Friday, March 19, 2010

Extreme Sports Photography: In the elements

Capturing incredible images of extreme sports not only requires great technical skills, but also requires an in-depth knowledge, and the ability to access remote locations.  Most extreme sports take place far away from civilization in remote locations.  Being prepared for these elements will make your job a thousand times easier.

Sometimes when I'm freezing to death and about to lose fingers and toes to frostbite, miserable beyond what 99% of the population will ever experience in their lifetime, I wonder why I chose to shoot extreme skiing.  It's a thought that crosses my mind and makes me feel like a crazy person.  Then, sense snaps back into me when I feel the shutter snap and create an incredible image.  This is what I love, a life spent in places that few ever get to see, and to share those moments with everyone through my imagery.


Then there are times when I'm off in the desert and the temperature is 114 degrees.  The heat is something that I have very little tolerance for, and usually avoid it at all costs (Living in the mountains keeps me cool).  But to experience all that the desert has to offer a mountain biker, and create images showing it's true beauty is what photography is all about.  It's not just the photos, but the lifestyle.  When you decide to become a professional photographer it entwines with every other passion in your life.  Out in the elements with your camera and close friends are some of the most memorable times.  Even if it can be miserable beyond belief..... (click "read more" below)


Preparation will make extreme sports photography a much more enjoyable experience.  Learn your camera inside and out.  When your body is almost hypo- or hyper-thermic, you want to change camera settings without having to think.  The same goes for when the action is fast paced and you need to be ready for the next athlete as the weather is changing.  Aperture-Priority mode can be a time-saver, but can also drop the shutter too low in certain conditions and cause the athlete to blur in an undesirable way.  On bright days it can make your job much easier.

Creativity is the name of the game with extreme sports photography.  Take some time and look through a few magazines.  You will see all types of imagery from artistic to obvious.  There are times for both, and if you have willing athletes, shoot from every angle with every lens you own.  The crazier and more experimental you get, the happier you will be with your images.  I've developed a certain recognizable style that involves the athlete being fairly small to showcase takeoff and landing, along with the elements all around the athlete.  Wide-angle and fisheye lenses are a must for this type of photography.  It's just too easy to get a telephoto and stand at the bottom of the mountain, or way away from the athlete and shoot head-on.  Diversify your work by mixing things up.

The lenses you choose should be fast.  This way you can capture images in low-light settings with a relatively quick action freezing shutter speed.  I won't buy anything that doesn't open up more than f/4, but that is my personal preference.     

Flashes are advantageous for this work.  They will give you the edge!  A photographer can be a thousand times more creative with even just one single flash.  Everyone can use the sun easily, but far fewer photographers are off in the middle of nowhere using their flashes balanced with the sun.  Take every advantage you can and make it work.  Shooting in midday light will require more flash power.  So shop around and find a powerful flash if you plan on shooting this time of day.  But remember that sunrise and sunset will yield the best images, and a weaker strobe will work well at those times.

Always be careful to change lenses quickly so nothing gets on the sensor.  Zip your pack up in sandy, dusty, snowy, or wet areas.  Even if you don't think anything will happen.  Carry your gear in well-padded and sealed backpack.  It's better safe than sorry.

Before you go and shoot a sport, you need to learn everything you can about it.  One great way to learn is to order a movie showcasing what the athletes are doing.  This way you can find out what is currently in (what will sell) and the type of terrain the athlete is looking for.  I shoot the sports that I practice because I'm very good at them and can access any location. I also know what type of images I'm looking to create that will sell.  This way I also know the safest practices (avalanche training classes!), and am able to get into a safe position to shoot from.  Because I already have the gear for the sport, it doesn't cost  much to shoot it.  Start with what you know!

If unfamiliar with a sport you will probably ask the athlete to try something they are not comfortable with, not on purpose but it can happen.  Let the athlete guide you in these situations, they know what looks good because they love the sport and fully understand it.  It's better to understand it yourself before you shoot it.  Lack of knowledge will cause a lack of great images.  Alway's work together with the athletes.  Try the angles they suggest, trust their knowledge and use it to your advantage.

When shooting look around you.  Don't get too caught on only capturing tricks or action.  It's the lifestyle of the sport that is a draw to majority of the world.  People like to see crazy tricks, but they also like to see other people just out enjoying the sport.  It was bothersome at first when I came to this realization.  I used to think everyone wanted to see the craziest pictures, and some do.  But the vast majority of the public wants to see people like them just enjoying the element at an intermediate level.  These are the shots that sell.  Capture the moments in between the action, someone standing on a ridge, lunch time in the middle of nowhere, anything that really does not have much to do with athletic ability.  They boost your portfolio and show that you do more than action, and are most likely to sell. 

Magazines are a great way to showcase your talent and become recognized, but don't pay very highly, and sometimes have ridiculous holding times for your images.  Sell to them to show your work, then re-sell the images to make money.  Show off the craziest photos there, and sell the rest elsewhere.   Most companies within the industry tend to have their own photographers, and are almost impossible to sell to.  Find companies that are outside of the particular sport's industry.  This is where the money is made.  It's tough to explain this, but companies that have nothing to do with skiing, may still want to buy a skiing image to make a statement and appeal to a different market.  These places will pay more, and are more likely to buy the right kind of images.  This is why I started working with Getty Images.  Stock agencies NEED more photos of extreme sports.  

If you can become a great photographer out in the elements, the rest of your photography style will progress as well.  All of the sudden just a portrait will not be enough.  You will want to find some extreme location and drag the model to it for a stronger image. 

Enjoy capturing unique images, and never give up.  It can (and usually does) take years to become a professional photographer.  Enjoy every bit of the journey and remember that most people don't enjoy their jobs, your enjoying it everyday, and that's what matters!


That's the BUZZ for Today!  Please check back soon for more.



2 comments:

Clint Thayer said...

Great write up

Jazz said...

Hey I was wondering if you could tell me the education required to become an extreme sports photographer? I'd really appreciate it.

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