Tips from a Pro: Action Sports Photographer, Fraser Britton
A look into the fascinating life of a travel photographer
There are photographers who travel a lot. And then there are photographers who travel A LOT. Fraser Britton, an outdoor adventure photographer from British Columbia, Canada, is one of the latter. He primarily shoots mountain biking, including the World Cup circuit, and travels for about 9 months of the year. To give aspiring photographers an idea what it’s like to be a working adventure photographer, we interviewed Fraser about his life on the road, including what it’s like for him to shoot an event, some shooting tips for aspiring action photographers, and some travel horror stories. It was tough to pin him down, but we managed to catch him at home a couple of weeks ago, and interviewed him over the phone as he was packing for a five-week trip to Europe to cover mountain bike events in Scotland, France, Germany, and Austria.
Where do you live, Fraser?
Right now I’m living in Squamish, BC, basically, halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. It’s the outdoor adventure capital of North America. There’s rock climbing, base jumping, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, eagle watching, everything pretty much five minutes from my door. It’s a pretty good place for an outdoor photographer to live.
What do you shoot? What are your main subjects?
It’s almost all action sports stuff I’m shooting right now. Ninety-percent of it is mountain biking. I travel with a couple of mountain bike teams and then there’s a bit of base jumping, a little bit of rock climbing, a little bit of motorcycle riding, sled [snowmobile] shooting and some other stuff. It depends on the season and it depends on the client list.
What teams you’re traveling with right now?
Well, I work primarily for Monster Energy so I travel with their collection of mountain bike athletes and I also shoot some other stuff for them. I also work for Five Ten Shoes. I shoot a lot of their mountain bike athletes and climbing athletes and stuff like that.
How long have you been a professional action sports and adventure photographer?
That’s a tough question because it was kind of a mess at the beginning. For a little while I was also racing bikes while I was doing this. But I think I started shooting professionally in 2001. That makes 13 years now. It’s been a long time. I just don’t want a real job.
How much time during the year do you spend traveling?
Actual travel days – probably 45 or 50 days of the year. But I’m actually on the road for almost 9 months of the year. I’m about to leave on a six-week trip so it’s kind of hard to quantify how many days I’m actually on the move. If it’s any help, last year I flew about 165,000 air miles.
Tell us about the trip you’re preparing for.
I leave on Sunday for four-and-a-half or five weeks in Europe and then a week in Durango, Colorado. In Europe I’ll be covering two mountain bike Enduro World Series races and two mountain bike World Cup races. Then I have to return to the States, fly down to Durango and do a four-day catalog shoot. It’s going to be an interesting trip, flying with studio lighting, my mountainbike and basically two completely different sets of camera equipment to shoot both the racing in Europe and the commercial shoot in Colorado.
What’s a typical race week or weekend like for you?
For a one-week event, I’d generally leave from the Vancouver airport on Monday for arrival on Tuesday. For the last few years the Monster Energy team has had a large (50-foot) RV in Europe so someone usually meets us at the airport with that thing. We load everything into it and drive to where we’re going, which in Europe can take anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to 18 hours, or even 24 hours in the RV. We get to the event location, set up the race support truck in the pit space area and by Tuesday or early Wednesday the team is all ready to go. Generally I walk the racecourse with the athletes and other photographers on Wednesday afternoon and then there’s practice for a day or two, depending on the event schedule. Qualifying is the day before finals and then on race day, practice is in the morning and finals in the afternoon. Then we head out to the airport early Monday morning because there’s usually someone with a 5AM departure time.
How about editing on site? How much of that do you do or do you just save it all till later?
Everything has to be done on site. I have to start as soon as the event is over. First of all, I’ve got articles to write for a few magazines and Web sites that have to be out right away. Then I do some public relations pieces for a couple of my clients. Press releases have to be written within a couple of hours and I need to include a couple of photos with each release. Then the rest of my clients all want stuff within 24 hours. So basically, I have to try to organize my photos sorting them into categories as I ingest, because at the end of the week, I’m going to have 3500 or 4000 images.
