Lesson learned: Don't be the weakest link

Tessa Strain near the summit of Stac Pollaidh at sunset in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

Tessa Strain near the summit of Stac Pollaidh at sunset in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

A cardinal rule of outdoor sports photography is not to be the weakest link. When photographing athletes practicing their craft, this can range from being skilled enough to follow mountain bikers down rocky trails, technically proficient enough on rock to take care of yourself whilst taking shots of people scrambling, to being fit enough to keep up with runners as they cross narrow mountain ridges.

Overall, I'd say I'm fairly competent keeping up with the majority of sports I photograph and I'm used to being out for multiple 12+ hour days. Occasionally though, I teach myself a lesson. On this occasion, it was about making sure I rest and fuel myself properly both before and during a shoot.

The above image was taken at 2200 hours atop Stac Pollaidh, a small but dramatic mountain in the Inverpolly region in north-west Scotland. I was photographing Tessa Strain (née Hill), an Arc'teryx and Silva-sponsored sky runner, for a mountain running shoot.

Stac Pollaidh is a really, really easy mountain - small children climb it - so there would be no reason for you to think that I'd be ridiculously tired behind the camera, thankful for just having made it to the top. What the photo doesn't show is a somewhat broken me, 18 hours into a 20 hour work day, concerned about the 500m descent and 60min drive back to our accommodation, acutely conscious of the lack of sleep I'm going to have before we rise again for my third pre-dawn shoot in a row, on a much bigger mountain.

The cause of my poor physical and mental state was entirely due to a lack of sleep (I'd only had 4 hours sleep in the last 24 and had already missed out on a lot of sleep that week) plus my failure to eat and drink appropriately throughout the day.

Tessa and I had met for the first time the day before. Our long drive to the far north of Scotland was great for getting to know each other but it meant we'd only had a small amount of sleep when our alarms went off for the start of our shoot at 4.30am. We rose early to meet experienced mountain runner and local climbing guide, Paul Tattersall (Go Further Scotland). For our running photo shoot, Paul and I had chosen Liathach, a nearby Munro in the Torridon region, for its spectacular views and potential for great mountain running shots along the narrow path traversing beneath its rocky summit pinnacles.

As the day dawned, we had perfect weather for our photo shoot. Despite usually wrapping up shoots once the sun has risen (as the light is too bright) we reasoned that, as we were up high, we might as well stay out for the day. The temperature quickly sky-rocketed and we were soon shooting in 30+ degree C temperatures under a blazing sun.

Despite the heat, Tessa and Paul were repeatedly awesome, running 'on demand' either across the crest of the ridge or along the exposed trail as we traversed along the 1000m high, 4km long ridge. Everything was going to plan but, as the day progressed, I became so engrossed in mentally ticking images off my shot list that I failed to eat properly.

Carrying heavy camera and lighting gear up and down steep mountains is hard work, doubly so in hot weather. Although I was careful to drink lots of water (we carrried all our water for the day too), I failed to recognise that I was not adequately replacing the calories and minerals I was losing through exercise and dehydration.

By the time we'd wrapped up the first part of our shoot and descended 1000m, my legs were like jelly. My brain felt like it was fried and I was feeling decidely ropey. After agreeing to meet Paul again early the next morning, Tessa and I returned to our accommodation. As I backed up my shots for the day, something failed (I can't recall what) and I was forced to start again. By the time I finished, it was time to leave for our second shoot of the day, capturing running shots and the sunset over the west coast. I still hadn't eaten.

On our way up Stac Pollaidh, Tessa was brand new and powered up the hill. I, on the other hand, struggled massively, even though I'd pared my kit down to the minimum. After 400m ascent, I was finding it difficult to put one foot in front of the other. Eventually I came to a complete standstill (I believe the term is 'bonked') and I was really concerned that I wouldn't reach the summit at all, never mind before nightfall. On a tiny hill such as Stac Pollaidh!

So slowly was I moving that I said to Tessa to continue on her own. After a rest, I could see her near the summit (sky runners move quickly when unimpeded by photographers). This, along with a strong personal pep talk, gave me enough motivation to get my sh&t together and get up the hill. Not long after, I reached the summit and we spent the remaining light shooting as the sun went down over the western seaboard.

When I think back on the shoot, on one hand it was a good result. We got the shots we needed (which some would say is all that counts, really). But in regards to my not being the weakest link? Definitely not my finest day. 

My lesson learned was, when it comes to being professional, it's not solely about making images. You need to be good at everything involved in the photography business and, for outdoor sports photography, a pre-requisite is ensuring you stay fit and healthy. These days, I'm even fitter than I was last year but I still make sure I rest properly before a multi-day shoot and eat long before I don't want to (I noticed there comes a time during exercise when my appetite goes completely, even though I feel otherwise fit). In addition, I take regular, small mouthfuls of food to keep my energy levels topped up and add electrolyte tablets to my water help to balance my body's natural state. Putting it all together, it helps me shoot for longer and better and continue to deliver great adventure sports images for my clients.


Gear I use: Sekonic L-308S light meter

Portrait of Scottish multi-sports athlete Joanne Thom, captured after I checked the flash exposure using the Sekonic L-308S light meter

Portrait of Scottish multi-sports athlete Joanne Thom, captured after I checked the flash exposure using the Sekonic L-308S light meter

Why use a light meter when the in-built meters in today’s cameras are so good? It’s true that modern cameras have highly reliable meters and take a lot of the guesswork out of photography but, even today, light meters can be invaluable in certain situations, such as when you’re shooting environmental portraits and using flash.

Prior to using a light meter, my tried and tested approach to flash photography was to take an ambient reading by using the camera’s P mode. I’d then switch to Manual and dial in the P settings, increasing my shutter speed to lower the ambient light (bearing in mind that if I went below a shutter speed of 1/250s and I wasn’t using high-speed sync I’d get banding). My next step would be to add any number of flashes, in manual mode, starting them off at low power and adjusting the power up and down as required or moving the position of a flash itself. (I could also have used the flashes in TTL mode to get an automatic reading but I prefer manual).

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This approach works fine but there’s a lot of guess work involved in choosing the power of the flash to get an accurate exposure. Sometimes I’d be farther off than I’d expect and it would take a number of tweaks before I had the exposure I wanted. Which isn’t incredibly bad but I really want to be quicker and more accurate when I’m on a job with a client.

After some research, I purchased a Sekonic L-308S light meter. What this simple, lightweight meter lets me do is establish a ballpark aperture (read flash exposure) for my subject depending on the shutter speed and ISO values I want to use, and not guess. This is useful as it saves me time and helps, I believe, add another layer of professionalism to my work for my clients (especially if I am showing them unedited shots on location, e.g. using an iPad).

How I use a light meter for flash photography

  • Dial my desired shutter speed and ISO settings into the light meter and position it in front of the athlete / model’s face.

  • Trigger the flash using a handheld Pocketwizard Flex TT1 transmitter and note the aperture reading the meter has produced. (If required, I’ll change the shutter speed and ISO settings until I receive the aperture I want).

  • Dial the light meter settings into the camera, place the TT1 on top and start taking shots.

  • Make any adjustments, as required. (If the light changes dramatically, I’ll start again).

There’s plenty of other things the Sekonic L308-S can do (see the instruction manual) however if I’m outdoors I use it simply to get a ballpark flash exposure and, for that purpose, I’d recommend it as lightweight, simple to use and reliable light meter for adventure sports photography (though see my words below about using a sync cord).

