Nitro Circus Live has to be seen to be believed, and the images and videos we share with you every day are the best way we have to show you what we’re all about. If you’re here, then you most likely enjoy all of this amazing and crazy content without stopping to think about how it exists in the first place. Nitro Staff Photographer Mark Watson would say he’s just fine with that. He wants fans to see a story in every photo, not the artist behind the camera. But we’d be nothing without the images we share on our social channels, in articles like this one, and in media all over. So today we’re pulling back the curtain and talking to our photographer about what it takes to travel the world and capture images of some of the best action sports athletes in the world.
Travis Pastrana and Beau Bamburg
The photos in this article (and, really, almost every photo we share these days) were all taken by Mark — better known as Watto by the people he works with. Shots like this one of Travis Pastrana and Beau Bamburg that are technically difficult and uber-precise are what get him excited. The Aussie native has become one of the world’s leading action-adventure sports photographers, so when he’s not traveling with us, he’s out shooting big-mountain skiers or cliff divers or adventurers trekking through the wilderness of Papua New Guinea or Patagonia. “Before this tour, I was seakayaking in Northern Australia, I was canyoneering in Utah, I was over at the Banff Mountain Film Festival — so I’m doing a lot of projects,” he says.
His favorite subject to shoot? “Anything that’s a challenge and maybe hasn’t been done before or hasn’t been done a particular way before.” You might recognize that as the exact answer almost every action sports athlete would give when asked what drives them in their sport. It’s tempting to think that’s a mindset that rubbed off on him from years spent with professional athletes, but it’s more likely that Watto arrived to the job already conditioned to think that way.
Growing up in Bells Beach, Australia, he was exposed to action sports from a young age and has been an enthusiast all his life: camping, surfing, mountain biking, snowboarding, and more. These days he still surfs, mountain bikes, and has recently gotten into canyoneering — but he’s quick to point out that working with the best athletes in the world can be quite humbling. “That’s one thing I always have to keep in check. I’m not as good as those guys, so don’t try to jump off the same cliff,” he says. “I’m certainly pushed well outside my comfort zone, but that’s what makes the job interesting.”
Some of his favorite shoots are snowsports in the backcountry: “Not only are you playing with an adventure sport, you’re playing with a pretty gnarly but crazily impressive backdrop. To be honest, if you get a bluebird day in big mountains and someone who knows what they’re doing, it’s hard to take a bad photo. So maybe it’s because it’s easy that I love it,” he says, laughing. “But also, I mean, who’s going to argue when a helicopter drops you on top of a mountain and you’ve got epic untracked powder below you? That’s not a bad job to have.”
Big-mountain skiing on Mt. Cook in New Zealand
Lately he’s been pursuing canyoneering more, because he loves the challenge of that too. He also just started dabbling in underwater photography and scuba. “Anything that’s a challenge,” he says often. Him getting stoked on the technical aspects of his job isn’t surprising when you find out that Watto’s background is actually in scientific and biomedical photography, a degree he pursued immediately after high school. He says he was into science and photography already, so when he found a degree program that combined the two, it seemed like a perfect match.
“So, yeah, I actually have a piece of paper that says I officially know what I’m doing,” he says. “Really, I should be working in some CSI lab.” After completing the degree, though, he wasn’t quite ready to commit to that path. “At the end of that, I went, ‘Bugger this photography gig, I’m gonna take off and chill out for a little bit,'” he says. “I certainly didn’t want to pursue working in a hospital.” So he worked a couple snow seasons, where he began photographing skiers and snowboarders — and it took off from there. “I followed my passion for photographing cool people in cool places doing cool things,” he says.
Nitro Circus in Madrid, Spain
Nitro is actually one of his tamer gigs, since it takes place in a relatively controlled environment. He’s been photographing almost all of our shows for the last three or four years, having been referred to us by someone who knows him from his work with Red Bull, where he’s been a photographer for a long time. That Red Bull gig is where he honed his skills photographing FMX. He recalls testing out different setups with Robbie Maddison back in the early days: “We did some pretty cool stuff where I was gaffer-taping a camera to his handlebars, and it kind of went viral for those days, which means a hundred people saw it rather than 10,” he says, laughing.
His work with Nitro started with a small misunderstanding. He’d missed the initial email, which was a straight-up job offer, because he was off on an assignment — “Chile or somewhere,” he says. And so when Nitro followed up, he thought that was the first contact. He lives near where Nitro was based at that time, and that follow-up email was an invite to catch up over coffee. He thought they would have a chat and get to know each other, again, not realizing the job had been offered and Nitro was awaiting his answer about whether he was willing to take on a month-long European tour that started in a week or two. “They basically said, ‘So, are you good to go?’ And I’m kinda like, ‘What do you mean good to go? I thought we were just having a coffee,'” he says. They realized the miscommunication and it was all good, but it meant he had to hustle to get ready. “I pretty much dropped everything and bought a whole line of gear that was required, got on a plane, and flew into Stockholm, I think, two weeks later.”
