Red Bull is not only at the forefront of jaw-dropping stunts but they are also exceptionally good at capitalizing on the hype. This has made their brand one of the most recognized in the world and synonymous with outdoor and adventure photography.
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Their global magazine, The Red Bulletin, and the Red Bull Illume Award for adventure photography are amongst the most respected in the world. But this specialty is not just about newsworthy daredevil stunts. Since the pandemic, the business has been booming for outdoor brands. Even companies like Apple are trying to get in on the outdoor trend. Many photos selected for Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” challenge fall into travel and adventure photography categories.
Adventure photography picks up where lifestyle photography leaves off, showing people involved in extreme sports or other rigorous outdoor activities. It demonstrates the photographer’s ability to tackle remote locations and/or adrenaline-fueled action.
Outdoor photography includes hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking. Either one can be highly-produced or more journalistic in approach.
The one thing all three photographers we interviewed for this article have in common is an obsession with the outdoors. In this specialty, being able to get to a location and keeping up with professional athletes is a vital requirement of the job.
Will Saunders, the overall winner of Redbull Illume’s 2021 photo contest, says you need a certain grit to be in this industry:
I think one thing that an outdoor adventure photographer needs to have is a sense of gentle grit. What I mean by that is the outdoor photographer needs to be gentle to get the intimate moments and really break through to athletes and get those moments in between, if you’re not gentle and you push too hard, you won’t get genuine reactions. Simultaneously, the photographer needs to have major grit. The type of grit that gets you out of the cold tent before the athletes have even woken up. Grit that pushes you to be faster than the athletes all while having a heavier pack. The type of grit where you can push past hunger, sleep, and homesickness.
Philadelphia-based adventure photographer Steve Boyle says that you need to be a part of the lifestyle and be able to get to where the action is:
Access is 95% of the shot. You need to be able to do rock climbing, paddling, biking, rigging, and hiking to get you and your gear to the locations. The best adventure photographers are embedded in the adventure sports community and are often adventurers themselves.
This is why adventure photography is highly specialized. Telford, England-based adventure photographer Ross Woodhall says,
My specialty is winter sports, so getting around the mountain and keeping up with sensational skiers and boarders is key. It’s the same with climbing, if you want to shoot climbing photography then you’d better become a fantastic climber first.
Even more so than other photography, adventure and outdoor photographers need to know their cameras inside out. They must be able to use it almost instinctively while dangling from a rope or riding on horseback. The Ketchum, Idaho-based outdoor and adventure photographer Hillary Maybery says,
You must know your camera! Adventure photography takes quick reflexes. Sometimes you only get one chance. The only way to achieve this is to practice so that it becomes second nature. You also need patience while waiting for the right moment to happen.
But it’s not just the photography you have to worry about. Steve says,
You also need to be prepared for changing weather conditions and be able to protect yourself and your equipment. You could add meteorological knowledge as a technical skill. But if you’re in cell service, you’ve got radar and weather apps as well as sun tracking apps to help.
His pro tip is to make sure his equipment stays dry in the rain:
Always carry a few zip lock bags and an emergency poncho in your bag.
In a very niche field – for example, free climbing or base jumping – it’s often about being plugged into the community, knowing the athletes, and being able to get access. This can give photographers an advantage as they have an exclusive shot or story to offer. However, you still need to be able to build relationships with clients, such as outdoor brands, adventure holiday companies, or advertising agencies.
Being proactive also helps. Salt Lake City adventure photographer Keith Fearnow decided to do a self-assigned project with three trail-running friends in the desert. His friends were ambassadors for an outdoor brand, so he offered the photos he had taken to this brand. This prompted the company to commission him for several shots.
Will also recommends building a strong relationship with your producer:
The first person I hire on a job is a producer. I can’t do a job without one, they are the most helpful part of any shoot from pre-pro to post. The producer and I work on building budgets, realistic location options, and building out the crew.
Most editorial photographers start off by offering projects they have already shot to editors. Once they are established, they may start pitching ideas or are even approached with a commission. Making a name for yourself in your field and building relationships with editors and clients is essential.
Of course, there are limitations to what can be done in terms of lighting, camera angles, and set-ups when it comes to outdoor and adventure photography, given the remote locations and often fast-moving athletes. Frequently, the biggest challenge is to get the equipment to the site. So there are now more and more photographers who opt for mirrorless camera equipment. Mirrorless cameras are lighter and more compact than DSLRs. But, regardless of the camera equipment, knowing it like the back of your hand is crucial.
A good backpack is very important! I only carry two lenses because of the weight and am able to move faster and cover more ground throughout the day. I use a chest pack to keep my camera accessible. When you have all your stuff in a backpack it takes time to get your camera out and at the ready each time you need it.
Photography can be a very competitive field. But, being able to access remote outdoor spaces is not just exciting for photographers who are keen adventurers but also allows them to build relationships and pitch exclusive ideas. Or, in Ross’ words, “Photograph what you love doing, and you won’t go wrong.”