What does it take to be a good photographer? My own personal interest in photography led me to exercise my curiosity. For all the great adventures we see captured in a photo, there is a story behind each image and a journey to take it. In what has evolved into a lengthy and incredibly inspiring two-part article, I reached out to 11 of the world’s best female action sports photographers to uncover the stories, techniques and challenges behind some of their favourite photos.
These female action sports photographers are quite incredible. Not only are they exceptional photographers but they also have to be pretty handy in their chosen sport. Take for example Savannah Cummins and the climbs she has to physically do, or Jody McDonald soaring high on her paraglide. Add to that heavy camera equipment and you have a superwoman athlete that’s also a bad-ass photographer.
Then imagine you’re one of the only women doing what you do. Not only are the sports that you photograph primarily male-dominated but also the surrounding media and supporting industry. Female action sports photographers are a special breed. From my point of view as an athlete, working alongside another lady in these environments makes the experience all the more special. As someone looking to be inspired in both my adventures and photography, these ladies really deliver.
My camera was getting soaked, my fixed lines were frozen and so were my feet… I got the shot I set out for and kept telling myself ‘I love this shit!’
– Savannah Cummins
So here’s the first part of a post celebrating everything female action sports photographers do to create their dangerously beautiful photographs. It was an absolute pleasure to chat to these 11 women, all of which I think are at the top of their game.
Savannah is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio but moved west 6 years ago and hasn’t looked back. She loves the mountains, desert, intense seasons, and the wide open spaces the west has to offer. Rock and ice climbing, along with the lifestyle that comes with it, is her chosen action sport to photograph. Working alongside the amazing people and brands who devote their time and energy to accomplishing the things that are important to them, is what fascinates her the most.
Follow her Instagram adventures @sav.cummins
What is your go-to camera set-up?
I’m shooting on the Sony A7rii with a 16-35 f2.8 lens. The Sony is a mirrorless camera making it lighter weight than most. I love the wide angle lens so I can be hanging on a rope above my climber to capture the try-hard faces and tiny holds they’re going for!
What’s the biggest challenge you face as an action sports photographer?
The biggest challenge for me as an adventure photographer is usually light and weather. I’m not in a studio where I can control the light. I have to wake up before the sun rises and go to bed way after it sets. I can plan for a shoot months in advance and then the week of, the weather decides to do the opposite of what I want. But with that said, it’s always worth waking up early and trying to get the shot regardless of the weather and light, I learn something new every time!
Can you describe your best experience as a photographer to date?
Even though weather is usually the biggest challenge, sometimes the best shots come from the craziest weather. One of my most memorable experiences is from an ice climbing shoot in Canada. The wind was blowing sideways and dumping snow. My camera was getting soaked, my fixed lines were frozen and so were my feet. Yet it was still SO fun! I got the shot I set out for and kept telling myself “I love this shit!” Not many people will step foot into those conditions. The effort it takes is what makes it special for me.
Krystle Wright is an Adventure Photographer originally from the Sunshine Coast Australia but describes herself as a nomad, calling the road worldwide her home. Known initially for her base jump photography, she absolutely loves chasing expeditions and projects around the world. She is a Canon Australia ambassador and has an enviable resume of shooting for some of the best brands in the business.
Follow her Instagram adventures @krystlejwright
In a career as demanding as yours, what is your biggest challenge?
These days, the biggest challenge is to find balance. From maintaining my momentum as a freelance photographer and running a business, to finding time to shoot, to train and keep my fitness up. Even time relationships and trying to not burn out. I’ve had to learn how to prioritise my time otherwise it can become very overwhelming quickly.
What has been your best experience as a photographer to date?
All the high moments I have experienced are unique and I can never compare them. I feel incredibly lucky that I do get to lead an extraordinary life. I’ve seen and felt such wonderful and unique things such as paragliding at 7000m above the Karakoram Range in Pakistan, freediving with Sperm Whales in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve even had a baby elephant seal hug my legs on the shores of Gold Harbour in South Georgia. There have been so many beautiful moments!
Sachi Cunningham is a documentary filmmaker and Professor of Multimedia Journalism at San Francisco State University. Her award-winning stories have screened at festivals worldwide, and on outlets including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, PBS FRONTLINE and the Discovery Channel. An incredible water woman, Sachi has swum her camera alongside everything from 350-pound bluefin tuna, to big wave surfers, to Olympian Michael Phelps. This short film about her approach to water photography is well worth a watch.
Follow her Instagram adventures @seasachi
At big wave spots, you need both mental strength and fitness.
