On one of my usual weekday social media pursues, I saw an article from Outside Magazine. “7 tips for adventure photographers”. It sort of stopped me in my tracks, thinking “Oh another tell-all article that’ll give you everything you need to be the next Jimmy Chin”. I see these so often: Buy a nice camera, get a sweet backpack, have the newest MacBook, a wide angle lens. While these all help the image making process ever so slightly, these articles don’t explain actually how to be an adventure photographer. I’ve been learning and refining my creative process. Taking notes from my peers, seeing what It takes, and starting to curate a defined style for my photography career. So after 6 years of throwing myself out there, traveling around the country, and hundreds of heinous adventures. I can give you my harsh 7 implications on how to improve your outdoor photos.
1 . Live the life you portray through your photos.
I can’t express how important it is to have a feeling of authenticity to your work. I was born and raised in South Lake Tahoe. My entire life has surrounded around skiing and climbing. It’s my lifestyle. Sleeping out of my car for weeks on end or being up early to ski before I start my day. This sense of passion and fringe living is portrayed through my work. You have to completely live the part. I see so often people that spend half the year buried in the city and get a weekend off to head up to the mountains and climb or ski. While they might be great photographers, you don’t necessarily feel that realness in the photo. Some of the top adventure photographers in the world have stemmed from just committing to a passion-filled outdoor lifestyle and the art came later. Jimmy Chin living in Camp 4 for years, Renan Ozturk being dropped off in the desert, Corey Rich sleeping behind Yosemite boulders.
2. Be more of an athlete than the athletes
Let's be real, it’s hard work. You’re constantly carrying heavy packs, and working twice as hard as the athletes you’re documenting. This is one of the most important aspects of any adventure shoot. You have to be two steps ahead, thinking of how quickly you can move through an environment. No one likes to wait on the skin track, a 5.12 on-sight will unfold quickly. Being agile and thinking like an athlete helps the process, keeps group morale up, and assures that you don’t miss that magic moment. Never complaining about anything helps a lot too, athletes realize the commitment and work you’re putting in to capture a frame. No one wants to
listen to complaints.
3. Be Safe
This one is self-explanatory. No shot is ever worth risking you or your group's life. The mountains will always be there. Realize a dangerous situation and don’t push it. Often we document sport at the border of life and death. It’s important to never cross that line. Triple check your systems, be aware of changing conditions and make the right decisions when you have to.
4. Scare Yourself
While this is contractionary with my last tip… Great photographs come out of pushing the comfort zone. So many of my best photographs have been taken hanging in space off of a rope. Nothing but air below me, it’s an intense feeling when you don’t have any contact with the world. At first, it’s incredibly scary, but this is what conditioned me to push myself out of my realm of comfort for more authentic and powerful images. This also gives a whole new perspective to any photograph. We’re tired of seeing butt shots of climbing, and GoPro selfies of a pow turn. A new angle can not only tell a better story but also gives the perspective of the activity at hand. Put yourself in a tough place, be scared, and show that emotion through your image. People react most to a photo when it makes their palms sweat and they can feel like they’re living in that incredibly dangerous moment.
5. Just Be There
Throughout the entire photography industry, everything is staged. Careful pre-production is required in every shoot. Times and angles are already determined, and crew is ready to support. While organization and planning are crucial for adventure shoots. Some of the best moments happen on the fly. A beam of light backlights your athlete, or an inversion covers the valley below. Just being there in the moment, ready to shoot whenever you see an amazing moment is a key. You can’t plan everything. Some of my best photos have been taken in a split second, where everything aligns and I see it unfold in front of me. Just being outside whether it be with friends, or on a product shoot; Being ready and just enjoying the moment you’re in is the best way to capture compelling images. The best camera is the one you have with you.
6. Don’t Expect Anything
This is a harsh reality. I’ve skinned up a few thousand feet to capture one frame and I never got it. I’ve hung in my harness for 45 minutes waiting for a send and the climber was pumped. I’ve scoped sick backcountry ski lines, and the snow had changed. I’ve waited for so many sunsets to light the sky up that never did. We’re not in a studio where one turn of the light can make a magnificent photo. We’re playing with mother nature, and she holds no mercy. Make sure that your head is in the right spot when you come home empty-handed. Every photo that I’ve captured was the 1 in 10 that went well. The other nine that I attempted never lined up. I’ve come to learn that this is the process, and I need to work through it. This is 90% of the entire adventure photography world that no one ever sees. The failure will always make you a better artist, and person. Because of this, you need to make sure when you do sell your work that you include the cost of the 9 tries that didn’t work. Hold your work and self to a higher standard. Make sure that clients know that this is the case and don’t sell yourself short for the work you actually did.
7. Have Fun
I swear this is the best part of being an outdoor-oriented photographer. It’s amazing, it is by far the most fun thing I could do in this lifetime. I get to document amazing feats of athletic ability, be there with friends and incredible people. I get to ski rad lines when the work is done, climb on my days off, and be outside all the time. If this isn’t fun for you then why do it? You should get butterflies in your stomach, and gritty when it snows a foot. If you're not jumping up and down from excitement when you capture the best photo of your life. This isn’t for you. Just have fun with it. Don’t read articles, or watch youtube videos about what you should be doing. There are no rules, there's no set course for what direction you have to go. Don’t compare yourself to others, cave into Instagram or set high standards. Go outside and break the rules, be free, create what you want to see. Just do it with integrity, passion, and a backpack full of Tahoe Trail Bars. Thank you to Tahoe Trail Bar for keeping me well fed while I’m outside, making sure I don’t get hangry. You guys are awesome!
Hey Guys! I’m AJ, a 22 year old filmmaker / skier and I was born and raised in beautiful Lake Tahoe. I was put on skis at the prime age of 18 months, sure enough it’s been the driving force of my life ever since. Skiing introduced me to cinematography, and I am incredibly lucky to ski and document adventure sports full time!
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