To get gigs as a professional photographer takes years of experience. But how do you get that experience in the first place to learn your craft and shoot like a pro?
Aspiring photographer Ben Dean got the opportunity to fly to the beautiful medieval town of La Rochelle in south-west France to cover the second round of the World Cliff Diving Series through Red Bull Reporter. We caught up with him to find out what he learned.
Ben spotted the request for an event photographer on April 30th at Red Bull Reporter, who regularly give young photographers, writers, filmmakers and presenters in the UK the chance to cover the best sports and cultural events. By May 15th, Ben was in France on his own special assignment.
“My brief was basically to get 30 decent shots of the venue and location and to get a few snaps of the athletes during the competition, mainly focusing on the UK’s Gary Hunt. I was also asked to get behind-the-scenes shots, to give people a taste of what goes on behind the barriers.”
Cliff diving is regarded as one of the purest extreme sports around, being both beautifully simple and extremely dangerous to execute. Divers must be extremely fit, have the reflexes of a gymnast and possess the mental strength to cope with the pressure of competition as well as the risk of injury if they get their timing wrong.
For a photographer then, cliff diving has everything – spectacular dives, great locations, tough competition, drama and some real personalities. When you add in a 27 metre tower and 50,000 spectators at the event in La Rochelle, a photographer has all the ingredients they need for a great shoot.
The biggest challenge for the twenty year old from Devon however was that he had no experience of shooting the sport.
“I’ve been to quite a few events in the past like London Freeze, Red Bull Empire of Dirt, MX des Nations, but never as part of the media as an official photographer. Cliff diving was completely new to me.”
“When I saw the first diver jump off the 27m high tower I was completely shocked! I’ve seen a lot of extreme sports live but this really took my breath away. I had to remember to take photos as I was so transfixed by how crazy it was!”
With no prior experience of shooting the sport, Ben also had to learn fast on the day about how to adjust his lens and adapt to the light conditions to capture the action. Divers spend three seconds in the air and hit the water at 85km/h.
Although it takes years for a photographer to build up their equipment to pro standard, Ben was fortunate to have some good gear for his first big photography assignment.
“I used a Canon 50D with battery grip and a Canon 480 flash. Lens-wise I took my Canon 70- 200mm f4 L series lens for the action shots, a Canon 50mm f1.8 for portraits and a Sigma 15- 35m f2.6 for the background and general shots.”
“My main enemy on the day, apart from not having a tripod that worked, was the weather. One minute it was beautifully sunny, the other dark and cloudy so it was pretty hard to keep adjusting settings to make sure the shots came out alright.”
Ben also had to quickly initiate himself with the competition’s new format. As only the top six athletes after the first two heats made the final, divers couldn’t save their best jumps until last, meaning that Ben had to stay focused during the whole event.
What other challenges did he face on the day?
“The media centre, where I was based, was on the opposite side of the harbor to the divers – so I found myself constantly running around from one side to the other to get photos. On the plus side I did manage to talk my way to some good vantage points during the event, which photographers have to do. I had to get someone to hang on to the back of my jeans while I took a shot over the edge of the tower from about 90 feet up [27 metres], which was scary!”
As well as having to deal with the impact of several huge dives, the biggest in the World Cliff Diving series, the athletes also had to cope with cold water conditions at 14°C. Divers were even struggling to walk afterwards. This gave Ben the opportunity to capture some interesting shots of the athletes as they went through a rollercoaster of emotions during the event.
Was he trying to get any particular type of shot on the day?
“I have a strange love for sequence shots. I feel they show exactly what’s happening in one photo without having to explain anything to the viewer.
“My favorite photo was the one of Orlando Duque just before he hit the water, he must have been less than 30cm off the surface. It was a pure stroke of luck as well. I only found out I’d shot it when I got home and started looking through my photos! It’s a shame the picture wasn’t totally sharp though.”
What did he learn from watching the professional photographers at the event?
“I picked up a lot of things on the day. The main thing is that if you’re shooting the same location for years, it’s your job as a photographer to be able to spot something new and exciting that will set you apart from the rest of the field.”
Even better for Ben was that Gary Hunt won the event, giving him the perfect pictures to send back to Red Bull Reporter in London. The British athlete scored perfect tens on his last dive and received an overall score of 390 points, thereby maintaining his lead in the Cliff Diving World Series leader board in front of Russia’s Artem Silchenko and Colombia’s Orlando Duque.
Considering it was his first cliff diving shoot, would he do anything different if given the chance again?
“I’m lucky enough to work for an underwater camera specialist and I would be able to get hold of some pretty cool kit. If I ever get another opportunity to go to a cliff diving event I’d love to take some photos from the water so I could get a half and half shot of a diver entering the water - that would look awesome!”
Ben admits he has a lot to learn before he can mix it with the pros but he was happy to get some experience under his belt thanks to Red Bull Reporter. If he ever needs inspiration of course, Ben can always check out the online Red Bull Illume gallery in the future to see some of the world’s best cliff diving photography.
Check out the video and picture gallery to see Ben's assignment at the Red Bull World Cliff Diving event in La Rochelle. If you are based in the UK and want the opportunity to photograph for Red Bull Reporter, register at www.redbullreporter.com.