The highs and lows of adventure photography.
I’ve always had an interest in art and creativity and at school my point and shoot accompanied me on most adventures. When it came to picking a university degree I decided on natural science course thinking this was my best opportunity for a career that would take me outdoors, the p ace where . I am happiest. After studying science for four years I realized something was missing. Unsure of what this was I looked for a place to get lost in introspection and the ocean seemed the perfect destination: The day after writing my last exam went straight into a sailing course, fue’ed by this allure for the big : blue. My early days of sailing involved exploring island chains on the back of a cruising yacht living a hand to mouth existence, fishing, surfing, reading and learning about who I was. From cruising got into the competitive world of yacht racing and into next two years were spent sailing multi-million dollar yachts around the world on the off-shore race circuit. It was during this time that my passion for photography was rekindled.
The ocean is a place of such raw and ephemeral beauty that when sailing I was seldom left without a photo opportunity. Add to this backdrop the crazy world of yacht racing — the mental aptitude and physical prowess needed to compete in such an environment was humbling to see — and it is no wonder I was creatively inspired. Little did I know at the time, but this was where I began to carve out a niche in the photography world, documenting outdoor sports from the front lines. With some hard-earned cash in the bank, which I had in part used to invest in a decent DSLR camera, and equipped with a little more perspective and direction on what I wanted to do, I returned home to South Africa and started a career as a professional photographer.
Sailing photography had taught me a few important lessons, one in particular though resonated regardless of shooting environment, authentic storytelling. Using this is as guideline I started taking photos of a multitude of adventure sports events, getting as much photojournalism experience as possible. Again, as with sailing photography, I tried to immerse myself in the action. I looked to run, bike, kayak and climb with my subjects. I love sport and I wanted it to become a unique part of my job. The ability now to document stories of athletes and commercial brands in the adventure world as well as a plethora of unique human stories in varied environments, is something I feel very lucky to call my day job.
I think, solace. It’s why places like the mountains, oceans and deserts hold so much appeal. It is in these surroundings that you are able to take a deep breath, reflect and get perspective. I think the exercise of reflection is an important part of the creative process. Not only does it allow you to recharge the creative batteries but also it gives you a chance to develop a sense of appreciation. Too often, on a shoot you become caught up in the creative moment and the world passes you by at face value. A few weeks ago, I was in Switzerland on a mountaineering shoot and although I spent days exploring the high mountains, blue crevasses and sprawling glaciers it was not until I had the chance to sit down a few days afterwards that I began to think, «Wow, that was pretty damn special.» Without appreciation, your job quickly becomes like every other job. Make time for reflection!
YOUR FUTURE ASPIRATIONS.
I have a number of future aspirations, most of which are overarching rather than skill specific.
I’m still relatively young and physically fit so as long as I’m able to keep chasing the pioneering expeditioner and extreme sportsman, I will continue to keep pushing physical boundaries to capture unique creative content.
One thing is to become more business savvy. Like any freelance profession so little of the success of a career is built just on producing excellent products or services, instead it’s largely based on sound business practice. The simple truth is that if you are going to make a living out of taking photos then you are going to need to acquire business skills. Acquiring the discipline to divvy out enough time to desk related tasks like marketing, bookkeeping.
and business development is important. Be careful how you justify doing a shoot, try to approach a decision on whether to shoot or not with business savvy. Remember, as a freelancer, time is money, and so you need to be as efficient and effective with this precious commodity.
Another, is to collaborate more. There is real value in collaboration or shared learning with fellow creatives. No one is born with a completely new or unique creative talent; everything is essentially a remix. Every new idea you see is a manifestation of combining existing ideas. Therefore, the more you are exposed to the more building blocks you will have to style, form and create something unique. This said, a long-term dream of mine is to create a learning platform as a way to share this cumulative knowledge and experience.
