News & Features — 29 August 2016 at 12:52 pm

Photographing Adventure

Colin Henderson / Adventure Photographer / Scotland

Colin Henderson is a mountain and adventure sports photographer from Edinburgh. A digital project manager by trade, he took up photography fairly late in life, at first teaching himself the basics then perfecting his craft shooting friends and athletes at play in the mountains. His website is inspiring to anyone who loves the outdoors. We caught up with Colin to ask about his work, and to get some tips on improving our own adventure photography. We covered location, lighting, shooting angles, equipment, editing and resources – all you could need to shoot your next expedition in style.

Being an Adventure Sports Photographer sounds pretty good! What are the best parts of your job?

The best parts? I love being outside, especially at the start and end of the day when the light can be so magical. Visiting new places is always exciting (although I’ve realised you don’t have to go far to document adventure – there’s plenty gems in Scotland that I’m still discovering, despite travelling extensively over the country for years).

I do like seeing athletes perform well in their chosen environment, be it a runner in the mountains or a kayaker going down white water. There’s something very pleasing about seeing people who are really good at things do them really well. Being there to capture it on camera is a privilege.

Before I even get to a shoot, I enjoy the preparation that’s required. I love the process of marketing myself, pitching for work, researching ideas, scouting out locations and considering what equipment I’ll need to meet a brief (though see below). I also enjoy creating or reviewing production sheets, agreeing shot lists with the client, thinking about the digital tech, etc. Very often I’ll do all this myself but I will employ people to do parts of the process – I really like working with other creatives.

How about the worst?

The worst parts? I don’t like travelling. I’m slightly OCD and packing for a trip is stressful for me as I’ll pack and re-pack things in the run up to leaving, for no real reason. Taking off and landing in a plane are also necessary evils I could do without. Photography equipment is heavy and carrying equipment, especially up and down hills is hard work. There are days when I long to go out with just a waterproof in my rucksack. I always regret though not having the ability to capture things in one way or another – I’ll need to buy a Go Pro.

What has been your favourite shoot so far?

I was invited to Southern Chilean Patagonia to photograph the Patagonian Expedition Race, a 700km mountain biking, kayaking, trekking and mountaineering challenge for teams of four. The media team was a mix of video and still photographers from around the world and I still keep in touch with many of them. Our brief was to follow the racers and document the arduous nature of the race. It was epic. The landscape in Chile is wild, like Scotland I’d imagine thousands of years ago, and it made for a huge adventure.

I’d been to Patagonia before – I’m the author of a trekking and travel Guidebook to Patagonia’s Los Glaciares National Park, which is home to peaks such as Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy – but not to Chile.

I’d love to shoot, Iceland, Norway, the Lofoten Islands and Pakistan.

What makes a great adventure sports photo?

What someone defines as a “great” photograph is generally a very personal thing but when I see an image that really captures my attention, it’s usually because two or more of the following have taken place:

People / Someone’s captured a dynamic moment in a really creative way;

Place / They’ve used an inspiring location (either one I’ve not seen before or, if I have, it’s photographed in a unique way) that really connects me with the scene and helps me understand what’s going on;

Lighting / They’ve made great use of natural or artificial light to bring the image to life.

There’s lots of good photographers out there ticking these boxes. But if you can do all three, consistently, on trip after trip. shoot after shoot, or for client after client, then you’ll start to stand out from the crowd.

What should we focus on to improve our pics?

Take shots when it’s wet and stormy. Take shots when other expedition members are tired. Take shots when you’re tired. Get up before folk and go to bed after them.

The best advice I received when I was starting out was to always have my camera readily accessible (I use a Lowepro Toploader pack and carry it over my chest) and take lots of shots. The former was great advice because it’s difficult to take lots of shots when your camera is in your backpack and the latter was because it set me up to give myself the best chance of capturing the right postures and the most dynamic movements when shooting athletes. I quickly realised that the more shots I took, the easier it was to understand what worked in different scenarios and what didn’t. It greatly increased my learning curve.

If you’ve plans to document an expedition you’re on, I’d recommend thinking of the story you’d like tell with your photos and then build up your ideas from there. Consider wide angle shots showing the environment of the adventure, then look for details in the landscape that brings a viewer closer into the action. Don’t forget the detail shots – the packing and approach, the taped, bloodied hand of a rock climber, the portrait of a weathered face that portrays the impact of a life spent outdoors or the close-up view of a wrinkled, callused hand of a whitewater paddler.

