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Battling the Elements in Adventure/Sports Photography
How to protect yourself and your gear

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

© Lucas Gilman

Whether bushwhacking deep within the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, or hiking the mountainous terrain in remote Arunachal Pradesh, India, the realities of Lucas Gilman’s job are not unlike the fictional description by novelist Jack London in "The White Silence."

“Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity - the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven's artillery - but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence,” wrote London.

From snowy, wet, and windy conditions to hot, humid and sandy environs, adventure photography, also known as the “extreme” genre, requires right-on precision, focus, athletic fortitude and technique. But if you’re interested, the market is small and the need is there, so it could be within reach.

For his latest assignment, Gilman is in Monterey County, California, documenting the training of the new “anti-doping” American cycling team that will compete in the Tour de France. It may seem like a relatively tame assignment, but you have no idea. Temperature is not the most important factor in these shoots.

On the side of a San Lucas highway, Gilman jumps around to warm up. He plops back down on the motorcycle seat and picks up his Nikon D3 again. He’s beginning to lose control of his fingers. The rain has incited hyperthermia in 40 degree temperatures. There’s still 95 miles until San Lois Obispo. Mind over matter. He carries on.

“This was the most miserable shoot ever. I was on back of the bike for 7-1/2 hours and 38 percent of the time it was pouring rain.

“Give me zero degrees on top of a Jackson Hole (Wyoming) mountain any day.”

The important thing in these extreme shoots is “the ability to keep yourself warm” by moving around. In effect, being stationary on the back of a motorcycle in the rain is more difficult and dangerous than shooting an alpine jump of a skier in sub zero temperatures.

Dry, Cold Conditions

Especially during the snow beat season, a small community of shooters fights the elements while working. From the NFL playoffs and mountain biking, to ice climbing and extreme skiing, Gilman likens it to battle. While preparing for a shot often seems like he’s suiting up for a fight, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate the intense beauty of what’s around him. He salutes it so much that he usually takes a second camera to use remotely for a horizontal, full-frame scenic shot. The other camera is handheld for a tight-in action shot. Using two cameras helps to ensure he has the image the magazine editors will want.

To prepare for dry but bone-chilling NFL games, like those in Greenbay (Wisc.), “I dress as if I were going ice fishing,” says Gilman (see equipment sidebar below). This includes using hand warmers in his pockets and fingerless gloves, which he removes when shooting.

“But I don’t need to cover the camera when it’s freezing out. It can withstand the cold," he says.

When coming in from the cold, he adds, NEVER put your hands under hot water. "You need to warm up gradually. You don’t want to burn your hands. Start with cold water and get the blood circulating by swinging your arms. This forces the blood into the fingertips,” Gilman advises.

Wet, Rainy Conditions

Preparation and quality equipment is one of the most important factors in the success of those in this genre. For the wet cycling shots in California, his 24-70mm zoom, and 70-200 mm Nikkor lenses were fully protected with Aquatech, a Gore-Tex-like lens covering that is customized to a particular lens size. When not using that, Glad bags and shower caps with elastic bands also work. “Use common sense in rain. I mean, don’t be changing lenses or make any rash moves. Be methodical. Be diligent about planning for the shoot,” he adds.

For remote shots via a PocketWizard in wet conditions, he uses a Think Tank, a protective rain covering for the camera to be triggered remotely.

“It’s great for protecting against any sprays of water,” he says. In addition, he always carries Shami polyester cloths to clean lenses, found in automotive stores. Natural cloths should be avoided, as they leave behind fuzz.

Many shoots are so remote it is necessary to hike or boat to get to the location. But that doesn’t mean there are unlimited shots once they arrive. “It is important that I get the shot on the first try,” he says. “You can’t ask the guys to [restage] a shot. It’s usually a one shot deal.” For this reason, Gilman always brings at least two camera bodies.

On a recent extreme kayaking expedition in Veracruz, Mexico, for Men’s Journal, the athletes rode a kayak over a waterfall into an 80-foot well below. Gilman’s set-up consisted of one handheld camera and a second mounted horizontally on a tripod with a PocktetWizard and Think Tank covering. He took one test shot to make certain it was firing properly. The handheld camera captured tight vertical shots. When travelling, he uses a 16 G SanDisk Card so he doesn’t have to worry about running out of memory.

Most shots are confined to one day, when conditions are just right. For extreme kayaking for example, conditions play a key role in the safety of the athletes and success of the shot. Rainfall the night before can ensure a soft trek down a waterfall or an evening snow storm can result in a powdery texture for a steady ski jump with a soft landing.

But the conditions are fleeting. One day can mean the difference between a great shot and playing with death. “These guys are professionals and are used to having to weigh the cost benefits of a shot,” says Gilman.

Upon arrival at a location, Gilman will survey the area for objects of interest. For a ski shot for instance, he may scout for a good tree, untouched perfect snow, red mossy cliffs etc.

“After I scout the scene, I try to put the skier in the scene and give him direction depending on factors. Maybe the sun is pretty and if the skier is back lit, the snow will pop. I may tell the skier what to do off the cliff. But it still comes down to what the skier feels comfortable with," he says.

