was not very pleasing. Despite all modern technology including digital cameras and Photoshop, the light still plays one of the most important roles in photography. Still, outdoor photographers prefer to shoot during blue hour, golden hour, sunrise or sunset. The only thing which may have changed a little bit is that nowadays we shoot much more backlit as we have the technical abilities to do so and it's also a huge trend at the moment. I personally like it very much because it adds some depth to the pictures. What I fear most is a bluebird sky in the mountains at 9 am...
Conditions always can make it necessary to use some additional lights outdoors such as reflectors (technically spoken not a 'light'), speed lights, torches or strobes. I really like reflectors as they are very light and I always find some room for them in my backpack. I definitely pack one when I know I also will shoot portraits. Another advantage is, they not only reflect the light, but you also can use them in order to have some shade for your subject if it's too bright outside.
A behind-the-scenes photo of one of the next pictures (which already has been included in the first part of this blogpost). Obviously, it would have been even lighter to not pack any light stand but let the third person on set hold the light...
Another backlit situation. As I was alone, I also modeled for this picture. The fact that I could connect my camera with my smartphone using an app was a huge help! (Engadine, Switzerland, 2019.
In this situation, I decided to use my lights because the weather was very bad and I didn't want the picture to look so dull. (Swiss Epic, St. Moritz, Switzerland, 2019.)
As showed in the behind-the-scenes photo, I decided to use a fill light on the runner.
I took this picture around 5 am at the Swiss Alpine Marathon and used one speed light in front of the runner and another on the right side of the camera in order to balance the light between the runner and the Bernina range in the back. As it is an ultra trail running competition, runners' positions are usually not very dynamic... (Engadine, Switzerland, 2018.)
To avoid the more crowded hours later, we came here to shoot by dawn. This means I had to use lights on the athlete in order to make him more visible. (Torsten Wessel, Lavertezzo, Ticino, Switzerland, 2019.)
Depending on the project, the storytelling will be different. Of course, you always have to listen to what the requirements are. But sometimes, assignments come only with very loose details or you're working on a personal project.
To learn more about good storytelling, I like to have a look at what filmmakers do. Here you can find a Wikipedia article with some explanations about different categories of shots in filmmaking. I think these different field sizes help a lot to tell a story in an engaging and interesting way. With time I learned that every story needs detail shots, in-between shots without action (lifestyle shots) and landscapes without people in them.
You also want to think about where the interesting things happen which you would like to cover in your story. Where are the key spots? What does the viewer have to see to know the story? These spots and moments have to be covered in the story!
I experienced it already some times that especially hobbyists at running or cross country skiing races don't like their pictures to be taken during a steep ascent because they probably think they're not looking very good at this moment. I completely understand this concern but I still think that these moments are essential to show how much it took to do this race and how proud they can be of themselves.
In order to go a little bit further with your storytelling you also have to think about a potential layout. For a layout rich in variety, landscape- AND portrait-oriented pictures are needed. You maybe also have to shoot a scene from the left and the right side to allow the placement of that pictures on the left and right pages in a magazine. And pictures with a lot of negative space are interesting, too, because that is where text (or other pictures) could be placed.
As I'm often shooting while wearing a bike or ski helmet I realized that this makes it very cumbersome to shoot portrait-oriented pictures... A clear advantage when you use mirrorless cameras as you can shoot with the LCD screen on the back!
Some pictures from a mountain bike trip to Morocco to show the storytelling. The focus clearly lies on the landscape, nature and the trip, otherwise, also portraits would be necessary... You can easily imagine which pictures you would rather place on the left/right page of a magazine and where you could add some text. (Morocco, 2017.)
The choice of equipment depends on different questions, one of the first probably always being whether it is a staged shoot (with an easy to reach location) or if I have to move with the athletes. For me, that's the most important question to choose my equipment. Do I have to go as light as possible? Or can I just put everything in my car and choose later?
Further questions would be: which kind of pictures do I want to take? What would I need to achieve this in an ideal case? What could be left out? What is absolutely necessary? What else do I have to pack: spare clothes, camping gear, technical gear as e. g. ski touring gear? And how big and heavy is that stuff? I once learned that you always have to take the best possible gear – for the situation. Of course, this could also mean, if you only have room for your smartphone, you only pack your smartphone...
In almost any case I take a second camera body and sometimes also spare lenses with me (I don't always carry them in my backpack but I make sure they're not too far away). This may sound a little bit crazy as I've just written about 'going light' but I think this is really important if you want to market yourself as a professional photographer. Imagine you have models and hotels lined up for two days of shooting but drop your camera in the first hour... How could you explain that to your client? Another concern is backups. I always try to multiply my pictures as soon as possible and put them on different backup mediums which I hide in different places when I'm traveling. This normally requires a notebook but there is also a solution in cases you don't want/aren't able to take a computer with you: e. g. the 'Gnarbox 2.0', a rugged hard drive which can be directly attached to card readers and which also allows you to edit photos using apps on your smartphone or tablet. (Disclaimer: I don't own a Gnarbox but it has been recommended to me.)
