On a typical campaign shoot, you book a model that looks right for what you‘re shooting, and you don‘t think too hard about what kind of skill set they have. Your own skill set is limited to how well you can change the settings on a camera and compose an image. This is where shooting adventure images get separated from the other genres.
Not only does the photographer need to have the required skills to get safely through whatever adventure is being photographed, but the talent also needs to be capable enough in the scenario to be safe, and of course photogenic while they do it.
There has been massive media attention given to the outdoor world as of late, and when I scroll through my instagram feed I see image after image of perfectly groomed, styled, and un-outdoorsy models posing with their arms in the air as if they just conquered Everest. The truth is most of the time they just stepped out of their car at a famous viewpoint and set up a tent, which they never intended on sleeping in.
Keeping the image authentic means keeping the adventure authentic. When I shoot I like to get people who are skilled in the outdoors, plan an adventure, and then just step back with my camera and let the adventure happen. Clicking the shutter as we go.
When I shoot Climbing, that means finding people who can climb without having a look of terror on their face. I need to be able to get myself into a position on my own while the “models“ climb the route on their own. But there are still ropes, and the opportunity to rest. A model can hang in place for a while and try a move over and over again until it‘s done right.
Shooting surfing is another story. To get something unique a long lens from shore won‘t cut it, you need to be in the water. Positioning yourself is like a chess game, predicting the motions of both the surfer and the waves, fighting the current, and swimming in the break zone where waves are constantly crashing. The photographer is under constant threat of being in the wrong spot at the wrong time, and having a wave smash you onto the reef, camera in hand.
With all of this in mind, I set off to shoot on the North Shore of Oahu, the most famous and dangerous stretch of waves in the world. You know that the waves are big when on the North Shore of Hawaii, where the worlds best surfers are waiting to compete in the Pipe Masters, only a handful of people are in the water, and that‘s exactly what I found when I arrived.
I know my limitations, and I know that in waves that size I wasn‘t going to get what I wanted, so I had to wait for the waves to chill out a bit before I could get in the water. In that time I lost the people I was supposed to be shooting with to their normal lives, and the waves hadn‘t lost their menace. It was time to do something that I don‘t really like to do, but I‘ve become increasingly good at. It was time to turn the camera on myself.
At Sunset, I walked down to the beach carrying a standup paddleboard, my camera gear, a tripod, and my intervalometer. I stood on Rocky Point; behind me one of the sponsor houses was packed with pro surfers standing on the deck watching the sunset. In front of me, empty 25-foot waves were crashing on shore. There was no way I was going to be able to paddle out there. This was going to be humiliating.
I framed up my image, set my intervalometer to take an image every three seconds, and started running around the frame, posing in different positions and holding it awkwardly in front of the sunset viewers. I saw some smirks, and I could read their minds when they thought I was a “kook“. The most feared insult handed out by surfers.
There is no image that was bettered by a photographer’s ego. You just have to let it go, and own the fact that there is a struggle, which may require looking like a fool. I got through it with one simple thought. When they are flipping through their magazines in a few months, and they come across that image I hope they stop for a second and appreciate it, and then I hope they remember me running around like a kook on the rocks taking pictures of myself.
Enjoy this video from the Access Road Trip. The campaign was to educate and inspire everyone to get outside! Please check out Ben Horton’s photography here and be sure to follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.