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Interview with Action Sports Photographer Gabe L’Heureux

Gabe L’Heureux isn’t just one of the busiest men in the business, take one look through his work and you’ll quickly realize he’s one of the best. His photos expertly showcase stunning forces of nature and athletes brave enough to endure them. Yet, despite the rugged qualities of his subject matter, his work tends to have an ethereal quality to it, lending a particular brand of beauty to the harsh environments he captures.

It’s this rare ability to capture the balance of violence and elegance that has earned Gabe jobs with the likes of Oakley, Target, ESPN and Red Bull, just to name a few. And this is all on top of his normal gig as senior photographer/team manager for Burton Snowboards.

We were recently lucky enough to catch up with Gabe during a brief break between trips to see how his year has started off.

PetaPixel: So you were recently working at the X Games in Aspen and then the 2014 Sochi Olympics, what were those experiences like? Have you worked either of them before? How do they compare?

Gabe L’Heureux: I just got back from both X Games and the Olympics and they were both pretty different experiences. With the X Games you can always expect perfect features, from both a rider’s perspective and a photographic perspective. The jumps and halfpipe are built very well with the viewer in mind. This translates into good photos. The riders are high in the air and the level of riding is always at its top. The riders are able to push their limits since everything is built to perfection, and this shows through in the photos.

Sochi was somewhat the opposite of this. No one knew what to expect. Everyone was a little nervous going there due to the terrorist threats, lack of knowing what the snow would be like and not knowing if their lodging would actually exist.

Upon getting up to the venue, we quickly realized we weren’t at the X Games. Sure the jumps and the halfpipe photographed decently but they didn’t ride well. The halfpipe was in terrible, sub par shape and the slopestyle course needed many serious changes before the riders were able to properly ride it. Overall I’m happy with the images that I came home with but from a snowboarding perspective the event was a huge bummer. The judging was terrible and the snow conditions and the build didn’t allow for the show everyone was hoping for.

PP: When you’re presented with a less than ideal situation, like at the Olympics, how do you salvage it? Have you ever been unable to salvage a situation? What did you do specifically at the Olympics in order to produce images you would be happy with?

GL: I was on a trip once with Jeremy Jones. Most of the snow melted and then turned to block ice. In the middle of setting up this feature to shoot, Jeremy turns to me and says, “The most professional thing for us to do right now is to call it a trip and go home.” I agreed and we left.

Moral of the story is sometimes things don’t work out. It’s key to understand that and not waste your time and effort with something that won’t work. In the case of the Olympics it still photographed really well. I made little adjustments here or there to angles or ideas for shots and worked with what I had in front of me. The photos came out really good I think, the jumps were still large and the backdrops were spectacular.

PP: Beyond the X Games and the Olympics, how has the season been treating you? A lot of places have been dry, has that affected you?

GL: The season has been a good one thus far and it’s really only about half way through. So much of our shooting is done in March, April and May. This is when the resorts put all their resources into private shoots and we really get a chance to stack footage and photos. The weather is getting better and the riders are warmed up and ready to shoot.

PP: Do you prefer to shoot videos or stills?

GL: I love doing both and it’s hard to say which I like better. Photography is much newer to me and therefore more exciting I think. From the video side of things, I love working on specific projects and seeing a project through from start to finish. When 16mm faded out I lost my love for shooting video stuff until the RED camera hit the scene. Finally we had a camera and cinema glass in our hands again and it made filming exciting again. The quality finally matched the effort we were putting into it. For those few years where we were shooting on the Panasonic HVX it was hard to really get inspired. I felt like we had taken a step back from 16mm film.

As I move forward in my career I’m sure I will still shoot both mediums but if I had to pick a route I’d go photo for sure.

PP: What’s your standard setup when you’re out shooting stills? Do you have a favorite lens or piece of gear that’s vital to your work?

GL: Shooting stills I run with 2 camera bodies. 5D Mark III for everything other than action and a 1D Mark IV for hi frame rate stuff. I still end up using the 5D from time to time for action stuff. Especially if it’s going to need a crop. The lens’ I usually run are 8-15mm fisheye, new 24-70mm and 70-200mm. From time to time I will add others to this setup but this is whats normally in my bag.

For video I run RED Epic. RED is where it’s at.

PP: How did you first get into photography?

GL: Around the time I was hired by Burton I was dabbling pretty heavily into shooting stills. At this time I also started working closely with Shaun White. Realizing the great opportunity I had traveling with Shaun and documenting his action sports career I began shooting more and more photos. Burton was open to having me do both so I’ve been jumping back and forth ever since.

