Photographer Jacques Marais’s Secret To Success

Photo Credit: Peter Kirk Media

At least two or three times a week, the phone rings, or an email pings into his Inbox, asking Jacques Marais for ‘The Secret’ to becoming a successful extreme sports photographer. The answer is simple, and always the same: “Get off your butt, work hard at it for five years, and everything will fall into place.”

“I know this sounds rather brusque, but after 20 years in the business, I have to continually work my proverbial butt off in order to get that definitive shot. Sure, you begin to develop a routine and recipe, and this makes it easier. But if you do not consistently work at redefining your signature style, copycat shooters will be all over you in no time,” says Jacques.

Jacques has managed to do exactly this, in the process adding a number of global brands to his client portfolio. These include the likes of Red Bull, Land Rover, Nike, Rocky Mountain, Hi-Tec and Giant, travelling around the world to shoot events and races. The way it happened is no ordinary story though, but an early interest in cameras can be traced back to his days as a young boy growing up in the Baviaans River Valley.

Photo Credit: Jacques Marais

The family’s remote farm in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province offered ample opportunity for Jacques to experiment with his mother’s old Box Brownie. Images of prize bulls and brush-cut cousins soon evolved into sport photography at school, but engineering seemed a better career choice at the time, especially as the South African Broadcasting Corporation footed the bill for his studies.

However, that ‘first love’ for photography never completely faded, and freelancing for the odd travel publication eventually brought Jacques to a career crossroad. He decided to set up a small advertising agency in order to supplement the photography and photo-journalism side of things, and a decade of hard graft resulted in Jacques Marais Media, his current business.
Numerous business lessons were learned during these early days, the most pertinent of these being that multiple revenue streams make for a healthy business. Writing became a valuable selling tool, with magazines keen to enlist the services of a shooter who could also write the feature for them.

Jacques initially focused on travel and mainstream sport, but soon realised no-one specialised in edge or extreme sport disciplines. As an avid, adventure racer, mountain biker and trail runner (and wannabe surfer, rock climber and kayaker), he had had an inside track on other shooters as he knew the sports well enough to understand where and when the money shots would happen.

Instead of waiting in transition areas or at designated media points, Jacques would run, paddle or ride with the athletes, getting into that zone where you capture the grit and extreme action of these edge sport events.

To move fast ‘inside the race’ means you need lightweight equipment, but this doesn’t have to mean a trade-off against quality. Canon’s 5D MkII offers superb quality, while opting for f4 lenses rather than the f2.8 versions shaves off valuable grams without compromising on your sharpness or image quality. Fill-in from a 580EX flash is non-negotiable, because Jacques likes to shoot close up at a slow shutter speed, and with the aperture stopped down by one stop.

An image which stands out as an example of this is a photograph taken of Justin Hawkins, one of the world’s foremost bouldering climbers. After scouting the sea-cliffs overlooking False Bay near Cape Town, Jacques found a spot where he could relatively safely set up a shot of the young climber seemingly dangling over the abyss. In order to get the shot, it was necessary for Jacques to scramble along a narrow ledge, but it paid off big time.

He entered the image into the Red Bull Illume Extreme Sports Photographic Contest and was delighted when the judges chose him a finalist from more than 10 000 entries. Together with 50 other extreme shooters from around the world, Jacques was flown to Aspen, Colorado in the USA, where the ILLUME images were exhibited before touring the world.

For more information visit