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."

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