Shutter Life | Adventure Sports Photographer Ben Read’s Life Behind The Lens

Ben Read's middle name isn't 'Adventure' but, in all honesty, it probably should be

“There is no magic button,” Ben Read, 36, tells me when I ask for the advice that, in just half a decade, has taken him from sitting on top of a lawnmower for a living to pointing a camera in some of the most beautiful locations in the world, and at some of the planet’s finest adventure-sports athletes. “I learned that from a photographer called Camilla Rutherford, a Scot living out in New Zealand. She taught me early on that you can’t afford to wait for opportunity to come to you – you’ve got to go out and get it.”

This is a mantra that’s served Ben, who was born and raised in the sleepy copy-and-paste commuter town of Haywards Heath, well. Extremely well. From going after and landing a ski guiding job in Alagna, despite having never clipped into bindings before in his life, to chasing down the head of marketing for The North Face after making him a panini in the Alps, taking him for a beer and bagging an outrageously cool job as assistant product manager in snow sports, finding opportunities where others can’t is an asset that’s not only guided him through a hell of a colourful career, but is put into motion every time he takes his camera into the field now.

“I’m a trail runner, a skier and a climber. When I started getting serious about shooting the world I live in, I was told I needed to find my niche. Soon, I found it. I could often get better shots than the next guy by going further than him or her, physically, be it running a longer distance or climbing a tougher wall.”

“Sometimes you’ve got to get uncomfortable to get an unforgettable photograph”

The proof lies in his portfolio. Punctuated with work for major-league magazines like American behemoth Outside, top-drawer adventure brands like Helly Hansen and Mountain Warehouse and coffee-table tomes from publishing giants Gestalten, Ben’s short but epic five years as a professional photographer shows borderline crazy climbs across New Zealand boulders, scrambles up dangerous faces attempted by daring pros, and gnarly jumps accessed only in the tracks of elite skiers.

“Sometimes you’ve got to get uncomfortable to get an unforgettable photograph,” he summarises.

“You can’t afford to wait for opportunity to come to you – you’ve got to go out and get it”

As Ben takes us through the ten shots that he feels define his career to date, I ask for the advice that he’d now impart to anyone wanting to leap into the world of adventure sports photography.

“Camilla’s advice, obviously, still holds true. But now, it’s more important than ever to take your inspiration from other areas of photography. Everyone’s trying to replicate the style of everyone else. Just look at Instagram. For me, I take a lot from conflict photography, which truly captures a moment in a way that photographing someone just standing in the hills in an orange jacket never can. I’ve been guilty of it, but I learned quickly that I was just becoming like everyone else.”

The Career-Starting One

Treble Cone, Wanaka, New Zealand. August 2014

Credit: Ben Read

“In New Zealand, if you work near a ski area, you have a part in your work contract called a ‘powder clause’. That means if there’s powder is in the forecast, you can request a day off. In 2014 I was living and working in Wanaka. That winter was a real slow starter, so when the rumours of a dump began to circulate and people started frothing, I booked a pow day to hit the mountains instead of mowing lawns.

“The plan was to head up solo with just my skis and camera, but when I pulled into the car park I saw this filthy car covered in stickers. It turned out to belong to Fraser McDougall, a local pro and The North Face athlete, who was pulling his boots on. I quickly said hello and introduced myself, for the first time ever, as a photographer – I definitely bought into the ‘fake it until you make it’ mantra early on.

“If you work near a ski area, you have a part in your work contract called a ‘powder clause’”

“I asked Fraser if I could join him so I could get some photos for my portfolio, and he was cool with it. He even asked me where I wanted to shoot! I suggested Hero Rock – a Treble Cone classic that’s always shot from above, as it looks like the rider is bombing into Lake Wanaka below.

“Instead, I told him I wanted to position myself below, and although we didn’t discuss a trick, I knew he’d bust out one of his famous massive blackflips, which are the best in the business. He didn’t disappoint – I framed my shot, and after what felt like eternity, he entered the viewfinder with the biggest backy I’ve ever seen.