Like in extreme kayaking, there not many second chances when photographing the skiiers.

"It doesn’t take more than one or two jumps to mess up perfectly clean snow." It also is important to keep hands as warm as possible. “I fit my mittens on the tops of my ski poles so they don’t get wet. As soon as I stop shooting I put them back on,” he says.

When he comes in from a rainy or snowy shoot, there’s an equipment checklist that he conducts to prepare for the next day. “I do a rigorous check. Surprisingly, I find the equipment is pretty rugged and is OK after it gets wetter than it ever should get.”

The checklist is:

  • Wrap all the camera bodies and lenses in towels.
  • Place Silica packets in the camera bags to soak up all the water.
  • After gear is wiped and cleaned, lay out all the equipment on a flat surface.
  • Take 2-3 test shots with each camera.
  • Upload images, if needed.

Gilman gets as much mileage as he can out of one location shoot. The assignment may begin with a job for a ski equipment manufacturer. Then, he will try to find an angle to pitch a story to an editor. Third, he will try to sell extra photos as stock. “80% of the time I pitch a story to an editor, rather than getting assigned one.” They usually go for his ideas and will ask how many days he needs, will assign a writer and may pay for expenses.

To Gilman, ice is his friend, snow brings him the green stuff, and lots of rain can mean the difference between victory and the agony of defeat. He’s accustomed to the risks and recognizes that the kinds of conditions in which the athletes thrive are “the very worse conditions for photography. "Whether it’s slick rocks because of inclement weather or having to repel with equipment on my back, I simply plan accordingly and anything I don’t absolutely need I keep out of the pack. I don’t want to be the weakest link," he says, adding that his pack usually weighs about 50-60 lbs.

To reduce the weight on his back, he chooses not to use a standard camera pack, which he considers weighty with all the extra padding. Instead, he chooses a regular Domke backpack and wraps gear in diapers. The best move you can make: “Personally, I spend the required amount of money to get the best gear possible. Nothing is worse than being in the middle of nowhere and being cold and wet. If you’re a liability to the team” you will lose money anyway.

It is also important that he can keep up with the athletes he’s shooting. “I participate in all the sports I photograph—kayaking, skiing, running. You have to be able to get to the locations and not hold the athletes up,” he says.

Just 30 years old and already a veteran in the adventure photography arena, the prolific freelancer has traveled the world shooting for National Geographic Adventure, ESPN magazine, Outside and the New York Times Travel section, as well as many commercial clients.

Based in the Denver area, the journalism graduate minored in photography and apprenticed with sports shooter Dave Black.

Despite his intense traveling schedule, continuous need to hustle, injury to his fingers due to past frostbite incidents and the inherent daily danger of these assignments, Gilman loves his job.

“If it were easy, everyone in the world would do it. Essentially in photography it’s about solving problems and getting through the day. Whether dealing with a crying mother of the bride, or a fickle athlete, how you problem solve impacts the quality of the images and the quality of the day. ”

For more visit

Gilman's Extreme Conditions Equipment List

(1) Lightware Rolling Multiformat 1629 (to get all the gear safely to location)

(1) Watershed, Westwater Waterproof Backpack:

(6) Domke 11 or 15 inch protective wraps:

(2) Think Tank Remote Control 10 or 20

(2) Aquatech SS ZOOM, or 200 (depending on lens choice)

(20) Silica Packets (put inside bags to dry out gear, easily found on EBay)

(4) Artificial car shammies (for drying of gear)

(20) Shower Caps (cover front of lenses when it's raining)

(5) Clear industrial trash bags (can be found out janitorial supply stores to cover lights or wrap bags)

Plenty of microfiber cloths

1 Roll Gafer tape

1 Roll Duct tape (scotch brand is his favorite as it sticks well in wet weather)

(1) 6 foot X 8 Foot Tarp (cover and protects gear on location)

(3) Pocket Wizard Mutimax:

(1 or 2) Gitzo 530 Carbon Fiber Tripod and G1378m ball Head:

(1) Bogen Superclamp with Gitzo Ball Head:

Patagonia Skanorak® Jacket: (gusseted sleeves keep water out and it breaths really well)

Patagonia Rain Shadow Pants:

Baselayers: Patagonia Capilene 4:

Shoes: Garmont ECLIPSE XCR '07 (GoreTex Keep feet dry and toasty):

Socks: Smartwool Socks ('cause wool is warm even if it gets wet):


(2) Nikon D3
(1) Nikon D300
(1) Nikon 14-24mm AFS f/2.8 G ED
(1) Nikon Autofocus 24-70/2.8G Autofocus-S ED
(1) Nikon 70-200 mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Lens
(1) NIKON 300mm AF-S VR f/2.8G IF-ED
(1) Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-17E II


(3) Nikon SB800 speedlights
(2) Bogen Justin Spring Clamp
(1) elinchrom RANGER RX SPEED AS KIT w/ A HEAD