What I like about the Sekonic L-308S light meter

  • Ease of use - Trigger the flash using the light meter and it immediately gives you a suggested aperture reading for the shutter speed and ISO you want to use

  • Adjustability - If you don’t like the effect you get with your selected shutter speed or ISO simply change the values in the light meter and it will give you a new reading. Dial these into your camera and you’re ready to go again.

  • Reliability - It’s simple and it works quickly and reliably every time (though see words below re cordless mode)

What I’d change

  • Functionality - It won’t fully work with my Pocketwizard wireless transmitters. I’d need to trade up to the Sekonic L-358, 478DR, L-758D or L-758DR models instead.

  • Reliability - There’s a cordless functionality but occasionally it doesn’t work in bright light outdoors and especially if you’re too far away from your subject. I bought a 5m sync cable to remedy this and it works 100% of the time.

  • The shutter on the Lumisphere (light reading bulb) commonly opens up when I remove the meter from its case. As it’s sensitive to damage, I’d prefer a simple locking mechanism to prevent this.

Alternatives



Gear I use: Pocketwizard Flex system (TT5/TT1/AC3)

Pocketwizard’s Flex system helping me to add pop to the colour of Gorewear athlete Naomi Freireich’s clothing during a mountain biking photo shoot in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

Pocketwizard’s Flex system helping me to add pop to the colour of Gorewear athlete Naomi Freireich’s clothing during a mountain biking photo shoot in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

When I first started to use flash in my photography, I quickly realised the benefits of getting the flash off my camera so I could engineer a nicer light on an athlete or model.

To do so, I started off triggering my speedlights with a simple TTL cord. This allowed me to hold a speedlight in my left hand and the camera in my right (making use of the angle of the light and a Lastolite Exybox softbox to improve the quality of the light on my subject).

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Using Nikon’s TTL technology, I was able to use my speedlights in automatic mode (which initially I thought was useful until I found manually adjusting flash power was a much easier way to learn) but I found it was difficult to hold my camera with one hand, especially with a heavy telephoto lens, and tricky to adjust the camera and flash settings. A few other limitations with the TTL cord were its length (0.5m, though I could daisy chain two cables together) and I could only use a single flash. Using a cord I found soon lended itself best for use in off-the-cuff portrait photography (or, these days, as a backup) rather than action sports.

For outdoor and adventure sports photography, I decided my requirements were the ability to:

  • Trigger two or more lights wirelessly from a distance

  • Adjust the power of my lights, also from a distance

  • Shoot at a faster shutter speed than my flash sync speed

  • Make use of TTL technology when I chose to

Nikon’s CLS system, which is embedded in all my cameras, does the above but US company, Pocketwizard, had not long announced their Pocketwizard Flex system, which provided some additional advantages. I ordered three Pocketwizard TT5s, a TT1 and an AC3 controller.

What I like about Pocketwizard Flex

  • High Speed Sync technology - Both Nikon CLS and Pocketwizard provides the ability for you to fire your lights above the usual flash sync speed, using High Speed Sync mode. HSS works great but it reduces the power of your flash and I’ve found I need to add 2 or more speedlights to accommodate the loss of power. (Pocketwizard’s Hypersync technology (HS) also enables you to fire your lights above your flash sync speed but it doesn’t involve as much loss of power. I’ve tried to enable Hypersync using my SB-910s but I’ve never been able to get any consistency. Pocketwizard say that HS works best with strobes with longer flash durations, alongside cameras with smaller sensors. They recommend High Speed Sync for shooting above your sync speed with Speedlites).

  • Radio frequencies - The Pocketwizard Flex system gives me the ability to trigger my lights from far away without having to be in line of sight of my camera. I generally stand between 3-15m away from my subject when using flash but I have triggered my lights from much further away. (Pocketwizard claims a working distance for their Flex receivers of c.330m)

  • Usability - Both systems provide the ability for you to adjust the power of a number of different flashes individually without moving your feet. But with the Pocketwizard AC3 controller, I can go from 1/64 power to 1/1 power (with 2 stops in between each with just a simple turn of a dial)

  • TTL technology - I prefer using my flashes in manual mode but I do find TTL to be useful for certain scenarios (e.g. in unpredictable situations when you’re photographing events as they unfold, such as the UCI Mountain Biking World Cup)

  • Multiple radio channels - When there’s lots or other photographers at an event, it’s useful to be able to change channels to stop other photographers triggering your flashes (and vice versa)

  • An upgrade path - The Pocketwizard Flex system is compatible with the Elinchrom brand which I hire occasionally and will upgrade to (though I usually choose to use Elinchrom’s Skyport transmitter instead)

What I’d like to see changed

  • Reliability - When I first started using my Pocketwizards, I lost count of the number of times they stopped working mid-shoot. They were at times so unpredictable it was infuriating. I believed it was to do with the TT1 transmitter. It would quite happily work five times in a row and then stop working for no apparent reason. Resitting it on the camera or rebooting everything (switching off all units then switching them back on again from the top down) didn’t always work but then they’d magically start working again five minutes later. My firmware was up-to-date and, frankly, it was driving me up the wall. I eventually realised it only happened when I was shooting with my AC3 set to Auto mode. If I switch my speedlights to TTL mode and put my AC3 on Manual mode, my TT1 fires my speedlights every single time. I just can’t use TTL, which I can happily live without (as TTL can be unreliable and I value reliability).

Alternatives

  • Nikon Creative Lighting System (or an Nikon SU800 commander)

  • Calumet Pro Series 2.4 GHZ Wireless Transceivers - A previous version of these were the first wireless transceivers I purchased. They don’t support TTL but, as referred to above, I prefer manual mode these days. I do still use them as they double up as a shutter release for landscape photography (which the Pocketwizard Flex can do but you need to purchase a separate cable).

  • Elinchrom Skyport - In 2018, I generally prefer using more powerful strobes for lighting subjects outdoors (such as Elinchrom’s ELB400 or ELB1200 models). In that case, I’ll use Elinchrom’s Skyport Plus transmitter instead to trigger my lights.

Gear I use: Sony RX100 Mark V

Alaskan-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey and David Hetherington ascend the lower slopes of Beinn Sgulaird, a Munro in the West Highlands of Scotland

Alaskan-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey and David Hetherington ascend the lower slopes of Beinn Sgulaird, a Munro in the West Highlands of Scotland

I’ve long wished for a camera I can carry with me for personal trips into the hills that is not as heavy as my Nikon professional DSLRs and lenses but still has great enough image quality so that, if I do capture something worthwhile, I can add the images to my stock image library and use them, at least, for editorial photography submissions.

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I recently purchased a Sony RX100 V compact camera to trial on non-working days out in the mountains. My first outing with the Sony RX100 was in the West Highlands of Scotland on an ascent of Beinn Sgulaird (a Munro) and its neighbour, Creach Bheinn (a Corbett). I was joined by my friend David Hetherington, who I’ve enjoyed numerous trips with, and fellow adventure photographer, Dan Bailey, who was visiting Scotland from Alaska with his wife on a 50th birthday present tour of the whisky distilleries of Islay.

The Sony RX100 V certainly is a compact camera (it measures 101.6mm x 58.1mm x 41.0mm and it weighs just 300g) but it’s not like any compact camera I’ve used before, with a wide range of functionality that includes full continuous autofocus at 24 fps and 4K video shooting. Early indications are that it will be a really good compromise for me compared to carrying a DSLR and it ticks a lot of positive boxes. I do though need to play with it more before I’m fully sold on leaving a DSLR behind on personal trips.