“When I got home I thought this shot was a cool one, so I sent it to the editor of NZ Skier Magazine and asked him if he reckoned it was good enough to print. I still remember the rush I felt when he said it would run as a double-page spread in their gallery section. That’s when I first felt I could one day make a career with my camera.”

The Sweaty Palm Ones

Glendu Bay, Wanaka, New Zealand. May 2015

Credit: Ben Read

“With just one week left of living in New Zealand, I was on what can best be described as a photo rampage. I knew I would miss this landscape when I wouldn’t have access to it, so I spent every day hiking and looking for cool cliffs to climb, trails to run and jumps to ride. I was scanning the cliffs above Glendu Bay, on a drive out to some of Wanaka’s best-known boulders, when I noticed a small cluster of boulders amongst the countless sheep, and balanced precariously on the hillside.

“I pulled over with my climbing partner Laurie and hiked up, dodging the sheep shit along the way. As we got closer, we realised just how big the face was, and how devoid it was of handholds. The only possibility was climbing the arête, but that came with the highest consequence should we fall.

“It’s one of the boldest things I’ve ever seen, and was a real sweaty-hands moment for me”

“After telling Laurie, “just think of the photo” he started to climb with no ropes or mat, but pure hope that I’d get the shot. Honestly, it’s one of the boldest things I’ve ever seen, and was a real sweaty-hands moment for me.

“Looking back, it really sums up my experience in New Zealand – incredible scenery, great people, and pushing my photography. It ended up winning Photo Of The Month in Landscape Photography Magazine, and went on to be printed in Landscape Photographer Of The Year – the first piece of work I ever had published in a book.”

The Chance Encounter One

Cairngorms, Scotland. March 2017

Credit: Ben Read

“After five or six months of photographing professionally, I was approached by [world-famous US publication] Outside Magazine to shoot a story about backcountry skiing in Scotland. I arrived off the sleeper train to Aviemore to what I can only call carnage – the craziest winter weather I’ve ever seen. I jumped on a bus to get to the ski area in the Cairngorms, and at the last stop before getting off a magnificently bearded man sat down close by.

“I’m usually a shy and introverted person, but photography seems to have the power to bring out my confidence”

“I’m usually a shy and introverted person, but photography seems to have the power to bring out my confidence, so feeling like he could make for a great photo, I struck up a conversation. Before I knew it, Graham was guiding me around the mountain in an absolute white-out storm. It wasn’t until we stopped to get our bearings that I looked back and saw his beard was totally frozen stiff. I wasted no time in pointing my camera at it, before it started to melt.”

The Big Assignment One

Ben Nevis, Scotland. April 2017

Credit: Ben Read

“This is from the same assignment – by far my biggest job to date, and one where I really felt my style evolving into something more consistent. Previous to this commission I was hunting for one-shot wonders, images that would stand alone. But I was getting bored, and started to experiment with shooting series of photos that would blend together to tell the bigger picture, and help the viewer understand the story.

“I like a natural documentary approach”

“I rarely interfere with what’s happening around me as I photograph, as I like a natural documentary approach so although this totally looks staged, I merely anticipated where my skiers would walk and lined up my frame accordingly. I got really lucky with their even spacing! I think it really captures, and tells the story of, the effort that goes into skiing in the Scottish backcountry, and makes the viewer wonder where the hell they’re heading, too. Outside Magazine ran this shot as the double-page opener of the feature.”

The ‘Immortalised In Pewter’ One

Passo Moro, Italy. July 2016

Credit: Ben Read

“It came as no surprise to me when, after two incredible years in Wanaka and moving back to the UK, I really started to miss the mountains of New Zealand. To try and remedy this and to start making a mark on the UK adventure photography scene, a friend of mine called James and I planned to run self-supported around the Monterosa mountain in Italy.

