“Tom, what’s the main thing you think about when you’re shooting mountain biking?” Josh, a workshop student, asks. I’m teaching a photo workshop on adventure sports in Maine, and today we’re photographing mountain bikers.
“I want the viewer to be a part of the action,” I reply. “I want the viewer to stop in his tracks and really take a look at the image. If they think, ‘Wow, that’s incredible’, then I’ve done my job.”
“Are there any special techniques you use to capture that feeling?” Josh asks.
Perfect! Josh’s question has just provided the perfect segue into what this class is all about—capturing dynamic adventure sports images. One style of shooting that puts the viewer in the action is POV shooting, or point-of-view photography. This style of shooting uses interesting perspectives and special techniques to give the viewer a participatory sense of the action.
Generally, this means you aren’t on the sidelines with a big lens shooting away. More likely, you’re paddling through rapids with a camera attached to your head! But not all techniques require a certain amount of craziness to do them; some techniques are simple and easy to do. Following is a list of 10 techniques that will help you find interesting angles and create unique styles in your photography, no matter what the subject matter.
1. Super Clamp. The Manfrotto Super Clamp attaches to almost anything, and a tripod head can be mounted to it. I use a short extension arm on the clamp with a small tripod head attached to the other end. I attach this rig to my skis, kayak, mountain bike—use your imagination. I normally choose a fisheye lens with this setup to get as much of the scene as possible. One of my favorite mountain-bike angles is to attach my Super Clamp and camera to the back fork of my mountain bike and use a PocketWizard to trigger the camera as I ride on trails. You can blur or freeze the action, depending on the shutter speed. The trick is not to turn sharply to the side on which the camera is attached, or you might put it in the dirt.
2. Boom Arm. If attaching a camera to your bike and riding down a hill at full speed sounds like a bad idea, try the next best thing: a boom arm. This technique involves attaching a camera to a long rod or pole. I use a monopod with a tripod head attached to the end. With this setup, I can hold the camera above a subject for interesting overhead angles or right off the ground. I once photographed a TransAmerica bike ride and found the boom arm invaluable for unique perspectives. I’d drive with one hand on the wheel and the other holding the boom arm with my camera out the window (the camera was triggered by a long cable release). The camera was inches off the ground beside the cyclist’s wheel. These shots really put the viewer in the action.
3. Flash. Using flash can be the difference between a nice image and a great image. Flash will enhance color, create separation and imply mood. I always look at what I’m shooting and ask myself if adding my own light will improve the image. Sometimes natural light works great; other times it doesn’t. The best technique is using your flash off-camera. A simple dedicated flash cord that attaches to your hot-shoe will work. A wireless transmitter will give you even more creative options and the ability to put your flashes more distant to your camera. I often underexpose my background so my strobed subject will be brighter than the background and pop off the page.
4. Ground Level. I was just in Buenos Aires photographing tango dancers in the quaint La Boca neighborhood. The dancers were doing static poses against some colorful buildings, and I was shooting every angle I could imagine. Then I took a moment to really look at the scene and see what I was missing, and it dawned on me how beautiful the cobble streets were. Down I went onto the street, and instantly the image took on a whole new look. The cobbles made the perfect foreground leading up to the dancers. Going ground level can go even further—even below ground. A great trick in sand, snow or soft dirt is to dig a small hole so you can shoot up at a subject moving at the edge of your small pit.
5. Underwater. Today, there are more options than ever to shoot underwater, including inexpensive underwater point-and-shoots, waterproof camera bags and expensive underwater housings designed for SLRs. My favorite technique is using an underwater housing for my D200 with a fisheye lens attached. This allows me to shoot at the surface, with half the frame above water and half the frame below water. Choose a shallow area with a reflective bottom like sand. Shoot at midday so the sun penetrates the water and reflects off the bottom, eliminating contrast between underwater and above water. Over/under images require special gear and the right conditions, but this perspective is worth the effort.
6. Ladder. Similar to the boom arm mentioned earlier, a small step ladder can make the difference in getting a unique angle. The advantage to a small ladder is that you can compose the shot the way you like as you look through the viewfinder (unlike a camera attached on a boom arm). I always carry a small step ladder with me on shoots. Just getting a few feet higher can open up the middle ground of your shot and create a much more interesting perspective.
Nikon 8008s, AF Fisheye-NIKKOR 16mm ƒ/2.8D, Aquatica underwater housing
7. Helmet Cam. Okay, I’ll admit this technique isn’t for everyone, and it’s sure to draw some funny looks from people you pass. Here’s how I built my head cam. I found an old climbing helmet, drilled a 3?8-inch hole in the front and mounted a small tripod head to a bolt placed through the hole. Next, I attached my camera with fisheye lens to the tripod head on the helmet. Then I attached a standard cable release or wireless remote to the camera to trigger the shutter.
Now comes the fun part. Imagine all the activities you like to do, except now you’ll be photographing them via your helmet cam. I’ve tried out my helmet cam sea kayaking, running, mountain biking, skiing, snowshoeing, ice climbing—you can
do just about any activity wearing your helmet cam. There are specific helmet cams for sale on the market (which are perhaps more comfortable), but I wanted something that I could use with my existing camera equipment.
8. High Contrast. Contrast can be a negative aspect of an image, but it also can be a real bonus. Photography is all about light, and recognizing unique lighting situations can distinguish your image from the rest. I search out scenes that will create warm light on shadowed backgrounds and photograph these scenes when the contrast is the strongest. Once I was photographing rock climbers on a pinnacle above Tucson, Ariz. The spire looked great even at midday, but I realized at sunrise the spire would be bathed in warm sunlight and the background would be in full shade. After promising to take my climbing partners out to breakfast, I convinced them to arrive before sunrise at the spire. Just after the sun hit the rock, my friend started climbing. She literally jumped out of the scene! She was on the edge of the rock in sun, with a black background behind her. After an hour, the daylight filled in the background hillside, and the effect was gone.
9. ND Filter. One filter I never leave home without is my Vari-ND filter from Singh-Ray. This filter blocks two to eight stops of light and allows you to shoot 30-second exposures in the middle of a sunny day. My main use for this filter is adding silky water effects to ocean scenes and rivers. While traveling I often get one chance to photograph a coastline or stream because our itinerary doesn’t allow a lot of extra time. This filter allows me to get a silky effect in my streams and surf at midday. The effect of a 20- to 30-second exposure on moving water is amazing, and the scene takes on an ethereal mood. The silky water will give your image an interesting mood and make the viewer pause to take another look at your shot.
10. Bad Weather. Another way to achieve a fresh perspective without using a specialty piece of equipment is photographing in bad weather. I like to say “bad weather equals good weather” when it comes to photography. I once was shooting at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. This arch has been photographed thousands of times from every angle imaginable. As we hiked up to the arch, a large thunderstorm engulfed us and some people in our group wanted to go back to the car. I thought this storm was perfect—who knew what might happen at the arch. As soon as we arrived the storm was winding down and sun was breaking through the clouds. Just at that moment a rainbow appeared beside the arch. Unbelievable! Remember, bad weather equals good weather.
Now think about the subject you photograph the most. Maybe it’s people, landscapes or travel images. Whatever your subject is, choose one of these methods and give it a try. Chances are, you’ll create a fresh perspective in your images!
Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. Visit www.tombolphoto.com.