Over The Edge

Lucas Gilman is a photographer and filmmaker who creates breathtaking adventure-sports imagery for clients like Sports Illustrated, Red Bull, Patagonia, Gore-Tex® and Nikon. He shoots everything from surfing to snow skiing, ice climbing to extreme kayaking, and he does it simply: by choosing high-quality tools, planning carefully, and putting the safety and security of his team—as well as the images he’s making—first.

Not long ago, Gilman sat atop a 189-foot waterfall in remote southeastern Washington while his subject, kayaker Rafa Ortiz, paddled to the edge. The photographer tried to talk his friend out of it, and now he couldn’t bear to look through the viewfinder.

"I’ve been in a lot of crazy situations," Gilman says, "almost kidnapped by Zapatistas, run-ins with banditos and Federales in Mexico, all kinds of crazy stuff, but I had never been on a shoot where I thought there was actually a good chance the subject was going to die."

Ortiz not only survived, he set a world record—a feat that likely will never be duplicated—and Gilman got the once-in-a-lifetime shot.

"I didn’t hold a single camera," he says, "because I was worried I was going to be shaking too much. So I put three cameras on tripods, locked down the focus and used PocketWizards to fire them wirelessly. I did a million test shots and got everything dialed, and basically, as he was approaching the lip, I pushed the test button and fired all the cameras simultaneously to get three angles of the shot. I was shooting Nikon D4S’s, which shoot around nine frames per second, and there were only four frames where he was visible. He was engulfed by water in the blink of an eye—four frames and he was gone."

Creating Motion With Stills

One of Gilman’s favorite techniques for photographing kayakers on waterfalls is to create a stop-action series to impart a sense of motion.

"How do I bring motion into a still image?" Gilman asks. "I know where they’re going to go over a waterfall or down a rapids, so what I’ll do is usually shoot at least one or two remote cameras—lock those off, prefocus, set my exposure, gaffer-tape down the focus and then motordrive as they come through. Typically, for kayaking, about 5.5 frames per second is about right. If you do too much more than that, they start overlapping. So then I bring all those images into Aperture, and I tone the first image to be exactly what I want it to be—contrast, color correction, etcetera—and then I apply that to the remainder of the sequence and export those into Photoshop into Merge Panorama—but don’t autoblend, have that turned off. It brings them in and turns the frames into layers. Let’s say you’re looking at a waterfall on layer one. Erase below that first kayak, where the second kayak is, all the way down the waterfall. And then the kayak on the second frame, or layer two, is exposed. Then you click on the second layer and go below the kayak and erase that layer, exposing the third kayak. Just continue to do that until they’re all exposed."

The Business Of Motion

Motion has always been present in Gilman’s high-energy stills, but lately, he has branched out into actual motion pictures, as well. It’s creatively fulfilling, and it’s good for business.

"It’s like a stock portfolio," Gilman says, "where you have high-tech stocks and biotech stocks and mutual funds, and everything in between. Video is that extra component which gives you the diversity to be able to be more well rounded, to have a larger client base. You’ve basically just doubled your business. I know there’s the old mantra "jack-of-all-trades, master of none," but I feel like stills and video can marry well and can be very beneficial. A really small-footprint production company can go in and produce really high-quality content at a fraction of the price of old-school methods because, as photographers, we’re used to working light and fast. We don’t necessarily have all the gear, but there’s now smaller and lighter gear that we can use to increase the production value—smaller sliders, smaller booms, octocopters for aerial footage—all these things we can do.

"Basically, you went from selling doughnuts," he says, "to selling doughnuts and coffee. You now have two products you can deliver. I do them both, but I don’t do them at the exact same time. Unless it’s some big waterfall drop, I shoot stills in the morning and video in the afternoon, or vice versa. They take two different brains, and it’s really hard to do both well. As a still photographer, we’re always working for that decisive moment, so we’re trained to be studying the nuances of every scene so that we have good framing and we’re waiting for those moments, and I think that really translates well into video. I think that we, as still photographers, think a lot more about framing. Where still photographers fall down on the video side is shooting B-roll and storytelling. That’s where we have to learn a lot.

"I’m shooting a surfing story in Iceland," Gilman explains, "and I need B-roll. A shot of the guy’s booty in his wet suit splashing through the water might be a beautiful slow-motion shot with the water streaming off, but as a still shot, people would be like, what’s that, there’s no context! What makes a good still shot and what makes a good video clip are completely different. Anybody who’s looking to go from shooting stills to dabbling in video, you have to go out and learn how video works. You can’t just all of a sudden be a director. There are a lot of things involved in video that you don’t think of in stills. You have to learn the craft. You have to learn the difference between 24p and 30p and 60 frames and all the settings on the camera that give it the different looks because that’s integral to the shots, as well as learning how to shoot B-roll. The action shots are pretty much a given, right? But it’s all those in-between moments that really make a film sing."

In this sequence, you can see one of Gilman’s favorite techniques for creating a sense of movement in a still image. The stop-action sequence is usually shot at 5.5 fps, and he combines the frames in Aperture.

