24 Action Photographers on Their Biggest Secrets
Now, in its fourth edition, Red Bull Illume is the world’s biggest awards for sports and action photography. The contest discovers and lauds some of the very finest lensmen from this thrilling and rather esoteric genre, where extraordinary passion and inordinate skill combine to make the most spectacular images.
The Red Bull Illume is inviting entries from photographers around the world for the awards. There are various categories like Close Up, Energy, Lifestyle, and for the first time a Mobile category, as well. Winners will receive a Yodobashi voucher to the value of 40,000 Euros (approx. Rs. 29,88,713) as well as Sony photography gear worth 60,000 Euros (approx. Rs. 44,83,070) along with various other prizes.
To enter the competition, visit: http://www.redbullillume.com/
Supriya Joshi speaks with 24 winners and finalists of the third edition contest, as they share their action photography secrets.
He is a photographer from the Czech Republic and shoots action and lifestyle photographs. He loves geometric compositions and conceptual images. He is the winner of the category New Creativity.
“Control is paramount in conceptual sports photography. This is the reason why we did this shot in a studio environment. The biker in this photo is former Czech freestyle champion fourcross rider Tomas Slavik. We had one special rope for Tomas and two smaller ones for the bicycle. How I got the shot is quite apparent in the photograph and I wanted it that way. We used seven Fomei Digital Pro X strobes, and a flash remote control app for the iPad.”
AF, Then MF
When an action sequence is unfolding in front of you and you can predict where it is going to happen, use AF to prefocus at that point. Then, switch to MF so that your camera does not hunt for focus, and you are able to concentrate on perfect framing and timing.
He is a freelance photographer and co-owner of a photography studio in Netherlands. He is the winner of the Close Up category.
“I wanted to capture the sheer exuberance of being on a skateboard. And I wanted to do it outside the comfort of my studio, in which I was quite used to shooting. After I brainstormed with my friend Erik Journée, we grabbed our skateboards. I kept trying to get the right shot as we skated up and down the street a few times. As you can imagine, handling a DSLR on a skateboard is a challenge on its own. After almost smashing my camera on the road, I had almost given up… but decided to give it just one last try. This is the very last frame that in that series.”
Communication is Essential
Explain to the athlete exactly what you want. By communicating with your athlete you know what their limits are and what tricks work best. This way, you can get a clearer picture of what you will be able to shoot.
Residing in Canada, Ray has photographed several top athletes in amazing locations around the world. He is a finalist in the category Experimental.
“This was shot during a bouldering trip to the Indian Himalayas. used Elinchrom units and Nikon Speedlights to capture the athlete, Bernd Zangerl, as he climbed this 15m high rock. Once he was safely back down, I spent the night out alone, making several long exposures for the star trails. The final image is a combination of the flash exposure with the athlete, the star trails and light painting.”
Don’t Be Limited by Light, Learn to use Flash Units
In low light, be ready to push ISO to get higher shutterspeeds, but also know the limits of your camera. A good photographer can always improvise with any kind of light, but learning to use flash units and strobes is essential in the long run. Armed with the right knowledge and equipment, you can make amazing action photos regardless of how adverse the lighting conditions may be… on overcast days or even in the dead of night!
After getting injured in a snowboarding accident in 2003, Lorenz turned to photography and has never looked back. He is a senior photographer for Pleasure Snowboard magazine and as a staff photographer for Nitro Snowboards. He is the winner of the Playground category and is also the overall winner of RedBull Illume 2013.
“This photograph took months of waiting for the right elements to all perfectly come together. I found this abandoned satellite dish in summer. I wanted a heavy snowfall to get this shot. The chances of snowfall were quite slim, as it barely snows at this location in winter. Eventually, I got lucky. I used two Elinchrom strobes in the background to light up the snowflakes and create a ‘white wall’ where I could capture Xaver Hoffman’s silhouette as he jumped. While the strobes froze the action and the falling snowflakes, I used a slow shutterspeed to get some light on the satellite dish.”