– Sachi Cunningham
When shooting in big surf, what is your biggest challenge?
I’d say that the biggest challenge is mentally keeping your cool in big surf. But the reality is that you also have to be in top fitness. So it’s really a combination of both. There’s plenty of waves that you can just park at a peak and you really don’t need to be very fit to get the shot. Nor does it require that much mental mettle. But at Ocean Beach and at big wave spots, you need both mental strength and fitness.
At Ocean Beach, the hardest part is getting out.
Tell us about one time when you had to overcome your fear to get the shot?
I think the most memorable day that I had to overcome my fear to get the shot was the first time I made it out to the lineup in big Ocean Beach surf. I talk about it a bit in this video about me titled ‘Inside the mind of Sachi Cunningham’.
I didn’t make it out the first time and I got really rattled by a wave. Just tossed all over the place. Getting tossed like that really takes a lot of energy out of you in addition to the fear and doubt that sets in. I swam in to catch my breath and get my strength back and mind back in the game. All the time looking at the surf because I knew I could make it out there. I kept looking at it and studying where the best spot to go in was. I tried a second time and made it! It was one of the best, most memorable sessions of my life. I don’t remember being particularly scared getting any of the shots once I was out. At Ocean Beach, the hardest part is getting out.
Vanessa is one of the female legends of action sports photography, known for her amazing snowboarding shots. She describes the last 18 years shooting snowboarding and some of the best female athletes as ‘pure happiness’. Her love of the mountains took her from the South of France to the Alps, where she spent all of her holidays. After graduation, she moved immediately to the mountains and started photography. The rest is history!
Follow her Instagram adventures @vanessandrieux
What’s has been your biggest challenge in your career?
Initially, my biggest challenge was to be able to make a living from both photography and action sports. Now I find the biggest challenge is to keep doing a good job by always finding new ideas and new inspiration.
What do you love about your job?
All the travels I have done were amazing. It’s a real blessing to be able to travel the world chasing good snow, new spots, terrain and new images. For me, those travels have been the best experiences. You’re always learning and discovering so much on every trip.
Known for her surf meets fashion, travel photography and unique style, Ming Nomchong resides from the envious location of Byron Bay Australia. She loves the energy of a beautiful place and she knows how to capture it. Raised on the east coast of Australia with a camera in one hand and a surfboard in the other, she has built an international reputation with her authentic sun ’n’ salt fashion and lifestyle images. The go-to photographer for many surf brands, her rare combination of edge, adventure, and style brings something fresh to fashion surf photography. Check out her blog The Drifter.
Follow her Instagram adventures @ming_nomchong_photo
What camera are you using the most?
It changes every shoot but for water photography these days, it’s a 24-70mm lens with a Canon body and an Aquatech surf housing. I like this set up because it’s so versatile and I never need to change lenses.
What do you find the most challenging about your job?
My biggest challenge is being pushed to your physical limits in bigger waves when shooting surf. For me it’s not the wave size but the sweep that comes with bigger waves. It can easily become too hard to swim against. Luckily I mostly shoot longboard waves which are a lot more manageable and user-friendly.
Is there one trip that really stands out?
Definitely when I got to travel to Tonga to photograph our crew swimming with humpback whales.
#6 Marisa Jarae
Born in Colorado but raised in Florida, Marisa now lives in Denver Colorado. She is the very definition of a Weekend Wanderer. The hills, rock and snow always feel like home. One of her greatest passions is documenting the journeys, challenges and friendship that are forged as she pushes to redefine limitations. Her photos really capture those moments. She photographs wild places and people experiencing them through mountaineering, scrambling, climbing rock/snow/ice, hiking, backpacking, alpine SUP, alpine ice skating, snowboarding and snowshoeing. You will see many women feature in her photos. Her Instagram is a feast for the eyes.
Follow her Instagram adventures @marisajarae
Your go to camera is a Fujifilm XT1, can you tell us about the benefits of this camera and why you love it??
Gladys is her name. She’s mirrorless, so smaller than the usual DSLR. When it comes to camera gear, size plays a big role in the images I capture. I often have to carry everything I need: survival gear, food, clothing, extra batteries, technical climbing gear… all on my back. But, size is only a quarter of the equation. The elements and mother nature – she can be rough. And Gladys – she’s rugged.
I’m hard on my gear, and my camera is no exception. I need a camera that I can just throw across my shoulder and not worry that it’s below zero out or that we were getting snow blasted. I don’t have to mess with removing her from the case for every section of class 4 or 5 fun we come across. And boy does she look like she’s been through the ringer, but she still works beautifully.