He already knew some of the Nitro Crew, like FMX legends Josh Sheehan and Steve Mini. “When I stepped in I thought, ‘I know a couple of these guys; I know what it’s all about.’ But then I really did just get thrown into the thick of things, into tour life … lights and smoke and pyro, and then pack up and two days later you’re in another country doing it again. It was a fair bloody initiation, I can certainly tell you that,” he says. “Here’s the whole Crew, here’s the Nitro family, you’re part of it now. You’re on a bus living with us, breathing, eating, and shooting. But, you know, I must have liked it — I’m still here.”
That ability to adapt quickly to fluctuating circumstances is one of the things that makes Watto a perfect fit for this job, because despite Nitro being one of his tamer gigs, he has to be prepared for anything to ensure he gets the shots the fans want to see. “There’s a lot going in the show, and from a stills photography standpoint, you’re shooting in very low light and you have to shoot very fast shutter speeds, and that brings its own challenges,” he says. “Now cameras are very, very good, so in theory you can just ramp up the ISO and pull off some pretty good shots — and in some arenas that’s what I do.”
Full arena in Munich, Germany
He points to Prague on our most recent tour as an example of an arena where the flashes wouldn’t work for some reason — they worked before and they worked after, but there they didn’t. “So you just have to work with the show lights and ramp up the ISO.” He elaborates: “You can shoot sequences, then; you can shoot 10 frames a second to get that perfect moment. It’s actually a little bit easier, but you end up with a whole lot of shots you don’t want,” he says. “Ideally, what you want to do is get some good lighting going, and that’s a challenge.”
“I followed my passion for photographing cool people in cool places doing cool things.”
It could be that scientific side of him coming through, he says, but those are the sorts of challenges he’s talking about that he lives for, and it’s clear that the technology he gets to employ is part of what makes it so exciting for him. “We used some new gear on the last tour that I was psyched with,” he says. “What we’re doing at Nitro is reasonably cutting edge, because we’re using big studio strobes and we’re hyper-syncing them to 4,000th of a second. It wasn’t many years ago when that wasn’t possible.” On this last tour he used Elinchrom’s Skyport system, which was just released before the tour started. “The guys from Elinchrom, who happen to be based in Switzerland, hand-delivered some of the units to us in Norway,” Watto says. He describes how flashes can make the lighting perfect, but the margin for error is much tighter — you have to time the shot exactly right or you’ve missed, because flashes can’t reset fast enough to shoot multiple frames per second like you can with ambient lighting and a ramped-up ISO.
It’s pretty technical, so let’s take a look at the results. On the left is a shot from Oslo, where they had the hyper-syncing technology from Elinchrom, and on the right is a shot from Prague, where Watto was using the tried-and-true ramped-up ISO method. Check it out (click the image for a bigger shot):
Both photos are awesome in their own way, but the difference is clear. The Oslo shots with the new technology almost look fake. “They’re a bit too perfect,” Watto says, laughing. We asked him which photo style he prefers. “I like the challenge of getting that perfect shot that maybe we got in Oslo, but part of the great thing about Nitro is you have to adapt. You’re going to be out of the game in photography pretty quick if you turn up to, you know, to Prague, and the flashes don’t work and you go, ‘Aw shit, we can’t shoot.’ So what’s rad about shooting with Nitro and action-adventure sports in particular is there’s always a variable,” he says. “My job is to tell a story. What Prague did was forced me to go, ‘Well, I’m not going to get those perfect shots this time; I’m gonna step back a little bit and try to tell a bit more of the story.'”
Either way, getting the timing down is super tough, because any given trick has a split-second where it’s exactly right — too soon or too late and you capture the wrong moment. You have to use instinct, developed over years of watching these athletes through a lens, because things happen so fast you can’t rely on your own eyes. “You don’t see it in the camera. You might get a run in with an FMX guy, and you kinda go, all right, they’re going into their trick, and you time it in your head, and you go, ‘Bang! That’s when they’re gonna kick with their leg.’ And you know, without having seen the flashes go off or anything, you know: ‘Yeah, I got that.’ Or you know if you missed it.”
And misses do happen, even after years of experience. “It’s funny, if you were up there in the crowd with me you’d hear me swear a lot. I’ll know I missed it without even looking at the camera.” And the riders aren’t shy about letting him know later when a shot is off. “Especially in my early days, I’d be all psyched, ‘Check that out: Sun’s behind you, the light’s epic. Look at the dust coming off the kicker.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that’s all pretty, mate, but my trick’s not there’ … They’ll be like, ‘Yeah, look at my left hand; it’s not back on the bar,’ or something like that,” he says. “So the challenge is the timing; that’s key, and that’s key for anyone shooting action-adventure sports — to get that bloody moment, and I think as you shoot athletes they’ll teach you and give you a hard time if you keep missing it. If you keep missing it, you won’t be shooting action sports for long,” he adds, laughing.
