Fast, far, and wide: Tips for intrepid photographers from adventure sports shooter Gabe Rogel
Aimee Baldridge | Fri November 06 2015
Climbers dangling from a sheer cliff wall, skiers soaring through clouds of powder—these are the kinds of shots that make just about everyone stop and marvel at the athletic prowess and plain old guts on display. Everyone except the photographers in the room, that is. We’re usually busy marveling at the person who isn’t in the picture, thinking, “Wow! How did they get that shot?”
To explore that question, we tracked down Gabe Rogel, whose combination of adventure sports chops and photographic skills has made him a sought-after shooter for outdoor brands and publications like Patagonia, Marmot, and Outside Magazine.
Rogel talked with us about his favorite tools and settings for capturing fast action in challenging environments, offered some tips for photographers who want to start incorporating adventure sports into their outdoor shooting repertoire, and explained why he has a soft spot for the fisheye when it comes to his personal travel shots.
Aimee Baldridge: How did you get into adventure sports photography?
Gabe Rogel: I grew up doing a lot of skiing and climbing in high school. I got super addicted to rock climbing, ice climbing, and mountaineering. So I always loved the outdoorsy adventure sport stuff. I started seeing all these photos in magazines and I was like, “Wow. What a cool way to make a living. There’s someone taking the pictures here, and getting paid to do it, and I want to do that!”
I had a few mentors who did just that. They were sort of like the godfathers, the original guys. Back in their day—they’re 20 years older than I am—they were the first guys to do it, at least in our country or continent. It’s a very supportive, helpful, small group of us, even now.
I ended up going to photography school at Colorado Mountain College so that I could keep climbing and skiing, probably more than I should have. One thing led to another, and I started selling photos to the climbing and ski magazines, and then Patagonia.
Climber Peter Doucette bouldering near Ama Dablam mountain, Himalayas, Nepal. Photographed with a Sony a7S and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens in an underwater housing at ISO 200 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/2500 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: So you consider adventure sports photography a new genre?
Gabe Rogel: Relatively speaking. I think it goes back probably 35ish or 40 years even. But yeah, compared to landscape or cultural portrait type stuff, like the National Geographic style, it’s newer. In the last 25 years or so, the world of adventure sports has blown up. The outdoor scene has gotten much more popular, which is good for adventure sports photography.
AB: For people coming from a landscape photography background, what do you think are the major differences between working in that genre and shooting adventure sports?
Gabe Rogel: The biggest thing, to me, would be speed. A landscape photographer has time. They can set their camera up on a tripod. With the stuff I’m shooting, there are people moving really quickly, and you’ve got to be on it.
And then there’s how you need to set your camera up. I always want to use my fastest shutter speed. To do that, I shoot at my widest aperture. A landscape photographer is going to do the opposite. They’re going to set their aperture first. The shutter speed really doesn’t matter, unless they’re shooting something like a waterfall and want to blur it.
Light-wise, I’d say the same rules apply, but sometimes you flat out don’t have the luxury of waiting for the best light. A lot of times you just have to work with the light you have.
Near Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, Arizona. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 400 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/400 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: Do you ever use lighting?
Gabe Rogel: A little bit, yeah. I tend to just use one strobe. I’ve played around with them a bit more and more over the last five or six years, and I really love the effect. I used to think it was cheesy and too dramatic and fake-looking. I love natural light, and I was all about keeping things as natural as possible. Now, you do that for so long, and I think you naturally get kind of bored and it’s like, “OK, I want to push the boundaries and try something new and different.”
One of the first times I did that was in Ouray, Colorado, probably one of the most famous ice climbing places in the U.S. We planted strobes behind these pillars of ice. The effects couldn’t have been more dramatic. I was really addicted from then on.
AB: What would you say are the most accessible adventure sports to photograph for people who want to start doing it?
Gabe Rogel: Trail running would be something that’s pretty easy for just about anybody to shoot, as long as you’re fit enough to hike. Sometimes a few hundred yards from your car or less, you can get out on some cool trails and set up. Get your model, or your girlfriend or wife or husband, or whoever it is to go and model for you. There’s not a lot of equipment involved. You don’t need a bike and skis and all that stuff. That would probably be a natural entry point for adventure sports.