It takes too long to dig through everything when you need to get things out within sixty or ninety minutes. So it’s important to get that stuff organized so as soon as the race is over, the priority photos get edited and zipped off to wherever they need to go. Then the other stuff slowly gets edited over the next 12 hours that evening over dinner. Then, as soon as we’re headed to the airport in the morning, I’m editing photo in the back of the truck and trying to upload by via 3G, at the airport lounge or whatever. World Cup event photos are pretty time-sensitive. Generally, if the client doesn’t have stuff within 24 hours, they’ve already gotten somebody else.
You’re actually writing press releases for your clients in addition to shooting the photos?
Yeah, I come from a journalism background and you know what they say: “Every field journalist ends up writing public relations pieces.”
I write a bunch of news articles for clients and then I end up doing a lot of public relations. Part of my job with Monster is writing most of their mountain bike PR pieces and content for the MonsterEnergy.com Web site as well as stuff they send out to their partner sponsors.
Let’s move on to the next subject: gear. What kind of photo gear do you take on the road with you – what’s in your travel kit?
The actual loadout depends on the event – right down to down to the backpack. Everything depends on the job that’s being done, but all my stuff is Canon gear. I shoot with Canon EOS-1D Mark IV’s and EOS-1D X’s. Generally, I try to stick to a 70-200mm or my 300mm f/2.8. If I have to get any closer like on a racetrack or something, I’ll go with a 15mm fisheye or 16-35mm f/2.8. It really depends on the event, but that’s about where the loadout ends for me, camera and glass-wise. It’s a heavy load already and my back is pretty much maxed out with that.
Then I’ll have three or four strobes with me, plus the remote wiring that goes with them and five or six PocketWizards for remote triggering, the camera drive cable in case I want to set up a remote camera, and maybe a Magic Arm, depending on the track. I’ll usually decide that when I see the track, on course-walk day with the athletes – kind of figure out it would be cool to have a few angles so have a remote set up over there, and another one set up over here. There’s not a lot of time actually on the track with athletes so it behooves you to get as much done as you can in that amount of time to produce as many different images for your clients as possible. So if I can shoot two angles at the same location, especially on finals day, that’s super, super important.
I also carry a couple of lightweight tripods for flashes as well as a couple of UltraPod II’s – those tiny 6-inch tripods with a big Velcro strap on them so I can strap flashes to trees, course marking poles or whatever I need to. And that all goes carry-on with me – the airlines love me [sarcasm]. And then, in my checked baggage, I’ve got a mesh bag that’s got all the wiring, spare cables, chargers, a spare strobe, a couple dozen spare batteries, wrenches for baseplates and a tripod head for my heavy tripod. All sorts of stuff like that just gets checked.
That’s specifically for racing, right?
If I’m doing a catalog shoot, like I’m doing in Colorado, after Europe, I’ve also got a couple of sets of Elinchrom Ranger portable power packs with Action Head studio lights and light stands. For this catalog shoot I’ll also have an Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS power pack. It’s basically a portable studio with two Action Heads, extension cables, light stands and probably some mini soft boxes, a beauty dish and a couple of reflectors.
Generally I don’t use those on World Cup tracks because it’s too hard to get to them. I’m hiking in and out of locations and stuff like that. But if I have an assistant that week, or if I know I’ll have access to a 4-wheeler or something like that, then I’ll take the Elinchrom lights with me as well. It kind of makes me less mobile and I really have to have the day planned out – what I’m going to do and where I’m going to be – if I want to carry that extra equipment. But it does make a big difference. The quality of light is much nicer with those strobes.
So, you’d use those at a home course, like Whistler. Or another venue you’re really familiar with so you know exactly where you want to shoot.
