Photographing rock climbing at Red Rock near Las Vegas, Nevada. Nikon D800, 24-70mm F2.8, 1/500 at F8, ISO 200.
“We need you to canoe into a remote cabin for a classic north woods canoe shot,” Casey explains as he shows us the shot list. “The best light will be around midnight, so we rented the cabin so you can stay overnight. We would love images that convey adventure and wilderness, exploring a place that doesn’t have cell service or TVs.”
I’m sitting in a production meeting for a week-long assignment photographing for an Alaska tourism bureau. My wife, Cree, and I are gearing up for a huge week of shooting.
“People come to Alaska for adventure, and we want to capture that feeling in these images,” Casey says.
Cree and I are psyched. We both were wilderness guides for years, and much of my photo career revolves around photographing adventure sports. Head off into the wilderness to shoot midnight canoe images? Check! Fly into Denali National Park and photograph hikers on a snowy ridge. Oh yeah! Photograph ice climbing from a helicopter…does it get any better?!
The Range, Opportunities And Challenges Of Adventure Sports Photography
Adventure sports photography has become more popular than ever. Rock climbing is no longer a “fringe” sport; it will be in the next Olympics, and “Free Solo” just won an Oscar. Whitewater kayak parks are located in many downtown communities, providing front-row access to dramatic imagery. Plus, heliskiing has become at option at many ski resorts, dropping you into stunning mountain scenery within minutes of taking off.
But here’s the good news; there are some adventure sports that don’t involve high-risk and heart-stopping backcountry skills. Only a few photographers are going to climb Everest while taking pictures along the way. But anyone can rent a canoe at their local park and paddle close to shore. Adventure travel is booming, and many photographers are signing up to explore the outdoors and learn new skills. No matter if you want to sea kayak through tropical atolls in Belize or rock climb towering granite walls in Yosemite, you can find an outfitter to meet your needs.
Adventure sports photography offers unique photographic opportunities, as well as some specific challenges. Unlike in many traditional sports, the photographer is often involved in the activity while photographing it. Keeping yourself and others safe (don’t drop your camera on a rock climb or flip while sea kayaking) is the first priority, followed closely by keeping your gear in working order. Expect to get wet, dirty, cold, hot and wind-blasted, but the images will be worth it!
Below I’ve outlined some tips and techniques I use when photographing adventure sports. If you like to kayak, rock climb or hike up a fourteener, try some of these techniques for creative images. You choose the adventure and get ready to photograph the action on your next trip.
Photography Tips When Sea Kayaking And Canoeing
If you’re curious about trying an adventure sport but don’t want to hang off a cliff to photograph climbers, try sea kayaking. Unlike whitewater boating, sea kayaking is calmer and provides a fantastic platform for photography. I guided sea kayaking expeditions around the globe, and some of my most memorable shoots were during these trips. Why? Because sea kayaking allows you to go places bigger boats can’t get to, and you can approach wildlife quietly without disturbing the animals. If the water is calm, sea kayaks are stable and easy to photograph while paddling.
A primary concern is keeping your gear dry. My favorite technique is strapping a pelican case onto the deck of my boat in front of the cockpit. I can then easily open up the waterproof case, take some shots, and then close it back up. If the waves get big, or, worse, the boat flips, my camera gear is protected. I always wear a PFD (personal flotation device), even if the water is calm. Safety first!
Water-level compositions put the viewer up close to the paddling. Photographing from both single and double kayaks offer different compositions and perspectives. If I need to photograph other kayakers, I really like to be in the bow of a double and have the stern paddler put me in good positions for images. Double kayaks are also very stable and have more space to stow camera gear.
At some point, you’ll want a higher perspective. One technique I like is wearing a helmet with a camera attached and photographing straight down the bow. This captures the paddler’s perspective and puts the viewer right in the moment. Super-wide-angle or fisheye lenses work best.
Small cameras like a GoPro have easy clip attachments you can put on any helmet. Set the camera to time-lapse mode to take a series of images while you paddle. Or, alternatively, drill a hole in a helmet and mount a standard small tripod head so you can use your mirrorless or DSLR.
I often mount my DSLR with a 16mm fisheye lens and set the self-timer to take consecutive shots with a two-second delay. With each shot, I slightly move my head position for a different angle. One thing I like about the new Nikon Z 7 full-frame mirrorless camera is how light it is with the 14-30mm F4 lens attached, perfect for this headcam technique.
Capturing proper technique is important with adventure sports. Paddle position is important with kayaking. Double kayakers need to have their paddles in unison to create the cleanest shots. You don’t want to photograph two paddlers knocking their paddles against each other. I like compositions with high paddle blades and water dripping off.
A polarizer can be a key accessory for any water-based adventure photography excursion. Polarizing the light on a bright Caribbean day transforms the ocean from washed-out blue to Bombay Sapphire turquoise. Polarizers also help saturate blue skies and add contrast.
