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Fstoppers Interviews the Photographer Who Recorded an Amazing and Grueling Desert Expedition

Fstoppers Interviews the Photographer Who Recorded an Amazing and Grueling Desert Expedition

What does it take to document a 2,000-kilometer run deep in the scorching-hot Namibia desert for over four weeks straight? And how is it possible to edit, upload, and share videos and photographs completely off the grid? Just ask Travel, Lifestyle, and Adventure Photographer Ryan Richardson from Life Outside Studios for the answer. 

The Trans Namibia Expedition featured Expedition Runners Ray Zahab and Stefano Gregoretti. The objective of the trip was to run from the southern border of Namibia and South Africa to the northern border of Engola. During the run, each athlete ran about 55 km/day. Another aspect of the expedition involved education. Sponsor Canadian Geographic connected the content-gathering team and athletes with students across the United States and Canada so they could answer questions in real time about the expedition. 

Ryan Richardson's job was to record and edit the footage during the expedition and to get the footage to sponsors. This would've been a lot easier in the comfort of an air-conditioned apartment. However, Richardson was tasked with this job while in the Namibia desert landscape: "I'd always edit at night because I could sit in my tent for three hours rather than roast in the sun," said Richardson. "I wanted to be available to shoot during the day when all the action was happening." 

Although another photographer was a part of the team, his role was to capture the environment and landscape of the expedition, while Richardson's main focus was to capture video and photos of the runners. Because each photographer was assigned different subject(s) to photograph, they often worked independently of one another. In order to get sufficient footage as a one-man team, Richardson had to think on his feet and move quickly to keep up with the runners.

Richardson would get to a specific location on the runners' map well before they arrived and would get ready with three different angles ahead of time. He set up a variation of wide and tight shots to get different views of the runners' sequence. Once all cameras were rolling, Richardson would then launch his DJI Mavic Pro into the air to record additional footage from a different perspective. If the project didn't require saving space to travel, Richardson would've brought a DJI Phantom instead. Photo quality suffered due to the smaller sensor of the Mavic Pro, but having the lighter drone was more practical for this specific shoot.

Because he was a one-man-team, Richardson aimed to have many different sources of media coming to him. In order to do this, he would "encourage the runners to record themselves with their phones, and I'd constantly give them GoPros. I didn't always have access to the athletes, so I never knew what events would unfold." 

In order to maintain a light pack and expedition bag on the flight and throughout the trip, (and not sacrifice quality), Richardson recorded and photographed exclusively with Sony mirrorless cameras. He used two Sony a6300 cameras as well as a Sony a7R II in order to save space in his bags and because he fully trusted the cameras' sealing against the desert sand. To help further combat against the desert sand, which against all odds always finds a way into camera bodies and lenses, Richardson brought only three lenses (one for each body) so he never had to take one off a camera. In order to cover a wide range of view, he used the Sony 24-70mm on the a7R II, as well as the Sony 10-18mm and the Sony 70-200mm on each of the a6300s. In order to bounce between handheld and mounted shots quickly and smoothly, Richardson used the Zhiyun-Tech Crane v2 3-Axis Handheld Gimbal Stabilizer as well as a tripod and a Peak Design Capture Clip

Another technique Richardson used especially because he was essentially a one-man team was to always be photographing or recording content. While sitting in his tent, editing footage at night, long after everyone else went to sleep, Richardson would set up a time-lapse in order to keep gathering content. This way he could always make the most of his time. He brought two 4 TB hard drives with him to make sure he had enough storage space while in the field: "I would pull footage and mirror the hard drives. One was used as contingency and stored in a truck, and one was on me all the time." 

After editing footage, Richardson needed to get the content to sponsors of the expedition. To do so, he utilized a global satellite network called Inmarsat. With an Inmarsat device, Richardson was able to pair his laptop with a satellite via a WiFi connection. He sent the content to his business partner, Hailey, who would then send the material to sponsors directly. "It would take one hour to upload 60 MB, which means that was one hour away from shooting. I had to juggle between missing shots and uploading footage." 

Through recording this expedition, Richardson realized that compromises are made in the field while on a run-and-gun type of job. The best photo may not always be taken, but the best possible story should always be captured. Richardson used this inspiration from a fellow cinematographer, Daniel Moder, who created 180 Degrees South: "I'd rather take a blurry photo of a really powerful story than a really sharp photo of something that isn't a great story," he said. 

He also realized that taking care of himself was just as important as capturing content. There were many variables that were out of Richardson's control, such as the weather. But he was in control of what he brought with him: "It sounds funny, but you can't think about being creative when your skin is burned, your lips are bleeding, or you're hungry and thirsty. I always packed lip balm, sunscreen, protein bars, and water." 

Photographing and recording video for the desert expedition also confirmed Richardson's belief that camera gear is a tool, and it should be used as such: "You insure your gear and use it the way it's supposed to be used. Working with athletes and landscape environments means you have to get footage that's tough. Do your research and make sure your gear will stand up to the environment, and don't be afraid of breaking it." 

The photographer has never committed to a project in the past in which he was to capture content for weeks in the desert. But that's an important part of being a professional creative: "When you put yourself in a scenario where you have to sink or swim, you always end up swimming. For me, doing something like this was out of my comfort zone. But I found a way to swim and had work to show for it." 

To view more of Ryan Richardson's work, check out his website, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube channel

All photographs are used with the permission of Ryan Richardson.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Timothy Behuniak is a Salt Lake City-based landscape and outdoor adventure photographer who's passionate about getting lost in the woods with his camera. Tim's hope is that his viewers, like him, will one day love and fight to protect the beautiful locations he is fortunate to photograph.

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