“It taught me that maybe my unique selling point as an adventure photographer was my ability to go further”

“Three days into the run, lugging a heavy DSLR, two lenses, camping gear and more in my backpack, I came home with a few shots I was really proud of. I felt this one, in particular, was my reward for the effort it took to get there. It taught me that maybe my unique selling point as an adventure photographer was my ability to go further, physically, than the other guy to get the shot, be it running a longer distance of climbing a harder wall to capture a better image. Two years later, it was used on the posters and pewter finishers’ medals for the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR) race.”

The Right Light One

Above Macugnanga, Italy. July 2016

Credit: Ben Read

“Oh, I was proper f*cked when I shot this. After lugging all my kit up an extremely hard climb and through some outrageous heat, I was absolutely exhausted, and it took all my effort to get the camera out. I was really suffering, but as the sun dipped behind Monterosa it split the sky in two. I love the detail in this shot, and the size of his pack just reminds me of how much kit we had strapped to our packs on that trip!”

The ‘All The Feels’ One

Saas Fee, Switzerland. July 2016

Credit: Ben Read

“This goes out to anyone who’s ever run, biked or hiked in the Alps during the summer. You know this feeling. This is one of the images of mine that causes the most discussion and gets the best reaction. It really sums up and confirms my approach to shooting the moments in between the action.”

The Tough One

Buachaille Etive Mor. Scotland, September 2018

Credit: Ben Read

“If ever I need to be reminded of how stressful shooting adventure sports can be, but also of how much I love the challenge, all I need to do is take a look at this image. It was taken on my first assignment for Red Bull, who’d asked me to document the Glencoe Skyline race – the hardest job I’ve done to date.

“As the race is a spicy mix of trail running and technical scrambling, and attracts the world’s top runners, I devised an elaborate plan of running and climbing and driving in order to shoot as much as possible. But on the morning of the race start, when suddenly the course route changed drastically, all that went out the window. I was forced to commit to just one location if I was to make it back in time to see the first racers cross the finishing line.

“Before I had a moment to settle in, Killian Jornet began scrambling up towards me”

“With that, I dashed for the steep face of the Buachaille Etive Mor, in the pissing rain, to scramble its Curved Ridge route – a face I’ve never been on before, and that is graded! I kept climbing, past numerous other photographers, in the hope of finding a position. I settled on a single square metre that gave me a few angles, and that would convey the imposing nature of the place.

“Before I had a moment to settle in, Killian Jornet began scrambling up towards me, and I shot him as he went above, too. Okay, so this won’t ever win any awards, but for me it’s a good reminder that no matter how cramped the conditions or terrible the weather, you can always find a good shot. A shot that, in this case, ended up being the feature opener in The Red Bulletin.”

The First Cover Shot One

Makarska, Croatia. June, 2018

Credit: Ben Read

“After showing them what I could do on a bike-race shoot in Italy, Cyclist magazine asked me to photograph their ‘Big Ride’ cover feature, which on this occasion was in Croatia. Despite being stung repeatedly by furious bees – including one on the face – after wandering too close to their hive, I succeeded in getting the shot I wanted – a frame that subtly blended the road with the mountains, and that made the human elements appear incredibly small.”

The Horrifying One

Segla, Norway. September 2018

Credit: Ben Read

“It’s hard to not feel cool when a brand recognises your style and asks to work with you on an awesome project that would be used right around the world. This was for a Helly Hansen campaign that would be used in their global stores. The concept centred around the Norwegian People’s Aid on the island of Senja – a voluntary mountain rescue group, led by Fred, the man in this shot. Fred has been a member since the age of 15, and, alongside his tales of heroic rescues, has some incredibly harrowing stories. I remember one thing he told me in particular – “I am now numb to death.”

“I am now numb to death”

“He’s seen some truly terrible things as, sadly, the bulk of his job involved body retrieval. In fact, his first ever call-out, at 15, was to a suicide, and he was first on the scene. This has been his life ever since, and now death doesn’t disturb him anymore. I mean, what more is left to see after seeing those kinds of things? I think that context adds a whole new level to this shot. To date, it’s the most fascinating job I’ve ever done. Meeting Fred and his team is an experience I’ll never forget.”

To see more of Ben Read’s photography, visit his website.

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