Choose Your Gear According to the Type of Action
In action photography, you will need to walk long distances, climb high mountains or even jump out of airplanes, so it is not feasable to carry all your gear with you all the time. Depending on what sport you are photographing, outline exactly what gear will work best and carry just that. Be prepared with full batteries and enough memory cards… there is nothing more heartbreaking than your battery running out at a crucial point!
He is an adventure and lifestyle photographer from USA and has worked with several noted publications. He particularly enjoys photographing the sport of snowboarding. He is a finalist in the Spirit category.
“Chance favours the prepared photographer. Originally, I just wanted a shot of two skateboarders, but I wasn’t getting a good shot. So, I asked both Casey Capper and Andy Orley to push their limits. They came flying past me. Unfortunately, Andy’s back foot hit the back of his board, which sent him sprawling. Luckily, Andy is quite a tough cookie. All he got was a scrape on his shoulder and forearm while I ended up with an awesome photo.”
Use Dynamic Perspectives
It is worth seeking out all possible angles while shooting action scenes, even if it means lying flat on the ground. The most amazing photos can come from the most awkward angles!
He is a photographer from USA. He dream of visiting new countries and capturing whatever beauty they may hold. He is the winner of the Lifestyle by Leica category.
“One needs to go beyond the most obvious ways to tell a story. I made this photograph during a trip to Fiji along with seven very talented surfers. They surfed for ten hours a day, coming in only for food or sunscreen. I was fascinated by their camaraderie in the intense surf, despite the obvious competition between them. I wanted to capture their unique friendship that had them trading waves with smiles. I got the frame I wanted one morning, when they were in the crystalline waters, discussing everything from the surf to the homework they were neglecting.”
Invest in Lenses
Although mid to high end DSLRs are preferable, even entry level cameras deliver excellent image quality nowadays. However, what is essential to good sports photography is the best optics. It makes more of a difference than the camera. Buy the best lenses. Invest over a period of time, if you cannot afford it immediately. In any case, with careful use, good lenses will outlast the usefulness of any digital camera by at least a decade.
He is a senior photographer at Snowboard Canada magazine. He is passionate about skiing and believes he will be chasing the “next great photo” for the rest of his life. He is a finalist in the New Creativity category.
“Most people would see the ironies in extreme sports. Yet, irony is not always an easy element to add into an image. For instance, the word ‘peur’ means fear in French. A friend of mine discovered this old, abandoned building. Another friend, Anto Chamberland, decided to jump out of the third-story window. I used flash systems from Elinchrom and Paul C Buff to highlight Anto, and get the interiors and shadows right. It took a few tries, but I am very pleased with the strangely sci-fi feel of the image.”
The shutterspeed that you need depends on what you are shooting. But to freeze action, choose speeds higher than 1/500sec. Also, if the subject is moving across the frame, you will need a shutterspeed faster than if it is coming towards you. Alternatively, you can use a burst from a flash unit or a strobe to freeze action too, especially if the subject is set against a darker background.
Residing in Switzerland, Romina knew she wanted to be a photographer ever since she was 13 years old. She is the winner of the Energy category.
“I like pictures that leave viewers questioning. In this case… where is he coming from? Does he think he can fly? Where is he going to land? This was shot during the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. I was on a boat in rough waters, and it was a very narrow gap. A little movement could mean the difference between seeing or not seeing the diver at all. As the athlete, Todor Spasov, took to the air, I knew I had the perfect shot.”
You don’t have to start with a big sports event. Practice with moving subjects on the street in front of your house. Then maybe you can try shooting a local cricket game. You will see that the more you practise, the better you get.
A photographer from Australia, Stuart believes that great photography is not really about about who inspires you, but more about what inspires you. He is a finalist in the Close Up category.
