Last year saw a fabulous selection of photography entered into our Digital Splash Awards, with the quality of images higher then ever, both technically and in terms of overall inspiration!
We thought it would be interesting to find out a bit more about our 2018 award winners, starting with the overall Digital Splash Photographer of the Year winner, James Rushforth.
Splitting his time between the UK and the Italian Dolomites (and often spotted in his converted Fiat Ducato, called Max), we managed to catch up with James between adventures, to find out more background on his amazing images, his adventures and the challenges faced by an award winning adventure photographer, author and tutor.
How did you first get into photography, was it through your love of extreme sports? What was the journey?
It all happened very much by accident, I left university not really knowing what I wanted to do and ended up climbing in the Alps. I wrote several articles on my experiences and was contacted by a publisher who was looking to produce a guidebook to the region. Without really knowing what I was getting myself into I began work on my first book – a climbing guide to the Italian Dolomites.
As I began putting it together I wanted to convey how the region had captivated me not only with its exceptional climbing but also the stunning nature of the surrounding scenery. I bought a camera (a little Canon G12 – I recall shuddering at the thought of spending £380, were photographers all mad?) and never looked back. Since then I’ve published books about skiing, mountaineering, climbing, via ferrata and photography. I now divide my time between writing guidebooks and running workshops all over the world.
Tell us a bit more about your sporting background – as an accomplished skier, climber & mountaineer, this must be a huge advantage?
Learning to rock climb was a natural progression from an enjoyable childhood spent exploring North Wales and the Lake District with my family. I worked at several indoor climbing walls whilst at university which stood me in good stead for the big walls of the Dolomites. Rapid progression was quickly slowed by the yearly snowfall and this naturally lead to a ski touring apprenticeship, first on gentle slopes and then ever more serious terrain. The next decade was spent in search of the perfect line, both in ascent and descent.
The climbing and mountaineering provided an excellent springboard into the photography world, allowing me to tap into a smaller niche market to get established. Not only were there some unique opportunities for extreme sports shoots, the climbing and mountaineering also allowed me to access some very remote landscape locations that were inaccessible to most photographers.
Travel is obviously in your blood and with four books on the Dolomites under your belt – why the particular interest in that specific area?
I fell in love with the Dolomites when I first visited shortly after finishing university. I’ve seen many of the world’s mountain ranges and they are still by far my favourite. The Dolomite rock forms impossibly steep faces that rise like precipitous monoliths (if you’ll excuse the melodrama) straight out of the alpine meadows. You can walk through the flowers and go and put your hands straight on a rock face that then rises up for a vertical kilometre. There’s a lifetime’s worth of climbing, skiing and photography to be done. One project led into another as I explored the region more and more, alternating between working for outdoor companies and living out of a van. I made some great friends and loved the local culture (and pizza).
I’m currently hoping to buy a house in Lienz (Brexit pending) which is perfectly situated between the Austrian Alps and the Dolomites.
Tell us about the lifestyle, is it all as good as it sounds?
I quite frequently get emails telling me I ‘live the dream’ and how envious people are of the lifestyle. But like any job where you only see the finished product, it’s easy to overly romanticise the work. I quite frequently spend six months away on my own in the van for a particular project and it can get quite lonely. I’ve just spent the last year exploring some of the remotest parts of Iceland and Greenland and it’s not unusual to go a couple of weeks without seeing another person. I’ve found audio books are the key, it’s nice to hear another voice!
For every successful photo that makes it into the book, there are three or four failed attempts that do not. People looking at the finished images don’t see all the times you got up at 3am, ascended 800m up a mountain in the dark with 5 kilos of camera kit, got nothing and came back down.
But, all that said, it is lovely work and I wouldn’t change it. You just have to accept there are some sacrifices that have to be made.
What are the biggest challenges you face shooting this kind of photography? Particularly in capturing your breathtaking adventure images.
With adventure photography, the greatest challenge is invariably one of logistics. For example, the winning image of Lynne traversing on Via Myriam required some careful planning and forethought. We had to climb with an extra rope, additional gear for anchors and abseiling as well as camera equipment. I had to climb this particular pitch first and then abseil back down for the photo. I really wanted some background light which required the right weather, but I didn’t want the scene backlit which necessitated a late start. If the light doesn’t play ball you have to come back and do it all again. Not to mention you have to find a sportsperson up to the task as well as having a third member to belay.
