What does it take to be an adventure photographer? You need stamina, expert skills in a sport, and the ability to work under extreme conditions, often with a team. You’re the last to bed and the first to rise. Your free time is spent downloading and organizing thousands of photos and videos. The role can be both physically and creatively draining.
For female adventure photographers, it can also be a challenge to break into this male-dominated niche.
As the exploration and adventure photo editor for National Geographic magazine, I work on stories where both female and male adventure photographers—who double as mountaineers, climbers, polar explorers, divers, cavers, and survivalists—are risking their lives in the pursuit of a great shot. I’d like to see even more women at the top of this field, telling their inspiring stories.
These nine talented female photographers are pushing the limits of art and exploration—and encouraging younger photographers to get out there.
Relentless, persistent, fearless, tough, and with a dash of wicked humor, Australian Krystle Wright is 100 percent committed to her projects. “Photography has given me this passport to go up to almost anyone and start talking. It's my purpose in life,” says Wright, who claims she used to be shy.
“As a photographer, to stand out from the rest, you need to be thinking of new ideas, new angles,” she says. She had a vision-turned-obsession for a unique BASE jumping shot she’d never seen made. It took her more than four years and five failed attempts to finally get the image that she had imagined.
She has spent the past five years living out of a van, chasing projects and pushing her limits. She almost lost her life in a paragliding accident in Pakistan when she collided with boulders. But broken legs, broken teeth, and scars don't stop her. “My biggest fear is regret,” Wright says. “So I follow my curiosity to the ends of the earth to capture the fleeting moment, the soul of a place.”
Extreme underwater explorer, cave diver, photographer, and filmmaker Jill Heinerth is in a class of her own. She is one of the very few cave divers, and the only female diver that I know of, who uses a rebreather—an apparatus that allows divers to stay underwater for as many as 20 hours by recycling exhaled breath. While immersed in this highly technical and dangerous environment, Heinerth has captured underwater images in caves around the world, including Russia, the Bahamas, and Antarctica.
Born in Canada, Heinerth initially wanted to be an astronaut. Her interest in marine science was sparked by watching episodes of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. “As a technical diver and artist, I love collaborating with scientists. I specialize in finding a way to mitigate as many risks as possible and then bringing back images and information that frame a story about places that have never been seen before,” Heinerth says. “I may not have attained my goal of being an astronaut, but exploring inner space has certainly fulfilled that dream."
Canadian Jody MacDonald is no stranger to adventure and exploring the last untamed corners of the planet. She spent her formative years in Saudi Arabia before sailing around the world twice over the span of a decade, providing year-round kiteboarding, sailing, and surfing expeditions through a company she co-founded. She says she naturally “gravitates towards risk and activities that have unknown outcomes.”
“I think about risk and failure differently than most people—I embrace them,” MacDonald says.
She’s had her share of less-than-glamorous adventure moments. Some of the most stressful include being sucked into a cloud while paragliding and shooting, and being swung around the top of a 80-foot mast in the middle of a huge surf swell while she was sick with typhoid fever. Other experiences have been calmer: capturing a fellow paraglider over serene coral reefs in Tahiti, train-hopping in the Sahara Desert in search of surf, and spearfishing with the sea gypsies of Borneo while on assignment.
“It’s a very solitary profession,” MacDonald admits. “Personal relationships and community are sacrificed. If you want to have a boyfriend, marriage, and kids, this gets to be a tricky job. It’s for a certain personality.”
“I place a lot of importance on life experience. I have this overwhelming feeling that life is so short. I want to see, travel and experience as much of it as I can and while I’m physically able to,” she adds. “If someone asked me tomorrow, ‘Do you want to go on this amazing adventure?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, I’m in!’”
Based in Boulder, Colorado, Beth Wald established herself as a successful adventure and climbing photographer decades ago, when it was an almost entirely male profession.
As her photography business grew, so did her desire to document environmental issues and endangered cultures. She has joined George Schaller on several expeditions to photograph wildlife and people in remote Afghanistan and Nepal. She’s also documented gauchos in Patagonia and worked in the Amazon, Peru, Cuba, Nepal, and Tibet.
“For me, the projects that have been the most exciting, fulfilling, and successful artistically in the last years are those that have required me to use all of my skills and experience, including those gained during years photographing climbing, mountaineering, and expeditions,” Wald says. “Those are skills not only in shooting, but the ability to live and work under hard, extreme conditions, far off the grid.”
