A decade ago, Keith Ladzinski had just recovered from a 35-foot climbing fall—one that left him with a broken neck, fractured organs and collapsed lungs—when he got a call from a Wyoming lifestyle magazine to shoot an ascent up Devil’s Tower.
Up until that point, the Colorado resident was mostly an amateur, hauling his camera along while hiking or skateboarding, and occasionally selling a photo to a magazine. He'd never before taken his equipment on more difficult, rugged trips, though, so the assignment marked his first foray into true adventure photography.
“The pictures I got were horrible,” he says. “It was high noon. I was shooting the wrong angles. The action was awful. But it did force me to look at climbing in a way I never had, and I saw the potential for doing something exciting.”
Ladzinski lost his full-time job as a programmer for Hewlett-Packard soon after and used the severance package to start his new career. Today, he is one of the top adventure photographers in the world, his images appearing in publications like National Geographic Adventure, Discover, Men’s Journal, Outside, Runner’s World and The New York Times.
We talked to Ladzinski about what you need, and what you need to know, to go from shooting basic landscapes to capturing the perfect adventure shot.
Take Control: To get serious about adventure shots, ditch the point-and-shoot. You should find a camera that lets you manually adjust settings like aperture, shutter speed and focus, such as DSLRs and micro systems. The extensive capabilities of relatively cheap digital equipment means you can take breathtaking photos without spending a ton of money, says Ladzinski. He knows plenty of photographers who got their start with cameras from big box stores like Walmart and Costco. Also important is finding one that offers interchangeable lenses. Since you’ll likely be carrying it into backcountry terrain, try finding one made of rugged material, like magnesium.
“Having total control over the camera means you can completely change your perspective, and therefore the image, without having to change your position,” he says, useful when you’re perched in a difficult location waiting for action to unfold. “It’s something you just can’t do with a point-and-shoot.”
Experiment: “Most of the time, people get the camera and go charging out with it, completely unaware of its full capability,” says Ladzinski. Let’s admit it—we’ve all rejoiced at the discovery of things like panorama, black-and-white and nighttime presets that make a standard picture look epic, but chances are there are dozens of functions you don’t even know about. Ladzinski recommends taking the time to actually read the manual cover-to-cover. Also, play around with it before you try taking serious shots. “Taking bad pictures is part of getting to know your equipment.”
Glory Light: Head out early and stay out late for the best shots, says Ladzinski. Photos taken during the hours immediately before and after sunrise and sunset—when so-called “glory light” is present—have long, opaque shadows and vibrant colors. They also have more depth. Ladzinski’s second-favorite time to shoot is on overcast days, because it allows you to play with artificial lighting, like flash and strobes.
Joe Kinder on the Hurricave, UT (Keith Ladzinski)
Quality over Quantity: Endless digital storage makes it tempting to snap anything and everything, especially when you’re trying to catch people in motion, says Ladzinski. But, it turns out, this isn’t the best strategy. “There’s an old saying that you’re responsible for every corner and every edge of the frame,” he says. “I truly believe that.”
Frame up your shot first, focusing on finding the best background and light, and wait for the action to unfold. If you’re worried about missing a movement, don’t be. People are habitual, he says, especially when it comes to action sports that range from rock climbing to diving. “If you pay attention to these little subtleties, you’ll see the motion again.”
Fresh Perspective: Nine out of 10 times, it helps to know and be an active participant in the sport you’re trying to shoot, he says, since you know all the little details that could make for an interesting photograph, such as the chalk on a climber’s hands. With that said, some of the best shots of an activity can be taken by a newbie. A few magazines, like Golf Digest, occasionally hire photographers with no experience in a sport because of the unique perspective they bring.
Steph Davis and Mario Richard BASE jump from Ancient Art near Moab, UT (Keith Ladzinski)
Don’t Go Overboard With Photoshop: Just because photo-editing software allows you to easily adjust images doesn’t mean you should, says Ladzinski. A bit of tweaking in post-production is fun and useful, but go too far and the photo can lose its authenticity. The more you do in-camera while taking the photo, the better the image will be. Plus, you’ll save yourself a lot of time.
Sasha DiGiulian climbs Homeles De Pa Casa (8c) in Oliana, Spain. (Keith Ladzinski)
For more shots from Keith, check out his website, www.ladzinski.com.