“When you start getting frightened, there is a photo waiting to happen. Even as a giant wave exploded upon Ryan Hargrave and me as we were surfing at Wilkes Pass in Fiji, we were caught beneath the huge swell. It’s always a little comforting when someone else is in a bad situation with you, so I turned to look at Ryan and saw him on this duckdive. We were scared and laughing at the same time. I kept my head and managed to shoot a sequence of images. This is the shot before the white surf sent us high and dry on the coral.”
Be One With Your Camera
You have to know your camera inside and out, so that it is almost like an extension of your body. In action sequences, you cannot pause to think of how to change a particular setting or mode. It has to be an automatic process that happens without the need to really think about it.
A climbing enthusiast from Switzerland, Rainer has photographed the world’s best rock and ice climbers. He is a finalist in the Experimental category.
“If there were no mountains, what would pro climbers do then? My idea was to show climbers performing in surreal settings. The athlete in this photo is world champion boulder climber from Austria, Anna Stöhr. The trashy, metallic objects perfectly contrast with Anna’s youth, power and vitality. In getting to the final image, there were many things to consider… the sharp and greasy metal edges, the stability of the pile of cars, the light and background… Anna had to do a countless pull ups over dozens of piles of cars before we found the perfect spot. I used Profoto lights to illuminate the frame.”
Fast Memory Cards are Vital
Action photographers often fire bursts of frames in continuous shooting mode. Fast cards mean faster buffering speeds, so you won’t have to slow down your own shooting. With cameras that can accept two memory cards, it is advisable to use the second card to backup images simultaneously as you shoot. In this case, ideally, both cards should be of equally high speeds and capacities.
He is an action and commercial photographer from USA. Focusing on wakeboarding and snowboarding, he strives to create something new and unique every time he shoots. He is a finalist in the Illumination category.
“If the idea is delicious, everyone does their best . This is a sea of cranberries being harvested in October, in Wisconsin, USA. Cranberries are grown in dry fields. It is only during harvesting that the fields are flooded so that the berries float to the surface. I always wanted to shoot a wakeboard rider in the middle of that luscious sea of red. When I described the idea to ace wakeboarder Ben Horan, he was quite excited. One freezing morning, Ben and his team awoke to a fresh blanket of snow to give me his very best on the wakeboard, braving the biting cold and carving fantastic arcs through the cranberry fields. This is my most memorable and unique shoots till date.”
Moving In, Moving Out
The viewer’s eye will automatically follow prominent lines in the image. It is always good if these lines lead towards the main subject. The viewer also looks in the direction of movement, in an attempt to discover where the subject is going. Thus, using space well, before and after the subject, is important.
Hailing from Italy, Olaf’s origins in BMX biking has helped him in his career as an action photographer. He is a finalist in the Playground category.
“We were lucky the police didn’t catch us. After waiting for the town of Verona, Italy, to sleep, biker Stefan Lantschner climbed down a rope into the hole of the Ponte Pietra, a Roman arch bridge built in 100BC. His BMX was then lowered down to him, and Stefan began to ride within the giant opening. Some tourists noticed the flashes, but Stefan managed to climb back up without being noticed.”
Add Context, Capture Details
When the athlete or the action dominates the scene, factors like exposure, sharpness, positioning, timing background, and the athlete’s facial expression and body language makes a huge difference. When the athlete is not dominant, the surrounding environment becomes important to add context. In either case, composition and framing can make or break an action photograph.
Born at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in USA, Clark was always connected to mountaineering and loves photographing mountain sports. He is a finalist in the Illumination category.
“A click of a button can make time stand still, but you never know when it can cause a moment to be timeless. This shot was taken in the Tordrillo Mountains, Alaska, in 2010. I was there with some all-star athletes—Travis Rice, John Jackson, Mark Landvik, and also the Brain Farm Cinema production crew. We were anxious to get on the snow after arriving to a week of bad weather. We didn’t know that the mountains were going to welcome us with incredible shooting conditions for the following two weeks. Something seemed really special on this first evening… the first drop of the trip. After putting the boys on the ridge, I shot this image from the helicopter as they were scoping the terrain.”