Exactly. If I’m shooting the slopestyle competition at Whistler’s Crankworx festival, it’s within 200 feet of the base of the mountain so I can bring a second backpack and either hike up there myself and get really sweaty; or for a big event like that where there are 50,000 spectators, I’ll have an assistant to carry that extra bag because it weighs almost as much as my standard camera pack. It kinda sucks having to hike around with both packs, looking like a Sherpa.
Having those lights definitely makes a big difference, though. They throw light really far and that event takes place in the afternoon so you’re shooting into the setting sun. It’s nice to be able to fight back a little bit, overpower the sun and light somebody up.
Do you have a preference for bags and cases, both for travel and for in the field? Is there anything special that you use?
I’ve got a bunch of Pelican cases for stuff I can’t carry on the plane. I try not to check anything that’s primary, right? I’ll never check my main two bodies, my 300mm, my 70-200mm and stuff like that. The airlines have lost my bag three times already this year and over a dozen times last year. It’s just not worth getting to Africa and finding out that you can’t work. That would be a major bummer. The [Pelican] packing cases I’ll use to ship lights and stuff like that. They tend to be the only thing that will keep my lights in one piece with the airlines. I’ve also got a drone [radio-controlled helicopter for aerial photos and video] that travels in a Pelican case. Bags, right now, I’m bouncing around.
My main backpack at the moment is an f-Stop Satori – their biggest model. It’s really nice because it’s got a proper backpack harness system on it – fully adjustable for torso length and everything. And I’m really short, which makes a big difference for me so it’s not banging into my legs. It’s got a proper frame in it to carry the weight so it’s not just a big, saggy backpack with 60 pounds of gear smashing into your lower back all the time.
I kinda bounce between backpacks. I worked with CamelBak’s military division for a couple of years, trying to develop a camera bag. We worked on it and it got close and then they sort of lost interest in it. I’ve got a Dakine Sequence that I use for snowboarding. It’s really good in the backcountry. It’s got room for avalanche gear as well as a decent-sized camera loadout and some dry gloves and a spare pair of goggles and stuff like that.
Ironically, for riding bikes, I still haven’t found a backpack that works really well. It sucks because I have to do that all the time. So if anyone knows, let me know. f-Stop is supposed to be making some smaller bags that may be good for mountain biking, but they seem to lack a proper waist belt and harness to keep them from shifting around when you’re on the bike. Usually, I just use a CamelBak hydration pack, one of their larger ones and toss a camera body in the bottom of the bag and maybe a lens or two stuffed into a ski sock. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s better than riding around with a backpack that’s too big and making me crash.
As far as stuff you travel with, what do you bring that’s important that’s not camera gear? Is there any personal stuff you like to travel with that you think is essential?
Yeah. First of all, make sure your bag meets airline carry-on regulations. Or make sure you can talk really nicely to the airline people. Generally, I don’t really have a problem with my carry-on bags. But once in a while you’ll get someone who’s trying to make the next pay grade or something and pulls out a tape measure or scale – usually on Lufthansa or something like that. Swiss Air is really good for that. It reduces your stress level a bit, knowing you’re not going to get hassled about your carry-on bags –unless they weight it. If they weigh anyone’s camera bag, obviously it’s over, you’re screwed and then you have to be really nice and open the bag up and be like, “you guys want to be responsible for this?”
Pro-tip: they never want to be responsible for it so generally they’ll just let you go on your way.
The second thing is to make sure you have a really good laptop bag for personal things that aren’t camera-related. I try to keep no camera stuff at all in my laptop bag. Arcteryx just hooked me up with a really nice one. It’s got room for my laptop and its charger and a mouse and stuff like that. I’ve got four, two-terabyte hard drives in there for backups. I never check those either, obviously.
Then, a couple of really nice sets of headphones. One set of noise canceling, battery-powered ones; and then then a set of ear buds just in case the batteries die or I don’t feel like having them in my seat. If I’m flying in economy, having a big case of noise-canceling headphones jammed into your knees isn’t really the greatest thing.