What I like about the Sony RX100 V

It’s lightweight and it has arguably the best image quality in its class - My primary reason for purchasing the RX100 was so I had an alternative to heavy camera gear when either I wasn’t working, the weather was poor, the landscape was ‘not worthy’ or I wanted to take photos when out running in the hills. Great image quality was my next priority and, whilst the RX100 raw files are not DSLR quality, the reduction in weight compared to the acceptable drop in image quality is I feel a worthy trade-off for the above occasions. The images definitely appear to be good enough for editorial submissions, which is what I’ll very likely use them for.

Button programming - Professional DSLRs are super easy to use in the mountains. All the key controls I make use of regularly (exposure settings, ISO adjustments, exposure compensation, etc.) are at my fingertips and are easy to use, even with big gloves on. The gloves aspect can’t be said for the RX100 but you can easily customise the controls to suit your preferences. I’ve programmed the camera as follows;

For Shooting:

  • Front dial: Zoom

  • Left button: AEL toggle

  • Right button: AF/MF Ctrl toggle

  • Centre button: Focus standard (Enables me to move autofocus point when in Flexible Spot mode)

  • C button: Focus area

  • Function button (Top row): White Balance, Steadyshot (Movie) on/off, ISO Auto

  • Function button (Bottom row): ND Filter on/off, Drive mode, Steadyshot (Image) on/off, Center Lock-On AF

For Playback;

  • Function button: Zoom in 100%

Electronic viewfinder - It’s difficult to use a LCD screen in bright sunshine so having the option to look through an electronic viewfinder is very useful. I much prefer composing a shot when the camera is up at my eye.

Wifi - A Sony PlayMemories App (www.playmemoriescameraapps.com) enables you to transfer images wirelessly to your phone, which is ideal if you’d like to share images with someone or post them on social media. I also purchased Sony’s time lapse application.

Continuous autofocus at 24 fps - An essential part of outdoor sports photography is being able to capture an athlete in the right dynamic posture for that sport. The RX100 autofocus options include single shot, 3 fps, 10 fps and 24 fps. The latter you’d think would be ideal for outdoor sports but be aware it will ensure you have a TON of shots to review in your photography workflow. (You probably won’t mind though when you get 'The Shot’).

Battery life - The camera battery is rated for c.220 shots but, with the camera in 10 fps burst mode and operating in sub-freezing temperatures, I shot 1000+ shots in a day. High-definition video I’d imagine would soon chew up the batteries. I’ll always carry at least one or two spares.

What I’d like to see improved

  • Bigger buttons - It’s not impossible but it’s difficult to use the buttons with ski gloves on, especially when switching the camera on and off, changing the exposure compensation or adjusting the drive and autofocus modes. Making the buttons larger however would likely mean a bigger camera body so the law of diminishing returns would apply.

  • Menu - I’m not fully of the view, as are some others, that the Sony RX100 menu is awful but there are some odd choices in regards to where things sit within the menu categorisation. A custom MyMenu option like Nikon offers would be appreciated (though you can program buttons on the RX100 to your liking, see above).

  • A hotshoe instead of a pop-up flash - I’ve no desire to use the on-camera flash and would prefer a hotshoe to which I could attach a remote trigger for long exposure shots or an external Rode mic for video work. Frustratingly, the RX100 doesn’t support external mics and there’s a huge amount of wind noise in videos, even with the settings optimised in-camera (Tip: Ted Forbes, on his 'Art of Photography’ YouTube channel has a great off-camera mic solution for the Sony RX100 V).

  • Included accessories - I bought an AG-R2 camera grip (which I’d highly recommend), a camera strap and a battery charger. For the recommended retail price (MRP £1000) I’d expect Sony to include these with your purchase.

Alternatives

  • Sony RX100 I, II, III, IV - Possibly uniquely, all previous versions of the Sony RX100 are still available (as is a new versionVI with a longer lens). If you’re interested in the RX100, but budget is an issue, check out the features and reviews of the previous models

  • Sony A6500 - If I didn’t have my DSLRs I would choose the Sony A6500 over the RX100. Highly likely with a 16-70mm lens (I feel that 24-105mm on a full-frame body is a perfect do-it-all lens for personal trips into the mountains - I really wish Nikon did a Canon equivalent)

Update -

My second trip out with the Sony RX100 V camera was to the English Lake District, when I visited with a friend who was scouting out locations ahead of a 24-hour mountain running challenge. In regards to the camera itself, I’d stick with my initial thoughts about the controls being difficult to use in big gloves. I was essentially using it as a point and shoot camera in conditions below freezing with strong winds. I also had trouble with the on/off switch, when I was 100% sure on occasions that I’d pressed it - without gloves on - but the camera didn’t recognise my input. And, whilst I felt that 24-70mm gives a good choice of focal range, I think I’d prefer 24-105mm on this particular camera (compared to my Nikon DSLR, on which I prefer using prime lenses - a 24mm f1.4, 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8, which I supplement with two zooms, a 17-35mm wide angle and 70-200mm telephoto lens).

Overall, my first impressions of the Sony RX100 V still stand and it appears to be an excellent camera for my intended purpose. I’ll add more thoughts as I use it more. In the meantime, I’ll share how much I enjoyed the Lake District. It’s roughly the same distance from Edinburgh as it is to Glen Coe (approximately 3 hours) and it opens up a whole new range of mountains for me to explore. I’ve already started some location scouting of my own, as I prepare for a mountain running photo shoot I’ve scheduled for later in the year. I’m really looking forward to going back.

Business essentials: Preparing for a photography shoot

Portrait of Scottish multi-sports athlete Joanne Thom near the summit of Meall nan Tarmachan, a Munro in the South-East Highlands of Scotland

Portrait of Scottish multi-sports athlete Joanne Thom near the summit of Meall nan Tarmachan, a Munro in the South-East Highlands of Scotland

Whilst preparing for a photo shoot with an upcoming client, I thought it would be worthwhile sharing some of the key steps I go through to prepare for a shoot, from receiving an initial request right through to delivering images to the client.

Here are some of the things I'll do to make sure things go as smoothly as possible on the day.

1. Get to know the client

The first thing I'll establish is who has contacted me. Is it a company, an agency or a magazine? Before I call anyone back, I like to find out as much as possible so I'll do my research before responding. For example, if it's a magazine, I'll browse through past issues to check out recent features and photography style. If an advertising agency has contacted me on behalf of one of their clients, I'll review both the agency's portfolio of work and the company to see what work they've recently commissioned.

2. Find out more about the request

What am I being asked to do? A question I'm commonly asked is 'what is my day rate?'. As a freelance photographer, I'm responsible for all my own costs (e.g. camera equipment, insurance, working location, pension, repairs, etc.) so I don't have a set day rate. To establish an appropriate fee for a shoot, I need to take into account a number of things, such as my cost of doing business, how complex / involved the assignment is, the number of images a client would like, how they wish to use them, etc. At this stage, I'll get on the phone and verbally go through the brief with the client (in person if I can) so I can gather as much information as possible to put together an accurate estimate.

3. Produce an estimate

When considering how much a job should cost, there's a variety of things I'll take into account, depending how complex the requirements are.

These include;

  • What do I need to do to create the images?

  • How does the client plan to use them?

  • How many days will the shoot take?

  • What resources are required?

  • What equipment will I need?

  • Is there a planned location or do I need to find one?

  • Do we need to visit the location up front? Do we need a permit?

  • How will everyone get there?

  • Etc.

I can only answer these questions if I've discussed the requirements in depth with the client so early communication is key.

