Growing up in the flat sprawling suburbs of Mississauga Ontario my first adventures were born out of imagination. The small ravine across from my house could easily transform into the darkest jungle providing hours of expeditions battling man-eating creatures, the discovery of lost civilizations and tracking Bigfoot. Like many kids I was attracted instantly to images in magazines of far off lands, unknown cultures and people in unique situations, I always wondered who took those amazing images and how one went about getting to go on such exploits. It was not until I was older and graduated college that my true education would begin. Setting out alone on a six-month trip through Asia my girlfriend at the time (now wife) loaned me a small point and shoot camera.
The thought of bringing a camera had never crossed my mind as I didn’t have any money to purchase one and my only experience taking pictures was in a high school photography class where most of our time was spent practicing looking through the viewfinder. Little did I know while on that trip I would discover one of the most important rules of photography.
Now based in the Coast Mountains of Squamish BC my imagination still fuels the ideas but the expeditions are real and my cameras help tell the story. For more than a decade I have been traveling to photograph, my work has spanned six continents and my efforts have produced award-winning images while working with the top North American outdoor companies both commercially and editorially. I no longer snap pictures yet focus my time and energy on composing images. If photography is an expression of oneself then adventure photography is a lifestyle like no other. The idea of traveling the world, photographing adventures and being in the wildest of positions to nail the shot sounds great when you’re at home on the sofa with a full belly, but pressing the shutter button is only about one percent of the process. I would like to share some of my ideas, concepts and attitudes from over the years that have helped improve not only my images but also my awareness to visualize future photo shoots.
The Right Equipment for the Job
One of the most important aspects of my job is having the right equipment for that particular shoot and working within the parameters that my gear is capable of. It seems almost every day there are new gizmos on the market that claim to help capture the next cover shot. In my experience simple is best! Yes I own a few bodies and a different assortment of lenses but when I’m in the outdoors for long periods of time I don’t always have the luxury of having all my gear with me so I have to choose my equipment for that shoot wisely.
As a photographer I’m trying to tell a story through imagery so I need to work with different angles, depending on where and what I’m photographing that dictates what lenses I will bring. For example if I know most of my subjects (surfers, skiers, climbers etc.) are going to be within 50 feet from me during the shoot then the 600mm lens I wanted to play with because I saw it in ad or movie has no use to me. Now that might sound like a simple concept but that is the point, don’t over complicate the situation by having to lug around unnecessary equipment and make sure to set your shoot up within the parameters of the equipment your using.
Fitness is Key
Physical and mental fitness play a huge roll in my photography because most adventure photo shoots require me to camp out for several nights. Everything I need to be self-sufficient is carried by me: tent, food, warm clothing, ropes, etc. and that’s before the camera gear, so the weight really adds up. My last photo shoot in the Arctic required me to carry two separate packs weighing 130 pounds total weight plus a third pack containing my camera gear of 35 pounds. I was alone so I would carry one pack for a mile or two drop it off and go back and pick up the second but always carrying my camera gear should a photo opportunity present itself. You really need to make sure you’re in physical and mental shape because getting to the location is only the beginning of the shoot.
Planes and Arriving Safely with Your Camera Gear I can’t remember the last time I boarded a flight and didn’t get smacked with huge excess baggage fees but my carry-on always consists of the same thing, my camera gear. When traveling domestic and the flight is only a few hours I know the plane isn’t going to be very large, meaning the storage space above the seat will also be small. In these instances, I always break up my equipment into smaller bags. Lowepro makes an amazing assortment of bags for every situation. The Toploader Pro 75 AW fits a professional DSLR and a 70mm-200mm no problem, with a couple of side lens cases I can board a small plane with three lenses up to a 400mm easily. Plenty of room for a second body if need be. When flying overseas on bigger flights, I usually pack the small camera bags empty in my checked luggage and use something like the ProTrekker 300 AW. It fits into the above storage and holds two pro bodies and four lenses.
Backing-Up and Safeguarding Files in the Field
Weight and power are always going to be an issue for an adventure photographer so keeping it simple when it comes to your files is very important. Most of the time computers and external drives are out−they are just too risky unless you have a base camp that you are returning to each night. I only shoot RAW files and never use a card for still images bigger than 8 GB. The 16 GB and 32 GB are great for video but the risk of shooting with only a couple of cards is too high. If you’re working in the middle of nowhere it’s hard to go back and re-shoot something that was lost due to a corrupt or damaged card. Instead I carry a large number of medium sized cards and protect them in a waterproof casing while backing up my RAW files on a Multimedia Storage Viewer, protecting it in a Pelican case.
Battery power for my camera is a huge problem as well when I’m in the field for an extended period and have no access to a power supply. In my experience extra batteries and a portable solar battery charger work best, and I make sure it has an AC adapter to plug in my battery charger.
The Business Side of Adventure
Hanging off a cliff with a camera around your neck is not going to be offered in the “How To” university or college calendar but business is. Don’t be fooled−the best photographers in the biz are not only great behind the lens but business savvy as well and adventure photography is no different. In order to follow your dream of traveling the globe capturing the strange and exotic you have to remember you are running a business and unless you’re independently wealthy you will need to spend some time learning how to run it. Software programs such as fotoQuote Pro help with figures, industry standards, bidding, etc., and also keep track of monthly receipts and expenses. Working in your own business has many advantages but it can be very hard to pay yourself when starting out, and working for photo credit or a lift pass won’t pay the bills! Understanding the business side of adventure is key.
Adventure photography is an acquired set of skills that can truly spark the imagination. As artists our inner drive to create is fueled by what we have seen and what we can think up. Bringing your camera into a potentially hazardous situation can be nerve-racking but with practice you gain confidence, learn to relax and start imagining endless possibilities, which is the most important rule of photography. You are only hindered by your own imagination.