Care for Your Gear Like a Lover
Your photographic equipment is your lifeline. If you use your gear carefully, it will give you timeless photos over years of good service. Prepare for the worst weather and shooting conditions at a given location. Carry appropriate camera protection while shooting, and a good cleaning kit. A good photographer is disciplined in the way he stores, handles and maintains his gear.
Hailing from USA, Zakary is a Staff Photographer for Surfer Magazine for the last three years. He is the winner of the Sequence category.
“My passion is to draw the viewer into my image, almost as if they were standing right beside me. As far as the waves go, this is a rather common day… just the sort anyone would encounter. The sand, sky, horizon and rock are exactly what people would see if they were walking down North Shore. When the waves are smaller, surfers usually go out to surf just before the sun sets. And as you look towards the sea, the surfer, Gabriel Medina, does this massive backflip.”
Don’t be Impatient
When it comes to shooting action, be ready for failures. You may not get your perfect shot the first 100 times, but when you do, it will be magical. Persistence is a virtue.
Growing up in a ski and snowboard resort in Switzerland, Claudio has always been passionate about snowboarding. He is a finalist in the Close Up categroy.
“Crystal ball gazing can be quite a challenge, once it catches your fancy. The moment I saw it, my mind was absorbed by the idea of integrating this 10kg glass hulk into a snowboard action photograph. And as it turned out, it was not easy at all! To begin with, the idea amused my five handpicked snowboarders. It took a few initial shots for the right vibes to evolve. Seven hours later, this shot of Philipp Schicker doing the Miller Flip saved the day. Lights from Profoto were used to illuminate the moment.”
Become Adept with Techniques
Action photographers often use techniques like panning, blurring or freezing movement, slow synch and off camera flash, large and shallow depth-of-field, and pre focus, zone focus and manual focus. Some photographers use supplementary lenses and filters. Technique also involves knowledge of composition and when to increase or decrease exposure from the metered value. The good thing is that you can easily practise these techniques almost anywhere, as long as there are moving subjects.
Theodore Van Orman
He is a photographer from USA and believes that life is a special experience, and being able to capture it has grown very important to him. He is the finalist for the Lifestyle by Leica category.
“No planning… we were just riders mesmerised by the light at the end of the tunnel. I was invited by my friends, Cody Barger and Jordan Houck, to cycle in this full pipe. We bicycled through this long tunnel, our eyes fixated on the only source of light… a tiny, little circle, coming in through the far end. It was a surreal feeling. We were at a reasonably high altitude and my equilibrium somehow felt off. When we finally made it to the opening, I got my camera out and quickly metered as my counterparts kept moving ahead into the light. I waited until Cody looked up into the light before I released a single frame. They did not know I was shooting.”
How Do You Carry Your Gear?
Comfortable, quick access to gear makes all the difference in getting the shot. Typically, modular utility harnesses, utility belts or backpacks work best. Some photographers also use rolling bags or hard cases because they can safely hold a lot of equipment. Ideally, you should try out various options to find out what kind of carrying system best suits your gear and style of shooting.
An outdoor photographer from UK, Dan’s life is anything but ordinary. To begin with, he has an Aerospace Engineering degree. He is a finalist in the Sequence category.
“It took 51 photos to capture this sequence!” Gold medallist Sammy Carlson wanted a shot with all his jumps in one line. In these sort of jumps, there can be no tests or practice runs, to avoid putting tracks on the snow. My main worry was that the camera’s buffer would not be large enough to capture the whole sequence. So I switched to JPEGs. Every time Sammy dipped out of view behind the hills, I stopped shooting momentarily, to let a few images save to the memory card. And then Sammy showed why he deserved to win gold in slopestyle!”