4. Prepare for the day

Once I've agreed a price with the client, I'll go into full-on research mode. I like to know as much as possible in advance so I'll Google anything related to the shoot. If required, my estimate will have included one or two scouting days so we'll have a chance to physically check out the location and scope out suitable positions or landscapes we can use to meet the brief. If not, I'll use the internet to find out what the terrain's like, what's nearby, the prevailing weather conditions, etc.. Anything really that helps me anticipate what to expect and gives me a jump on making creative images. I'll also consider a plan B location (and often a plan C) should the unexpected happen and we need to react accordingly.

If there's no brief as such, e.g. for a portfolio shoot, I'll prepare my own by putting together a shot list. This makes me think creatively and helps me focus better on the day. I'll often share these ideas with a client in advance so we have an opportunity to discuss them.

The week before a shoot, I'll finalise a production sheet and model release forms that I'll have prepared previously and shared so everyone knows what is expected of them and there are no outstanding questions. I'll also start to prepare my camera and outdoor equipment, making sure e.g. all the batteries are charged, the sensors and lenses are clean and I have enough equipment to stay safe.

The actual gear I take with me on an adventure sports photography shoot depends on the requirements but there's a minimum amount of gear I'll always have with me:

My minimum gear for a photo shoot;

  • Professional camera body (x2 full frame)

  • Professional lenses (wide angle, telephoto and a fast prime)

  • Memory cards (at least x100Gb)

  • Batteries (rechargeable AA, AAA, Lithium)

  • Speedlight and light modifiers

  • Light meter

  • Light stand

  • Remote control triggers

  • Tripod

  • Sunseeker app

  • Lens cloths

  • Waterproof jacket

  • Insulated jacket

  • Gloves

  • Hat

  • Food

Other items of equipment I might take on a shoot include a tripod or a monopod, an underwater DSLR case if the shoot involves swimming and an iPad or laptop, so I can tether the camera and share shots immediately with the client (see my thoughts on the excellent iWorkcase here). In short, I'll bring anything I think I need to meet the requirements of the brief, and beyond.

5. Deliver as planned

On shoot day, my focus is on turning up early, engaging with the client, athletes or models and shooting as much as possible. With all the pre-work and preparation we've put in, things should go smoothly.

If it's appropriate, I may suggest other potential shots to the client when we're on location. Otherwise, once we've got what we need to meet the brief, the shoot is a wrap, so to speak, and it's time to celebrate. Before I'm finished, I'll make sure all the shots from the day are backed up, copying the images from my memory cards onto my laptop plus a portable hard drive so I have 3 copies, making at least one copy redundant.

Back home, I'll download all the images from the shoot to my main computer and follow my workflow process to perform an official back-up and create proof files for the client to choose from. These proof files I'll share initially as low-resolution JPEGs for the client to make a selection from. I'll then finalise these selects and deliver them in high-resolution JPEG and TIFF formats, along with copies of any documentation relating to the shoot, e.g. the brief, model/property releases, expense receipts, etc. to finish the job.

Overall, my aim is to be as prepared as I can be so our shooting days are as valuable as possible and I'm quick and efficient following the shoot so my clients get what they need, when they want it.


Business essentials: Location, location, location

Joanne Thom running at dawn near the summit of Sgurr an Fhidhleir in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

Joanne Thom running at dawn near the summit of Sgurr an Fhidhleir in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

I wrote this post when I was preparing for an upcoming mountain biking photo shoot. With no budget assigned to that project for location scouting, I needed to be creative and call on all my experience from past photo shoots and scouting trips before I felt comfortable enough to suggest what I felt was a viable location to the client.

For a commercial shoot, I'd always recommend that budget is included for a location scout. Being able to scope out a location well in advance enables us to properly assess the environment against the brief, view the light in real time and work out solutions to any potential problems (e.g. logistics or health and safety). Allowing time for the proper research of a location can also save a client money as it helps to remove uncertainty and reduce risk. It enables everyone on the team to concentrate on capturing the images the client requires, rather than wondering if the location is going to cause us problems. 

A case in point. For a personal photo shoot with Scottish multi-sports athlete, Joanne Thom, we headed to a prominent hill north of Ullapool called Ben Mor Coigach with a duffel bag packed full of new-season Compressport clothing. I’ve climbed Ben Mor Coigach before, in 2010, and I'd earmarked its narrow south-west ridge, Garbh Choireachan, with its wide-ranging views of Scotland’s north-west coast, as an ideal location for a future photo shoot. Nearby is another peak Sgurr an Fhidhleir, which has spectacular views north to the iconic Inverpolly hills, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Suilven. I rationalised that, with a wild camp on the 700m high bealach between the two peaks, we’d be ideally placed for a sunset and sunrise shoot on both peaks.

In reality, my memory isn't great enough to recall things entirely from 6 years ago and I wasn’t 100% sure the terrain on Sgurr an Fhidlheir was entirely suitable for running (the summit’s atop a steep prow, there’s a band of cliffs immediately north of the summit and I knew the ground was going to be icy underfoot). I also didn’t know if I would be able to position myself where I wanted to be to get the best composition in relation to the background and the sun. I was however confident enough in my experience and creative skills that I could react appropriately so, after a lot of research (utilising my old photographs and tools such as Google, OS maps, Sunseeker app and, more recently, Fatmap), I decided to trust my judgement and go for it. This generated its own risks as Joanne was investing 2-days of her time and a lot of effort - it’s a 4-hour drive from Edinburgh and a 2-hour, 700m high hike from Blughasary to reach the Garbh Choireachan ridge. I needed to get things right. 

Standing in the pre-dawn light on Sgurr an Fhidlheir, as we waited for the sun to rise and warm us up, my reservations looked to be proved right. Sgurr an Fhidhleir is an excellent hill to stand there and take in the view. For a photographer capturing a runner at dawn, it's not the best location. It was clear to me that the terrain of the mountain, its backdrop in relation to the rising sun and my concerns around health and safety if Joanne ran too close to the cliffs was going to severely limit my shot options. 

Despite this, we did manage to come away with a number of shots, like the one above, that we're able to use to promote Joanne to potential sponsors. It proved to me though that, despite all the modern tools available to us, online researching is not infallible. Which is why, for a commercial shoot, I'll always request that there is a budget in place so we can pay a visit beforehand to see a location in real time.

Mountain landscapes: Glen Coe, Scotland

Each year, in Summer, I like to take a few weeks out of the Scottish mountains to let the temperature cool down and remove the scourge that is the Scottish highland midge. By the time we reach the cooler months of September and October, I’m looking forward to ending my self-imposed exile and re-charging my own batteries, so to speak, as I head back out again into the hills.

My plan for this occasion was to sleep atop a mountain peak and photograph the sunrise for a personal client and scope out a location for a mountain running shoot I had pencilled in for later in the year. The internet is such a valuable resource these days for a landscape photographer. With many useful tools such as Google Maps, Google Images and the Sunseeker mobile app (or an alternative, e.g. the Photographer’s Ephemeris), you can plan out in detail exactly which locations should be worth going to and when, with the huge advantage of knowing in advance where the light will fall. An awful lot of work can be done at home or in the office in research mode and, for your shoot, it’s simply (ok, it’s never really that simple) a case of waiting for the right spell of good weather.

After some research, I settled on an ascent of Stob Coire nan Lochan, a rocky summit, 1115m high, that is part of the Bidean nam Bian massif in Glen Coe in the West Highlands of Scotland. As I packed my camping gear and camera equipment, I looked forward to heading back to Glen Coe. I’ve shot there before and I decided to go back for good reason. The landscape in such a small place is incredibly varied.

