Sports photography relies on quick thinking and quicker reflexes. Learn what it takes to seize the moment and snap incredible images of extreme sports.

Sports photography is all about the moment, whether it’s a scored goal or a touchdown. With extreme sports in particular, it all comes down to a fraction of a second. Extreme sports are all about risk, and it’s up to the photographer to capture the most nail-biting instant of all. Maybe it’s a windsurfer barreling through the air, or perhaps it’s a rock climber dangling upside-down. Whatever it is, you probably won’t get another chance, so you had better be prepared.

We asked six professionals about their experiences capturing adrenaline-pumping scenes around the world. While they cover a variety of different sports, they all share an appetite for the extreme. Some of them have worked with the most daring athletes around, while others are athletes in their own right. Read on to learn their best tips and tricks for those once-in-a-lifetime shots.

1. “When shooting extreme sports, the safety of both the athlete and the photographer is extremely important.”

Lukas Gojda

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Safety First

Image by Lukas Gojda. Gear: Canon EOS 5DS R camera, Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L USM lens. Settings: Focal length 135mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f6.3; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This picture was taken in 2016 in Sankt Anton am Arlberg in Austria. This area is ideal for off-piste riding. I was here with my brother for four days. During the first three days, the weather was very bad, so we thought the trip would be unsuccessful. But on the last day, the clouds melted away, and the sun started to shine.

Early in the morning, we got to the highest peak, and because it was freezing, the surrounding vegetation was beautifully frosted, creating ideal scenery. During the day, we got a lot of great shots, and although we had a long way to go to get back to our country (the Czech Republic) in the evening, we did not regret it at all.

Pictured: [1] Lukas Gojda [2] Lukas Gojda

Pro Tip

When shooting extreme sports, the safety of both the athlete and the photographer is extremely important. First of all, I map the terrain to make sure there is no threat to life—for example, steep rocks in the mountains, the danger of an avalanche, etc.—and then I plan the camerawork itself. Of course, I have to keep weather conditions in mind, as they can change from minute to minute in some of these locations. When shooting skiing and freeriding, it’s best to have a wide-angle lens (or even a fisheye) and to be as close as possible to the skier. This will bring drama to the scene.

Every winter since 2012, I have been going to the Austrian Alps or Italian Dolomites with my brother. I always plan the destination in advance. Because the temperature is often far below the freezing point, I’m always warmly dressed and equipped with two gloves (one warm for skiing, and the other less warm for easier control of the camera). I also cannot forget about the ski goggles, spine protector, helmet, and walkie-talkie. I also bring a cell phone (with weather forecast applications!) in an outdoor case, a power bank, some food, and hot tea in a thermos.

In my backpack, I always have a camera (kept wrapped in a towel or a hoodie), a widescreen lens, a mid-format lens, and sometimes a 200mm telephoto lens. Additionally, I have an external flash and basic avalanche equipment. It is important to have at least two and ideally four spare batteries due to frost— their lifespan rapidly decreases in winter mountain conditions.

2. “Ideally, you should be able to predict the movements of the athlete before you push the button.”

Maria Nelasova

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Know the Sport

Image by Maria Nelasova. Gear: Canon EOS 60D camera, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens. Settings: Focal length 375mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I shot this photo during Typhoon Nock-ten in the South China Sea. This is the famous Russian extreme windsurfer Igor Yudakov. The picture shows the windsurfer literally flying over the floating fishing villages with his board and sail.

Pictured: [1] Maria Nelasova [2] Maria Nelasova [3] Maria Nelasova

Pro Tip

When shooting extreme sports and adventure, you need to understand that the conditions will not be the same as in the studio. You need to be ready to shoot in the rain, wind, sea spray, sand, or dust. For example, I once had a photo session during a sandstorm in the desert in Africa. You can start practicing with any kind of gear, but if we’re talking about professional photography, then the camera and lens should be high-quality, dustproof, and waterproof.

It is important to understand the basics of the sport. Ideally, you should be able to predict the movements of the athlete before you push the button. Think ahead. Most importantly, the photographer should enjoy the process.

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3. “Don’t forget to protect your equipment from dirt, dust, and water.”

