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Adventure Sports Photography: Lighting in the Field

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Adventure sports photography relies on good light to make compelling images. Tom Bol offers some great tips for how to get the most out of lighting your subjects.
This chapter is from the book

Lighting is key to the success of any image. Without light, there would be no photographs. My life revolves around light. I wake up early for it. I plan vacations around it. I buy special gear to capture it. My career depends on it. Photographers are joined at the hip with light.

Adventure sports photography relies on good light to make compelling images. Photographing mountaineers on a glacier on an overcast day is like shooting flies in pea soup. Everything is flat and murky with no contrast. The viewer can’t see any detail in the snow; it’s a featureless, foggy mess. If the climbers are wearing drab clothes, they look like brown boulders in a snowfield. Not good.

But then the sun comes out, and this mountaineering scene is transformed. Detail emerges in the snow, and steep ridges and deep crevasses are revealed. The climber’s Gortex jacket brightens, and his skin tones rosy up. Nature just turned on the light switch.

I speak from experience. Once I shot a new clothing line for Columbia Sportswear in Alaska. We had decided mountaineering would be a great way to illustrate what the new clothes could do. I had hired climbers to be the models since they would actually be climbing in serious situations. The climbers had climbed up a ridge for a shot, and I had set up a quarter-mile away with a telephoto lens to compress the scene. There was no scene; only dull shapes on featureless white. I was sweating bullets since the shoot depended on good light. But then the sun broke through a hole in the clouds and perfectly illuminated the climbers. I squeezed off a few shots, and then the clouds pinched the sun out. But I had my shot (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1

4.1 Climbers roping up on a ridge on the Matanuska Glacier, Alaska.

Natural Light

Natural light has been the mainstay of adventure sports photography for years. Adventure sports take place outdoors, so the easiest and most logical source to use is available light. And the good news is, natural light creates stunning images. If you use the lighting and design principles outlined in Chapter 3, “Creative Composition,” your images should look good. Seek out warm light for pleasing landscapes. Look for edgy light situations. Put your model in the sun with a dark-shadowed background and you should have a dramatic image. On overcast days use a slower shutter speed (since there is less light) to create pan-and-blur images (Chapter 6, “Photographing Water Sports”).

Every time I head out the door on a photo shoot, the first thing I do is evaluate the light (Figure 4.2). What I see determines how I will proceed on a shoot. If it’s sunny, figures in a landscape with lots of blue sky will work great. If it’s overcast with pasty-white skies, I’ll focus on smaller scenes or shoot in the forest. And I have another option with natural light: I can alter the direction and quality of available light using light modifiers.

Figure 4.2

4.2 A photographer’s day begins with evaluating the light.


Reflectors are light modifiers that reflect light on to a subject. Generally, we think of specialty reflectors designed for photographers, but natural reflectors are abundant in the field. Snowfields and sandy beaches reflect a lot of light onto subjects. Water reflects sunlight into a kayaker’s face. Always be aware of natural reflectors you can use in your image (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3

4.3 Sand and water are natural reflectors that can be used in adventure photography.

Light reflected back on your subject will fill in shadows and reduce contrast. Reflected light also reflects color onto your subject. If you use a white reflector, it will reflect white light on the subject. If the reflector is gold, then the light will have an orange color.

One important characteristic of a reflector is its throw, or the distance it can reflect light back into a scene. Silver reflects light the most efficiently, and can reflect light into a scene from a long way away. This works great when you are photographing a large scene and want to add some reflected light into the scene. The person holding the silver reflector can be outside the field of view and still reflect light onto the subject.

Reflectors come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Collapsible reflectors work great for adventure sports photography. Small sizes collapse down to round disks about a foot in diameter, yet expand big enough to reflect light for portraits. I like to use Lastolite TriGrips. These reflectors have a handle that makes holding and positioning them much easier, especially in the wind. My TriGrip has a variety of interchangeable fabric colors that slip onto the reflector. I use soft gold, white, and silver the most (Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4

4.4 TriGrip reflectors come in a variety of colors.

Larger reflectors are also a good choice for adventure sports shooting, but they’re better used closer to the car since they’re bigger and heavier. I use 42″ × 78″ and 78″ × 78″ Lastolite Skylite reflectors for big light jobs. These reflectors have a metal frame with material attached via Velcro and reflect a large amount of light into a scene. Often I use the Skylite with white material to reflect light back into scenes.

An advantage of using reflectors is that the reflected light is easier to meter and preview on the scene. You can see what the reflected light looks like, and meter accordingly. With flash you get a quick burst of light that can be harder to visualize.

Using a reflector is simple: Just position the reflector to aim sunlight or another light source back onto your subject. To control the intensity of the light, move backward or forward from your subject. A big mistake that photographers often make when using reflectors is getting really close to their subject and overpowering them with light. If you reflect full sunlight onto your subject from a foot away using a gold reflector, your model will look like a sunburned tourist in Cabo. Back away to get less powerful reflected light. And when you’re not shooting photographs, make sure to lower the reflector to ease the strain on your model’s eyes (Figure 4.5).

Figure 4.5

4.5 A reflector is used to reflect light back onto the subject.

Overhead silks

Another way to control and modify natural light is using an overhead silk. Overhead silks are large white panels that allow light through in varying intensities. Some silks reduce light by 1 stop, others by 2 stops. As with reflectors, they come in a variety of sizes, from small handheld reflectors to large overhead silks (Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6

4.6 Using an overhead silk for a portrait.

Overhead silks are portable shade producers, and a great item to have for shooting portraits on a bright, sunny day. If there is no shade around, you can position your model under a silk and get great, smooth, wraparound light. You can also use other reflectors and strobes with overhead silks and create nice lighting for portraits.

Start by using an overhead silk to soften the light on your subject. Then use a soft gold reflector to reflect light onto one side of your subject, creating some contrast and interesting light for your shot. To increase shadows on the opposite side, use a black reflector to subtract light. Using the sun as your main light and modifying it with reflectors and overhead silks, you can create terrific portraits using available light.

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