I parked at the popular Pass of Glen Coe at 6.30pm, trekking up Coire nan Lochan as it got dark. The ground was familiar as I’d been in the corrie before, en route to a popular winter climb called Dorsal Arete. Scrambling up the rocky flanks of Stob Coire nan Lochan by head-torch was somewhat tricky but good fun. When I arrived on the summit, there was a slight breeze but the air was dry. Settling in to my bivvy, I listed to the sound of stags braying loudly in the glens below and soon feel asleep.

One of the benefits of heading out in Autumn is you don’t need to get up super early to catch the dawn. Sunrise was expected at 7:37am and I was up at a very pleasant time of 7.00am. As I expected, I was on my own, with an uninterrupted 360-degree view of multiple beautiful Scottish glens and mountains. I hadn’t brought a stove (to save weight), so, after a few arm swings to warm up, I set up my tripod, camera and wireless trigger in the gloomy light of pre-dawn, pre-visualised what frames I thought would be worthy to photograph and waited to see what would happen. As it turned out, there was no spectacular sunrise but I was witness to some wonderful views as clouds filled the glens and wild rays of light were projected onto the landscape east of Glen Coe. I kept shooting as the sun rose higher in the sky, despite the fact it was cloudy. Lower clouds had lifted from the floor of the glens and had started to drape over the mountain ridges and I was duly rewarded, once again, when shafts of light began to break through the higher clouds and atmospherically lit up the landscape. 

In all, I spent a very special few hours above Glencoe in beautiful silence switching between wide angle and telephoto lenses and shooting as many different compositions as I could. When the light died down, I packed up and headed out to visit the summit of Bidean nam Bian (one of the 282 ‘Munros’, Scottish peaks over 3,000ft high). From there, I had an enjoyable walk along the ridge to a second Munro, Stob Coire Sgreamhach, before I retraced my steps to the head of the beautiful Lost Valley and headed for home.


Gear I use: Mobile apps for a photography business

It’s not just photographers who can take advantage of mobile apps. Here, Rachael Campbell prepares to set up her Suunto 9 Baro GPS watch for a day’s trail running (You can pair the watch with Suunto’s mobile app and keep track of your outdoor activities)

It’s not just photographers who can take advantage of mobile apps. Here, Rachael Campbell prepares to set up her Suunto 9 Baro GPS watch for a day’s trail running (You can pair the watch with Suunto’s mobile app and keep track of your outdoor activities)

A list of 5 mobile apps I’ve found useful in helping me manage my outdoor photography business.

1. Evernote

It’s possible you can use Evernote to manage your whole life (See Lifehacker.com) but I like to keep things simple and I use it mainly as a text editor when mobile.

Some of the things I find Evernote really useful for are;

  • Drafting photo shoot or feature ideas to submit to photo editors and art directors

  • Writing blog posts and articles

  • Capturing ideas for future business opportunities, e.g. potential photo projects or interesting photography locations

  • Recording items when I’m on the move, e.g. expense receipts

  • As a means of reminding myself of educational or inspirational content I’ve found on the web or on my travels (Evernote enables you to save a web page, text clipping or photo and save it as a note)

Probably the most useful function for me In Evernote is the simple checklist (I admit I’d find it hard to manage my life without lists). I keep lists for a variety of different things, including equipment lists for my photography gear, lists for my outdoor gear, lists of items I’ve taken on jobs I’ve worked on in the past (e.g. the Patagonian Expedition Race), lists of gear I’ve used in events I’ve competed in that I’ll likely do again (e.g. Cairngorms Loop, Strathpuffer) and lists for more general things such as goals I want to achieve over the next 3 months.

Overall, I love Evernote’s ease of use. When I access the app on all my devices (I use it on my laptop, phone and desktop), all my content has been quickly and seamlessly updated with any changes I’ve made. And it’s free.

2. Things

Things is another app I’d find it hard to operate my business without. It’s not cheap (in fact it’s really expensive for a To Do app) but I’ve tried many others and I find it well worth the cost.

The simple idea behind Things is a task manager that enables you to sort tasks into ‘Today’, 'Next’ and 'Scheduled for later’. I use the app not only as a means to record and complete my things to do but also as a supplement for my diary, entering meeting dates and reminders. Tasks only go in the Today column when I will 100% do them that day. Once things to do are in 'Today’, they have to get done, regardless. I’ve found that using Things has made me much more organised in general and definitely more efficient at completing tasks.

3. Sunseeker

I’m sure there’s an answer but does anyone care more about where exactly the sun is in relation to the sky perhaps more so than an outdoor photographer? Sunseeker is a really usable app that lets you plug in the location you’re shooting and find out not only what time dawn and dusk is but also where the sun will be in the sky at a given time of day. You can also choose a future date and get advance information for the day of your shoot. For location scouting and shoot preparation, Sunseeker is indispensable. (Combine it with Fatmap for the total online location scouting experience).

4. Easy Release

Easy Release is a brilliant app that enables me to create and share model releases on the go. It allows me to customise the release wording to suit my requirements. (To help speed things up on a shoot, I always take the time to share my release wording with athletes or models in advance of a shoot, including it in a production sheet containing all the information about the shoot. Once on location, I can simply complete their personal details, take their photo and email us both a copy of the release).

5. Dropbox

No list of apps would be appropriate, it seems, without a reference to Dropbox, the file hosting and sharing service. For informal sharing and file backups, I use a paid account which I can use for up to ITB of d. For clients, I set up a Dropbox Pro account, and store all the documentation relating to the shoot plus the low-resolution proofs and the final high-resolution images in a password-protected folder.

Dropbox is an excellent app that, like Evernote and Things (and many other apps) seamlessly syncs your content and lets you access it across different devices.

Overall, apps make a huge improvement to my business workflow. I’d be interested to know what you use.

Books I've read: Outdoor adventure and exploration (Part 2)

1. This Game of Ghosts by Joe Simpson

What do you think it does to your mind when you dangle from a loose peg for 12 hours on the north face of Aiguille du Dru? Amongst other stories, Joe Simpson shares what must be just a tiny glimpse into his thoughts as he recounts how the pillar of rock on which they were bivvied on the side of the iconic peak above the Chamonix valley, collapsed in the middle of the night and fell to the bottom of the mountain. 'This Game of Ghosts' was the follow-up book to Simpson's mountaineering classic, 'Touching the Void'.

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2. Against the Wall by Simon Yates

Simon Yates (I’d suggest unfairly) is perhaps most popularly known to the public as ‘the man who cut the rope’ in Joe Simpson’s 1998 bestseller ‘Touching the Void’. Yates' own book 'Against the Wall', his first of 3 books from his climbing career, recounts a first ascent of one of the tall pepper-pot-shaped peaks in Southern Chilean Patagonia. It’s full of detail about what life is like living and climbing on a 4,000ft big wall (which we learn, by the challenges he overcomes, is not always fun).

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3. Deep Play: Climbing the World's Most Dangerous Routes by Paul Pritchard

Paul Pritchard was on the first ascent of the Central Tower of Torres del Paine that Simon Yates wrote about in 'Against the Wall'. Paul is an excellent writer on his own account, sharing stories and anecdotes from climbing on the slate quarries of Dinorwig in Wales, the sea cliffs of Gogarth, all the way to Mount Asgard in Baffin Island in a book that won the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. I particularly enjoyed Paul's account of a planned day out winter climbing in Scotland with Slovenian hardman Silva Karo.