AB: What about water-based adventure sports?
Gabe Rogel: Canoeing and sea kayaking are both relatively slow moving, so your subjects are easier to focus on. Then the next level would be white water kayaking, where you need to hike in and get into gnarlier rivers and more extreme conditions.
Aurielle Eyer running in North Cascades National Park, Washington. Photographed with a Sony a7 and Sony 16mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens at ISO 640 with an f/3.5 aperture and 1/6400 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: Are there any rules of thumb you can recommend to photographers who are new to shooting fast action?
Gabe Rogel: I would try to use continuous tracking autofocus in most situations. If someone is moving toward you or away from you, you almost have to use it. If someone is going to be moving side-to-side, say if you’re shooting a racecar, you can use manual focus. I would use autofocus and put my drive mode as high as it can go. Use your largest aperture, which allows you to use your fastest shutter speed, unless you want blur.
With continuous tracking autofocus on the cameras I use, you can set the focus points just about anywhere on the entire screen. Figure out your composition of the scene and where you want to put the person or subject matter, then set your autofocus point on that. You have to visualize it and then tell your model where to go. Use the rule of thirds or however you want to compose it, and then set your focus point on the spot where they’re going to come through the frame.
The idea is when you keep your finger pressed down, that continuous autofocus is going to keep focusing on them. Set that focus point for the bottom left or the upper right or wherever. Don’t just leave it in the middle, because generally you don’t want to center your subject.
Moe Witschard rafting in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. Photographed with a Sony a7S and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 200 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/1000 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: Which exposure mode do you usually use for capturing action?
Gabe Rogel: I’m almost always on manual. With an electronic viewfinder it’s that much easier to shoot on manual, because you get what you’re seeing. It’s super easy to just keep looking through the viewfinder while you’re dialing in your exposure. People talk about histograms all the time, but I don’t use them. I just have my screen set at a reasonable brightness and go by what looks good. I don’t geek out on the histogram stuff. I like to keep it simple.
Aurielle Eyer running in North Cascades National Park, Washington. Photographed with a Sony a7 and Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DT lens at ISO 640 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/1600 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: What are you shooting with these days?
Gabe Rogel: I’m primarily shooting with Sony’s a7R II. I also have an a7 II, which I absolutely love. I have a couple a7Ss that I bought for a video project. That was really cool because we were up on a 22,000 foot peak right next to Mt. Everest, shooting a climber. It was my biggest video project to date, and we were using these little teeny cameras that fit in the palm of your hand.
I did have help from two Sherpas to carry stuff, but in a situation like that, size and weight are crucial. At high altitude, you have a splitting headache and you’re breathing really hard and every step is hard to take. That’s where literally ounces are so important; the weight is just a major, major factor. We had this really lightweight carbon fiber slider and jib, and our crane and tripods, and tried to go as light as possible. Those little a7Ss were just amazing. They haven’t released the video yet, but I saw their cut and the quality’s insane. It’s absolutely beautiful.
I’ve also taken the RX100 III point-and-shoot on some trips up in the mountains when I wanted to go super-light. It’s hands-down the best point-and-shoot out there. I’m in the snow quite a bit, or in real bright situations, and it’s got a pop-up OLED viewfinder, which is good for two reasons: You’re looking at a screen, so you can see your exposure changes and all your menus. And in a bright situation, you can put your eye up to the viewfinder, whereas with 99 percent of the other point-and-shoots these days, you only have the screen on the back. If it’s really bright out, it’s hard to see that screen and tell if your exposure is OK. With the pop-up viewfinder, you can see what you’re getting so much better, and I just like that feeling of holding the camera up to my eye.
Camp on Ama Dablam mountain, Himalayas, Nepal. Photographed with a Sony a7S and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 200 with an f/4.0 aperture and 20 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: So the fact that everything is smaller and lighter is one of the main advantages of using mirrorless cameras for you?
