MARK WATSON IS A THRILL SEEKER WHO PUSHES HIS BODY AND EQUIPMENT TO EXTREMES THROUGH HIS WORK AS AN ACTION ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER. HE HAS BEEN A NIKON AMBASSADOR SINCE 2009.
Mark Watson’s childhood was spent riding motorbikes, camping in the bush, swimming in dams and surfing in large swells off the eastern seaboard. It was, he argues, a typical semi-rural upbringing in Aussie reminiscent of the times.
“I don’t think I ever recognised ‘adventure sports’ as being any different from any other outdoor activities. I grew up bodysurfing and surfing and I used to ride my bike down the dirt jumps in the bushland opposite my parents’ farm in the ‘80s, that’s now called mountain biking. Surfing and mountain biking are now considered adventure sports, but when I was a kid, it was just stuff we did.”
Shortly after leaving high school Mark combined his interest in the sciences and natural history with his newfound passion for photography to undertake a Bachelor of Applied Science (photography) at Melbourne’s RMIT. But it wasn’t until going to work in Charlotte Pass, the country’s highest alpine village, that he started to shoot what is referred to as adventure and action sports, using the money he earned as a “lifty” to purchase a Nikon D4s camera to photograph friends on the slopes.
“My initial work experience was in the imaging ward at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne but I soon learned that probably wasn’t going to be my career. I didn’t like documenting degenerative skin diseases in kids. I veered toward natural history, landscape and wildlife photography in my final years of study. A year after graduating, and in between winter snow seasons, I secured an assisting job on a David Attenborough series ‘The Life of Birds’ in the Northern Territory before moving back to Charlotte Pass where my interest in sports photography was re-ignited.”
After stints working in a camera store and a two-year sabbatical to London, Mark committed to a full-time photography career in 2000. Today he operates his own photographic business, Incite Images, and is recognised as one of the world’s foremost action and adventure photography specialists with his work appearing everywhere from books and billboards to cereal packages and point of sale posters.
With an enviable commercial client roster that includes both multi-national drink, clothing and high profile Australian tourism and outdoor and adventure brands, it is not unheard of for Mark to be commissioned up to 100 projects across 20 countries in a single 12-month period.
Mark says his early efforts largely consisted of documentary-style photography of an athlete or discipline but as his skills have grown so too has his ability to incorporate light and landscape into his imagery. While he credits Mother Nature as the hero of many assignments, he sees it as his job to shoot “little people in big landscapes”.
“My favourite images are about the incredible destinations Mother Nature provides us and then looking at how we interact with that landscape. I also find that whatever the discipline, no matter how intense the action, if you photograph it over and over enough you are at risk of becoming stale. I have only really recently realised that it is the challenge and process of creating impactful imagery that drives me. Sometimes this might be the challenge of getting to a location, or it could be a technical equipment challenge like radio triggering off camera flashes to freeze action, or it could just as easily be how to create a dramatic image in a studio with only one light source. I enjoy the challenge and that is what keeps me coming back.”
Mark says that when it comes to action and adventure photography, the difference between a good photo and that of a great photo is often the light source. Photography in the ocean, the mountains or the rainforest predominantly revolves around natural light and so the opportunity to secure that ‘perfect moment’ is frequently beyond the photographer’s control. It is then the job becomes a lesson in patience, he says.
“My most recent assignment literally saw me huddling behind a rock in showers of ice blown off the top of a mountain for hours on end. When the sun would finally peek though from behind billowing clouds we would have one opportunity to get a skiing photo. You have to remember the athletes are doing exactly the same. When the light is good then it is all action stations, you have to have pre-set your camera functions and exposures so you don’t waste time turning dials. Often, you’ve literally got 30 seconds to get on the radio, secure yourself, in this instance remove goggles and put camera to face (because the camera shields the eyes from the flying ice) and then snap the action. Then it is time to hide back behind the rock and clean the ice, snow and water drops from the lens and wait all over again.”
It is because of these types of demands on his gear that Mark selected Nikon as his equipment of choice almost two decades ago. Frequently working in temperatures exceeding 50° Celsius or as low as -30°, his equipment often finds itself covered in dust, snow, or mud. A situation less than ideal for a professional whose strict attention to detail means he goes so far as to pack all clothes and equipment into special stuff sacks and compression bags every time he leaves on assignment.
“It is important in these instances that your gear simply keeps working and that is the key reason I have continued to use Nikon for more than 20 years… it just works. Such environments mean sometimes you sleep with your batteries in your sleeping bag, or you have to put gear outside for an hour before shooting to avoid condensation within the lenses.”
Yet frequently it is not the act of taking the photo or the difficulties in keeping your equipment safe that presents the greatest challenge when it comes to adventure sport photography. Instead it is securing the right positioning to get the photo.
“I have abseiled off cliffs and into deep canyons, caved underground in the middle of the night, traversed snow-covered glaciers and climbed icy ridge lines. I’ve photographed from cliff ledges, helicopters, planes, 4x4s, boats and jet-skis. I’ve shot in rain, hail, snow, in the water and in the desert. All of this means that both your body, physically and mentally take a bit of a beating as well as the equipment you use.
“If you are more concerned with staying safe and keeping your gear clean and dry then I would suggest adventure photography is possibly not your natural vocation. However, if you have a passion to search out the wild places and incredible people and share them with the world, then you are already halfway there.”
What’s in Mark’s bag:
- “Because my assignments are often documentary-style projects in sometimes remote locations, I have to be very considerate of finding the most compact and useable kit across a vast array of deliverables. This involves a sturdy and robust body like my Nikon D5, as well as a second high-resolution body for when I need more detail (and a backup) like my Nikon D850.”
- “I always carry the three key zoom lenses: NIKKOR AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, NIKKOR AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR and NIKKOR AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 FL ED VR. I always carry a NIKKOR AF Fisheye 16mm f/2.8D because it is a super cool lens and also compact and light. Then if I have room I will take either a NIKKOR AF-S 85mm f/1.4G for portraiture and shallow depth of field work or a NIKKOR AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED for close up macro work.”
- “If shooting big mountain skiing I often swap out my 70-200mm for the NIKKOR AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR because the variable aperture is not as critical in intense light situations with today’s high ISO shooting capabilities and in the mountains I need the extra reach of the 400mm lens.”
- “More often than not I will also take at least two flashes, either SB-910 or SB-5000 with off camera radio triggering capabilities.”
- “Everything I need must fit in one camera backpack and be manageable with weight and size. The biggest problem I face more often than not is to limit the photography gear to make way for survival gear like tents, food, sleeping bag, helmets, rope, shovels, ice axes etc.”
- “On a number of critical weight assignments I have taken simply one Nikon D810, a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and two spare batteries… shooting conservatively and taking care of my gear as I had no back-up.”
[Words by Tracey Porter]