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4. Thin Air: Encounters in the Himalayas by Greg Child

Not the book about the 1996 Everest disaster by Jon Krakauer but hugely descriptive narrative by the Australian climber Greg Child of climbing in the high-altitude mountains of the Karakorum range in Pakistan. Greg climbed K2 in 1990 and he narrates this and other expeditions to 8000m peaks and technical climbs in the Karakorum, including Broad Peak, Shivling and Gasherbrum IV. There's plenty of anecdotes of his fellow climbers (including Georges Bettembourg and Doug Scott) and the level of detail he shares of the local lives and landscapes in this part of the world as he journeys into the mountains is fascinating.

5. Total Alpinism by Rene Desmaison

An excellent autobiography by French alpinist Rene Desmaison that includes a gripping account of his 2-week long winter climb on the Grandes Jorasses in 1971 with a young Serge Gousseault. I remember reading those enthralling chapters well into the early hours of the morning.

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Books I've read: The business of photography

1. Lisa Pritchard - Setting Up a Successful Photography Business

A great resource for new photographers, Lisa's book covers everything from business plans to marketing and promotion to producing a photoshoot. It includes a set of business templates, which helped me form the basis of the ones I use today.

(I also really value Lisa’s follow up book, ‘Running a Successful Photography Business’)

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2. Richard Weisgrau - The Real Business of Photography

A book with no images may not hold much interest for creative folk but Richard's 200+ page book is packed full of essential advice for photographers looking to understand and optimise their business practices and engage professionally with clients.

(See also Richard's follow up book, The Photographer's Guide to Negotiating).

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3. John Harrington - Best Business Practices for Photographers

Has been referred to as the professional photographer's bible. Author John Harrington, from San Francisco Bay, USA, covers a wide variety of topics including setting your fees and communicating with clients. His book is another essential read on competent business practices.

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4. Elyse Weissberg: Successful Self-Promotion for Photographers

Expose Yourself Properly - Elyse's book was written before the maturity of digital marketing (sadly, she passed away before her book was finished). Her focus is on solid photography marketing techniques - print mailers, portfolio drop-offs, etc.

5. Jed Wylie - Make Your Website Sell: The Ultimate Guide to Increasing your Online Profits

A website is an essential tool for a photographer. Although I don't sell products online (other than prints), learning from Jed's expertise on SEO and digital marketing has enabled me to rank highly for my desired keywords and maximise the results I want to achieve from my online marketing spend. Highly recommended.

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Gear I use: Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW

My Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW camera bag in the snow near the summit of Beinn Sgulaird, a Munro in the West Highlands of Scotland

My Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW camera bag in the snow near the summit of Beinn Sgulaird, a Munro in the West Highlands of Scotland

When I first started focusing on outdoor and adventure sports photography, I spent a long time looking for a camera bag I could easily use to capture photographs when I was on the move (e.g. following athletes in the mountains). I've since moved to a more camera specific backpack but at the time I decided my essential requirements were;

  1. It had to be well padded.

  2. It needed to be weatherproof.

  3. It needed to be easy to take the camera out quickly and put it away again when shooting in bad weather.

  4. It had to take my 70-200mm f2.8 Nikon lens

  5. It needed to be comfy to wear for long periods of time

After much Googling about and repeat visits to the camera shops that were then in Edinburgh, plus observing Vancouver-based photographer Andrew Querner using an older model in the climbing DVD, Higher Ground, I settled on a Toploader Pro 75 AW.

What I like about the Toploader Pro 75 AW

  • Different ways to wear - you can purchase a belt or a harness for this bag, or use the provided 3-point harness attachment. I just put the bag over one shoulder and under the other arm and swing it to the front. I then put my rucksack on and it keeps it nice and secure.

  • Top lid - this is padded. Lowepro say you can put your sunglasses in here but I play in Scotland and sunglasses aren't often required. I find it ideal for spare batteries (tucked inside the mesh pocket) and a compass.

  • Scooped opening - the camera goes in sideways and fit on top of two internal velcro-attached staves. These keep the camera snug and protect it from damage.

  • Front pocket - this is where I store the dry bag and a chamois to wipe the lens.

  • Mesh side pocket - I stuff a ThinkTank PocketRocket memory card holder in here and clip it to the camera bag for security.

  • Zip and clasp closure - You can either zip the bag up or clasp it shut. The zip has big chunky zip-pulls with plastic handles that lets you close the bag with big gloves on (I can even just about do it with mitts on). The clasp saves you having to zip the bag up but I do think it would be better being on a longer strap. I find it slightly fiddly to use.

  • Size - There's plenty room for a Nikon D4S plus Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 or a 24-70mm f2.8. It also fits a Nikon 70-200m f2.8 lens (with the lens hood reversed). It is a very big bag and I sometimes self-consciously feel a smaller model may be a better choice. This goes away though as soon as I use it.

  • Optional attachments - you can attach a lens to the outside too with a 'strap and cinch' system for compatible lens cases. I most often use this though for securing a map case. It's ideal for this.

What I'd like to see changed

  • All Weather Cover - I find this too tight and difficult to put on outdoors. I use a dry bag instead - an Ortlieb 13 litre is ideal - pulling it up over the bottom and clipping it closed at the top. (You can't roll-top it but it forms a fairly weatherproof seal and I can put my camera inside the dry bag if the weather is really bad).

All in all, I think a Toploader Pro is a perfect bag for outdoor and adventure sports photography. It's not bombproof - I fell off a mountain bike whilst wearing it and damaged a lens - but otherwise, I'd highly recommend it.

Books I've read: Outdoor adventure and exploration (Part 1)

1. Enduring Patagonia by Gregory Crouch

Quite simply my favourite book. Greg's hugely engaging account of his life leading up to climbs he's made on Cerro Torre and the Fitzroy massif in Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia. Greg's winter ascent (a first ascent) of the West Face of Cerro Torre in 1999, with Thomas Ulrich, Stephan Siegriest and David Fasel, via the Southern Patagonian Icecap, sparked the idea for my own journey to the ice cap. This, in turn, triggered other trips I've made to Patagonia, influenced my decision to write a Los Glaciares National Park trekking guidebook and ultimately, when I look back, was the catalyst for my desire to build my photography business.

(I'd also recommend 'Right Mate, Let's Get On With It' - Greg's e-book about Antipodean mountaineers Athol Whimp and Andrew Lindblade, whom Greg makes reference to in 'Enduring Patagonia')

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2. Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen

Possibly more well-known for his children books, this is the entertaining and often funny story of Gary and his wife's journey from Minnesota to Anchorage as he learned to mush dogs in advance of an entry he'd made into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an 1150-mile journey across the wilds of frozen Alaska. A close second to 'Enduring Patagonia' in regards to the number of times I've read a book (easily double figures). Whenever I've picked it up and read the first chapter, I'm off again on the whole book. 

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3. On the Ridge Between Life and Death by David Roberts

A quality memoir by one of the world's leading authors of mountaineering literature, reflecting on the experience of his own life spent in the mountains and the impact it had on himself and others. Includes accounts of Roberts' ascent of Denali up the unclimbed Wickersham Wall, with others, via their Harvard route (which I believe is still unrepeated in 2017), his epic retreat with Don Jensen on Mount Deborah in 1964 and their subsequent successful summit but tragic descent on Mount Huntington in 1965. Plus tales from other expeditions Roberts made to unexplored parts of the Alaska range, including a wash-out of a 52-day expedition to an unexplored region, 70 miles from the nearest landing strip, that they subsequently named the Revelation Mountains.