The same applies for ski mountaineering when you often have a very narrow window of opportunity with regards to suitable conditions for skiing the steeper lines. It requires a lot of patience and persistence.
What’s ‘the shot’ you’d most love to bag?
I’m not sure if there’s a particular shot that stands out, but I love chasing all things ephemeral; be it a receding ice cave, a particularly impressive showing of the northern lights, wolves in the Dolomites (they’re so hard to find) or that breaching Humpback Whale shot I’ve been after for so long. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), as with climbing and skiing as soon as you accomplish one goal you instantly go in search of another.
How did you hear about the Digital Splash Awards and what made you enter?
I actually didn’t know about the Digital Splash awards until a friend made the finals of last year’s competition. I made a mental note to check back the following year and enter some images. I was already aware of Wilkinson Cameras, having purchased several lenses in the past.
Your workshops: Iceland, Greenland, Dolomites. These are some of the most popular photography locations worldwide, what do you offer clients – what are you aims for these trips and your guests?
I work closely with a small family run company, ‘Wild Photography Holidays’, to offer small and personalised workshops. Everyone who works for the company knows the areas intricately, has written guidebooks or lives in the area themselves, giving the staff excellent local knowledge. The aim is to ensure guests get a good strong set of diverse images, learn something new and ultimately have a great holiday.
I’ve spent the last few years exploring and photographing Iceland which has been a fantastic experience from start to finish. I’m currently in the process of assembling an Icelandic photography guide for publisher fotoVUE, which we hope to have on the shelves by the end of this year. The content is largely finished which unfortunately means the next nine months are going to be largely office based.
What advice would you give to someone just getting into photography – and what’s been your biggest ‘learn’?
My usual advice is just ‘relax and enjoy it’.
So many people make photography far more complicated than it needs to be, or have very strict ideas on how something should be achieved. If it works for you and you like it, then keep doing it; don’t be afraid to experiment and ignore the ‘rules’.
I often recommend photography as a hobby as it gets people out of the house, makes people look much more closely at the world around them and also provides them with something tangible to show for their efforts.
I think my own personal breakthrough came when I discovered how little you actually need to use a tripod with modern cameras. This gave me a lot more freedom both in terms of weight saving and logistics, allowing me to shoot from a variety of different vantage points much faster.
The one photographer or extreme sports person – dead or alive – you’d like to meet and why?
I’ve always had a fascination with Emilio Comici (Nicknamed the ‘Angel of the Dolomites’), an Italian climber from the Val Gardena who put up many new climbing routes throughout the Dolomites during the early 1900s. He was famous for promoting ‘direttissima’ routes, or as he described it, following the route a drop of water would take down the mountain. Having cursed my way up many of his routes with modern climbing shoes, ropes and equipment I can only imagine what it was like with a hemp rope and hobnailed boots, not knowing if the climb they’d set out on was even possible.
And finally, what’s your favourite/must have piece of kit or photo accessory?
It sounds like brand advertising (and I guess it is) but I’m currently in love with the new Circular Magnetic Filters from Breakthrough Photography. No light leakage and they just snap on and off making them wonderfully convenient, especially in the Arctic when you’ve always got cold hands.
What gear do you use? (We also asked to take a peek inside James’s camera bag, as we’re nosey like that!!)
- Nikon D810 with Kirk BL-D800 L-Bracket
- Nikon D850 with Kirk BL-D850 L-Bracket
- Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 G AF-S ED Lens
- Nikon 20mm f1.8 G AF-S ED Lens
- Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 G AF-S ED Lens
- Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 II AF-S VR ED G Lens
- Nikon 300mm f2.8 G ED VR II AF-S Nikkor Lens
- Nikon TC-14E AF-S Teleconverter III
- Nikon TC-20E AF-S Teleconverter III
- Gitzo GT3542LS Series 3 6X Systematic Tripod
- Induro BHL1 Ball Head
- Breakthrough Photography 77mm Magnetic Adapter Wheel
- Breakthrough Photography X4 ND Filter (6 stop)
- Breakthrough Photography X4 ND Filter (10 stop)
- Breakthrough Photography X4 UV Filter (x3)
Thank you James for your time and for allowing us such a fascinating peek behind the scenes!
Enjoyed this feature? To find out more about James, his work, books and workshops then why not pop along to:
Could you be next years Digital Splash Awards winner? Visit the Digital Splash Awards website to find more information and enter the monthly competitions!
All images featured Copyright James Rushforth Photography.