Take shots when it’s wet and stormy (especially take shots when it’s stormy – the light can often be amazing). Take shots when other expedition members are tired. Take shots when you’re tired. Get up before folk and go to bed after them. Do everything you can to create images you’re proud of and want to share. Then share them as wide as you can – on a website or just on social media, it doesn’t matter. Think of ways you can solicit feedback and then see what you can do to improve. It’s a constant learning curve. One which can be hugely rewarding when you get home and realise you’ve got something you really can’t wait to share, both with those on the trip and the wider world.

How do we make the most of the place in our shots?

Backdrop / I’ll almost always start by thinking about the landscape first and then framing my images based on what I see in front of me. If I want the landscape to be a key element in a shot, say on a trekking or a mountain biking shoot, I’ll look for things that help bring depth to a scene (e.g. something in the front, middle and back of the image) and I like to have a strong horizon, e.g a jagged mountain ridge, that will help me offset an athlete in the frame). On a surfing shoot, where the landscape may be less of a priority, I may look instead to where the waves will break in a frame, so I can position the surfer accordingly, Whereas on a shoot with lots of graceful movement, say for a capoeira shoot, I may choose to ignore the landscape altogether and focus completely on the athlete.

Position / Once I’m happy with how I’ve framed the backdrop, I’ll consider how best to position a person or persons within it. When composing an image, I like simple backdrops, with no distractions around the athlete and really clean edges to the frame (which I think is super important – having things sticking into or out of your image can be very distracting when you’re trying to focus your viewer’s attention solely on a key element). To help you picture where I add people into my shots, think of an imaginary grid. My aim usually is to position folk on the horizontal and vertical intersections, either entering or exiting the frame. But I’m not averse to placing athletes right into the middle of a scene, if I feel it looks good.

Angle / There’s no specific position I’ll put myself in when taking a shot. I do though like being above a person so I will often look out e.g. rocky outcrops that I can climb upon and take in more of the scene. If there’s nothing suitable I’m not averse to bringing a step ladder with me, if the location accommodates it. Or standing on the roof of a Land Rover. One tip I’d share would be to try and get yourself into a position that someone taking a snapshot of the scene wouldn’t think of. Get up high or lie on the ground. Do both. And then try something else. Move around and concentrate your efforts on maximising the shot potential in every scene.

And how about light?

Very simply, get up early and stay out late. Then get up early again the next day. Maximise the time you’re out shooting when the light is good. Don’t discount days when it’s really cloudy, as the sun can break through and shine magical light onto your scene in seconds. Consider adding your own light if the weather, or your vision, warrants it: for example, using a reflector or a flash to call attention to a certain part of the image, such as an athlete’s face or clothing.

Technology-wise, mobile apps such as Sunseeker are indispensable. They show the trajectory of the sun through the day, and more. When you’re researching a location, or you’re on site, think about where the sun currently is and where it’s headed. At dawn and dusk, an obvious position to place yourself would be facing east or west. If you’re shooting then, or through the day, consider positioning yourself at right angles to the sun or even shooting right into it, and see what drama it adds. Do your shots look better? There’s no right or wrong. Try things and see what happens. And endeavour to learn from them.

How do you edit down your pictures to the best images?

I have what I find to be a very efficient workflow to go from 1000s of images down to the select few I’ll deliver to a client.

Downloading / It starts as soon as I return from a shoot, when I’ll download all the images from my memory cards onto my desktop computer (though I may possibly have already backed the images up on location to my laptop computer too – I like to have redundant copies as quickly as possible). Once the images are transferred to my main working drive, I have two copies. I don’t remove the images from the memory cards until I have at least three copies elsewhere. Then I can reformat the cards and they’re ready for me to start shooting again.

Editing / To start my editing process, I’ll copy all the images from a shoot into a folder on my computer. I’ll then import the images into Lightroom and use Lightroom’s filter capability to rate them 1, 2 or 3. Once I have highlighted the 1 star images (which I’ll reject because, e.g. an athlete’s eyes are shut or I’ve captured the wrong body posture and it doesn’t make for a very dynamic image, or the image isn’t perfectly in focus), I’ll remove these both from Lightroom and my hard drive and they’re gone for good. I do this very quickly – an image either stays or goes on first glance and I don’t tend to revisit my choices.

