Behind the Lens: Faces of Freestyle with Peter Holcombe

Veteran paddling photographer weighs in on portraiture, giving back and the joys of van life

From top left, Kenny Kellogg, Elaine Campbell, Hayden Voorhees, Anna Bruno, Rowan Stuart, Bennet Smith, Paul Palmer, Seth Chapelle, Dane Jackson, Paul Palmer, Brooke Hess, Matt Anger, Clay Wright, Cat Hardman.

Canoekayak.com: Can you take us through the technical side of the shoot. What gear did you use? Any challenges?
Peter Holcombe: This shoot took place at the Arkansas River in Buena Vista, Colo. I was set up on the large boulders that make up the side of the “Top Hole” at the amazing whitewater park there, so I didn’t have access to power for my lighting equipment. I’m used to this as most of my work is done in remote locations in wild places.

I used a Canon 1DX with a 70-200 2.8 IS II lens on my faithful Gitzo Tripod. For the lighting, I calculated the best time of day to have back-lighting on the athletes and then used my Hensel Porty 1200 battery-powered flash to illuminate the subjects. This light was modified using a large Chimera Super Pro soft box. My wife Kathy clung to the light stand through very powerful wind gusts, keeping my whole kit from flying into the river.

This is a very common way for me to work, but it was fun getting to photograph so many of my friends.

Eric Jackson – defining “Rockstar” both on and off the water.

Why undertake this project? What is it about this kayaking community that gets you stoked?
The paddling community is a wonderfully generous group of individuals. Even top-level athletes are approachable and willing to take the time to coach anyone that is stoked on paddling. This community has welcomed me and my family and have helped us all grow as paddlers over the years. I am so grateful to be a part of this amazing group of people and am always looking for ways to give back to the paddling community.

Dally Kellog, Bryce Aaron, Brad Caldwell, Riley Frank, Connor Voorhees, Cameron O’Connor, Kathryn Walker, David Frank, Olivia McGinnis, Katie Frankhouser, Sage Donnelly, Mason Hargrove, Emily Jackson Troutman, Jessie Stone, Kady Kellogg

How do you balance this kind of pro bono work with your regular photography business?
As an artist it’s easy to want to give your work away to anyone with a smile and a kind word. But as Kathy, my wife, has taught me it’s hard to make a living like that. So yes, it’s always a balance between doing the projects that make me the most excited and the ones that will pay the bills. Lately, we have been traveling in our Winnebago full time. So, the time that we save by not racing home to mow the lawn, we can spend giving back to our community through projects like this.

Abby Holcombe – daughter, photo muse and burgeoning kayak superstar – and probably the most photographed kayaker by her dad Peter.
The Holcombe Family – at home on the road.

You and the family have been living the van life. How’s that going? What are some of the ups and downs?
We sold our house in Boulder, Colo., three years ago and hit the road in our Winnebago RV with a trailer of kayaks and SUP boards. Living in a 25-foot van is tight at times for a family of three, but it has helped us focus on what we believe is most important in life. Kathy and I want to spend time with our 13-year-old daughter and show her how amazing life can be. We get to spend time in the best places, at the best times of year. We mostly chase whitewater and have logged 200,000 miles and 49 states in three years. We have paddled in places we could have only dreamed about before. [We] not only visit amazing places but get to “live” there and really experience what they have to offer.

Sometimes I wake up in a groggy, morning state and can’t remember where we are. It could be Rock Island, Tenn., Homer, Alaska, or Kernville, Calif. It’s really exciting to be able to experience all these places and see our ever-growing network of friends across the continent.

The only downs might be we are always doing so much it’s hard to ever rest. We are often in endurance mode trying to do as much as we can while in a region. I often paddle or create images during the day and do the imaging work at night. This often means I work till midnight or later so I can get on another river the next morning. This pace is tiring, but I love it.

Working full time out of a Winnebago has it challenges, too. Finding internet in remote locations can be tough. We use a mobile hot spot for this but often I’m looking for quality WiFi to upload a gallery of high-res images to my clients. Power used to be a problem in the digital age. But our new Winnebago has 420 watts of solar on the roof and a diesel generator as backup for the cloudy days in the Southeast winters. It’s taken us a few years to really figure out this van life but it’s working really well now. [It’s] a lifestyle I don’t see changing anytime soon.

Hunter Katich from Columbus, Ga., is currently working his way into the highest echelons of freestyle kayaking.
Pat Keller paddles better with two thumbs than you do with two blades.

What’s next in your list of photographic and family adventures?
After spring runoff and the freestyle competition tour that Abby and I compete in, we headed to FIBArk, then Seattle to film a Creative Live photography class, then up to Skookumchuck Narrows, B.C. to surf the wave. After all that we’ll head to one of our favorite states, Idaho, to paddle on the Payette. Then we’ll finally head the Winnebago east: Grand National Rally in Iowa to share our story with thousands of RVers from around the country and a stop at the Charles City, Iowa Whitewater Park. Next stop, the Ottawa River for August and down the East Coast for fall. See what I mean, it’s hard to remember where I am when I wake up some mornings…



Peter Holcombe is a regular contributor to C&K and a real presence in the freestyle kayaking world. In fact, Holcombe’s amazing back-lit shot of Eric Jackson was the genesis for our very first Behind the Lens installment.

See Holcombe’s work online at www.PeterHolcombe.com and on Instagram.

Check out the Denver news coverage of Holcombe’s daughter Abby, at age 12, claiming the title of youngest paddler to kayak the entirety of the Grand Canyon.