As with any career, finding a balance is probably the ultimate aspiration. So much of my job involves living out of a bag, being in remote locations for weeks on end. Add to the travelling, the all-consuming nature of being a creative and you are quickly left with zero personal life and little chance of quality time for friends and family. When starting out, it’s impossible to know what it is you want out of your job but a good compass is to decide whether or not a family is important. If you choose a family, you need to think longer term and build towards a balance that works for you. I recently read a blog by a prominent South African businessman, who quoted that «no-one who changed the world had a balanced life». In striving to be the best at what I do, I’m keeping this in mind and working towards finding my own balance.
SHOOTING OUTDOOR SPORTS.
No matter if you’re faced with shooting trail runners navigating snow-capped peaks, mountaineers scaling icy ridges or just an afternoon bike ride around the local park, there are a few guidelines and techniques that you should take heed of when shooting outdoor sports. Here are 10 tips that I use.
FOCUS ON PRE PRODUCTION.
When there are so many external variables at play as is the case in outdoor sports photography you need to develop a solid game plan. Start by thrashing out a media brief with your client. Be thorough here, ask many questions and make sure you have a written agreement of things like a shot list, license agreement media deadlines — the more black and white you are here the more time and effort you will save post shoot. Once you understand the media needs, you can put a shoot plan together, a list of whens, wheres and whys for the duration of the shoot.
This builds on the pre-production point above, knowing where the best places to shoot at a location before you arrive will save you time and make you look like a pro. Scouting can either be done by visiting the area beforehand or, if time and budget don’t allow, by perusing the virtual world of Google earth — the latter is truly a worthwhile exercise.
MASTER YOUR POST-PRODUCTION WORKFLOW.
When shooting on location you are often faced with downloading, editing and disseminating your images on the fly. Considering this the benefits of using editing software that is intuitive and comprehensive is huge. I use Lightroom for this type of work because it is a «do it all program», meaning I can download, attach metadata, flag, sort, label, quick edit, export, upload and disseminate seamlessly. Apart from the editing software, another important workflow step is to remember to back-up all your images immediately to two separate sources.
Understand the sport and subject. You’ll be amazed at the authentic and emotive images you can produce if you can relate to what is going on in front of your lens.
When shooting outdoor sports you are going to have to deal with water, mud, dust, sunshine, rain, snow. Under these conditions, you will need to show some creative dexterity to use the ever-changing shoot environment to your advantage.
Knowing what to pack and what to leave behind is hard earned. The temptation to pack more than you need is always there. In time, I’ve learnt that being lightweight and thus more maneuverable is a huge advantage. When your job is to capture fleeting moments, i.e in a sporting event, then you need to have your eye behind the viewfinder as often as possible — not in your camera bag trying to decide what lens would suit best. The morale of the story; carry your most versatile camera equipment.
If you are shooting in remote locations it goes without saying that you are a long way from help. So pack three of everything that you remotely think might break.
GO TO THE EXTREME.
Get to the places other creatives can’t or aren’t prepared to go. This way your images are guaranteed to be unique.
DOCUMENT THE MUNDANE.
Be anecdotal. Don’t hold out for the grandeur of the sunset before you take a pic. So often it’s the in-between moments that tell the real story.
KNOW YOUR GEAR.
Fleeting moments are exactly that, fleeting! Outdoor sports are full of them. Making sure that you have an instinctive handle on your camera controls and capabilities is often the difference between getting the shot and not.
Don’t be better, be different. The rapid advances in digital camera technology have made photography much more accessible to the layman and hobbyist. More people are taking photos today than ever before. The market is swamped with content. Art directors, photo editors and content buyers are all spoilt for choice. So instead of competing with the masses you need to find a niche, you need to be unique, you need to provide a service and a product that no one else can. You need to be different. If you are just starting out, I suggest taking photos of a range of different subjects, and across a wide array of genres. Use this time to be introspective, to learn what you are good at and what you feel passionate about. Try to understand what your competitive advantage is. Once you think you know what this is, the next step is to find ways to exploit and sell it — there is no use in being good at something that no one wants.