Clothes in complementary colours help to spot the rider in the dark forest. (Hermann Meyer, Molveno, Italy, 2018.)
At the end of this article, all the pictures can be double-clicked to watch them enlarged.
What is important for outdoor action and adventure sports photography? – part one
Often I get asked what the important things are which you have to keep in mind in order to do this kind of photography. I, therefore, try to answer some of these questions in this and the next blogpost (everything based on my experience and according to my opinion).
If you are looking for camera settings or tips for editing you're unfortunately not going to find what you need. I rather share my knowledge about the whole thinking process here. You probably could use these tips for editorial or advertising photography but also if you are off for an expedition. Of course, not every tip is useful for every situation...
These are the topics I'm going to write about:
- Part I
- The photographer's knowledge
- Involved people
- Location, location, location
- Part II
Here you can find important tips about what to know and do while shooting during winter: Shooting in the cold and during unpleasant weather
The photographer's knowledge
Something that in my opinion often doesn't get enough attention is that photographers should really know the activity they're shooting. This doesn't mean you have to be a real crack in this sport but you should know how a movement or a position has to look in order insiders will say, yes, that looks cool and authentic. All too often I see pictures on which models try to do a sport they obviously don't know really well or pictures in which you can see the position is just staged and wouldn't be working in reality or worse, would be considered as 'mistaken'. Anticipation is a highly important skill for a photographer but you only can achieve it when you understand a sport. In every sport, there are moments in which the activity looks good frozen in time on a picture (because that is what a photograph is: a moment in time). You want to show runners airborne and don't want to show animals (e. g. racing horses) with awkwardly overstretched front legs. If you don't already have this knowledge, research it, look at pictures of this activity, talk to athletes! As you can imagine the more technical a sports is, the more important are these considerations (you won't need that much knowledge to shoot hiking but a lot for skiing or mountain biking). With my background in sports sciences, physical education and snow sports teaching it already happened to me that I coached an athlete while shooting with him. This was a real win-win situation as he could make progress and we got better pictures! Contrary to moving pictures, in photography it's not so important the athlete does the most difficult trick for a picture, because these often don't look very interesting, you would rather go for something in which the athlete's position is understandable and aesthetically pleasing.
As often the best photo spots are not right at your doorstep or close to the parking lot, it still can be important that you are able to hike, (e-) bike or ski to a location. You don't want to put yourself at risk nor do you want to put somebody else in a dangerous situation. Therefore it is important to reasonably assess your own skills and to have solid knowledge and skillset in your sports. That means I work on my physical and technical fitness very often and take outdoor first aid and avalanche courses.
Of course, outdoor sports photographers also should know their cameras very well. This not only applies when you are at home and cosy but also outdoors, in the cold, in the dark, where you probably also have to improvise sometimes because the conditions are less than ideal. In the second part of this blog post, I will also talk about the 'survival mode'. So here only some thoughts about this: it's probably something you can learn to a certain degree, to still take photos even you're very cold or hungry because you know it's temporary and it would be a pity to not have documentation of it (I don't talk about real life-threatening issues here)...
This picture has been taken at the Freeski World Cup Corvatsch 2018. The visibility on that day was very low, so the riders could only show some safe tricks. But in my opinion, the crossed skis always look incredibly good on a photograph... What else do you need for a good freestyle picture? The grab (how the athletes hold their skis/snowboards/surfboards) and the jump have to be visible. The grab for style and the jump to put everything into perspective. (Birk Ruud, Norway.)
Here you can see the horse with an overstretched front leg, therefore, the picture wouldn't be considered as 'good' by insiders... (Cowgirl, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA, 2019.)
For this picture I had to carry my bike and my backpack for a total of 1800 vertical meters in two days (there were some parts where riding was possible). How would you do this if not with a good personal fitness? (Michael Hacker, Lais da Rims, lower Engadine, Switzerland, 2018.)
In most cases it's also important to show the athlete's face. (Lena Palms, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA, 2019.)
First, it's probably important to realize that without athletes/models we would only do landscape photography...
In an ideal case, I already would know the athlete's level before we even have started. Unfortunately even with someone being a really successful competitor that doesn't necessarily mean he is also a good demonstrator of that sport... In freestyle sports, athletes have a signature trick or move which the photographer certainly should know. If possible, it often adds huge value to a shoot if you can work with athletes who are experienced to work with photographers. This probably also lets you worry a little bit less because unfortunately, it's really, really hard or rather impossible to make someone looking good on a picture if the movement is just not on point. A further advantage of having experienced people on set is that they know exactly what is important and will control all the time for themselves whether all zippers are closed or collars are in the right place, which is especially important if you’re shooting for advertising purposes. Even better would be to have someone working as a stylist on set!
Personally, I really love it when athletes have their own ideas about how a picture should look because four eyes definitely see more than just two... And nobody knows their abilities as good as the athletes themselves...
As always in life, communication is very important also in photography. Explain why you would like to take your pictures at sunrise/sunset, why the athletes should bring different outfits (and no black shirts as these almost never look good on photos), why they should do something for the twenty-first time (because you again missed the timing but they did amazing). Communication can be an issue outdoors, e. g. when you're standing next to a roaring river or very far apart from your athlete (walkie-talkies could help in such a case).
If you're rather on an expedition than on a photo trip it is also important to discuss with all the involved parties how much time and energy you have for documentation purposes.
We came across this dam wall on a mountain bike tour. Luckily for me, the athlete immediately had the idea to show off one of his signature moves in front of it... (Torsten Wessel, Ticino, Switzerland, 2019.)
As you can imagine, that far away from each other, communication was very difficult in this case... (Sam Benner, Lago Bianco, Grisons, Switzerland, 2018.)
Prior to this shooting, I advised the runner to bring some different tops, one of them white... (Kirsten Edelkraut, Pontresina, Switzerland, 2018.)
Location, Location, Location
I don't remember when or where I heard this for the first time but it for sure has become a familiar expression among photographers...
As already mentioned, great photo locations often aren't just next to the parking lot. But as the athletes who should show off great and authentic poses full of action, stunning locations are equally important for a striking photo. In most cases, you will look for spectacular and pristine landscapes. Especially in winter, this can require a lot of flexibility from all involved parties as you would rather take pictures just after a big snowfall and not when you see already many ski tracks or the snow has already melted.
In order to keep these landscapes in their unaffected conditions, environmentally friendly behaviour is very important for me. Not only do I follow the 'leave no trace' ideology but I also try to be as environmentally friendly in my everyday living as possible. Then photography for me also leads to an inner conflict, in which I think about whether it's reasonable or not to show beautiful places and bring them to the attention of more people who then probably also want to go there...
Back from the philosophical to the practical aspects. Whenever possible, a location scouting in advance can be very helpful. If this is not possible, I often try to gather as much information as I can find on Google Earth or through specialized apps like e. g. PhotoPills (position of the sun at different times of the day etc.).
This is it for the moment, I hope these tips are helpful and you are looking forward to the second part of this blog entry which will be about light, storytelling, equipment and safety...
A rare case of having the parking lot right across the river. But with this place being the probably most instagrammed place of Switzerland, we had to go there in the very early morning in order to be alone for our shooting. (Torsten Wessel, Lavertezzo, Ticino, Switzerland, 2019.)
When there is fresh powder in the ski resort you have to be very fast (or take a lot of risks which I wouldn't recommend), only minutes later there were ski tracks everywhere... (Alessandra Stecher, Corvatsch, Engadine, Switzerland, 2019.)