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To shoot extreme sports like Lucas Gilman does, be prepared to get scared

Lucas Gilman 2013_1836
When scaling up a waterfall is possible.

Call them extreme sports, adventure sports, or action sports; whatever the name they all mean one thing: danger. These sports usually feature great heights, speeds, and/or stunts (just tune into the X-Games to see what we mean). From white-water kayaking and snowboarding to surfing, these extreme sports move so fast, it takes an energetic and enthusiastic photographer to keep pace, in order to capture their true spirit.

If you have ever tried photographing someone catching a wave or careening down a mountain, chances are the results may not have been optimal. To understand how a pro photographer achieves these types of pics, we spoke with one of the top photographers and filmmakers in the field, Lucas Gilman.

“You are at the mercy of Mother Nature when shooting adventure sports.”

Gilman grew up in the mountains of Western Colorado, and credits his love of adventure and keen curiosity for his distinct style of photography. Traveling the world in search of untouched places and wild experiences, he captures images ranging from kayaking in India, Brazil, Uganda, and Costa Rica, to backcountry skiing in Colorado, Wyoming, Alaska, and South America. He was a finalist in the 2010 and 2013 Red Bull Illume photo contest, and works with SanDisk and Nikon as a featured photographer.

“My dad is a professional fly-fishing guide,” Gilman said. “Growing up, we were constantly going on new adventures. I guess it just seemed like a natural progression to merge my love for photography and the outdoors.”

Gilman says having a safety strategy and being comfortable in the environment are paramount to not only having a successful shoot, but staying out of harm. “Good ropes skills and setting safety for precarious positions are all part of the skill set. There is a lot more involved than just shooting photos and video. You have to plan, practice, and implement a strategy to get it done as quickly and safely as possible.”

Here are Gilman’s other tips and suggestions that he uses for a successful extreme sports photo shoot, as well as stories from his experience.

Meeting Mother Nature head-on

Gilman documented the successful descent in a kayak of Abiqua Falls in Oregon. It was the second largest waterfall ever to have successfully descended in a kayak. But to record the moment, Gilman had to do a lot of prep work. “You are at the mercy of Mother Nature when shooting adventure sports, and for big waterfalls like Abiqua Falls the water levels have to be absolutely perfect. Abiqua is also very remote and the prime shooting position was on the lip of a crumbly canyon rim. We had to set safety for the camera positions as well as hike in kayakers to the base of the falls for safety in case something happened.” Just how dangerous was the event? One participant “ran the 96-foot tall falls about as cleanly as possible and still walked away with a broken rotator cuff, cracked ribs, and a compressed lung,” Gilman recounts.

Lucas Gilman 2013_1831
Kayaking down a waterfall is no easy feat to accomplish, or to photograph.

Video footage of the Abiqua Falls shoot can be found on his blog. Gilman also recently documented the largest kayaking run down a waterfall ever – the 189-foot-tall Palouse Falls in Washington.

Shoot in the moment

You never know what will come tomorrow, Gilman says, so shoot it now. The weather could change, the leaves on the trees could blow away, your model or athlete could get injured or sick and may have to leave unexpectedly – anything that can happen will happen. There are aspects of photography that you can control, but sports aren’t one of them, and there are no instant replays.

“Using a person [in landscapes] adds human interest – and depth and scale.”

Find the “golden hour”

Gilman’s favorite time to shoot is either the hour right after sunrise or the hour just before sunset. This is commonly referred to as the “golden hour,” when the sun is low in the sky. “The sun at this angle makes for much more interesting and dramatic lighting. Plan your shoots around these hours and you will be amazed at the great images you will make,” Gilman says.

Never stop shooting when capturing the surf

When shooting in the ocean, once you’ve found your spot, the waves are working, and the light is right, Gilman says to shoot, shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. “Work with the subject/athlete and take different shots from different angles. The more you take, the more likely you’ll succeed with your photographic vision. Don’t be afraid to take 10 shots and edit out nine later. Find different, unusual viewpoints and shoot from high and from low. Photographers at some of the top-tier magazines use only one out of every 1,000 shots taken on average!” (Gilman uses high-capacity SanDisk CompactFlash and SD cards, which are very affordable these days, he says.)

Lucas Gilman 2013_1826

Go fast or go home

Consider using Burst Mode to capture a rapid series of photos. Using fast memory cards is also key. “I like to use blazing-fast SanDisk Extreme Pro CompactFlash and SD cards when I shoot action sequences, because the faster I can get those images on the card, the quicker I can take more photos. Faster cards allow me to take more shots, thus getting me better images.”

