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BTS: Shooting a Free Runner in China at -18°F Temperatures

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to shoot in -18°F? Action Photographer David Robinson brought a free runner, Jason Paul, along with him to China to experience it, and now shares his story with us. At first, you may wonder what a free runner and such cold weather have in common, and you would be entirely right to do so. But wait until you discover the pictures to see how beautiful the combination of an icy landscape and this sport is.

Robinson had spotted the location, the Ice City of Harbin, a while ago when browsing through The Atlantic’s website and it got him thinking about what could be created with such a great playground. He had seen ice bars, ice hotels, and other ice constructions, but nothing comparable to the Ice City of Harbin in terms of size or scope. He thus decided to pitch an idea to Red Bull last year and waited to hear back from them, which happened in October. When they got back to him, they already had obtained all the necessary papers and planned part of the project. They only asked Robinson if he wanted to be part of it. Even though Red Bull had scheduled most things, Robinson still had free reign over the photography part.

Harbin's Ice City – © David Robinson

The action photographer had quite a bit of gear along with him. With such a cold weather, technical issues can be common and quickly problematic. So he brought along his Canon 5D Mark III, 5D Mark II, 15mm f/2.8, 17-40mm f/4, 24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, and 85mm f/1.8. He also had his Elinchrom battery flashes with him, but interestingly enough he took his older Quadras rather than his ELBs 400 because the lead gel coping batteries apparently hold up better in cold weather — good to know if you are a ski or snowboard photographer I guess.

The forerunner and Robinson hadn’t met before the shoot, but they quickly bonded. One interesting thing Robinson told me is that he simply needed to explain what he was looking for and Paul, the athlete, would quickly understand it and even come up with ideas to make the final result better. Working with athletes, dancers included, is always a pleasure in that regard. They are performance-oriented and creative-minded like photographers. In this case, it proved to be very useful because the shoot was mainly centered around the video below and the time given for photography was limited. Thus Robinson was hanging around the video crew, and once they were done, he had about five minutes to get the shot before they had to move to the next location. Talk about severe conditions: -18°F, only a few instants to grab a shot, standing on ice or snow…

Nonetheless, Robinson created some fantastic images. He could have had more time with Paul, but unfortunately, the last day which should have been purely about photography, the free runner tried a risky move and ended up in the hospital.

As a portrait photographer, I find it inspiring to see this kind of project, especially with such beautiful images coming out of it. It’s so easy to complain that we are missing some elements or gear to make the gorgeous images we envision. At the end of the day, even if you only have a few minutes to shoot in freezing cold weather with not all the gear you’d like to have  — because you took the plane to China like Robinson — you can always make the best out of a situation. What do you guys take out of this shoot? Do you try to push the boundaries of your work from time to time like Robinson did here? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

If you liked these images, don't forget to follow David Robinson on Instagram and Facebook, or visit his website.

All images used with permission.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Quentin Décaillet is a photographer and retoucher based in Switzerland specializing in portrait and wedding photography.

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These shots are chilling


poor guy, running straight to the hospital :(