Gabe Rogel: Yeah, that is the number one factor in why I wanted to switch over. I throw my backpack on now to go shoot some skiing, and my cameras and lenses are rattling around. I need to rearrange the pack so they’re not bouncing around, and then I barely even know they’re in there. I can ski better because I don’t have so much weight, which feels awesome.
Even on an actual photo shoot, it’s just less exhausting. Some of those days are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Or even when you’re traveling, you’re carrying stuff and moving around. That can be exhausting, and just shedding a few pounds goes a long way.
Climber in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 200 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/800 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: You’ve done a lot of travel photography in addition to your adventure sports work. Are your travel images also from commercial jobs?
Gabe Rogel: Almost all of those are from trips where I was shooting for Patagonia or Marmot—one of the outdoor clothing companies. It’s pretty common for those companies to have athletes as “ambassadors.” A lot of those guys and girls are friends of mine, and I’ll reach out to them and say, “Hey, let’s plan a trip together,” and we’ll pitch it to those companies and they’ll support it. Then we basically get paid to dream up some wild adventure and make it happen and capture imagery.
For the most part, my travel images are of the cultural side of those trips, so they’re more just me taking my own personal shots.
AB: Many people look for vistas and try to capture the whole scene when they travel, but I’ve noticed that your travel photography includes a lot of more intimate closeup shots. Why do you do make that choice?
Gabe Rogel: I don’t think it’s even a choice. It’s just the way my eyes work. Number one, I’m addicted to the fisheye lens. And 99 percent of the time, I shoot at my largest aperture, which creates that really shallow depth of field.
The fisheye doesn’t distort around the edges. Everyone thinks of the fisheye as being this overly distortional lens, which it definitely is. But I’ve played around with a lot of 14mm and 20mm wide-angle lenses that just stretched the hell out of everything near the corners, and I think that looks horrible. The fisheye doesn’t actually distort so much around the corners, and it captures everything. You can see the setting that you’re in really well. At the same time, I like to get really close to the subject. I want the viewer to feel like they’re right there.
If you do that with a longer lens, you can get really cool details, but with the fisheye, you not only get those details and feel like you’re right there, but you also see the surroundings. The thing with the fisheye that I think a lot of people have a hard time getting used to at first is to get that perspective. You kind of get in people’s faces. Sometimes I’m six or twelve inches away from people.
River rafter Don Carpenter. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 200 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/800 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: Of course, you also have a lot of commercial shots that do the opposite and show really large landscapes with small people in them.
Gabe Rogel: It’s a really fun way to challenge myself and put a small person in a big landscape. Patagonia is kind of famous in the outdoor industry for doing that, and showcasing the best of the best imagery that does that. To be frank, they don’t care about showing their product so much. They’re just like, “Let’s show really inspirational photos that show people doing what they love to do in the beautiful landscapes that we’re often in.” I’m trying to force myself to do that more because it’s pretty cool to compare little teeny people to big old Mother Nature, and show a little bit of that insignificance we all feel when we're in the mountains.
Dan Oberlatz and Chris Solomon backpacking in the Aniakchack National Monument and Preserve, Alaska. Photographed with a Sony a7 and Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DT lens at ISO 400 with an f/6.3 aperture and 1/500 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
AB: How do you find vantage points on those expansive scenes?
Gabe Rogel: It definitely takes some scrambling around. You have to get away from the guys you’re skiing or climbing with and get on another peak or ridge. You always look and make sure it’s safe enough. That’s the first and foremost thing, because I’m often going off on my own, and I’ve got to watch out for myself and make sure I’m not going to fall or get avalanched.
I look around for those bird’s-eye perspectives. Now, shooting with drones and helicopters—that’s such a cool perspective. But if you can get on another little peak, or sometimes climb up in a tree, it’s pretty cool to be able to do it without using all those crazy tools and just use your body to move around.
Scott Christie on a standup paddleboard near Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, Arizona. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 200 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/3200 second shutter speed. Photo © Gabe Rogel.
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