What makes the perfect action sports photograph?
Once it was enough for a photographer to capture an athlete doing something incredible. These days, the best action sports images are works of art.
Last September, the iconic Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibition that attracted not your usual art-scene crowd. Among the guests and dignitaries were snowboarders, surfers and climbers – and the photographers who go to some of the furthest reaches of the earth to capture their antics.
On display were 55 giant 6ft by 6ft lightboxes erected across the gardens, showcasing the winning images of the Red Bull Illume Image Quest, the world’s largest action and adventure sports photography contest.
“The photography is on another level,” says Apoorva Prasad, editor in chief of The Outdoor Journal and one of several judges of the contest. “Things are frankly being done that were unimaginable 20 years ago.
Among the images submitted to Illume were creative techniques one would not normally associate with action sports, from 3d printing to a skateboarder illuminated by UV lights, to a diving photographer who rigged an underwater sinkhole with lights to shoot a freediver; the result was a composite from 24 separate dives.
“With slide and analog, composition was your strongest tool to make a picture look great – it was pure photography.”
“People tend to get blasé when they see good photography,” says Prasad, “but actually the images represent a great deal of work to construct.”
“It’s not all Photoshop,” he adds. “People think technology can perform miracles and it’s all about digital manipulation but it’s not. It’s actually no different than what they were doing back in the day in the darkroom – ensuring the exposure comes out the way it should and there’s nothing fake.”
The one effect of the huge digital revolution he says has been to free photographers from worrying about their gear so they can concentrate on the stuff that matters – light and composition.
One of the people doing just that is a German photographer called Lorenz Holder. He was voted the overall winner of Red Bull Illume, two editions in a row.
His work is unique in the way he juxtaposes athletes in unusual and interesting landscapes. His winning image shows a BMX rider doing a nosey (a front wheel wheelie) on a derelict stone bridge across a perfectly mirrored autumnal lake.
Another shortlisted image shows a rider descending the steps of an unusual steel structure in the middle of nowhere while his aerial photos of wake and skate boarders, shot from a drone, have an almost surreal quality
Action sports photography meets fine art
“I’m an action sports photographer first and foremost but I really like architecture, fine art, landscape and I try to mix those genres together to create fine art sports photography,” he says.
“People often ask me what is a great action sports image and my answer is always to ask, could you hang the picture on your wall even if the athlete was not there? If yes, then you’ve got a pretty good starting point.
“The rider or athlete doesn’t have to be super close. They’re not the only part of the image. They should be not too dominant or too small. If you manage to do that then you have got the perfect action picture in my eyes.”
For French photographer Teddy Morellec, who had two finalist images in the contest, ‘being curious and creative is the point’. His winning entry in the Mobile category shows a pair of long-shadowed BMX riders in Paris, walking home into a sunset while his ‘Enhance’ category image is a black and white shot of a skateboarder doing a trick, seemingly above a sea of meandering black and white lines.
“Action sports photography is on another level”
“Looking for the perfect spot, a new angle or point of view, trying new lightning techniques [is key],” he says. “Curiosity helps you to go further than you do usually. And creativity adds the spice on the photography. A good picture should be tasty for your eyes. For me, I like to see good lines and light,” he adds.
The genre has come a long way. Holder remembers starting out shooting snowboarders on slide film and the challenge of using external flashes. “It was so difficult to get the settings right, you had to meter everything. Now you just look on your display.”
In fact, when digital came out, it became so much easier to work with flashes that for a while it seemed every action sports photographer was using them, he recalls.
Analog and Film
“People got so excited about the technical stuff they forgot a bit about clear composition and framing. With slide and analog, composition was your strongest tool to make a picture look great – it was pure photography.”
There was one other more important difference with analog and it had nothing to do with anything on the photographer’s side.
“Back in the day you had to buy magazines. You turned to the gallery and you might see an image for a week and constantly look at it. Now the life span of an image on Instagram is maybe a day? There are hundreds of images per day which are pretty good. Even if you have a great image you just look for a few seconds before moving to the next one. Nobody’s going to look back a week later. The value of a great picture – it gets lost a bit.”