Her image quality is amazing. I shoot in RAW, but the sharpness in the images, amount of data and dynamic range in each file is unreal. I’ll shoot slightly dark (slightly), and pull those dark areas out in post, and those areas are just stunning. People often ask me if my images are composites or HDR – and I don’t usually do either. When you’re shooting in nature, often beholding to the lighting and angles that she gives you, it is really great to have a machine that can gather as much info from each frame as possible. As crisply and cleanly as possible.
Finally, I love the design. The X-T1 and X-T2 cameras are reminiscent of 35 mm film SLR cameras in that shutter speed and ISO can be manually set with dials on the top of the body. In manual mode, I can quickly set my aperture, shutter speed, ISO without even really looking at the screen on the back. I usually also set focus manually. It is really nice to have that control, without having to look at the screen on the back and scroll through menus.
Outdoor and adventure photography is experience frozen in time.
What is your favourite action sport to photograph and why – do you have any challenges to overcome?
The difference between photographing extreme sports in their natural environment and photographing, say a basketball game is that you have to a) be able to actually get to the location yourself, regardless of how remote it may be and b) often, you also have to do the sport and have a passion for it. There are some exceptions to that second statement, but I find that my images are much more powerful if I’m photographing a sport I also love and actively participate in.
That being said, my main or favourite “sport” is mountaineering. But mountaineering is made up of so many other sports. Through learning what it takes to climb big, rocky and often glaciated hills, I have discovered a love for rock, ice, and snow climbing. I’m not sure what my favorite is, if I’m honest. I think, though, that they all have a common element of limit pushing and discovery in sometimes harsh and always beautiful terrain – sort of a “human meets planet” over and over again.
I love watching people expand what they think is possible. Outdoor and adventure photography is experience frozen in time. It is the promise of beauty and wild places, discovery and awe. The images I create are meant to inspire the viewer to seek the world beyond their boundaries, to choose a different perspective.
I didn’t start my mountaineering journey with the idea that I wanted to photograph it. The biggest and most awesome challenge has been to learn the skills required to participate in all of the sports I photograph. And I’m still learning – I started with the Colorado Mountain Club about three years ago – and still have so much more to learn and do. So. Much. Stoke.
Can you talk us through the story behind your favourite photos?
The photos I take are really meant to be a re-creation of the emotion, the feeling of a place or experience. I love this photo not because it’s particularly stunning, but because of the onion of lessons that run my head every time I see it.
This was my winter attempt at Mt. Elbert, 14,439 feet. I’ve summited it twice in the summer – the class 2 route is a slog, if I’m honest. It’s not particularly pretty and is full of false hopes (aka. summits). But, we were training for Rainier – which would be my first glaciated peak. We hiked to camp over about three miles, a couple thousand feet of gain and with beautiful weather. When the sun went down, temps plummeted. At our altitude, we were sitting right around 0 degrees fahrenheit. But here’s the kicker – the humidity was unusually high. And then the snow/sleet started. And wind. I’m a firm believer that, with the right gear, weather isn’t really an issue. However, Colorado isn’t usually a particularly humid state. Even my dry layers were slightly damp. I lost feeling in my hands and feet for a good portion of the night and the following day. Being cold doesn’t really bother me, though, so I just ignored it. We left camp with a solid alpine start and had hit the lower ridge by sunrise. It really is something, to be continually snow blasted through the night and early hours of the morning, then to see the orange glow of the sun trying to bite through it all. Otherworldly.
I learned what it meant to find my limit, when to not push any more, because a teammate’s issue is the whole team’s issue – danger for one is danger for all. And I knew I was hooked.
The short of this story is that I had to turn back. The storm didn’t get better and even though I had on mountaineering boots, my feet were blocks. I’d end up with a touch of frostbite and having to revamp my gear to handle both humidity and freezing temps. I learned what it meant to find my limit, when to not push anymore (which was a first for me) because a teammate’s issue is the whole team’s issue – danger for one is danger for all. And I knew I was hooked – because it hurts and it’s uncomfortable and it’s sometimes maddening. But through the madness, we are able to find this sort of euphoric clarity, to see the beauty in ourselves and this rock in it’s purest form – to see it as it was meant to be seen. No pretense.
A massive thank you to all the ladies featured in this post, who kindly gave their time to answer these questions and share their experiences and images. Thank you x
Cover image of ice skater Laura Kottlowski, by Marisa Jarae.
Part 2 of this series of best female action sports photographers, will come next week. Subscribe to the Still Stoked mailing list, Facebook page or Instagram to make sure you don’t miss this or other inspiring posts.
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