To showcase the complete movement of an action sequence, you can make an image composite by combining several images into one. The idea is to keep the background of the images constant as it will be easier to edit them later. Then use the camera’s Burst Mode and shoot the entire sequence. Also, remember to use a tripod to keep the frame stable. Once you are done shooting, use software like Photoshop to edit your composite.
An action photographer for the last 20 years, Scott is based in Canada, where he has started a snowboard design and manufacturing company called Endeavor Snowboards. He also owns a face mask company called Airhole. He is the winner of the Illumination category.
“This photo was the very last frame from the best snowboarding trip of my life! This photo was made in Alaska, during the filming of a snowboarding film called ‘Art of Flight’. We had already spent a month there and the trip was ending very soon. I really wanted to shoot a photo from a helicopter, right above athlete Travis Rice. Coordination was quite tough because there was another helicopter with the cine camera crew, also shooting Travis. The sun was setting fast. As Travis made his second turn down the mountain, I made this shot from a hieght of about 30m above him.”
Be Ahead of the Moment
The very best photographers know what kind of action to expect and where to expect it. Beyond knowing the sport well, you need to know the athletes and their styles of performance. You also need to know the location and the best spots to shoot from. Finally, when you are at the perfect vantage point, you need to know where to point your lens and how to frame your shot a moment before the action actually happens.
He is a photographer from Sweden who is passionate about photographing adventure sports and dreams of a day to make a living as a photographer. He is a finalist in the Experimental category.
“Stop. Think. Change the plan. Quick! Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mark III Lens: Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM Aperture: f/5.6, Shutterspeed: 1/1000sec, ISO: 200 When I found out about the FMX show in town, I grabbed my camera. At the event, I saw some photographers close to the ramp where it was very crowded. There was no point in competing with them for space. Something needed to be done quickly before I missed all the action. I looked around and saw a fire escape on a nearby hotel. I climbed up to get an elevated view. I needed to highlight the action and wanted to give a sense of the crowd. Since I did not own a tilt shift lens, I decided to add the effect in postprocessing. Fredrik Berggren then spectacularly took to the air.”
Seek Permissions, Follow the Rules
Many formal sporting events have rules of conduct for photographers. They may also define the places where photographers are allowed to shoot from. This is done for the safety of both photographers and athletes. Some sports need complete concentration by the athletes. Distracting them with a flash burst or getting in their way can be extremely dangerous.
A photographer from Slovenia, Samo has been making pictures since 2001. He is an official Red Bull photographer and also contributes to Getty Images. He is the winner of the Wings category.
“Serendipity can happen any time. In this image, Jorge Ferzuli is seen diving from an 88 foot platform during Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in 2011, in Greece. I was capturing the scene from the water below, with very limited scope for movement. As Jorge jumped, by sheer luck, or serendipity, a bird entered the frame, causing this perfect juxtaposition. I also won the Slovenian Press Photo Award for this photograph.”
Select a Good Tripod or Monopod
Action shooters use them quite frequently. Long exposures, heavy lenses, sequences, or simply to take the weight off the neck… it needs to be lightweight, sturdy, and quick to set up on uneven terrain. The tripod head must be a threeway pan-tilt head that allows smooth panning. Ensure that the ‘quick’ release plate is effectively quick enough. Some of the more recent ball and socket heads work particularly well because they are so easily movable without fumbling around with levers.
He is a self-taught photographer and artist based in California, USA, whose work is layered by surf, outdoor, lifestyle and travel subjects. He is the winner of the Spirit category.
“I think their sense of dejection is quite visible in this image. Keith Malloy, Dane Gudauskas and I had come to surf in Unstad, Lofoten Islands, Norway. We woke at dawn and drove our truck to the ocean. The arctic waves were perfect… the best we had seen. We thought it would be a good, long session of surfing. Suddenly, the winds changed. In a minute it was pouring. In another minute, the rain became a blizzard. We took shelter in the truck, waiting for the bad weather to pass. After a while, with no sign of the blizzard dissipating, we decided to head back. By then, the snow had piled up high around the truck. Dane and Keith then started walking back into town. I shot this image as they trudged through the snow, on the icy road back to the hotel.”