Establish A Recognizable Style, Regardless Of The Medium

Whether stills or video, Gilman’s visual style comes through on every assignment. He calls it "little person, big landscape," explaining, "I shoot from the background first, so every image that I compose I start with the background. I’m picking my landscape, hopefully it’s beautiful, and then I’m finding out where is the peak moment in that landscape for whatever the sport is I’m shooting—surfing, kayaking, backcountry skiing—and then moving myself to where the subject is going to line up in a spot in the landscape that’s going to add something to the image. It’s just the same way I shoot portraits: pick a background, get an exposure for the background, add model, add light. An action shot is almost like a large portrait. The waterfall only goes to one spot, the skier goes off of one specific cliff. By doing that, I’m able to make the image much more dynamic or interesting."

Success Starts With The Simplest Planning

"I try to
put myself in the best possible position to make the best possible images," he says. "I’m going out at the optimal time of day; I’m not shooting at noon. I’m shooting before sunrise and after sunset to get that beautiful alpenglow and evening light. And then I try to shoot things in the middle of the day in open shade or something like that to be able to maximize the day. If you have people doing interesting things with interesting light, that’s going to give you so much more of an advantage than somebody doing something at high noon when the light isn’t interesting."

Data Management

Because he’s documenting often risky athletic feats, Gilman takes image management and data security very seriously. "If I was to say, ‘Oh, yeah, the card didn’t work out,’" he says, "not only would I lose the respect and trust of the client, but I’d lose that athlete who’s no longer going to want to work with me. That’s where a redundant backup strategy really helps. If you’re losing images or you’re not having a good backup plan, you’re basically screwing yourself as a photographer. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone. Hard drives are inexpensive these days. I take it upon myself to make sure I’m doing my due diligence because that’s what I would expect somebody to do if they were photographing me and documenting my historic moments. I think people should be accountable because everybody deserves their pictures and their memories.

"I use G-Technology drives," he says, "and I back up the cards right after the shoot to two separate drives so that I have three copies of all that data. And I’ll physically separate those—give one to the athlete or my assistant—so in case my hotel room gets robbed or I drop the CF card out of my pocket, I still have the shoot. These things don’t happen very often, these moments. It’s a historical record. You can’t replace that."


Nikon D4S, D800 and more than a dozen Nikkor lenses
Nikon Speedlights (SB-910 and SB-900) and wireless Speedlight commander
PocketWizard Flex and MultiMax Transceivers
F-Stop bags, Lightware and Pelican hard cases
SanDisk Extreme Pro CF and SD cards
G-Technology hard drives
Apple Aperture (for RAW processing and file management)
Adobe Photoshop (for image editing)
Apple Final Cut Pro X (for video editing)
DaVinci Resolve (for video color grading)

Mac Pro with Sharp 4K Display. "I was one of the first three people to get the new Mac Pro. Every minute I can save on batching photos or rendering video or streamlining an edit, those minutes add up pretty quickly. And that’s time I can spend with my family. Let’s say it costs $2,500 more than my old iMac. Well, what am I willing to pay for the 2,500 minutes a year or whatever it saves me? The quicker I can get done with a project, the quicker I can get back into working on the next project and getting more irons in the fire."

Bring The Viewer Into The Scene

Both stills and video all involve editing, though Gilman’s mission is to create an accurate depiction of reality—albeit one that makes viewers wish they were there.

"In the stills world," he says, "I shoot all Nikon and use custom picture profiles in-camera, even though I shoot RAW, to get them as close as possible to the way I want them to be at the end of the day. I’m trying to mitigate my postprocessing as much as possible by having it be as 100% in the camera as possible when I output it to my Aperture, Photoshop, etcetera. On the video side, it’s completely the opposite. You’re shooting as flat and contrast-free as possible. If you want to think of it in generic terms, a movie file is like a jpeg file—it’s like a somewhat finished file, and if you have too much contrast, you can’t take any away. You can always add color and you can always add contrast, but you can never take it away. In motion, typically, we’re trying to calibrate all the cameras to have a really flat color profile because then you have the most flexibility in postprocessing to have whatever look you want. If you were to shoot it on vivid, it’s very strong contrast, good sharpness, good saturation, very poppy—almost like a slide film—but you won’t be able to do as much with that file in postprocessing. You’ve locked yourself in."

Failure Is Not An Option

In the end, much like the athletes he photographs, Gilman only has one shot to get it right. "With the economy the way it is," he says, "and budgets these days, there’s no second chance. What really makes or breaks any shoot, stills or video, is preplanning. Picking the right tools, the best cameras, the best hard drives, CF cards and SD cards—all these things are integral to getting that work done. All that planning—shaving ounces down so you can have that extra tripod for a locked-off shot, or having that mini-slider so you can do a little dolly move while you’re doing an interview—all those things add to your production value. If you don’t come back with the goods, you’re not going to get hired again."

Go to www.lucasgilman.com to see more of Lucas Gilman’s projects.

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