Jul 23, 2021
Will Gadd: Act Like a Pro
The adventure legend explains why pros get the results first before getting experimental, why posing is bad and why if you want to work with athletes, you should never, ever behave like a dick.
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How important has photography been in your career?
My sports are not spectator friendly, so I count on photographers to bring my world to the public. Without photography my world is invisible, and I can’t have the career I’ve had. It’s that simple: I don’t have a job without both the pro photographers I work with.
What does it take to be an adventure photographer?
My expeditions are normally cold, remote, and dangerous. There are sleeping bags, cameras and fingers that freeze solid, and there’s always the chance of the mountain doing something we don’t expect. So to even go on these trips you have to be a little bit special, and then to capture any images takes extraordinary hard work. But to produce images that grab the world’s attention with their raw visual power takes an incredible set of both survival and art skills that’s very rare. My favorite story is of Christian Pondella making sandwiches every morning on an expedition in -30º temps. That’s how he could help us move forward, and while the images he shot were incredible it’s his constant work ethic that I respect the most. Talent is nothing without working to move the team forward.
“Pros get results first, then take chances to get the mind-blowing shot second”
Is the athlete-photographer relationship important? Do you work together on the creative vision?
Yes and yes! Often, I have to trust what the photographer is seeing in his head, even if I can’t see it. Some of the most amazing images I’ve worked on came about even though I honestly thought the idea was stupid. But I don’t say that, I get out and do my job as an athlete, and over the years I’ve learned to really trust the photographers I work with regularly. And the opposite applies – I often have ideas about what will work well with the light or the feature, and the photographer sometimes doesn’t see it until we’re in it. But the best is when we work together, talk about what needs to happen, and then make some world-class images together. That’s as satisfying to me as doing the climb or flight sometimes.
What makes a great adventure photo?
This is a question with as many answers as shutter clicks on a pro’s camera! In a word, I love images that amaze me, rock me back on my heels and make me forget about anything else for that moment After that immediate emotion I look deeper for a few things: Unique so it grabs my eye, layers to discover, solid craft and composition, integrity, and then sometimes 200 other qualities after those first few that contradict them.
In more detail: It’s a unique view. A totally different moment, perspective, composition, something that grabs my eye from a distance and says, ‘Hey, this is different!’ Maybe it’s the composition, and I ask, ‘How did they get into that position or find that light?’ Or, more simply, ‘WTF!’ The second is that the photo holds my attention in a process of discovery. Maybe a shot with some wild sports action, but also a facial expression that says more about the situation than just the wave or rock or sky alone.
“If you’re a pain in the ass to be around then you’ll go nowhere.”
If a photographer has used their deep understanding of light and action to make something amazing then I respect that craft and vision a lot. I also respect the amateur who is in a once-in-a-lifetime position and points his phone and nails the image of a lifetime simply because they are there—being in the right place counts for a lot, sometimes more than craft.
Are there particular sports that you like to see?
Whether it’s paragliding or paddling or climbing or biking, (I like) shots that I want to be in; where I can say, ‘Damn, I wish I were there!’ Even if I lack the skills to be there, good shots make me want to be there. That’s why so many BASE images resonate – almost no one looking at them will ever BASE, but they are so out there that it twists our minds and amazes us that a human can do something so wild!
How important is it that an image is legit from an athlete’s perspective?
The image has to ring true to me as an athlete, an athlete with good form, doing something logical for where she or he is. The most perfectly envisioned, composed and timed image of a surfer on dead water is still dead. A climber looking like he or she is bored stupid says a photographer is driving the shoot past where it should have ended.
A perfectly placed paddle into the sun but held in a way no athlete ever would tell me the shot lacks credibility. As athletes we pose, that’s our job, but the pose better be real to our friends and colleagues. Legitimacy is very important. The public may not pick up on the subtleties of what’s going on as an athlete, but over time those athletes who are legit in their sports and their images earn respect from their peers, industry and public. That matters more than people might think.
“Every successful photographer is always a businessperson.”
Any tips for aspiring adventure / action sports photographers?
Don’t be a dick. You can be the most talented person in the world, but if you’re a PITA (pain in the ass) to be around then you’ll go nowhere. Once you’re a mega-famous director then you can be a dick maybe, but not today.
Any other advice?
Get ahead of the day’s curve. Think where things are going and why, and be there before it happens. Friends and I joke about photographers we work with who are either ahead of the curve or behind. The really good ones are one step ahead of us all day. The BTC photographers rarely get invited back.
Shoot. Get out and shoot until the craft is second nature. I can tell within a few seconds on a shoot where someone is in their image career by how fast they think and execute, their packing system, their vision. That just takes repetition and critique from both your own eye and hopefully some mentors or at least friends who will be honest. Then try to sell your work, or at least place it. Images without homes are nice, but you’re going to run out of space on your own walls pretty quick. Every successful person learns how to make a living off their work or they don’t become successful. The business of sports photography takes as much creativity, vision, and desire as shooting, so act like a pro and try to sell or place your work. Hustle for the shot, hustle for the sale, hustle for the job, and always work harder than anyone else on the scene. Every successful photographer is always a businessperson.
“Shoot. Get out and shoot until the craft is second nature.”
Keep going, give us more advice!
Failure is over-rated. Try different things, be inventive, take risks, yes, but get the job done first so you know you’ve got decent results. Don’t get all tricky without having a result on the card. Pros get results first, then take chances to get the mind-blowing shot second. I’ve been on some shoots where I get the selects and think, ‘OK, neat idea with the funky repurposed 1950s Hasselblad lens, but for fuck’s sake where is the super clean action images for the people who paid for all of us to be there?’ Lastly, keep trying. Nobody is all that special, but the people who keep trying to make it happen, and that is special.
What kind of images are you looking for?
Yours. It’s an honor to look at other people’s work, and while I can’t promise I’ll see it the same way you do, I know you sent your best stuff in, and I respect the hell out of that.
Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal’s Founder & Editor-in-Chief will be a judge at this year’s Red Bull illume. For more information click here.