PP: How did you first get started with Burton and how long have you been working with them?

GL: I was working for the production company Mack Dawg Productions when one of the guys I worked with, Brad Kremer, was hired by Burton. I was looking for a change at that time and he brought me on. Couldn’t have been happier with my decision. I’m in my 5th year working for Burton now and I love it. The media team we have in place is seriously good at what they do. Each of the cinematographers and photographers brings a different talent and experience to the table and the company as a whole is so down to do new and exciting things.

PP: You also recently worked on the Burton [Snowboarding] series, right? How did that come about, what was your role in it, and what was it like working on the project?

GL: I worked extensively on Burton’s Web series, [Snowboarding]. Burton had the idea to mix things up a bit last season and put all their resources into making top quality movies for web release. These films were shot on the RED Epic camera and each of the media crew worked on the various titles.

I filmed a good amount of the ‘Streets’ Movie and the ‘Resorts’ movie, as well as working with Corey Koniniec, Alex Adrian and Sam Nuttman on the [Snowboarding] Intro segment where we used the Movi steady cam device. The intro scene made some noise in the cinema community and around Hollywood blogs etc. In addition to filming, Corey and I edited the ‘Streets’ film.

PP: Where is your favorite place to visit/shoot?

GL: I think Japan is probably my favorite place to visit and shoot. I love the culture and vibe there. Really though anywhere I travel, I have a camera out and am constantly looking for the next good shot. The best thing about this job is traveling, but that’s also one of the worst things as well. The older I get the more time I want to spend in one place, but from a photographic perspective being in one place can get a little mundane.

PP: What’s one place you wish you could have spent more time with?

GL: I was in Istanbul a few weeks ago for about 6 hours. I quickly ran around the city and shot what I could. The city seems mind-blowing for photography. Can’t wait to go back.

PP: Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation while shooting?

GL: Well, I was riding my motorcycle the other day going 60mph while shooting a photo. Not too sure if that classifies as a dangerous situation…HA…..

In all seriousness, shooting snowboarding involves a small set of risks. A lot of times the photographers are in remote locations way back in the backcountry. Knowing and respecting the mountains is key in these situations. Overall though, I wouldn’t say it’s much more dangerous than any other outdoor photography or film job. Each one will have its own risks. I know even the television personalities were scared to go to Sochi.

PP: What’s the biggest hurdle when shooting action sports?

GL: I wouldn’t say there are any huge hurdles really. In snowboarding we are constantly dealing with weather conditions. Some days you aren’t able to shoot and if you are up against a deadline then this can cause problems. When shooting in the streets there’s always the possibility of getting kicked out of spots, or the riders not getting the shot they came for. Overall though it’s a good business to be involved in and has opened so many doors to other great experiences, situations and travels.

PP: What sort of photography do you get into when you’re not covering action sports?

GL: I love documentary photography. Doesn’t really matter what I’m documenting but I love shooting from a behind the scenes/documentary perspective on things. Traveling around you are constantly put in situations where amazing photo opportunities arise and social media gives you a forum to publish this random photography. Not sure if one day I will eventually go this route but I have a lot of fun shooting it.

I’ve had a blog for the past 7 years or so, which has been a good spot to put these images out there. Also, Instagram is changing the game for photography. It’s so much easier for up and coming photographers to get noticed.

PP: If you did transition from action sports to another type of photography is that what you’d choose? Documentary style photography? Or is there another type of photography you’d like to try your hand at?

GL: I think documentary photography would be my go-to. Maybe for a mag like ESPN the Magazine or Sports Illustrated. I’ve even thought about pursuing the White House photographer job. My brother is a photographer as well and he has his hand in a lot of different stuff: everything from product photography, to action sports, to ad campaign stuff. It’s rad how much he mixes it up. He’s crushing it.

PP: What do you like to do to give yourself a break from photography?

GL: Don’t know if I ever really give my mind a break from photography or shot composition. I’m constantly thinking about what would make a good shot. But lately I’ve been trying to surf as much as possible when I’m not in the mountains. It’s a good outlet and I can’t bring Lightroom into the water.

PP: What do you have planned for the rest of 2014?

GL: For the rest of 2014? Good question. I’m going to finish up this winter season filming and shooting photos when I can and then hopefully figure out some freelance projects for the summer in addition to working on some edit stuff for Burton. I really want to get a couple of lifestyle campaigns going for the summer and get out of my comfort zone a bit. Push myself and build my portfolio.

Image credits: Photographs by Gabe L’Heureux and used with permission.

[via PetaPixel]

[via PetaPixel]

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