Action in serenity
Untouched nature, stunning landscapes – and in the middle of this three speed riders on skis with small paragliders perform loop-the-loops over the ancient cliffs. It’s not just the action that’s spectacular, but also the resulting images. Shams, one of the cameramen involved in this shoot for a sporty advert for a Norwegian mobile phone company, reports on his experiences and why you need to keep your cool when shooting spectacular scenes.
The requirements from the client were simple: show the beauty of Norway. And so the team, consisting of three extreme athletes and two cameramen, traveled to the Lofoten, north of the Arctic Circle, for eight days. Shams, a French cameraman, and colleague Alex Aimard specialize in making outdoor action videos. But unlike the many extreme sports clips that can be found on YouTube, this duo focuses on the message and the story that transcend the action. For this shoot it was quickly clear they wanted to show the story of a group of friends indulging their lust for adventure. Possible motifs for the shoot were also quickly found: speedriding, a combination of free riding with skis in unmarked territory, paragliding, surfing and boating. While everything had to be well planned, flexibility was also key.
“The weather on the Lofoten is very unpredictable; it can change quickly. So while you can plan something for the next day, you always need a plan B – and even better a plan C and D,” comments Shams. For example, the images they took of skiing in the forest were not even planned.
From the start Shams had very clear ideas about the equipment he wanted to use: it needed to be light, but still able to deliver maximum quality. Hence, in addition to the Sony actioncams FDR-X1000V with lenses from ZEISS, he decided on the Sony α7S and α7SII cameras. Mounted on them were the ZEISS lenses Loxia 2.8/21, Loxia 2/35 and Loxia 2/50, a Batis 1.8/85 and the macro lens Milvus 2/100M. In addition, a DJI Phantom 3 was used for drone shots and a Syrp Genie Motion Controller for time-lapse shots. Shams had several reasons for making these choices: “For an action video cameraman, it’s sometimes more stressful than for the protagonists because the cameraman sometimes has to move in front or behind the action. A light weight saves a lot of valuable energy.” Energy he wants to use to have full control over the shot. For this reason, Shams prefers working with a manual focus, which the ZEISS lenses offer. He doesn’t miss the autofocus, even for action shots: “I feel safer when I can adjust the sharpness manually myself. I’d rather blame myself if something doesn’t work out in the end than blame the equipment.”
The order of events during the shoot was determined mainly by the local circumstances, for example when to climb a mountain. “In the morning you look out and see if it’s raining. If not, then we’re off. Otherwise we have to wait or find an alternative.” One of these alternatives was a surfing session in the ocean. But it rained cats and dogs and was very windy. The window of time with optimal conditions was 30 minutes, so the shoot had to be fast. It was the same thing for spontaneous encounters with animals during their trip. For such shots, like showing the elk in the distance, Shams mainly used the Batis 1.8/85. For close-ups, for example preparations for the trip, Shams used the Milvus 2/100M, which he could easily operate, even when wearing gloves.
But the speedriding shots produced the most spectacular images. Here it was less about technique and all about timing. “It was important to find the right moment when the strength of the wind and the direction of wind were just right. A third pilot took the aerial shots using a camera embedded in a helmet, while we captured everything from the ground.”
Asked how far he would go to get spectacular shots, Shams has a clear answer: “In the end the athlete always decides what happens and what doesn’t – you must not be allowed to put yourself or the team under pressure.” The routine is also important and the fact that as a filmmaker you don’t look for the ultimate adrenaline kick. The fact that Shams prefers to make safe action shots in beautiful settings is part of his approach. An example is a shot on the Lofoten that almost eluded them: capturing the polar lights on their last day using a time-lapse. It became one of the highlights of this trip. To achieve this shot, the team benefited from both the low-light strength of the Sony α7S II as well as the speed of the Loxia lenses. By combining the two, Shams only had to increase the ISO setting a tiny bit. The result is atmospheric images which – by evoking calmness after action – symbolically complete the shoot.
Shams is one of those passionate people who left his job to live his dream. He carries his camera with him all over the world to follow athletes in their adventures, sometimes in very extreme conditions. The fact that Shams is also a hiker, trail runner, climber, mountaineer and paragliding pilot probably explains how he manages to have a different eye on the action in front of him than the rest of us. So don’t be surprised if you see him running an entire half marathon with a camera, staying up all night on a sand dune in Tunisia to film the sunrise, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro running back and forth to take the best shots.