(See 'The Mountain of my Fear' for more detail on Roberts' Mount Huntington expedition)

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4. Mountains of my Life by Walter Bonatti

Compelling tales from arguably Italy's premier post-war mountaineer, including his solo climb on the Aiguille du Dru up the Bonatti Pillar (a feature now sadly destroyed by rockfall), the madness that entailed during a group ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney, a detailed account of the controversy surrounding the Italian ascent of K2 in 1954 plus exploratory first ascents in Southern Patagonia.

(Bonatti retired from alpinism at the age of 35 and began a celebrated career as a photojournalist. If you can get hold of it, Bonatti's book 'Solitudini Australi', comprising solely of images from Patagonia and Italian text, is excellent).

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5. Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat and Dog Sled by Jon Turk

I imagine Jon Turk is a highly-driven individual, singularly focused on achieving his goals and not one afraid to fail. He often does fail though and his writing in Cold Oceans makes you feel like you are alongside him, as he describes the challenges of tough, character-building expeditions to the colder, wetter parts of the globe (including what must have been a remarkably stretching, solo sea-kayaking expedition around Cape Horn (he'd never sea kayaked before) and a dog sledding journey in Greenland that left him being stranded by his partner deep in the Arctic).

In 1996, Jon Turk completed his sea kayak around Cape Horn in 1996. (Source: Pique News Magazine). In 2011, aged 65, he kayaked and pulled his boat nearly 2,500km around the circumference of the world's 10th largest island, Ellesmere Island, north-west of Greenland, with fellow adventurer Erik Boomer, a professional kayaker nearly 40 years his junior. Jon recounts their extremely adventurous expedition in his 2016 book - Crocodiles and Ice.

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Books I've read: Photography instruction and education

1. Product / equipment manuals

I'm possibly in the minority of people who enjoys reading photography equipment manuals from cover to cover. Which I rationalise for myself on the basis that if I know how things work and what they're capable of, it helps me to focus on being more creative.

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2. Michael Clark - A Professional Photographer's Workflow

Using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop - It’s hard to mention instruction books for adventure sports photography without mentioning Michael Clark. (See his Adventure Sports Photography and Location Lighting books). The first of Michael's books I owned was this comprehensive manual for Adobe Lightroom. Michael's knowledge of this photo organising and editing software is excellent and I picked up lots of hints and tips for how best to organise, process and archive my images, many of which I still take advantage of today.

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3. Dan Bailey - Going Fast with Light: A Flash Guide for Outdoor Photographers 

This instruction book on flash is one of Alaska adventure photographer Dan Bailey's e-books (I had the pleasure of being technical editor for Dan's print book - Outdoor Action and Adventure Photography). Dan's e-book was the first book I purchased on outdoor flash. It explains flash in simple, practical terms and helped me realise that lighting photographs is nothing to be scared of.

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4. James Cheadle and Peter Chavers - The Portrait Photographer's Lighting Style Guide: Recipes for Lighting and Composing Professional Portraits

Each chapter of James' and Peter's book covers a single portrait photo, outlining a description of the shoot, technical details and lighting diagrams. I started off using it, and similar lighting diagram books, to help me understand how other photographers lit portraits and what equipment would cause which effect. Once I knew how a piece of equipment worked, and I'd practiced with it, the challenge moved on to how I could use it to identify and achieve my own creative vision.

5. Joe McNally - Sketching Light (An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash) 

Joe is a Nikon Ambassador, regular National Geographic contributor and former Life magazine staff photographer. This book, like Joe's first book on using speedlights (The Hot Shoe Diaries - Big Light From Small Flashes) is not an instruction manual per se, more a narrative from Joe on his thought process as he captured various images in his portfolio. In 2015, I attended a speedlight seminar with Joe McNally and to be able to learn from him first-hand as he worked his way through various shoots was inspiring. Joe's seminars are well worth attending.

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Trail and mountain running ideas: Chamonix and nearby

In August 2017, I had the opportunity to photograph husband and wife Donnie Campbell and Rachael Campbell in Chamonix, France. Donnie Campbell is one of Britain's top ultra runners, sponsored by Salomon. Rachael is a nurse and a talented mountain runner, running for Team GB in 2018 and placing 5th female in the 2018 Marathon du Mont-Blanc 90km series. 

One of my first tasks was to decide where I would take elite athletes for a mountain running shoot near Chamonix that would help me to produce images I hadn't seen before.

Location 1 - Désert de Platé

Donnie Campbell running on Desert de Plate with Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie Campbell running on Desert de Plate with Mont Blanc in the background

On the day Donnie and Rachael welcomed us to the Argentière campsite they'd been calling home for the Summer, my assistant Alex remarked how we appeared to have brought the Scottish weather with us (a temperature of 3 degrees C was reported for the following day). Although the Chamonix valley was socked in with low cloud and drizzle, we had done our research and the weather was looking better a few days ahead so we headed north in the rain to Plaine Joux and followed the route of Le Dérochoir (a fun, if initially sketchy-looking 'via ferrata' that follows a weak point up the dramatic cliffs of Rochers des Fiz and leads to Col de la Portette). Our plan was to stay overnight at Refuge de Platé and shoot sunrise shots of Donnie and Rachael playing on the amazing limestone rock landscape of Désert de Platé, with Mont Blanc in the background.

Désert de Platé was an area that had immediately sprung out when I did some location scouting online. I definitely did want to shoot running images in the Chamonix valley but, when I googled possible locations, the south side of Chamonix (the Lac Blanc side) was clearly the running photographer's location of choice. For good reason. The views are awesome. But I also wanted to find a location that no-one else had. So my plan for our 4-day shoot was to shoot on the balcony paths of Chamonix but also find another location that I hadn't seen any running shots of. Désert de Platé, as it transpired, wasn't an entirely unique location for running (whilst we were in Chamonix, Kilian Jornet posted a video of Seb Montaz and himself playing around between the rock crevasses) but I think we made a good choice. The cracked limestone rock offers huge potential for foreground interest in a photo shoot and the views of Mont Blanc are immense. We only had the time and the weather for one shoot before we headed back to Chamonix but I'd love to return and explore more.

Location 2 - Lac Blanc

Rachael Campbell running at lower Lac Blanc with the Chamonix Aiguilles in the background

Rachael Campbell running at lower Lac Blanc with the Chamonix Aiguilles in the background

When the sun became too bright for photographs at Désert de Platé, we descended via Le Dérochoir and returned to Chamonix for lunch. Two hours later, Alex and I were on our way to 2,352m high Lac Blanc, taking advantage of the chairlifts from Les Praz to Flégère to L'Index to help alleviate some of the weight of our camera and lighting gear. Donnie and Rachael chose to run up from Argentière. The location of Lac Blanc (the 'White Lake’) is, arguably, home to the most famous views in the Alps, with thousands of photos on the internet of the scenic lake and its mountain refuge, nestled beneath the Aiguilles Rouge, with its expansive views over the Chamonix valley to famous peaks such as Aiguille du Tour, Aiguille du Chardonnet, Aiguille Verte, Aiguille du Dru, Grandes Jorasses, the Chamonix Aiguilles and Mont Blanc.

Donnie and Rachael met us at Refuge Lac Blanc. By the time they'd arrived, I’d already decided that a Saturday night in August wasn’t the best time for a photo shoot at this busy location. There was an awful lot of people around the lake. It was too crowded for the shots I had in mind so we descended to lower Lac Blanc and prepared to shoot there. There were already photographers set up (it's a popular lake for reflections) so I took the time to check they didn’t mind if we took some running shots and received a positive response (though in the morning I learnt there was a photographer I had missed and we had spoiled their time lapse. If this was you, I do regret it). After we wrapped up our shoot, I chatted to Salomon's social media manager, Jeremy. Donnie and Rachael returned to Argentière and Alex and I bivvied out so we could shoot some mountain landscape images at dawn. We arranged to meet up with Donnie and Rachael later that day.