Just be careful about using a polarizer with a wide-angle lens. The sky may polarize unevenly, with one side deep blue and the other side lighter in color.
Canoeing might just be the most accessible adventure activity for photographers and opens up a world of image possibilities. On our Alaska tourism assignment, we photographed canoeing multiple times. An advantage of canoeing is how fast you can load the boat and go.
Once again, I used pelican cases to keep my gear dry. The case is attached to the canoe with a strap, so even if the canoe capsized, my gear would be safe. To achieve a high perspective, I stood up in the back of the boat and photographed the bow paddler with my Nikon Z 7 and 14-30mm F4 lens.
Another technique to capture a high perspective is to attach a Manfrotto Magic Arm to the rear of your canoe. Use a clamp on one end of the arm to fasten it to the boat, and attach a tripod head to the other end. This way, you can attach your camera behind both paddlers for a different composition. I normally use a self-timer or time-lapse mode to trigger the camera.
We had a very special moment occur on our canoeing assignment, and it reminded me of a big advantage of canoeing and sea kayaking.
We were paddling back to the take out around midnight and spotted a loon floating in the beautiful warm evening light. We stopped paddling and just drifted while watching the loon. To our complete surprise, the loon swam right up to the boat and proceeded to take a nap! We couldn’t believe our luck and took hundreds of images of this encounter.
Not all sea kayaking and canoe imagery has to be taken on the water. Colorful boats stacked up on the beach make interesting compositions. We even set up staged canoe images in Alaska in front of our cabin. We used a tripod-mounted camera with a self-timer mode. To illuminate the cabin in the background, we placed a Nikon SB-5000 with an orange gel to add a cheery warm glow. The flash was triggered wirelessly from the camera.
Photography Tips When Hiking And Camping
Maybe water sports aren’t your thing, but you still want to create those amazing Instagram posts of you deep in the wilderness. Just load up your backpack, put on your hiking boots and start walking. While hiking may not be traditionally thought of as an “adventure sport,” the adventure element can be high if you choose a wild and scenic destination. Find your closest state or national park, and research the most scenic areas. Some wilderness areas like canyon country in Utah or parks in Alaska offer lots of remote wilderness and plenty of adventure in the backcountry.
Hiking images can be pretty straightforward. Photograph friends hiking down the trail and mix up perspectives and angles. Low angles allow you to include the sky or even create a sunstar. Set your aperture to f16 or f22 to create the best rays of light surrounding the sun. For something different, photograph the bottom of your companions’ hiking boots while they rest on a boulder.
I like to compress scenes using my 70-200mm and stack up hikers walking down the trail. Experiment with different depth of fields to blur out the background and other hikers.
Tents offer lots of creative photographic possibilities. I love using a wide-angle lens and shooting through the door of my tent at a scenic view. Set up by the tent and angle it for the best scenery and composition.
Another one of my favorite images is photographing a glowing tent at twilight. I like to wirelessly trigger my speedlight to illuminate the tent. If you don’t have a flash, try having someone flash their headlamp in the tent to provide illumination. To add some “visual handrails,” have someone walk through your image with a headlamp on combined with the glowing tent. The final image will capture people in the landscape.
Photography Tips When Rock Climbing
Climbing is becoming a mainstream sport in America, and a lot of people want to photograph it. Rock climbing images are striking and give viewers sweaty palms and rapid pulse rates. But if you want to photograph rock climbing, you are going to need specific training and skills.
The easiest angle to get, and the one experienced climbing photographers avoid, is the dreaded butt shot. Photographing a climber from below generally doesn’t work.
Sometimes you can find high vantage points that are level with climbers, which produce a better image. But if you want that up-close perspective, photographing a climber from above, you will most likely need to ascend a rope to get above the action. Ascending lines and photographing from a rope requires experience and acute safety awareness. You are directly above the climbers, and you can’t drop a single thing or get in their way while they are climbing.
If you’re interested in this style of shot, take climbing courses to learn the ropes. Safety first, images second.
An alternative approach to climbing photography is photographing bouldering. Bouldering is where climbers do short routes, or “problems,” close to the ground on boulders. Since the climbers are near the ground, you don’t need a rope to create compelling images. Sometimes you can scramble up the backside of the boulder or find a nice perspective from a neighboring rock.
Other climbers will be spotting the actual climber, which provides more compositional possibilities. I like to photograph spotters with hands held high as the climber ascends the boulder. Since you are photographing from the ground, it is easy to set up strobes to illuminate the climber and add drama to the image. I often will underexpose the daylight exposure 1 to 2 stops when I use flash. The brightly lit areas in the scene (the climber) will draw the viewer into the image.
The outdoor industry has exploded in size in recent years. I’ve seen high-end lawyers wearing their Patagonia coats to work. And with this interest in outdoor adventure sports, photography has also become very popular and accessible. Why not bring your camera on your next camping trip? The image-making possibilities are endless.