Whether they're coming off a ramp made of snow or concrete or hanging at hundreds of feet in the air, extreme sport athletes are fun to watch. Flying through the air, twirling, or landing the stunt, the crowds are engaged and photographers are clicking away hoping to catch that great shot for their portfolio. Whether you've tried to capture these action seeking subjects before or not, these tips on how to do it are sure to inform you; but at the very least I hope to inspire you to get out there and try it.
Tip 1: Exposure
Since you're photographing action, I'm sure you can guess that shutter speed is going to be the most important setting on your camera. A close second is ISO, but that's for the next tip. For now, let's shift over to the shutter speed and why it's so important.
For the most part, you're likely going to want to freeze the action in your shots. But, there will be times when your goal is to blur the subject to emphasize speed. Shutter speed selection is going to create either effect. Therefore, using the best exposure for the shot is critical. Remember, there are rarely any do-overs with extreme sports. They may do a similar stunt again, but don't count on it. Instead, count on being prepared with the proper settings.
The best way to be prepared is to show up early and find out as much information as you can about lighting and where you're going to be able to stand. Will you be shooting into the sun? Will there be a blend of shade and sun? Which will you meter for? Then ask what shutter speed is best for the lighting and surrounding environment.
I recommend using Center-Weighted metering, as this will give you the most flexible and desirable exposure value. Then set your camera to either Shutter Priority or Manual (depending on your level of knowledge and expertise may depend on which you choose). Use shutter speeds of at least 1/500s with an aperture between f/4 - f/5.6. This will open up the aperture and allow more light in. Being a low f-stop, it will also help to blur the background, which allows your subject to stand out more.
Because a lot of extreme sport athletes are in the air when you're photographing them, more often than not the sky will be your backdrop. Factor this into your camera's settings. Also, remember that in brighter conditions where snow or sand adds to the glare, you'll want to adjust the exposure by one or two stops to prevent overexposure. You can do this through automatic bracketing, and the result will mean you retain both the shadow and highlight details.
Tip 2: Continuous Mode
This white water rafting image was captured using continuous mode. To capture these rafters the way they are, it's likely there were many shots right before and right after this moment.
Because the action will be going by so fast and you don't want to miss out on shot due to slow shutter release, switch your camera over to Continuous Mode. This will result in rapid fire capturing that will gain you more results to choose from when you're home downloading your images. In the split second that an athlete can change their gesture or posture, the difference between capturing and missing that moment can come down to which mode you're in... single fire or rapid fire.
In the case of the rock climber above, they obviously aren't moving as fast as a cyclist or skier. In these cases, the adrenaline is built from the risk from how high up they are. You likely won't need to be in Continuous Mode, but you still want to be alert to every move they make and ready to capture those moments.
Tip #3: Lenses
With extreme sports photography, you want the image to portray being up close and in the action. Sometimes you'll be there under the ramp, jump, or rock... other times you'll be off to the side. Having a good telephoto lens can make the difference between appearing on the sidelines and appearing in the action. A good 300mm or so lens ought to do the trick. But, the closer you can get to the subject, keeping safety a rule, the better.
Tip #4: Creativity
Don’t be afraid to be creative in your shots. If you can truncate parts of the subject for a more captivating composition, do it. Your main purpose is to pack as much of the athlete's energy into the frame as possible. You do this by making it appear as if the subject can’t be held in by the frame’s boundaries.
Another creative effect is blurring, be it the background or the subject itself. Panning is the best way to keep the subject frozen while increasing the blurred background for emphasis. As the subject is passing by, pan your camera while capturing the image. Of course with a faster shutter speed, you don't have much time to do this, so be quick and on target with following your subject. It's an art that takes practice!
Tip #5: Location, Location, Location
Of course you want to be in the best spot possible for capturing these athletes. If it's a public event, like a lot of freestyle cycling or the X-Games are, you'll be fighting crowds to gain the best position and angle. If it's you on a ski slope under a mogul, you'll likely be the only one. Either way, being in the best spot for capturing the flying, speeding, subject will be worth the extra step or two it takes to get in it. This is why being there early helps. You'll not only have time to get a feel for the lay of the land, but you'll beat the crowds to the prime spots. Win-win for you!
Finding these athletes means going where they are. Whether it's a local event, a ski resort, a rock climber's paradise, you have to get out there and go where they go. These types of photos can add some great images to your portfolio, and the adrenaline is contagious. Channel that into your work and you'll be a successful extreme sports photographer from the first click!
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