But Watto makes more than he misses these days, and that’s one of the reasons the Crew loves to have him on tour. His experience shooting for Nitro has given him the insight into the timing of shots, the types of things these athletes want to see, and he’s great about getting them images as soon as possible so they can share them on their social media. Nitro FMX veteran Steve Mini, who we know is specifically interested in everyone on tour getting along really well, gives Watto the thumbs-up both professionally and personally: “Watto’s a legend. Best photographer in the business, and a real good guy to hang with.” And Nitro’s Josh Sheehan says, “Watto is great to have around. He’s always capturing brilliant shots at the right time. But you have to be careful, because he also gets shots of you when you aren’t expecting it.”
Watto also has only positive things to say about the Nitro family. “You’re shooting the best guys in the world. Anyone that’s involved in adventure or action sports and someone says, ‘Do you want to shoot Travis Pastrana?’ — you don’t turn down that opportunity,” he says. “The opportunity to shoot with these guys is sort of key to what drives me. … It’s been a pretty rad ride.”
He enjoys the bread and butter of shooting for Nitro — the shows — but he also loves to document behind the scenes and the side trips we always head out on when we’re on tour. “A lot of what’s cool about Nitro is what’s going on before and after,” he says. “We went out to that park in Zurich, and those were some of my favorite shots.” (If you check out that link, scroll down to the Zurich section for Watto’s work.) “When Roner BASE jumped into Durban, that was epic.”
The side trip he took with a group of Nitro BMX riders in Soweto, South Africa, was one of his favorites. “They rode the dodgiest ramp that pretty much moved every time one of the boys hit it, but they had a ball, and the local kids were frothing,” he says. The buses that were supposed to pick them up couldn’t get to them. “So the fellas just rode through the shantytown and just started doing street tricks.” It was one the greatest moments he’s had on tour, and it’s one of the reasons he hopes to spend even more time with the Crew outside of the arena. “Aside from the fireworks and the big tricks of the tour, some of the good stuff is in between,” he says.
The Nitro BMX boys in Soweto, South Africa
We wonder if he has any fun stories from his adventures on the road with Nitro, and he laughs: “That I’m allowed to tell?” Unfortunately, yes, that’s what we’re looking for this time. And he does. He tells a story about one of the Crew getting seasick and having “a full spew” while four or five of them were in a shark cage surrounded by giant great whites. He tells another story about what sounds like an epic scooter pile-up in the French Riviera en route to Monaco. But the story that seems to get him the most, and the one we like the best, is about hollandaise sauce.
“MY JOB IS TO TELL A STORY.”
It was the first or second tour he was on, and he believes they were in New Zealand, maybe Christchurch. “When you’re on tour and you’re stuck in the buses, you’re basically a big family, which is part of the best thing about Nitro,” he says. “There certainly is this comfortable family feel, but on the flip-side of that, you’re living in each other’s pockets.” Because of that, it’s not uncommon for people on tour to take a break on their own, go grab a meal or see some sights. Watto decided he was going to skip the group breakfast and go grab a bite on his own, so he went down the road to a little cafe.
“I was sitting in this sort of trendy cafe, and I ordered eggs benedict — and that does come into the story, which is why I told you that,” he says, laughing. “Clinton Moore walks in to this little trendy cafe. And for those who do or don’t know Clinton, he’s one of the funniest blokes, good bloke, but a rural, country Australia freestyle motocross rider, tattooed all over — looks like you don’t want to get in a fight with him. … And he sits down and says, ‘What’d you order?’ And I told him eggs benedict. And believe it or not, Clinton Moore is a bit of a guru on how to cook eggs benedict. We had a full one-hour conversation and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I hate bad eggs benedict. You gotta stir it, you gotta keep stirring it, and you gotta add the vinegar at the right time.’ And I just remember this weirdest moment of sitting in this little trendy cafe … and Clinton Moore, this tattooed FMX rider sitting there giving me a lesson on how to cook the perfect eggs benedict for breakfast,” he says. “There’s all these weird little moments that stick in your head.” He’s chuckling at the memory.
For someone with a career like Watto’s, capturing images of amazing people in amazing places doing crazy things, it might seem surprising that a story like that is memorable at all. But his job is to see the unexpected things in life and make lasting moments from them, and when you consider it that way, Clint Moore’s eggs benedict rant fits the definition perfectly. What we do as action sports innovators is only as meaningful as what we can show our audience, and so we need a photographer like Watto, a technician and a storyteller who has the eye to spot the right moments and understand why they’re interesting and important, no matter how big or small.
See more from Mark Watson and find out how to hire him to shoot for you at inciteimages.com.
Come see what Watto sees live! We’re headed to Australia and North America, and then back to Europe this summer — and don’t forget the inaugural Nitro World Games in Salt Lake City this July. Hit those links for more details, and come see this insanity live!