Underwater photographer Jennifer Hayes lives on the St. Lawrence River on the border of New York and Canada, but more often than not, she’s halfway across the world on assignment with her partner, underwater photographer David Doubilet. Hayes has logged more than 10,000 dives from the Equator to the poles. She’s passionate about stories that mix science and primitive fishes, and “using photography to give voice to a world hidden from our view.”
Hayes says working underwater can put you in some dicey situations. In one thrilling and unnerving encounter with harp seals while on assignment in the icy Gulf of St. Lawrence, Hayes found herself between a pup, its protective mother, and a pack of aggressive male seals trying to separate them. Hayes suffered a deep bite on her thigh from one of the males. Despite being permanently scarred, she savors the memory of the mother harp seal who pushed her and the pup out of harm’s way.
Scottish photographer Camilla Rutherford lives on a sheep farm in Wanaka, New Zealand, and focuses on shooting snow sports and mountain biking in locations around the world. She cites her background in theater as an influence on her photography. “Capturing the performances of athletes in their element is critical. A photo must tell a story, and inspire you to look deeper and wonder how this moment in time came about,” Rutherford writes.
In 2010 she was the only female photographer to have an image make the finals of the high-stakes Red Bull Illume Image Quest competition. Her stark shot of BASE jumper Josie Symons airborne over New Zealand’s Rob Roy Glacier was one of just 50 photos out of 23,000 submissions to make the cut. She also won the Scandinavian Photo Challenge, an invite-only mountain bike photo assignment, in 2011. But, she says, “My proudest moment to date is having my son Alfie—certainly a whole new adventure.”
The new mom is back to shooting and is “determined not to stop exploring, adventuring and getting out there.”
Angela Percival lives in Whistler, Canada, and works as a staff photographer for Arc’teryx, the outdoor apparel company. She spends most of her time in the mountains shooting athletes ice climbing, skiing, alpine climbing, and adventuring. What’s immediately apparent about Percival, who grew up in Australia, is her drive and life psych. “I love nurturing the trip right from the seed of an idea... [and] thrive on the challenge of pulling off logistics in hard-to-get-to places, in tight timelines, and often against unreasonable odds,” Percival says.
Ice climbing is her biggest challenge to shoot because of the freezing temperatures, safety issues, and task of managing gear in a vertical environment. “I need a laser focus to capture the shots I want,” she says. “I love to shoot ice climbing, but I often have to dig deep and go to my internal dialogue for a pep talk to survive those frigid days.”
“I do this for a living, but it’s really the experiences and the people I’ve crossed paths with who truly enrich my life.”
American sailing photographer Jen Edney has spent the last few years embedding with elite racing teams on long offshore legs or daily training sessions. She must anticipate quick moves by the crew during high-stress maneuvers and document peak action as well as daily life. Edney puts herself in competitive situations with a team of strangers, in tight quarters, where there’s no escape for weeks.
"Working offshore onboard, I am driven and inspired by the challenge of working in 40 to 60 feet of space, trying to be a fly on the wall and continually generate new and interesting content. It's constantly forcing me to think in a different way, to think outside the box,” Edney explains. “The biggest compliment I can get from a sailor or athlete when they see a photo they like is that they didn't even realize I was there."
She adds, “[To be an adventurer and photographer] requires chasing a dream, strong drive, passion, determination, the willingness to take risks—and a little bit of crazy.”
From her base in California, Emily Polar has traveled to 28 countries and six continents over the past eight years of adventuring and shooting. She says her long-term projects—including a three-month stay in Nepal and two summers in Peru—are usually self–funded to allow the nature of the experience to unfold organically. “A big part of the adventure of each project is having no idea how it will work out,” Polar says. “I find some kind of demented comfort in that, [and it can] lead to an even better story.”
Polar, who was raised in the relatively flat Midwest, says she’s always been drawn to the mountains, and spends most of her time in the Himalayas, Andes, Sierras, and Rockies. She admits she has had her “fair share of uncomfortable situations.” On a climbing trip in Peru, what she thought would be an easy climb turned into a nightmare of intestinal issues and sleep deprivation. In Cuba, she arrived for a climbing trip only to discover that the sport had been outlawed the previous week—so she spent the time dodging the guards.
Despite the difficulties, Polar says the experiences have changed her worldview and helped her explore and test her own limits, fears, and perspectives.