Is there anything you do to ensure your travel time is as productive as possible?
Find out in advance if your airline has power because if you can plug your laptop in, that makes a huge difference as well. You can get a bunch of work done. Besides that, for airplanes I think the biggest thing I’ve bought in the last couple of years is one of the new iPads and I never thought I’d ever have a reason for it besides using it as a portfolio at trade shows. Then I had a 40-hour flight to Bali for a job and I didn’t know what I was going to do with a laptop battery that lasts 3 hours. I went out and I bought a new iPad the day before I left and loaded it full of movies and TV shows. Now I have no idea what I’d do without it. I make sure everything is charged and synced before I leave. Then I answer e-mails on the plane.
When the drinks are done and I’ve done all the e-mail and work I can do from my iPad, then it’s just watch movies and TV shows or read a book on the iPad until you land. I’ve got a bunch of books on here as well. It’s great because it’s no bigger than a magazine and just sits in the seat back in front of you. You just keep little ear bud headphones in your pocket and the iPad in the seat pocket in front of you and you can be entertained like a 6-year-old for a few days.
What is your absolute favorite thing to shoot?
That’s really tough. I spent 40 or 50 days up on the [Whistler] glacier this winter on my snowmobile and I think shooting sled stuff, just because it’s kind of new for me, and the guys and girls I’ve been riding with are all really, really good. Watching those guys do ridiculous things on 550-pound machines, getting upside down and just being out [in the backcountry] – some of the images are just incredible. Sunrise and sunset over massive snow-covered mountain ranges with untouched powder, champagne powder just hanging in the air with the sun coming through is pretty amazing right now. Otherwise, I’d say just a simple mountain bike trail ride in some spots. There’s no city, there are no lights. It’s just the mountains and the sky and a little tiny rider against a big huge backdrop.
What’s your favorite destination?
It’s got to be Bali. I’ve got a bunch of friends there now. I shot an event there for a couple years in a row and now I just go back on vacation. It’s amazing. The people are so nice and there’s epic mountain bike trails. There’s obviously world-class surfing – some of the best surfing in the world. The beer costs like $1, the food costs nothing, accommodation costs nothing and everyone is so welcoming and just wants you to enjoy their little piece of paradise. Yeah, it would be tough to say anywhere else, really.
For readers who are interested in getting into action sports photography, can you share a few techniques for getting good photos?
Try to keep your shutter speed fast – especially when you’re starting. Don’t stress out about not having image stabilization and the fanciest, newest gear. If you can shoot at f/2.8 or f/3.2, even if you have to push the ISO, keep your shutter speed up. It’s gonna make all the difference in the world. It’s better having a grainy picture than having a blurry out of focus picture.
Definitely practice panning. I pan mountain bikers doing 65 or 80 kilometers an hour as slow as 1/25th of a second. Some friends and I will get into panning contests at events just because we’re sitting in the trees for hours at a time going a little bit stir crazy. We start panning down as slow as possible and see if we can get some usable shots. A couple of years ago, one of my favorite images ever came out of panning. I think it was taken at about 1/30th of a second – through the trees, through ferns and trying to get a rider in a little tiny spot of light that was coming through the trees.
Panning with mountain biking can be tricky because the rough terrain causes them to bounce around rather than moving smoothly like a race car. How do you handle that?
You’re definitely rolling the dice. I try to keep the subject’s head still in my frame. If I can keep their heads still, then I’m pretty good to go. If I can get a nice, crisp shot of a helmet and eyes or goggles, I don’t really worry too much about the bike and stuff like that. The easiest thing is get them in the air. If you can get them in the air, they’re as stable as they’re going to be, moving at that speed. So that’s usually your best bet. Sometimes you get lucky on the ground and get a cool shot out of it. I generally only do that after I have all the safe shots I need already for the week. I know my clients are going to be happy with what I have and then I can start playing around and getting stuff like that gets me excited.
