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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Be Adventurous

Pro tips on how to take amazing sports-action shots

Mason Ho catching a solid wave at the famous surf break, The Banzai Pipeline, on the North Shore of Oahu.

The great American author Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” The gist of his statement is that these three sports were the only ones in his day where the individual was risking life and limb, while all other sports were just games because the possibility of death or dismemberment was nonexistent. Today, adventure sports continue that tradition of risk and reward. Adventure athletes often put it all on the line as they grapple with fear, ambition and the hope of success. As adventure photographers, we’re there to document and share these spectacular moments by creating images that translate the adventure lifestyle.

In theory, photography is a simple discipline. You take a light-sensitive box, put something interesting in front of it, adjust the exposure and focus, and then push the button. Voilà—you’ve just made an image. Whether or not it’s any good, well, that’s another issue. If you’re like me, you’re not shooting for just a good image, you’re looking to create a great image. But before you can shoot great pictures, you have to learn how to shoot good ones. The reality is that creating a good image isn’t that hard—it’s a combination of three ingredients: interesting light, a subject or a moment that’s interesting and a solid composition that draws the viewer into the frame and keeps them there. Creating a great image—an image with that intangible, hard-to-define fourth ingredient that grabs your viewer and really resonates—happens only a few times a year, even for the very best professional photographers, and it’s the pursuit of these images that will inspire your photographic process. Every time you take a picture, you have an opportunity to learn. And if you pay attention, especially with digital and its instant feedback, then you can quickly learn how to take good pictures and sometimes even capture a great one.

Light is the essence of photography. As photographers, we have to be students of light, and especially so for us adventure photographers, as we rely heavily on available light. Light comes in many forms and flavors, and to some degree, it’s available in a predictable fashion, depending on the time of day, the location and, of course, the relationship of the light to the subject.

Sunrise And Sunset: Sunrise and sunset offer soft, sublime and supremely colorful light. If you’re an outdoor photographer of any kind, then dawn and dusk are your main working hours. Even the dim glow of twilight just before sunrise or after sunset is spectacular light not to be overlooked. In terms of adventure-sports images, the hardest part about working at sunrise is getting the troops motivated to go out at such an ungodly hour. My advice? Learn how to make coffee that your athletes will beg for and learn the art of persuasion. Looking back over my career, some of my best images were a direct result of convincing my subjects that we could get unbelievable shots if they worked with me and got up for dawn patrol. Once they saw the fruits of our labor, they were much more easily persuaded to get up early the next time.

Frontal Lighting: As an adventure photographer, frontal lighting (i.e., where the sun is directly behind you as you shoot) is an ideal situation, especially if it also happens to be sunrise or sunset. This is the easiest lighting to deal with, and while it may not be the most interesting, it’s very predictable. With a clean background and some wild action, it’s pretty much like taking candy from a baby to get solid adventure-sports images in these situations. When I arrive at a new location, I check where the sun will rise to see if I can set up a shot that has direct frontal lighting at these times.


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