4 Tips for Capturing Life’s Wildest Shots, According to an Action Videographer
Steven Donovan will do anything to get the perfect shot.
Steven Donovan is no stranger to taking risks. He swung off the top of El Capitan, jet skied straight off a seaplane, and rode ATVs in Tunisia, all to capture the perfect shot. “Everything that I film includes a subject — a human element to it — somebody doing something that is extraordinary in a way,” he says.
Donovan got his start in the industry in 2011, when he purchased a GoPro. “I had seen on the internet videos of these amazing stunts that the GoPros are capturing, and I figured, ‘Oh, I'll buy one and I'll make videos like that,’” he says. He started recording cliff jumpers in his home state, then graduated to shooting big-name sports events and athletes. Donovan even developed his own tool to support his filmmaking that’s pushing the boundaries of action videography. For budding videographers looking to dive into the world of action sports, Donovan shares his journey and tips for capturing life’s wildest shots.
Find your personal style
After purchasing a GoPro, Donovan quickly realized that there’s a lot more that goes into filming than just pointing a camera and shooting — he needed to develop his own style. “My style of filming was very guerrilla run and gun, you get the shot or you don't,” he says. Unlike a traditional set, Donovan doesn’t have the freedom to do a second take; he can’t ask athletes to recreate a stunt. “It was always me running around and trying to get these shots as they were happening,” he says.
Donovan wanted to form a personal style, one that could reflect the epic stunts of his subjects. Most locations where Donovan shoots — national parks, wildlife preserves — ban drones, so he began playing around with different camera setups to mimic the look of a drone shot. “I started getting extra things like gimbals and I bought a 12-foot crane that I would put the camera on,” he says. With this configuration, Donovan’s footage oscillated from a low to a high angle in seconds, resulting in shots with incredible movement. “I was trying to use unique ways of filming that nobody was really doing at that time,” he says.
Tap into a community
Through social media, Donovan connected with a community of cliff jumpers in Virginia. “Nobody was giving cliff jumping the time of day,” he says. “It was a very niche, underground action sport.” The cliff jumpers became a catalyst to Donovan’s career. “Through my combined skills of filming it in a totally unique new way, and them just being rad at what they do, the internet started to take notice,” he says. Wanting to branch out into the scene, Donovan left his hometown and moved to Yellowstone National Park. “That's really what changed my life.”
Donovan worked as a housekeeper and had the freedom to explore the park during his downtime. He remained in the thick of these action-packed environments, filming in different parks while collecting odd jobs on the side. Donovan recalls a particular hike to St. Mary Falls in Glacier National Park where he met a kayaker who was about to drop off the waterfall. “I turned around and hiked back to the waterfall just to capture that moment,” Donovan says. By tapping into communities beyond cliff jumpers, Donovan began building his portfolio and expanding his audience.
Though Donovan has found success by connecting with action sports communities, he says it really comes down to being open to new experiences. “The way you get the best content is by immersing yourself,” he says. “You can live very minimally so you can put yourself in these environments to get incredible content.”
Fast forward to today, and Donovan has adopted a fully nomadic lifestyle. “I bought a truck for a thousand dollars, converted that, put a little bed in it, and hit the road,” he says. Since then, he's upgraded to living in a van, which gives Donovan flexibility to pursue more opportunities, he says, now that he can travel at a moment’s notice.
Invest in your gear
In 2019, Donovan submitted some of his cliff jumping videos to a GoPro competition and won. The winnings gave Donovan the validation and recognition he needed to continue pursuing this career path. “All these legendary filmmakers in that world started from filming with their friends — whether it's skateboarding, BMXing, snowboarding,” he says. “And mine was cliff jumping.”
With the winnings from the challenge, Donovan developed a custom tool for videography: a pole with a gimbal attached to the end of it. “I actually borrowed a window cleaning pole from the basement of the lodge I was working at,” he says.
The pole’s portability gave Donovan more flexibility out in the field; he could set up his camera, and instantly capture content, unlike the 12-foot crane setup he used. “That's why I developed the pole: something that I could just quickly run ahead of everyone, get the shot, pack it back up, and run ahead of them again,” he says. “They were never waiting for me.”
Over time, he made a few tweaks to the cleaning-pole model, like swapping out the GoPro for a 360 camera. The new camera allowed Donovan to capture all angles at once, then cut to the ones he wanted to show. This shift was key, giving him multiple shots to work with from just one take. “The content just started getting way better once I switched to 360,” he says.
Eventually, Donovan reached out to manufacturers to create a professional, carbon fiber pole that he could sell to other videographers. “I sent pictures of the cleaning pole that I was using [to the manufacturers] and developed a couple different prototypes,” he says. Then, the FPoleV came to life.
A play on the name of a FPV drone, the FPoleV is extendable and swings around to get shots that look like they’re filmed with a drone, when in actuality, it’s just a handheld device. Today, Donovan has three models out on the market – a 15-foot, 24-foot, and 30-foot extendable pole – and has sold more than 250 products.
Take time to reflect
Donovan says that the most intensive part of his job is actually post production. “The editing process is a huge part of the content that I put out,” he says. “I spend hours, sometimes days, just perfecting a 10-second clip.” After he exports his videos and closes his laptop, Donovan cracks open a can of Pacifico. He says the crisp lager helps him wrap up a long day of work.
Beyond editing, Donovan says that Pacifico is a brand that supports his free spirited, nontraditional career path. “Seeing them support other big action sports . . . it just resonates with me as a beer that is down with the lifestyle,” he says.
When he’s back in the van, editing the videos and reflecting on his adventures, Donovan thinks back to the people he’s met and the places he’s visited. “I gave up everything to make this my lifestyle,” Donovan says. “I don't have a permanent place to live. I don't have a permanent community. I have a community all over through action sports.”
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