Location 3 - Le Brévent

Donnie Campbell running nearby Le Brévent with the summit of Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie Campbell running nearby Le Brévent with the summit of Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie and Rachael’s base in the Alps was their camper van at Camping du Glacier d’Argentière (www.campingchamonix.com). After Alex and I had descended from Lac Blanc (pleasingly, the trail popped out at a bakery in Argentière), it was nice to sit in the mid-day sun at the campsite with fresh bread and a chilled drink as we prepared for our last shoot of the trip. We had two locations in mind. A visit to Tête de Balme or Aiguillette des Posettes for a sunset view down the whole Chamonix valley or to head south-west to Brévent for a closer view of the Chamonix Aiguilles and the summit of Mont Blanc. The latter won, not least because I love looking at the Chamonix Aiguilles (and Les Drus - oh, Les Drus - along with Cerro Torre and Torre Egger in Patagonia, two peaks I could photograph simply every day).

Le Brévent is a popular destination in the Alps for Chamonix’s aerial specialists. Paragliders take off very close to the Plan Praz mid-station, taking advantage of thermals above the town, and BASE jumpers plunge from a pedestal not far from Le Brévent’s 2,525m high summit. We didn't see any BASE jumpers but we did see plenty of paragliders as we left the summit of Le Brévent and headed into a magnificent rocky playground that stretches out like one great, big, broken ridge into the distance towards the Aiguilles Rouges. I'm confident there's huge potential for capturing adventure sports images beneath the peaks that rise above the Grand Balcon Sud, including running, hiking and scrambling photos, all with stunning views across to the big alpine peaks. I made a note to discuss it with clients on my return.

All that was left was for us was to descend the 1,500m to Chamonix, first on an easy trail and then down the initially scrambly but fun Chamonix VK route steeply downhill to arrive in town well after dark. I knew my quads would burn from the 3,000m descent I’d had that day but it was a good feeling and I was sad to be leaving. Three days shooting running in Chamonix simply isn't enough. I'll look forward to going back.

Books I've read: Michael Clark's 'Exposed - Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer'

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It may seem odd to a review a book from a photographer who operates in the same genre of photography as I do (outdoor and adventure sports) But I do think you should learn from the best and, if I’m going to emulate anyone’s approach to photography, I’m happy if it’s Michael. Everything he’s done (that I’m aware of), from his business approach and the quality of his photography to his approach to marketing, I’ve admired greatly.

Michael Clark is one of the world’s top adventure sports photographers. With a client list that includes Nikon, Nike, National Geographic and Red Bull, he is well qualified in the photo industry and his willingness to share his knowledge, business practices and experience through his blog, newsletters and books has been a great source of inspiration for me since I started my business.

Michael is the author of two previous books; ‘Adventure Photography: Capturing the World of Outdoor Sports’ and ‘Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Photographer’s Workflow’. I’ve read both books many times and I learnt from Michael’s Lightroom book greatly when I adapted his photography workflow last year to manage my own photos. As a result, I’ve been looking forward to his new book ‘Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer’ since he announced it back in January.

Here is a summary of ‘Exposed’, in Michael’s own words;

The idea behind this book is to strip some of the glamour off this profession and share a wide range of stories and experiences to give the reader a very clear view of what it is like to be a working professional photographer—and what it takes to create top-notch images”.

Has Michael achieved his objectives? Read on to see what I think;

Idea 1 – “Strip off some of the glamour off this profession…”

Check. At first glance, adventure sports photography certainly does seem glamorous (and I know it’s not). What Michael is very good at is getting past this and outlining the great effort and pre-planning involved in;

a.) Getting the assignment, by tirelessly marketing yourself and your work. Either getting yourself chosen off the back of existing work or, something he is passionate about, using personal projects to keep yourself fresh and creative and ahead of the pack; and using that as a means to gain new clients;

b.) Planning out what you’re going to shoot, where and what with – e.g. by researching your subject in depth, being creative in your thinking and knowing your equipment technically, inside-out. In general, being prepared so you can get the most out of the shoot even if things don’t always go to plan (two of Michael’s tips – have a shot list and a plan A, B and even C);

c.) Choosing, carrying and setting up all the equipment needed – which for a lot of photographers would be deemed ‘lightweight’ but most surely isn’t in an adventure sports setting where you’re often trying to move fast through uneven terrain.

Emphasising this hard work is the not-so-glamorous locations Michael has found himself in pursuit of quality images. Being wet, tired and sore miles from anywhere in Patagonia (right up my street that one), hanging off a cliff on a badly cut rope in South Dakota (I’ll pass on that one, thanks) or squeezed in the entrance to a men’s bathroom in New Mexico taking portrait shots of free divers just out of the water (actually, nicely creative).

Idea 2 – “Share a wide range of stories and experiences…”

Check. Michael has included four ‘On Assignment’ chapters in the book;

a.) The Wenger Patagonia Expedition Race (top-end adventure racing) b.) Men’s Fitness (California search and rescue) c.) Red Bull Air Force (Utah base jumping) d.) The Eddie Aiku (Hawaii surfing).

In each of these chapters, he explains the assignment in depth and details key things he considered to get the final image. As well as this, throughout the other ten chapters of the book (whose topics range from ‘Some days are better than others’ to ‘Keeping the fires stoked’), Michael includes plenty of other anecdotes and explains what was going through his mind as he prepared for a shoot.

I’ll admit the highlight story for me isn’t about adventure sports but of his State Street Global Advisers shoot of professional golfer, Camilo Villegas. A brief glimpse of the pressures involved in photographing for high-end advertising firms and being told by an Art Director, “You’ve got 10 shots. That’s it“*.

Idea 3 – “Give the reader a very clear view … what it takes to create top-notch images.”

Check again. Each of the 16 main images Michael has chosen for the book has a background story on how he came to be in a position to make the image, information on what gear and thought processes he used to get the shot and a ton of technical Lightroom information demonstrating how he moved the image from in-camera to final post-production. (I suppose there’s a small risk here that the extensive Lightroom slider adjustments information may cause some people to switch off slightly. I love the practice of photo processing but, having read the book more than once already, it’s these parts I’m finding I’m not immediately re-reading – as the values you end up choosing are so individual to your own photographs. I do think the information is very valuable though and essential to the book).

To sum up my review, I think Michael has achieved his objectives and I really like ‘Exposed’. It’s got lots of great information and pictures in it and it’s a good read. I’m sure Michael will admit that it is unusual for a photographer to open up and share as much information about their images as he has (he freely admits an instance in the book where he made a mistake). I’m glad though he was this honest and has also chosen in his career to educate others. I for one have learned a lot from Michael’s books – both from a business operating side and of post-processing – and this is another one I will be regularly dipping in and out of for reference in the future.

Be warned the book can be very technical, mostly from a Lightroom perspective. The included DVD has a Lightroom and Photoshop primer but I suggest reading Michael’s Lightroom book (or another Lightroom teaching book) first. If you do and you find you’re as interested in the mechanics of post-processing a photo as much as making one, then this book is an additional purchase I’m sure you’ll treasure. The only other thing I would add is you sometimes have to jump back pages to read about other things on the same assignment/topic. Which can be touch frustrating but isn’t a big issue and doesn’t take away from what I’d still class is an excellent book.

*Text excerpt and image from Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer by Michael Clark. Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.