There are some people – guys like Gary Perkin in the mountain bike industry – who can pan like nobody’s business and will pan through anything: through the jungle, through netting, through bridges, through walls, through fences. Once in a while, you just get lucky and get an epic shot. And he’s definitely one of the masters of doing that. It’s pretty cool to see the shots he’s come up with and use them as inspiration to shoot things like that. When I got that shot, we were just talking about, Gary and I were standing together just killing time the morning of World Championships and that one little spot of light came out and we were both like, “okay, here we go.” We started seeing how low each of us could go. He ended up with some ridiculously low shots and I think that one was at 1/25th or something and I just happened to nail it. Somehow it’s perfect. You can see the stitching on his pants and the signature painted on his helmet. Everything worked out great. Sometimes you get lucky.
How do you typically handle your lighting?
I try to stick to natural light as much as I can for 90 percent of the stuff I’m doing. And then for each event, I’ll try and get two different shots that are lit. It’s kind of a baseline – obviously, some races are going to be darker. I’ll generally try and get one really nice pan shot of each of the major riders at the event. Bike companies usually want to have a side view where you can see the whole [bike] frame and components and stuff like that. Then I’ll try and get one that’s lit, that’s not really a pan shot. I’ll use some fill lighting or some back lighting or something, just to make the shot stand out and be a little bit interesting. Sometimes that doesn’t work out because the light’s too spotty in the trees or it’s too bright out in the open and all I’ve got with me are strobes. But if it’s a really sunny event like when we shoot in Africa, I generally don’t worry about anything lit. Because I can shoot those pan shots from the side at ISO 50 if I have to and push stuff to f/22 if I need to. Worst case, I can throw an ND [neutral density] filter on there and not worry too much.
Catalog companies, generally for ads, want something that’s well-lit so you can really showcase their product. Since I do mostly commercial work (I don’t do a lot of editorial work anymore because they just don’t pay enough), I ended up shooting a lot more with flashes. I’ve been trying to push some clients to go the way of using unlit images, like more natural. I mean – that’s mountain biking, right? It’s getting away from technology and getting away from the city and hopefully getting away from Strava [a GPS-based tracking app a lot of cyclists use for training and competition] – getting away from all of that stuff. Then, if you throw lights on it, to me, it just doesn’t feel that natural. Whereas if you’re shooting something like we talked about before with a big massive background and a tiny little rider – it’s nice to be able to shoot it natural.
Sometimes with a shot like that, I’ll put light on it, just so I can underexposed for the background a little bit and get those really nice clouds or sunrise or sunset and just put a little bit of light on the rider with a hidden flash set up with a PocketWizard just so the rider stands out a little bit more in the image – especially since they’re going to be so small. Yeah, lighting is pretty basic, really. It’s like anything else, I guess: it depends on the style that you shoot and what your clients want. It’s pretty much dictated totally by what my clients want at any given event. It is good for freezing [a subject]. If you can’t get a high enough shutter speed, I’ll definitely pull flashes out just to freeze a rider and get a couple of nice, crisp images.
Do you have any crazy stories from the road?
Oh, jeeze – there’s a lot of those. Let’s see. I had at least one flight where an engine caught on fire.
We had to land. Yeah, that was fun. I had one flight, flying into Madrid, I think, that we almost hit another plane. I’d never actually done one of those emergency go-arounds before in a 747. That was entertaining. We were probably 15 or 20 feet off the threshold coming into the runway and all of a sudden, we went to full power – pilot rambling something off over the intercom that no one could really hear because there’s four massive engines at full power and a bunch of people screaming. Then he pulled a hard one around and came back in. Apparently there was another plane on the runway still and air traffic control had missed that. That was entertaining. There were people sick all over the place, not that usual. Generally I like nice, turbulent flights. It actually helps me sleep. But that one wasn’t that fun.