Prasad also believes that the huge leap in technology and quality has left a gap that needs filling – on the viewer’s side. “What we lack today is the education to appreciate beautiful images. The technology is moving so fast but education isn’t. Lighting is never going to change, physics is never going to change but we need to understand lighting and the history of art – and that’s education.”
While Instagram is obviously useful for photographers to showcase their work or take fans and clients behind the scenes, Holder believes it can stifle creativity and originality. Particular styles of photography become dominant and suddenly photographers start chasing the same image.
With adventure photography, Holder cites the cliché of the canoe on the perfectly mirrored lake with the image shot from the point of view of the paddler. “Or there’s the gorgeous landscape shot from your tent or the one where your girlfriend is maybe holding your hand and pulling you into the picture or what I call ‘small people in a big world’ where you have a guy standing in a massive landscape. When you think of classic landscape photography there are no people whereas there are always people in Instagram. I don’t know how many accounts that have the same style – and quite often you see exactly the same location and angle. People just put up the tent just to make the image. That’s the wrong way to do it, there’s no creativity in that scene.”
“Sometimes the first camera you have on you is the best one.”
For his next project Holder is currently working with a large format film camera to shoot a BMX a rider. “They have so many advantages,” he says, “but they are not so practical”.
The ability to correct colliding lines in the camera is one, but with only ten images per day, it means every shot has to be carefully planned and envisioned. “It takes a long time to set up. If you’re walking around and you see a crazy sunset you cannot just pull it out and shoot. You sometimes miss the shot you’d get with a digital camera.”
There will also be the challenge of syncing the camera’s top shutter speed of 500/s with a flash burst of 1000/s. “It’s going to be interesting and I’m not sure it’s going to work,” he says.
Mobile phone photography
But that’s where a mobile phone really comes in, helping to plan shots to see what they look like before committing the image to print. Holder uses a viewfinder app that lets him see the exact image dimensions of a camera’s shot in combination with different focal lengths – whether that’s a DSLR’s 3:2, or a large format’s 4:5 to see if it’s worth taking an image. It’s something he does regularly with his DSLR in cold wintry conditions, when taking his camera out of his rucksack risks draining the battery. “I’ll walk around with the phone, finding the angles and the lens that I need and then I can put the large format camera together.”
Stay tuned – we’ll be sharing Lorenz’s behind-the-scenes shots created on his KODAK EKTRA Smartphone and will report back on how the shoot went.
Mobile phone photography has also come on a long way since it first became possible. “The level is extraordinary,” says Prasad, the Illume judge. “Today you can go anywhere with your cell phone and still produce incredible images.”
“The level is extraordinary.”
“Sometimes the first camera you have on you is the best one and I always have a phone with me,” says Morellec. “Every year I’m doing better pictures with it. I can capture some nice lifestyle shots and sometimes action. I love that you always have it in your pocket and share it. I like phone photography – it’s like a real camera you have in your pocket.”
Morellec has the Kodak Ektra and is looking forward to working with it, creating some images at the Garoroc festival in southern France this July. “The weather looks really bad, though,” he says. “Storms!”
Holder also says that despite his large format and digital cameras, his go-to camera for everyday shots is a smartphone. “I use it for when I’m shooting with my kids, where you have to be quick and capture a moment,” he says.
Capturing the moment – and those unique moments of your life or the wider world around you is of course at the heart of Kodak’s #iftheworldcanseetheworldcanchange campaign.
There is a digital landfill out there and it’s full to bursting with millions of throwaway shots, from discarded photos of lunch to selfies; capturing everything, but feeling nothing.
At Kodak Phones, we’d like to change that. We’d like to encourage people to take their time and take photos that matter – and that’s what the Kodak Ektra is really about. If the world can see, the world can change.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing great photography created on the Kodak Ektra and speaking to photographers who are passionate about mobile phone photography, from conflict reporters to music and festival photographers.