Processing / Once I have a library of rated images, I can go through these in more detail and identify which images most meet the brief. I’ll repeat the rating process, marking on-brief images as 3 star until I have a selection of images I am happy to do some basic processing on and share with the client. Once I have a client’s selects, I’ll rate these as 4 star, complete the processing of them to suit their requirements, keyword and caption them and share them to finish the job. (5 star images are rare – I’m very picky – and usually will make their way into my website portfolio).

I’ve written a blog post about my photo workflow process and shared it on my website – I’m happy to answer any questions about it.

Printing / For a long time, I’ve used a professional print shop in England, a small business I scouted out first online then used to print lots of test images to see the quality they provided. Recently, I’ve re-branded my portfolio book and used a printer in Edinburgh. I like the idea of being able to visit a supplier to see the print process and I think it’s valuable to support local businesses.

What equipment do you typically carry?

The camera gear I carry depends on the shoot but my basic kit (say for a trekking shoot when we’ll be travelling hut to hut) would look like this: professional camera body and lenses (wide angle / telephoto), memory cards (at least x100Gb), spare batteries, Sunseeker app, dry bag, lens cloths, lens blower and chamois leather.

To this, I’ll add additional or redundant gear, e.g. an extra camera body, extra lenses, speedlights or a strobe, pocket wizard transceivers, light modifiers (e.g. a reflector or a softbox), plus anything else I think I will need, as appropriate.

I shoot with Nikon equipment (for no reason other than I like the ergonomics). I find I use the 17-35mm f2.8, the 85mm f1.8 and the 70-200mm f2.8 lenses most often. If I want to travel lighter, I’ll take a 24mm f2.8 prime lens for wide angle shots and the 85mm f1.8 for close ups. I always miss not having the 70-200m lens with me though. I love that lens.

Other items of camera equipment I might take on a shoot include a Gorillapod Focus (if I don’t want to carry a full tripod) or a monopod (which is usually instead of a light stand but I’ll need an assistant to hold it), an underwater DSLR case if we’re swimming and a Macbook or iPad, so I can tether the camera and share shots immediately with the client. In short, I’ll bring anything I think I need to meet the requirements of the brief, and beyond.

I don’t mind carrying extra gear (I can always hire someone to carry it if need be) but if the job involves me moving with the athletes, e.g. along the Black Cuillin ridge on the Isle of Skye or on a trekking stage of the Patagonian Expedition Race, I’ll definitely pair my kit down to the minimum possible. It’s very hard to keep up with folk if I don’t.

What equipment would you recommend to those starting out?

I’d recommend investing in lenses over your camera body. I started out with a consumer camera and a kit lens. When I added my 17-35mm f2.8 lens I was blown away by the improvement in quality. What to buy depends really on what you want to shoot and where you think your images will end up. A GoPro or mobile phone can give you awesome pictures these days if you’re just posting them on social media. If however you’re committed to your photography, and want to print and perhaps sell your images, I’d recommend buying the best equipment you can afford, learn its limitations and shoot as much as possible.

Second hand / Don’t discount second-hand. Nikon’s D700 is an awesome camera for adventure photography and can be found fairly cheap online. (Cheap I appreciate being a relative term in an industry where the tiniest bit of plastic can cost you twenty quid). Add a ‘fast’ prime lens (e.g. a 24mm f2.8) and you have a great, fairly lightweight (again, relatively speaking) combination for documenting the action whilst you’re on an expedition. Consider adding another small prime lens, e.g an 85mm f1.8, to give a bit of variety to the look of your shots and for portraits (especially head-shots) and to help you capture a lot of the details.

Finally, any recommended resources for budding adventure photographers?

Competition-wise, Red Bull Illume is the most famous adventure photography competition at the moment. I love viewing the selects from the Maria Luisa Memorial. They are usually very inspiring.

Away from awards, US photographers Michael Clark, Tom Bol and Dan Bailey have all written books on adventure sports photography. Corey Rich freely shares his knowledge on his website or other channels, e.g. Adorama’s YouTube page and Seattle-based Chase Jarvis is renowned for sharing his and others’ thoughts on being creative and staying competitive in business. Chase is also responsible for Creative Live, an online educational resource. A quick search shows that Lucas Gilman and Corey Rich both have courses on Creative Live where they’ll teach you about adventure photography. More generally, there’s lots of information on the internet so I’d suggest you focus your education on the areas you want to improve most and keep putting things into practice.

I wish you the best of luck. I’d love to see what you shoot!


Thanks so much! To see more of Colin’s work, please visit his website. You could also sign up for his email newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Instagram.