Hannah Bailey – 5 Tips For Outdoor and Action Sports Photography

Hannah by Owen Tozer

My episode 136 chat with photographer Hannah Bailey was full of timeless insights into her creative process. Here she shares five tips for better outdoor and action sports photography.

1. All The Ideas But None Of The Gear? You Can Still Make It Work

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my early days as a photographer. In the early days I never considered myself a photographer because it began as a creative hobby rather than a job. Often I’d be at event and just happened to have my camera with me. I remember going to the X Games in Barcelona in 2013 and heading up to the stadium the day before the contest. They’d reintroduced women’s park and I wondered if I might sneak a glance at some of the skaters practising on the course. Amazingly they were all there: Elissa Steamer, Mimi Knoop, Karen Jonz, Nora Vasconcellos, Lizzie Armanto. All I had with me was a couple of cheap 35mm cameras and a wee voice recorder, but that didn’t stop me from shooting the event, interviewing all the skaters and getting a few articles out of it. You don’t necessarily need the fancy gear; you need to just start with an idea, and the passion to make it happen. 

I think it is the same when it comes to outdoor sports photography in general. There is an opinion that you need particular gear to shoot it – which of course is true if you want focussed, high shutter action shots. But what’s wrong with letting the camera provide a bit of uniqueness? A little blur, or a light leak? Imperfection can lead to originality! I’m going to let you into a little secret. My first lockdown project “Looking Out to Sea / Looking Out to See”, which is a series of water close-up images and patterns, was mostly shot on a cheap waterproof digital camera. No underwater housing for a fancy DSLR (no matter how many people asked me!) Instead, I could throw this little crappy camera around my wrist and snap away whilst I swam. Sometimes the camera couldn’t work out if I was under or above the surface!

2. Don’t Be Afraid To Look In A Different Direction

I believe one of the most uncreative things about outdoor/landscape/action sports photography is the way that people often take the same photo. I remember being at the Vans Park Series in Malmo and I had just acquired a new fisheye lens for my camera. This was 2018 and it was the first time I had thought about shooting skate on fisheye (I normally look for the non traditional shots!) Before I knew it I was in the mob of photographers, kneeling down at the deep end of the bowl trying to get THAT shot of Jordyn Barrett’s frontside air. I had a moment of realisation about what I was doing. I was trying to get the bucket list shot, alongside some of the world’s most renowned fisheye skate photographers. Realising this I stepped back, put my camera down and pulled out my OM10 (film camera). I never looked at the fisheye shots I took, but I used the multiple exposure shots of Jordyn’s air (above) I ended up taking for loads of things, including a show with Quell Skate in NYC.

When it comes to the outdoors, I see this even more. I have to quote Nan Shepherd here, as her advice always plays in my mind; “Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become!” Nan has done the work for you. In my mind, photography is not a competition, or a comparison, or a commercial endeavour. Realising that opens it to be a creative outlet, and that’s what makes it special. It is my art – especially because at school I was told art was not for me. It’s hard to tell somebody to “shoot creatively”, but a good place to start is to take Nan’s advice. Find a different angle. Move around. Turn your camera upside down. Maybe even turn yourself upside down. It’ll help you find your unique approach. 

3. Be Inspired By Other Passions

I was recently asked who my favourite photographers were. I think the assumption was that I’d pick the classic skate legends such as Grant Britain, Glenn E. Friedman or Mike Blabac. But that’s not the case. I am inspired by Man Ray’s multiple exposures, Lee Miller’s photojournalism, Lindsay Addario’s powerful editorial exposés of war and human rights, and Steve McCurry’s portraiture. Combine these and you have a lot of creative inspirations to draw from! 

About ten years ago, I had this idea to bringing a skater to the Scottish highlands, to see how they would interpret the landscape. It’s an area I travelled a lot as a child, so I know it well. Visually it is amazing to shoot, full of vast wild landscapes. Last September, we finally made it happen. I invited skater Helena Long up to Inverness, and we hit the road in my Mazda Bongo. The result was “Highland Fling”, a series of skate shots with a side of adventure and landscapes, interweaving perspectives for one road trip. 

When it comes to shooting the great outdoors, I let art inspire me. I love the idea of using nature, natural light and my camera to paint a picture. If you let nature be your lighting assistant, the results can be uncontrollably luminous! 

4. Give Up Some Control

Everyday occurrences can be a beautiful thing to capture in a split second. They live forever in a photo. 99% of the time, I’m an opportunistic photographer, letting the world or people bring the magic. I was recently shooting with Rudi and Mac, two of the Snagglerat skate crew who I had met while photographing behind-the-scenes for the documentary Long Live Livi. They are 7 and 9 years old, and like most people love to pull silly faces when the camera comes out. I love to shoot the smiles or the poses, but I’m really waiting for that moment when they switch back to their natural awesome selves. That’s when you get the best work, and capturing people in their natural state of something I strive for. 

I remember shooting with Helena Long in Euston in 2017 – it’s a day I remember particularly clearly as I’d just got a new camera, which I dropped straight out of the box. Anyway, Helena wanted to show me a few spots she had in mind. It was the middle of the day, so there were lots of people around. She skated a bank outside a bank as workers walked by, and then we headed to a rail she knew outside a Sainsbury’s, where I photographed her doing a boardslide while she was also surrounded by people. When you looks closely at the actual shot you can see how much is going on in the background: a bike courier eating his sandwich, a group of lads cheering Helena on, some ladies getting a fright while grabbing some cash from the cash machine. 

It’s the perfect example of something I’m obsessed by: the uncontrolled elements you can end up capturing if you let people and nature do their thing. 

5. Enjoy Yourself!

There is a lot of content out there. Every day, we see amazing, impactful photography projects. So it is easy to put pressure on yourself, thinking you should have a photography essay that changes the world, a series that goes viral or a photo included in a show. But having these expectations can stop you from being creative. So take photos of what you love – people will feel it and want to see. Like our fingerprints which press the shutter, we each have unique perspectives.

Last year, lockdown gave me the time to stop and silence those expectations (from myself and society) for a while. In the calm quiet unknown, I turned to my camera, and ended up shooting thousands of photos in a matter of a couple months. There was no pressure and that unleashed the creativity. If you turn to photography as an outlet for fun or creativity, you’ll have nothing to lose. 

This diversity of perspective will benefit us all. The more perspectives we have capturing the outdoors and action sports, the more diverse, authentic and creative our representation of it will be. I am looking forward to seeing more of that!