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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Timy Fairfield hanging from the lip of the Crystal Cave on “Super-Dope” (5.13b), near Jemez Springs, New Mexico.

Backlighting: If your subject is lit from behind—backlit—it can be hard for your camera to deal with, but it also can be a very interesting and visually stunning scenario. The obvious backlit image is a silhouette, the result of an extreme contrast from light to dark. Under less extreme settings, a backlit image can form a halo around the subject, which really pulls it away from the background and makes for an electric image.

Diffused Light: On cloudy days, the light is soft, the shadows are open and the colors are rich. For the adventure photographer, a cloudy day is ideal for some situations, especially if you’re shooting in a forest where harsh shadows normally create extremely difficult shooting conditions. Generally, an overcast day comes with bad weather, and, while this might be hard to shoot in, it can offer some of the most stunning light a photographer can ask for when the clouds begin to break up a bit, especially around sunrise or sunset. Even if the weather doesn’t break up, head out into the rain, sleet and snow because you can be guaranteed to get interesting images in those conditions, especially when paired with intense action.

How to compose an image is a complex topic obviously, which becomes even more difficult when trying to incorporate action. The standard rules of composition are simple: Stay away from putting your subject in the middle of the frame (use the “rule of thirds”), avoid lots of clutter in your image, fill the frame with your subject and find a clean background. But before you even start to consider these rules when out shooting, you first need to ask yourself, “What is this image about?” Or even better, “What do I want this image to say?” Pretty much everything in terms of composition stems from these two questions.

For example, let’s say we’re photographing a rock climber; our minds lock onto the rock climber, but we also see the landscape surrounding the climber. If we try to include too much of that landscape, we’ll water down the image and lose the focus on the rock climber, which is what we were drawn to initially. In a case like this, I’d either move closer or use a longer lens so I can still capture some of the landscape, but keep the climber from being too small in the frame.

In the case of fast-moving action, like mountain biking or whitewater kayaking, you may not have the time to think about composition. In these cases, you simply rely on your gut reaction to determine your composition. The more experience you have, the better the results will be. In many cases, though, you can previsualize what’s going to happen and get your composition set up before the action occurs. If there’s no time to set up a composition, another method is to choose an autofocus point where you want your main subject to be and keep that focus point on the athlete moving past you. This will effectively frame a certain composition based on your auto-focus point choice (and it helps if you have a large number of autofocus points to choose from).

Let’s get back to the rules I outlined above. Simplifying your image and avoiding the temptation to include everything in the frame is the first step to radically improving your composition. A large part of creating a graphic image is finding a clean background against which to shoot your subject. A clear blue sky often is a good option when it comes to adventure photography, and it’s usually available just by moving to a lower vantage point. Next, concentrate on filling the frame with your subject. As the veteran war photographer Robert Capa used to say, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” This is especially true for a genre like adventure photography, where seeing the up-close details of athletes’ determination sometimes trumps a wider perspective.

The “rule of thirds” is one of those compositional ideals that I use all the time because it’s rare that plopping the subject smack in the middle of the frame results in a good image. The “rule of thirds” says that if you divide your frame into thirds and draw a line on these horizontal and vertical axes, those lines will intersect at four locations between the center of the frame and the four corners. By putting the subject at the intersection of any one of those four lines, a dynamic composition can be created. In some cases, it isn’t the best composition, but it most certainly won’t be the worst. Use your intuition and experiment by following this rule and also breaking it. If breaking the rules reinforces what you’re trying to say with an image—then by all means, break the rules. In the end, these rules are only guidelines.

How you approach a subject depends on the perspective you want to convey. Just as with composition, the perspective you choose helps tell the story, and that perspective is dependant on the equipment and techniques you employ.

Wide-Angle Photography: Using wide-angle lenses is an art. Used effectively, they can give you perspectives that no one has ever seen before. A wide-angle zoom, like a 16-35mm or 14-24mm lens, is key for creating interesting adventure-sports images. Fixed-focal-length wide-angles also are useful because they have hyperfocal distance markings on the lens barrel. There are a lot of times when a fisheye is the go-to lens and nothing else will be able to match its stunning perspective. For many adventure sports, they also work perfectly for remote camera work. It’s a key lens for shooting mountain biking, skiing and surfing. When I shoot freeriding, there’s no other lens in my bag that can help communicate the scale or steepness of the cliffs the bikers are launching from the way a fisheye can.

Telephoto Photography: Sometimes you just can’t get in close enough to use a wide-angle lens, and that’s where the telephoto lens comes into its own. Surfing photography is one good example. Photographers often get in the water with wide-angle lenses and waterproof housings, but shooting from the beach with a 600mm ƒ/4 telephoto gives a very different perspective. For mountain-biking photography, one of the “standard” lenses is a 70-200mm zoom because it gives photographers a comfortable working distance and allows the riders to perform without someone getting in the way. The telephoto perspective also is great for capturing details, like when a climber chalks up just before getting on a boulder. In this case, a 70-200mm allows you to zoom in and capture the chalk floating around the climber’s hands as he or she sinks into the chalk bag.

Remote Camera Work: Finding a wild perspective often involves mounting a camera in an unusual location, like the seat post of a mountain bike, the front of a surfboard or kayak, or the wingtip of an airplane. In almost every instance, a wide-angle or fisheye lens is used to gain the widest angle of view; additionally, these lenses are generally lightweight, which helps keep the camera from getting spit off and damaged.

I’ll either prefocus the camera if my subject is at a fixed distance or use the hyperfocal method when it isn’t. Remote camera setups are a lot of work, but the rewards usually are worth it if you can get a wild perspective. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

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What’s In My Camera Bag

For adventure-sports photography, the majority of my work is created using digital SLRs. They’re light, fast and versatile enough to deal with just about any situation. When looking for a camera that’s well suited for adventure photography, keep in mind that it will encounter the elements and possibly will be banged around a fair bit, so a durable camera is best. The weight of the camera is always an issue, but once you start carrying around a small cadre of lenses, the weight starts to add up rather quickly anyway. Therefore, I would lean toward a more durable and weatherproof camera rather than a lightweight (i.e., plastic) camera body.

Adventure-sports photography requires a camera that can shoot at 5 frames per second (fps) minimum, but a framing rate of 8 fps or faster is optimum. Can you shoot sports with a slower frame rate? Sure, but in some circumstances, you’ll be missing a lot of images, especially with fast-moving sports like mountain biking, surfing and kayaking. Autofocus also is a huge factor when selecting a camera for any type of sports photography. Basically, you need the fastest autofocus you can get. And as you might expect, the cameras with the best autofocus usually have the fastest framing rates because they go hand in hand. When it comes to action photography, having the best and fastest autofocus available is a big advantage and, unlike many other genres, a faster camera sometimes does equate to better images.

My basic kit at the moment consists of the Nikon D700 and D300, both with the MB-D10 battery pack, which enables 8 fps shooting, lenses ranging from a 10.5mm fisheye all the way up to a 300mm, Nikon SB-900 Speedlights, Elinchrom Ranger and Quadra strobes and Lowepro camera bags. I prefer the smaller, more versatile Nikon D700 (as opposed to the Nikon D3) for those occasions when I have to go light and fast or carry a lot of other gear with me.

See Michael Clark’s complete list of recommended gear in the Behind The Scenes section on his website at His new book is Digital Masters: Adventure Photography: Capturing the World of Outdoor Sports.