Creating more captivating landscapes

“The key is to find a sport you love to participate in and be ready to be scared, wet, cold, and exhausted.”

When shooting a landscape, Gilman tries to have something dynamic in the foreground. “This gives depth and scale – using an athlete adds human interest. Late afternoon or sunrise is usually best. You can use a polarizer or graduated neutral density filter to enhance the sky. Really study the light, especially when shooting from a high angle. Shadows can be your best friend, and make for very interesting photos. Remember, the athlete doesn’t always have to fill the frame, but can be small and add visual interest.”

When shooting in water or snow, set shutter speeds to very slow or very fast

Gilman likes to experiment with a slow shutter speed, perhaps 1/30 to 4 seconds, so that the rushing water creates a soft, romantic blur. Or, shoot at a shutter speed above 1/2,500 of a second to freeze every drop of water. A polarizer can cut glare but may also reduce cool reflections on the water. Backlit water or snow can really add depth to an image.

Seek out action sunsets

Another good time of day to shoot is just before the sun hits horizon, and the afterglow 10 to 30 minutes after the sun has set. “Meter off the brightest part of the sky and try adding a person or athlete in the foreground (they will appear as a silhouette) for human interest, depth, and character. Lastly, make sure the background area behind the subject is free of clutter.”

Lucas Gilman 2013_1848
Portrait of an athlete, as she prepares to climb for a kayak down the falls.

Before you shoot climbers, learn to climb first

“If you plan to shoot mountain or rock climbing sports, basic ropes skills are a must. Take a class from a local climbing gym and practice the skills. The rope skills need to be as first-nature as the settings on your camera. Safety is always first,” Gilman says.

Dealing with weather

Dress warm and cover up your extremities. Dress in layers and wear a waterproof jacket and pants. The more you can focus on your photography and less on your discomfort, the more successful you will be.

Bad weather doesn’t mean bad photographs; it just changes your options. Overcast skies reduce contrast and are preferred for trees and foliage. Colors may appear cool and blue-ish, so add an 81A, B, or C filter to warm up the image, or adjust the white balance in your camera. If the sky is lifeless, disguise it with an overhanging tree, or exclude it completely by raising the horizon in your frame. When low clouds or rain reduce color saturation, try thinking in terms of black and white (you can shoot in color and convert later with a program like Silver Efex Pro 2) to emphasize the range of gray tones. You may need a faster ISO: 200 or 400 since there’s less light. Don’t worry about noise at a higher ISO – modern DSLR cameras handle high ISOs beautifully.

Storms and heavy rain add drama and power to images, and you may even want to try a time-lapse. Dusk shots are improved with reflections of neon lights in puddles. Clouds create moving patterns of interesting highlights, particularly when a storm is clearing. Fog makes rivers and valleys look mystical.

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To photograph an extreme sport like this, it helps to have an interest in the sport.

If you are worried about the safety of your DSLR in the elements, buy a rain cover. “Kata makes a great one that I use, or you can turn a standard shower cap into a cost effective cover,” Gilman says. When the weather is bad, look for subjects wearing colorful clothing. In snow, give a slight overexposure (+1 f-stop) to keep the whites from appearing gray.

Let the athletes be your guide

“Work with the athletes, especially if you don’t know the sport well. Research the kind of images that run in magazines for the sport you are shooting and be ready. Remember, the athletes are your ally!”

Gilman says, “The key is to find a sport you love to participate in and be ready to be scared, wet, cold, and exhausted. It’s never easy but the payoff is golden.”

Feel the adrenaline rush

To shoot in extreme sporting environments, one way is to actually be in them. A lot of adventure photography is shot in first-person, by the one engaging in the sport and using a hands-free POV action cam. Being a participant gives you a front-row seat to the action. You can use your proximity to help you focus on both the subject matter and the emotion of the events as they develop. You also want to utilize creative angles for dramatic compositions, and look at becoming more adept in panning the action to add the cool effect of blur to an image.

Lucas Gilman Adventure Photographer
Lucas Gilman

Lucas Gilman is a leading adventure photographer and filmmaker whose images have appeared in top publications (National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, ESPN Magazine,, Men’s Journal, Outside Magazine) and advertisements worldwide. He has covered international events such as the Tour de France, Kentucky Derby, ESPN X-Games, Ironman competitions, NFL playoffs, and Open Water Swimming in Australia. His commercial clients include Manfrotto, Nikon, SanDisk, Land Rover, Red Bull, G-Techology, Garmin, and GORE-TEX. He was recently featured in the October 22, 2013 Apple Keynote, launching the new Mac Pro.

(Images © Lucas Gilman)

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