Photograph by Bill Hatcher
Photograph by Bill Hatcher

Action and Adventure Photography Tips

Adventure photography is probably the only field of photography that is exclusively shot by participants.

Being a participant in the adventure 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.

In a large part, adventure photography is about telling a story. I always use a story line in a trip. I start this process at the beginning of a trip, and I become more intimately involved and tuned into possible dramatic events as the adventure proceeds. Shooting great adventure photography requires balancing photography with participation, and combining solid camera technique with a keen observation of unfolding events. Your reward will be powerful photos that clearly illustrate the story of your adventures.

When out adventuring you will come across many situations that will require special planning for the equipment you carry and the strategy for shooting. For many of these outdoor photo pursuits, first determine environmental hazards to yourself and your equipment. Safety, for both you and the people you are photographing, is your highest priority. No photo is worth putting yourself in harm's way.

Hiking, Biking, Backpacking, and General Exploration

Trip weight and bulk should be your chief concern when packing your camera for hiking or biking. When you are deciding what camera equipment to bring, try to anticipate the photo situations that are most important to capture when on the trail. I always like to keep my camera handy when I am out hiking, backpacking, or biking. For biking, keeping the camera in the top of your hydration pack will give you adequate access. To always be ready for the shot, you might consider a compact point-and-shoot camera, which you can keep in a pocket attached to the shoulder strap of your bicycling hydration pack. Keep your camera in your pack or bike pannier when you are riding your bike.

On hiking trips I carry a camera either around my neck or in a small fanny pack. I keep my camera handy if I am traveling through villages or other interesting or unique terrain. I also always have my camera out and ready to use during the good light of early morning or late evening, if it is foggy, or if there is other interesting light. If you are shooting in the desert, you will have to take special care to keep windblown sand out of your cameras. Packing lenses and cameras individually in sealed nylon Ziploc bags is a good line of defense. Avoid changing lenses or opening the back of the camera when the wind is blowing hard enough to blow sand around.

Snow Sports: Skiing, Snowboarding, and Winter Camping

Typically, when shooting skiing and snowboarding, you will be ahead of the skier or boarder looking for a likely shooting location. Speed is of the essence in ski photography. Keeping your camera in a pack makes access too slow. Instead, use a hip pack that has a waist belt and shoulder strap. The hip pack should have a zipper to keep out snow. Some manufacturers make hip camera packs that integrate with a daypack, which is an even more stable way to carry your camera when skiing. The camera pack can be used to keep food, water, and extra lenses. You should not wear the camera dangling from your neck by its strap or under your jacket when skiing or snowboarding—if you fell, the camera could injure you.

Boating and Water Sports

Camera protection is critical in shooting water sports. Fresh water is corrosive and salt water even more so—therefore in surfing, rafting, and most paddle sports a waterproof case or bag is a must.

On a rafting or paddle trip, expect to be on the water about four or five hours a day. If you have a waterproof case for your camera and you are careful, you can take photos while sitting on the boat in flat water. You can ask the raft guide or other knowledgeable person on the boat if the upcoming rapids will be splashy or if you should expect a complete dousing.

The best lens to use for shooting in a boat is a wide-angle zoom lens, such as the 17-35 zoom. Boats on moving water can be beautiful. Play with adjusting your camera to slower shutter speeds to see what you like best. Another creative tool when shooting water is reflection. Look carefully for water reflections on calm water during sunset and sunrise. Reflections become more prominent when the water is between you and the brightest part of the sky.

If you are shooting around salt water remember that salt water is far more corrosive than fresh water, so you should dry and clean your camera carefully each day. Ocean surf causes saltwater spray to be suspended in the air. When around surf keep your camera covered and protected from the saltwater spray. With care you can shoot every aspect of a river trip, a surfing trip, or a day at the beach with the kids.

Home-Field Training

At first glance it would seem that unless you are a full-time adventure athlete, adventure photography is something that you will have little opportunity to apply yourself to—however, nothing could be further from the truth. When learning how to shoot action photos, there are many ways you can begin practicing and honing your skills when you are far from the mountains or wild rivers. Here I'll talk about "crossover;" by that I mean how you can apply adventure shooting skills and techniques to your everyday photography.

There are many places just around your neighborhood, everyday outdoor activities, and amateur team sports where you can sharpen your eye for shooting adventure and action. These are not exercises that will train you to react faster, because the more you shoot, the more tuned in to that activity you will become, and speed will follow naturally. Instead, these crossover exercises will teach you to approach the game the same way a professional photographer prepares before shooting an event or an expedition. This exercise simply makes you see a game or sporting event as a photographer, not as a spectator. As a photographer, you approach the activity by looking for photos that tell the story of the game.

What separates a snapshot from a good photo is the planning that goes into making the shot. Before going out to shoot, pro photographers always have some kind of plan, which includes a mental image of the type of photos they want to shoot. If you begin with a rough idea of the photos you want to shoot, you can then work backward and decide what camera, lens, and other equipment you might need to get those photos.