Shoot Before and After, Get the Quieter Moments
Athletes meditate, they prepare, they warm up, they check their gear, they pack up, they rest, they exult, and they chat with other athletes. Any sport has its highs and lows, effort and pain, joys and successes. Action photography does not always have to attempt to capture energy and motion. There is a lot that happens when they are not in the midst of action. Simplicity can speak volumes too.
Residing in Greece, Dimitrios is a self-taught photographer and has been the owner of a pre-press company for more than five years. He is a finalist in the Wings category.
“I never thought that at some point in my life, I would stand at the edge of a 200m cliff, making pictures of crazy people jumping off it. But there I was… in Zakynthos Island, Greece, where the 2011 ProBase Shipwreck Boogie was taking place. This particular picture was made right after the competition had ended, leaving all the BASE jumpers stress free and having fun. I zoomed in on the BASE jumpers and get them in the right position in my frame. I used the Sports mode, as a fast shutterspeed was priority. The Greek sun did what it does best, providing perfect lighting conditions for a result, I think, is worth viewing.”
You Do Not ‘Need’ Expensive Gear
The gear that professionals use for action photography are expensive. Yet, entry level cameras and basic kit lenses are good too. One needs to simply work within their constraints. For instance if the buffer and frame rates are not huge, limit your continuous shooting to short bursts only when necessary. In fact, the most memorable sports photos in the world have been taken with manual focus, fully mechanical cameras using 36-frame ISO 100 film rolls!
Growing up in the mountains of West Colorado, USA, Lucas always had an affinity for the hills. Today, he shoots for several sports magazines around the world. He is a finalist in the Wings category.
“I still think about how easily I could have missed this shot. In this shot, Rafa Ortiz nabs the first descent of the 132.5ft tall Big Banana Falls in Veracruz, Mexico. Rafa and I first visited this fall in 2006, and were amazed by its majesty. After making several trips, in 2010, the water conditions looked perfect. Rafa rappelled into the pool above the waterfall with his boat. It was at this point that I knew it was really going to happen. Rafa was over the falls in what seemed like a split second. He popped up to the left of the falls in his boat, with blood running from his eye and fists pumping. He was only visible for three frames before he was engulfed in water. We were all happy, relieved, and in high spirits. Directly after, we went to get Rafa’s eye stitched and for tacos and tequila in celebration!”
Keep Shooting. Don’t Chimp!
Chimping is a word used for those who keep reviewing the photo on the LCD immediately after making the picture. It wastes time. In all probability, you are missing a great moment by being a chimp. You cannot afford to be a spectator either. Eye to the viewfinder, finger on the button… that is what action photography is about.
Juan Cruz Rabaglia
Residing in Argentina, Juan discovered two things at the age of 14, that inexorably shaped his life… photography and the beautiful land of Patagonia. He has never looked back since. He is a finalist in the New Creativity category.
“This photo reminds me of a sci-fi movie.The location played a huge part in this. Right beside the lateral moraine of Patagonia’s Perito Moreno Glacier, natural dams of ice and rock are occasionally formed. Thanks to glacier-fed rivers and streams, these often give rise to small lakes. When the water pressure finds a crack, a slow process of ice boring begins. Thus, little by little, these caverns are sculpted underneath the glacier. When the lakes are emptied completely, for a brief period of time it is possible to explore these ephemeral and psychedelic ice galleries. This location thus becomes a great spot to photograph ski mountaineers. In this photograph, Leonardo Cuny Proverbio makes his way through the icy cavern.”
It Takes Action to Shoot Action
If you have a thought, idea, concept, or desire to do something unique, all that it needs is a good plan and lots of doing. Be safe, but give it your very best shot. In the end, you are limited by only one person… yourself.