I was flying from Denver to Sacramento, I think, way back in early 2000. I can’t remember what airline I was on, but we’d just left Denver – we weren’t even over the Utah border yet. All of a sudden, there’s a bunch of rattling from the plane and there’s flight attendants in the aisle with their hands to the ceiling and we’re still climbing so they hadn’t even been out of their jump seats, yet. But as soon as we hit cruising altitude, there was a pilot back there with his hands up to the ceiling and all these rattling and whistling noises and no one knew what was going on.
The next thing we know, we start descending again. The pilot came on the radio, saying we were going into Salt Lake for an emergency landing because one of the roof panels had come off the outside of the plane. So that was nice. Then we sat in Salt Lake. In the Salt Lake City airport, everything was closed after 8pm. All the bars are closed. And we sat there until probably two o’clock in the morning before they could get us a replacement plane. They wouldn’t put us up in a hotel because it was a quick flight to Sacramento from there. One of the flight attendants was a really nice guy and he started smuggling us bottles of Jack Daniels to drink in the airport because all the bars were closed. We had pockets full of little mini bottles of booze.
Besides that, it’s just the usual: lost baggage, lost travel partners, missed flights, running through airports, getting the full security sweep. No rubber gloves yet – that’s always nice. A lot of the German airports … Obviously, I fly so much so I’ve got flyer status and they will shuttle you from the lounge to your gate or from gate to gate like one of those big rush emergencies and put a Mercedes out on the tarmac, which is kind of cool.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened while you’ve been shooting?
That’s tough. I’m not really sure. I mean I’ve been hit multiple times. I’ve seen other people get hit.
That seems like an inevitability
Yeah, especially with a fisheye and a mountain bike. You end up getting in some weird places with that lens. It’s definitely aptly called a death lens. I’ve had peddles hit me in the forehead and you just don’t realize how close you are.
I Shot a bunch from the helicopter. That’s always fun. You’re strapped into the helicopter hanging outside of it. I’m not a huge fan of heights so that takes a little while to get used to. Same thing with shooting BASE jumping – hanging off an exit point, which is okay with a parachute on, but not so much with a camera around your neck.
Do you have any photo horror stories?
A couple of weeks ago in Australia, I lost two Canon EOS-1D X bodies due to humidity. It’s an expensive week when the original estimate from Canon says $285, or whatever the CPS [Canon Professional Services] repair price is. I thought that’s fine, no big deal. $500 I get both my cameras back, good to go. And they’d both been in before for water damage. They say they’re water resistant, they’re definitely not. This wasn’t even so much rain. It was 100-percent humidity for days at a time, then going into air-conditioned buildings afterwards, right. There wasn’t much I could do about it. Both the bodies died and neither of them would come back. The updated estimate from Canon was, “extensive water damage, irreparable. Suggestion to replace with the new 1D X.” Feel free to send us $16,000 for two of them.
That’s pretty much the worst thing that’s ever happened. I mean I drop stuff all the time. I’m kind of a klutz. I tend to throw things around if I’m excited, in a hurry and trying to make sure I get the shot I need to get, I’ll drop the 1D X with my 300mm f/2.8. The other body I had sitting on the ground, around my neck, whatever and then realize I just threw my $7,000 camera body and $7,000 lens on the ground and then go, “Oh, that probably wasn’t super intelligent.” But I do that all the time. I don’t really think about it. That’s what CPS is for.
That’s one of the differences between being an amateur and a pro. You learn to do what you’ve gotta do. Right?
That’s what it comes down to. That’s what’s paying the bills and stuff. So if it costs me $500 to repair something and then I license the image for $4,500 – well, that’s the cost of doing business, isn’t it? At the end of the day, as long as you’re making a profit, repairing things is just another expense. Not really a big deal.
Unless you need to use that tomorrow in which case you should’ve thought about that in advance.
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton
By Fraser Britton