I was blown away when I first saw Christian Pondella’s images at this interview with Crash Taylor. Christian is Head Photographer for Red Bull and is one of the most progressive adventure photographers today. I was chuffed when Christian agreed to be interviewed (Click on any of these images to view large). To see more of Christian's work, take a gander at Christian's website and be prepared to be blown away!
Canon 5D, 14mm lens (Click image to view large).
AN: Let’s start off with this image. I love this dramatic parched-earth, low-angle shot of an air-race with an aircraft flying between pylons, backlit with a sunstar. One thing that strikes me about your images is how 'film like' they are, with deep blacks and punchy, vibrant colors. How do you go about processing your images to get that look?
CP: As far as my images having a “film like” look, that is probably because I shot so many rolls of film (Velvia) back in the day. So when I process my raw files I try to make them look similar to that of Velvia. Pretty much most my images in post, I turn up the saturation, vibrance, and blacks. I have a preset setting, whether it is in camera raw or lightroom, and apply it to most images.
As far as exposure, obviously you got to get it right in camera, but I certainly do things different with digital then film. With film I would slightly under expose to get those deep rich colors, with digital it is the exact opposite. I usually over expose a little and bring the exposure back in post processing. More information is contained on the right side of your histogram, so I first expose with my meter, but ultimately I look at my histogram and try to get it more towards the right side without blowing out the highlights. Your images will look amazing if you bring down the exposure in post, but if you need to brighten them then they will not look so good.
Chest mounted Nikon F5, Nikon 16mm fisheye, Velvia film (Click image to view large).
AN: I love this one you shot while skiing down the “Super C Couloir” in Portillo, Chile. It really pulls the audience right into the action. What kind of chest harness do you use? And how do you set up your camera for this type of shot?
CP: I use a neoprene back brace that you can get at a sports store and cut a hole in it to put the lens through. I will strap it to my chest with that. Then I will tape a pad at the base of the camera to get it at the right angle. Then I will just shorten the neck strap to get it higher on my chest. As far as triggering the camera, you can get a bite switch cable which is made for skydiving. As far as exposure, back when I shot with Nikon I would just put the camera on shutter priority, matrix metering, and let the camera do it’s thing. With a fisheye lens, you fix your focus on infinity and tape it so it can’t accidentally move. Now that I shoot with Canon, my days of shooting in shutter priority are long over!
Canon 5D, Canon 14mm, Profoto AcuteB remotely triggered with Pocket Wizards (Click image to view large).
AN: You used the Profoto AcuteB (600 watts per second) for this sunset, backlit bouldering scene at Buttermilk Country, Bishop. Together with the battery pack and lightstand, it's quite a formidable load…
Could I achieve similar results using a single, off-camera flash? How light and compact could you go?
CP: I used to use my camera flash a lot. Then, I used a Quantum with a turbo battery, which is still pretty light. But ultimately, if you want to totally control the light, especially when there is a lot of ambient light out there, you are going to need something more powerful like a strobe. Obviously strobes are heavy so they are not practical for a lot of adventure photography. You’ve got to choose you spots wisely. You can get away with less powerful flashes, especially if you are shooting at dusk or nighttime, but if you want to underexpose by a stop or two and there is still a lot of ambient light, it helps to have 600 watts or more.
I usually do not use a speed light very much. However when I do need the flexibility of a speed light, I often use one with an off camera cord, set it to full power, use a light diffuser and have it hooked up to a Quantum battery for faster recycle. I will do this at at events when I need to be light and quick for portrait/lifestyle images. Generally I will under expose by a few stops and often times shoot into the sun to get a nice star effect.
Canon 5D, 15mm Fisheye (Click image to view large).
AN: What's your minimum camera gear setup when going fast and light on a self-propelled adventure? And how would you carry it and protect it out in the field?
CP: I took this shot of Will Gadd near his home in Canmore, Canada. This shot was taken with a Canon 5D and 15mm fisheye. There was this little cave in the ice that I was able to get in to shoot this perspective.
The full frame 5D is a great body, plus it is small and lightweight. At 3 frames a second, or 4 with the new one, you are definitely making a sacrifice for its lack of speed. Hopefully Canon will one day make this camera shoot 6-7 frames a second...?
I like using wide-angle lenses. I will usually bring my 16-35 and 24-105. I try not to carry much more than that, sometimes I will bring a fisheye or 14mm. To protect my gear I usually just use padded lens pouches and a small padded case for the camera. I use the same padded camera case that most adventure photographers mount on their chest, but I keep mine on my hip or in my pack.
I like to carry a chamois to keep my lens clean. Chamois work best if you are dealing with moisture on your lens.
Canon Mark III, Canon 15mm fisheye, SPL water housing (Click image to view large).
AN: Christian, your images, like this one of pro-wakeboarder Parks Bonifay sliding across an iceberg, blow my mind! How can someone like me improve my photography?
CP: My best advice is to shoot things you are passionate about. I participate in a lot of the sports I photograph, so that gives me a different perspective from that of a spectator. I like to get close to the action and bring an ‘up close and intimate’ look and feel to what is happening. I am a very visually stimulated person, so I try to do the same with my photographs: to get creative with different angles, perspectives, lights and shadows.
Christian, thanks very much for taking the time out to do this interview.