Among whitewater kayakers, the rapid known as the Gorilla on the Green River Narrows near Asheville, North Carolina, is known as a testing ground. “If your skill level is high enough to paddle this particular rapid successfully, you step into an entirely different class of boater,” explains action sports photographer Trevor Clark, who is himself a whitewater kayaker. The rapid has been photographed “a million times,” Clark notes, but because the rapid is located in a deep canyon that never receives direct sunlight, “every image I have seen of the rapid is one big bluish blur.” To Clark, this presented an opportunity to get a unique photo—by using studio lights inside the canyon.
Clark, who is based in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, likes using studio lights and mixing his light sources as a way to get something unique in outdoor and action sports photography. “I’m used to being in the action, working in natural light,” he says. Working with lights, he says, “forces me to be creative.” He’s used strobe, for example, to get dramatic shots of skateboarders and skiers at sunrise and sunset, and has experimented with using an underwater housing on a speedlight to get unusual perspectives on water sports. In 2009, while Clark was on an assignment in Tennessee for a kayak manufacturer, several of the boaters said they were eager to try the Gorilla. Clark seized the chance to try out his lighting ideas.
Clark packed his gear into two backpacks and pressed two of the kayakers’ girlfriends into serving as his assistants. Once he had hiked into the canyon with his lights, he found a ledge at one end of the long narrow canyon where he could stand to photograph kayakers as they shot out from behind a rock and landed on the water.
He set up a Profoto Zoom reflector next to him on the ledge; this lit up the far wall, including the gleam of ice on the rocks, and faded to darkness in the foreground. Realizing that he needed more light directly on the kayaker coming out from behind the rocks, he asked one of the assistants to handhold a Telezoom reflector and grid on a ledge at camera right, above the rocks where the kayakers would appear. A power cord connected the lights to a Profoto power pack above the canyon.
One of his biggest challenges was timing. Using lights, he couldn’t use his motor drive to shoot action; he could shoot only one frame for each kayaker. The kayaks, he says, “come shooting out of that foam pile so fast and out of nowhere. There’s no way to get that peak action moment unless you know where they’ll be.” So while the friend handheld the light, she also had to point to the oncoming kayaker, “following them with her finger so I could watch her arm,” Clark explains, so he knew when to shoot. He also found that in the deep canyon, surrounded by wet rocks and water, his wireless Pocket Wizard fired only half the time. Using acquaintances with no photographic experience also presented problems. “It was hard to explain—it’s so important to hold the light right on the subject,” he recalls. “It was really frustrating when I knew I got [the action], but the lights didn’t go off and it was a black image,” or the handheld light wasn’t in the right position.
If having electric-powered strobes around rushing water sounds foolish, Clark was unconcerned. “We tried to keep the cords out of the water,” and made sure the spray from the rapids wasn’t misting the lights.
Despite the obstacles, he managed to get a shot of kayaker Billy Harris exploding onto the rapids. Using a Canon 1D Mark III and a 16-35 mm lens he prefocused, Clark shot at f/7.1 at 1/250th of a second and ISO 250. The flash of the reflector appears in the upper right of the image. “The funny thing is, people always ask me if that’s the moon,” he says. “When I tell them this was shot around noon, they’re amazed.”
His artificially lit images impress commercial clients, who want to know a photographer can bring back a shot under any conditions. “It’s a point of conversation during portfolio reviews and client meetings,” Clark says. Questions about how he got the photo of Harris on the Gorilla, for example, allow him to explain “the forethought that went into it, all the effort to carry all the gear in there, the problem solving while were in there, and coming out with something cool.”
Clark says his enjoyment of photographic exploration isn’t so far from his other great passion. “With whitewater kayaking, there’s a part that’s about the adrenaline rush, but it’s mostly about using new skills you’ve learned to get into these wild places with your closest friends, and enjoy and explore something that only kayakers ever get to see.”