Have you ever heard the phrase “Safety is no accident”? It was something that I used to say when I was in charge of building million-dollar houses. I have one more saying, this one I borrow from Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” Both of these sayings have migrated into my daily operations as an adventure photographer.
I would love to say that I have a perfect safety record but reality has a way of taking advantage of you when you least expect it. I have personally been part of 7 avalanches in backcountry locations of Alaska, Colorado, and Wyoming. The first 6 produced zero injuries and were definite learning experiences, but it was the 7th that really changed my perspective on safety. As far as recorded avalanches go, it was a fairly small slide but it gave me a tiny glimpse of the power of nature. Lucky number 7 took me for a short 500′ vertical ride over a 35′ cliff, then a 15′ cliff, and finally pinned me up against a dead tree. The resulting injuries included a dislocated shoulder, a humoral head fractured in 6 places, and a torn labrum. Oh, and then I had to walk 4 miles in 2′ of new snow for rescue because I couldn’t locate my skis. I have also managed broken arms, fingers, and toes in the middle of nowhere. And let’s not forget the daily general cuts, bruises, and bug bites. I gotta say that I absolutely hate black flies and mosquitos most of all.
Couple my personal injuries with potential injuries of the athletes that I photograph and you have the making of a scene that could make it into a Tom Cruise or Vin Diesel movie. My lens has been witness to countless torn knee ligaments and tendons, broken femurs, fractured arms, one torn spleen, and cuts and bruises that count in the thousands. So why even do it? I and everyone I photograph does it because, accidents aside, we cannot sit in a cubicle all day. Our souls feel whole out there, somewhere beyond where most would journey. I would be lying if I told you that my mental state hasn’t suffered for years from some of these injuries. I have learned some pretty important life lessons over the years. While the pain is not “the years, it’s the miles” and I truly do focus on “safety is no accident”, there is always a chance everything could go wrong at any moment.
Tip 1: Travel with Well-Known Assets
When I photograph out in the wilds, I try to keep my person count low. Large groups have the potential to be a disaster, especially if someone in that group isn’t a well-known asset, which is someone who you have skied, biked, ran, or hiked with before – someone you truly know as a friend and know how they respond to things. You must ask yourself, “Will this person save my life if everything goes awry?” If the answer is yes, you are golden. You have to assess the risk of not only the activity but the location, too. You also have to assess the risk of the specific day you are planning on shooting. If you are hiking a very easy scenic trail on a 70º day with clear, blue skies, the risk is pretty much non-existent. However, if you are photographing skiers in the western backcountry with 3′ of new snow after a clear, cold, windy night and your goal is to ski a 50º couloir first thing in the morning and avalanche danger is rated at high, you should know every person in your group practically better than your lover!
Tip 2: Make Everyone in Your Party Verbally Confirm the Plan
The whole process of photographing athletes in the wilds begin with obtaining as much info about that person as you can, as well as what your shoot plans are going to be, before you even leave the house. I will also confirm our original plans with the members of my party when we meet in the field. We will often change our original plan at this point depending on everyone’s thoughts. Since I am more often than not the “old guy” in the group, I make everyone voice their opinion regardless if it has changed or not. Verbal communication and justification for your opinion should be taken very seriously by everyone in your party. If not, they shouldn’t be traveling with you.
Tip 3: Take Everyone’s Concerns About the Environment Seriously
Since I became that guy in the group who asks and tells, I have seen peoples’ respect for me explode. I have also seen others change their approach to how they explore the wilds. One voice really can change many. Once we are out there on the trail or in the middle of the backcountry, I again confirm my athletes’ choices. I have them express their opinions on my photo concept. We discuss where I plan on shooting from and where I am specifically thinking of capturing the photos based on their movement. If for any reason someone voices a question of safety, we always rethink the entire approach. I will even question my athlete if I feel they have any doubts about our photo goal when related to their abilities. Some sports allow for repeats of a photo, so if you miss the first shot you can try again. Sports like skiing typically do not allow a second chance without extreme effort, if at all. So a massive amount of communication happens before anyone does anything. Once everyone is comfortable, we go for it. If I am traveling with more than one athlete, or have other people with us who aren’t part of the photo, I use them as spotters. I also use them as safety monitors. Even if I pick the smartest and safest location, things can go wrong. Essentially anyone traveling with me when I am photographing becomes a participant in some way.
Tip 4: Carry Two-Way Radios and Clip Mics to Your Athletes
As an adventure sports photographer, my goal is to tell a story with my photos. My clients demand a photojournalistic approach from my work. This means all creative concepts in a final photo have to be done in-camera. If the photo needs to be taken from a great distance, I make someone carry my 600mm lens to the spot. I told you, there are always assistants! If I need to balance an exposure, I will carry a flash or a graduated neutral density filter. I also carry two-way radios with microphones attached. The radio goes in my pack and the mic is clipped to one of the shoulder straps on my backpack. This allows me to talk to anyone in the group by depressing the mic button. My athlete typically has the same radio in the same position. Most people never notice the mic in the photos. I remember shooting skiing shots from a helicopter more than 15 years ago but now we just bring a $1,000 drone that shoots DNG (RAW) files for stills. This gives me almost limitless adjustment opportunities to those photos without the cost of using an actual helicopter.
Tip 5: Trigger Cameras Remotely for Added Safety
I have an assortment of specialty straps and clamps to mount a camera specifically to an athlete or equipment, like mountain bikes, cars, etc. I always have a pair of Pocket Wizard IIIs with me to remotely trigger a camera. You can do this by connecting a Pocket Wizard motor cable (here are examples for Nikon and Canon) between one Pocket Wizard and your camera and then place the camera in an area you cannot safety stand in. With the second Pocket Wizard in-hand, I can hit the TEST button and trigger the shutter without any additional wires. I’ll also wrap duct around a ski pole and the handle bars of my bike and most of my athletes travel the same way. Duct tape has a thousand uses and by wrapping it on equipment that is already part of the shoot I don’t need a bulky roll taking up precious space in a backpack.
Don’t forget your First Aid Kit! Mine was custom created by my retired fire chief father-in-law. It includes EMT items like splints and respirator guards for CPR that aren’t typically included in the pre-packaged First Aid Kit.
When I am thinking about compositions, the sky is literally the limit. I will hang off of cliffs with a rope and harness. I have ridden chairlifts in reverse as athletes have dropped from 60′ cliffs below me. I have climbed trees, towers, and stood on the roof of my truck – not to mention the countless airplanes and helicopters I’ve shot from. All these locations allow me to create something unique and create any vision I dream up. There is more risk associated with this style of photography but communication is the key to success.
There is also one more benefit: by using a mountain bike, my own two feet, or skis to get somewhere that most people shy away from, there is more opportunity to shoot other styles while on the job. My goal may be to shoot an athlete, but I also have the ability to shoot landscapes that most rarely see and I get to see more wildlife than the average national park Sunday driver. And, finally, I find a peace that cannot be explained and only witnessed by those who venture out there with me.
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