Nikon Ambassador and award-winning photojournalist Ami Vitale has a long…
Brett Wilhelm is a Colorado-based action-adventure photographer. Though he’s covered all kinds of team sports, skiing and cycling are closest to his heart. Brett is the owner and operator of Wilhelm Visual Works, and for years has worked alongside the Clarkson Creative Group. The group covers myriad sporting events and is also home to NCAA Photos. Brett has acted as the Workshop Director for the Summit Series of Photography Workshops, including their Adventure Photography Workshop, a branch of the Clarkson Creative Group that offers topical workshops to photographers.
Brett shared with us a lot of great, hard-earned tips and experiential knowledge about the workflow of an action adventure photographer who has shot for the likes of Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NCAA, and the X Games. Here’s what Brett had to say about pre-event prep, on- the-ground gear upkeep, and on-the-go editing.
What is your workflow when shooting action/adventure?
I shoot with two to three cameras at a time. I have two card readers connected and am immediately downloading those cards to a working drive and a backup drive. That way once the images are moved off the card there will always be at least two if not three copies of that data. And two is the minimum, three is preferred. If we don’t have to overwrite cards they continue to be one aspect of backup.
Most of the work I’m doing now, as well as what we do with Clarkson, is deadline oriented. Some of our editing starts in the field. Everyone jokes about “chimping” (checking images in the viewfinder) but we’re tagging images in the camera so that we know which are the better images. That way, using a variety of programs that respect those tags (Aperture, etc.), by the time we can download and process images the initial edit is al- most done. While images are continuing to backup and download (to two drives), I’m already looking at those selects within minutes of connecting the cards.
￼At an event like at the X Games or the NCAA Championships, work I did over my career with Clarkson, we’re sometimes expected to deliver images within minutes of the event’s completion.
We move through the ID’ing and the selects. Usually we do only a basic level of editing. Minor curves and level adjustments, setting the light points; most of those changes I’m making in the field are global, I’m not get- ting into granular dodging and burning of specific areas or layer adjustments. I feel like if we shoot something correctly in the first place then just some basic image adjustments will usually get the file to a place satisfac- tory for almost anyone. Then if the client wants to do additional processing they are usually free to do so.
How does weather-prep and safeguarding gear factor in?
In the world of winter sports,you’re often operating in cold, treacherous conditions, all of which do not agree with electronics. Keeping the gear warm, dry, and safe is paramount.
There are a lot simple things I’ve learned along the way or learned from other photographers. Like keeping a car chamois with me because they’re absorbent and a good way to remove moisture from gear. A simple nylon household paintbrush with the handle broken off is a great tool for brushing snow from gear without it melting. Do this with a towel and you’re going to end up melting snow and getting moisture inside your camera, which will destroy your gear very quickly.
Whether it looks geeky or not I have carabiners on my photo backpack, I clip the camera straps to my shoulders so no matter how quickly I’m moving I can’t drop them.
A lot of the things I’ve picked up along the way have to do with taking care of my gear, but also taking care of myself. That’s an important distinction. In the adventure and action sports space it’s almost more important to take care of yourself. You go out on the first day of an event—you’re in at a high-alpine environment, the sun’s coming from all angles, you can burn like crazy— and if you forget something as simple as sunscreen you could be destroyed.
You also have to maintain a level of baseline fitness. Some of the sports that we photograph require a good amount of skill for the photographer to stay with or ahead of the athletes.
Sports photography is all about instant coverage—how has technology changed the way you’re able to deliver images?
A real breakthrough in the last few years has been the ability to bypass the download-and-edit-on-the-computer process by taking advantage of Nikon’s off-the-shelf wireless technologies. This allows transmission directly from a camera to PhotoShelter’s archive and image delivery system. Images are available to our various clients in almost real-time—before the athletes even finish their run.
Now we’re even able to avoid setting up a restrictive router and expensive wifi network by leveraging iPhone or cellular hotspots that you can buy from AT&T and Verizon. That really opens doors to all kinds of venues. With an iPhone in my pocket acting as a hotspot, using cellular data, I can transmit from the back of a motorcycle when I’m photographing a bike race. hat helps beat others to market using something that only a handful of years ago only the Getty’s and the AP’s of the world could implement. That tech is now in the hands of anybody at an affordable price-point.
It’s something that I helped develop at Clarkson that clients loved; the NCAA really loved that we could have images up on the jumbotron in the stadium while the game was in session, the last big dunk 30 seconds ago. It used to be that it was a great benefit that we could show up and deliver this, but the X Games and ESPN are very much television- and web-driven companies, so timing is everything, which means now they’ve come to expect this.
So do you have the best job in the world?
Yes, but as I remind people, a job is still a job. Some of the events I’m going to I’m looking at through two or three degrees of lens, and I focus on just what’s in front of me. It’s not the same as being in the stands with a beer. But I do get out of bed every day excited about what I do.
For a more extensive version of this interview, plus many other tips from the pros check out our guide Building Your Outdoor & Adventure Photography Business. Download it today:
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