Talking of photography gear, 'pro' mostly means that gear can handle abuse much better than consumer gear (think of shooting in the pouring rain for hours, in deserts, crashing with your mountain bike while having your gear in your backpack, etc.). Pro gear is often made from metal instead of plastics and the weather-sealing is much better. Therefore this gear is also heavier and more expensive. It doesn't mean lenses are self-cleaning, so taking some microfibre towels and lens-cleaning liquid with you is a good idea...
Furthermore, pro-level gear also means high ISO-tolerance (less noise in the picture) and a high frame rate (10 – 20 frames per second). As useful as this sounds I still try to minimize the use of these bursts. On the one hand, I don't want to end up with hundreds of almost identical pictures and then have to download all of them to my computer, edit them and delete the rest, on the other hand, more often than not, the best moment would still be in between two pictures... As already mentioned in the first part of this blog-entry, knowledge and timing are everything!
Regarding my other gear, as soon as I have to move with it for a prolonged time, I try to go as light and multi-purpose as possible. For example, instead of long johns for warmth and another pant for the hut, I would pack leggings I could use in both situations. Or, when I know there are creeks or fountains somewhere, I'd rather pack a light water filter or purification tablets than a lot of water because you really can go much lighter then.
What I couldn't live without are sturdy, comfortable and weather-proof backpacks in different sizes. Those I own look like normal outdoor backpacks with the only difference you can open the back by zipper. There are 'boxes' in different sizes for your camera gear, depending on how much you want/can take with you. The advantage for me with this system is that you always can take that gearbox out of the backpack and can use the backpack like every other backpack. This also came in handy once, when I was asked to check-in my carry-on photo backpack. Of course, I didn't want to do this but I could just take the gearbox out of the pack and take it with me on my flight.
Even for a sequence shot like this one, you don't need an extremely fast framerate (4 to 5 pictures per second are enough). Of course, with a faster frame rate, you more likely hit the right moments and have more pictures to choose from for the composite... (Amir Kabbani, Crankworx Innsbruck, Austria, 2017.)
My one-person tent. It's only about 1.5 kg, therefore I can take it anywhere. There are also lighter tents, this one is known for its durability and stability.
My backpack with two camera bodies, some lenses, a reflector and everything I needed for a night on a hut and for snowshoeing two days.
How to make a high tripod from a tree, a mini tripod and a camera strap. Similar I've already used my bike as a tripod for my speed lights.
Behind-the-Scenes of me taking pictures with the LCD screen on the back of the camera in order to be as low as possible.
So, I go light regarding weight but I always mind my personal safety. I take a helmet with me for ski touring and enough spare clothes because I don't want to be cold and it also would stop me from taking pictures. In order to stay warm, good (nutritious) food is also important. Being hypoglycemic means you're getting into survival mode and you will have other priorities than taking pictures...
But also the safety of all other involved people has to be taken into account. As much as I don't want to be a risk for somebody, I also don't want somebody else getting injured. As photographers, we're not always able or allowed to take this responsibility, sometimes you will need safety experts as e. g. mountain guides.
Being aware of safety issues also means checking information about other countries released by your country's outside department prior to your trip, having a good first aid kit with you, doing everything possible to not get sick (you remember: wash it, peel it, cook it or leave it...) and of course you also have to think about how to keep your (expensive) photography gear safe. Personally, I prefer to act in a way that most people not even notice I travel with camera gear...
On the road, you probably want to share your location with close ones. And who has got the emergency contacts? Prior to big trips I always scan all my documents into one pdf in order to still have the numbers in case of loss or theft. All serial numbers of my photography gear are also registered online with the respective manufacturer.
You probably also want to think about insurance. In Switzerland healthcare and accident insurance are mandatory. But there are many other insurances which can be useful for photographers: insurance for your gear (in case of theft, damage or loss), professional liability insurance, travel health insurance, tracing and rescue services, road assistance, cancellation insurance for trips, etc.
If you want to travel to high-risk environments, you can find a lot of very useful information here: Safety Guide for Journalists – A handbook for reporters in high-risk environments by Reporters without Borders (available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.).
On this day we were on rafts on this river in the Rocky Mountains for about 3 or 4 hours in order to shoot pictures of the kayakers. The temperature was around 5° C and it definitely was a survival mode experience as I was very, very cold! I, unfortunately, wasn't able to take good photos anymore, my only priority was to just endure it until it was over... (Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA, 2019.)
Hopefully, I could answer some of your questions regarding outdoor action and adventure photography. Often, there is no one right way to do something but everyone has to find out for themselves what is most important and what feels best.
While writing I also realized – more than I already had during planning this text – that photography itself is only a very little part of the whole... The more serious you get with your adventures, knowledge about how to stay safe and how to handle difficult situations is so important that photography is only the cherry on the cake...
One last thing to mention: try to have as much fun as possible while working outdoors and also make it a positive, memorable experience for everybody involved!