Artur Didyk

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Protect Your Equipment

Image by Artur Didyk. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF 17-40/4 L USM lens. Settings: Focal length 17mm; exposure 1/1250 sec; f7.1; ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?

One of my latest shoots was downhill cycling, and it was spectacular! I had to lie very close to the point where the athlete—my friend Nikita Slipchenko, a super-professional World Championship medalist—was due to pass. There was a lot of dust, and it was a little bit scary, but I think we made it work. I’m truly inspired by people who have succeeded through persistence—people who, after falling, always have the courage to stand up and try again.

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Anticipate Highlights

Image by Artur Didyk.

Pro Tip

You need to understand the sport you’re photographing. In every sport, there are different highlights (jumps, tricks, cornering, etc.), and you should be able to anticipate when they’ll happen so you’re ready to capture them. Remember the basic rules of composition and color contrast. Don’t be afraid to use Photoshop to add dynamism, but remember that everything should be done in moderation.

Also, remember to keep your distance! Even when I shoot with a wide-angle lens, I try to maintain a safe distance. This is not only for your own sake; the life of the athlete is at stake. Even the most experienced champions can made mistakes. Don’t forget to protect your equipment from dirt, dust, and water. Use camera cases or even routine plastic bags. I should also say that you must love what you’re doing. I put a part of myself in each of my photos.

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4. “Find a shooting spot where you can capture the feeling of being there, and search for the right background.”

Strahil Dimitrov

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Expect the Unexpected

Image by Strahil Dimitrov. Gear: Nikon D5000 camera, Nikkor 55-200 3,5-5,6 VR lens. Settings: Focal length 112mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f9; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

The chance to capture this kind of dynamic image in the water with so many people involved occurs very rarely. The guide was preparing to flip the boat, and I knew then that something nice was coming my way.

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Plan Ahead

Image by Strahil Dimitrov.

Pro Tip

The best extreme sports photography is not necessarily about the best sporting achievements. Photography deals with visual impact. Understand what is going on around you. Find a shooting spot where you can capture the feeling of being there, and search for the right background. Rushing or panicking in photography is bad, but it’s good to think fast. Being fast and understanding what will happen next comes with experience. Safety comes first; the nicest spots are usually some distance away from the sportsmen.

5. “You have to scout the location beforehand and find the exact place with the most powerful view.”

Photobac

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Scout Your Locations

Image by Photobac. Gear: Canon 5DSR camera, 24-70 f2.8 LII lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f3.5; ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I took this picture from inside a cave on Kalymnos island in Greece, one of the greatest areas for rock climbing. I made the image at sunset, and after the shoot, we had to walk down a steep loose footpath in complete darkness to reach a road.

Pictured: [1] Photobac [2] Photobac

Pro Tip

For rock climbing photography specifically, you’ll need a couple of strong climbers—a leading one and a belayer—who do not mind climbing a challenging route at the end of the day. The most beautiful pictures are taken on difficult routes. You have to scout the location beforehand and find the exact place with the most powerful view. This is important because you cannot do a lot of takes due to the harshness of the terrain.

Rock climbing gear, appropriate shoes, and a rope are must-haves. Sometimes, I have to climb the route next to the one I am going to shoot and stay in one place in an uncomfortable position. If the climb goes along the ledge of a cave, you can also get a stunning image from inside with the view of the surrounding scenery.

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6. “If you want to make photos of extreme sports, it helps if you participate in the sport yourself.”

Ivan Chudakov

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Don't Underestimate Luck

Image by Ivan Chudakov. Gear: Canon EOS 1D mark III camera, 70-200 F2.8 L lens. Settings: Unknown

What’s the story behind this photo?

This was a few years ago in Siberia. The mountains themselves weren’t particularly big, but I was walking with a skier to try to find some interesting lines. We were lucky to find this sunlit spot with nice, deep snow, where we could position the skier with the dark mountains in the background.

6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports — Shoot Sports You Know

Image by Ivan Chudakov.

Pro Tip

If you want to make photos of extreme sports, it helps if you participate in the sport yourself. For example, if you want to take kayaking photos, it’s better if you also kayak; similarly, if you want to take skiing photos, it will be to your advantage to be a skier or snowboarder yourself.

Top image by Ivan Chudakov.