How do you capture the brightness of snow, keep your ski photos from falling flat on an overcast day, or frame a motion shot? These are my top ten tips for shooting on the slopes.
1. Sunny days play in meadows, cloudy days work in trees
Whatever terrain you find naturally gives you better visibility for skiing in bright or flat light, those same spots are where you’ll also find better light for photography. Trees absorb light during grey days and add contrast to the snow. On sunny days, bask in the abundant light of the open alpine.
2. Leave space in the frame ahead of the skier
A photograph is a story in a single moment. Great images portray the past, present and future of action in a single image. Leave space in front of the skier so the viewer can imagine where they will be next.
In this example, there wasn’t much room inside of the couloir, and I wanted the bottom of the line, the sky, and Tobin all in the photo, so, I took out my shovel and dug myself into the snowpack a little. This way I could get far enough from the action and see everything at once, leaving room ahead of Tobin for the story to make sense.
3. Account for bright snow in your exposure
Snow, mountains and sunsets are notoriously difficult things for cameras to capture since they are bright and framing them often includes fast-moving subject matter. The camera’s auto modes give you an average exposure of 50% grey. Since you’re standing on bright white snow, the camera is going to adjust that snow to be more of a grey tone in most auto settings. If I had used an automatic metering mode on the camera, this photo would’ve been much darker. Although many cameras have exposure compensation for this, shoot in full manual exposure if you can, and put time into figuring out how to use your histogram – a graphic representation of pixels used in your image (here’s some more info). Using my histogram to calculate exposure helped properly expose the image.
4. Bring action and location together
Skiing is as much about the sport as the place the sport happens. To show off great terrain, take time to focus on cool natural features like old broken trees, mossy patches on rock, or any other natural wonders that catch your eye.
5. Coordinate a moment with your athlete
Great photographs have precise composition, so plan the way you want the action to unfold ahead of shooting it. Find the place you want to shoot from and determine exactly where you want the skier to be in that frame. Work with the athlete so they know where they need to hit their mark (snowballs thrown at the mark can help). I shot this picture of Eliel with my telephoto lens, purposefully leaving out the sky to focus on the bottom of the Cheakamus Glacier. We chatted for several minutes about having him execute a skier’s right hand turn on that exact part of the ridge. The photo was later published in Backcountry magazine.
6. Pre-focus the camera
It’s an absolute pain to get everything right in a photo, but then have to tell the athlete that the shot isn’t in focus. I almost never focus the camera during action, but instead I have the camera setup so all I have to do is hold down the shutter button at the right time.
There are a ton of different techniques to pre-focus a camera. On a digital SLR you can use autofocus on the point where you want the action, and then flip the switch to manual so the camera can’t try to re-focus before the action happens. Or you can use focus lock, wherein the camera locks focus as long as you’re holding down the shutter button half way.
What if your camera isn’t focusing on the white seamless snow? Estimate the distance between where you are and where the skier will be, then look around. Are there any other objects about the same distance away? If so, focus on that, switch to manual, and shoot.
Since there was nothing to focus on for this photo of Stan on the white snow, I had to estimate the distance between us (about 30 feet) and find a tree nearby that seemed to be a similar distance away. Then, after focusing on that tree, I re-composed the shot, told Stan to drop in, and snapped the frame.
7. Shoot early, or late
Great light happens early and late in the day, so bust out the toe warmers and have a thermos of tea or coffee at the ready – early birds and patient folk will be rewarded.
Working with Kicking Horse’s ski patrol, Tobin and I were given special access to an alpine bowl to shoot during the crispy morning light. This was a real privilege, as normally we ski tour through the darkness to get this kind of shot at dawn.
8. Find ‘skim’ light
If you aren’t on the mountaintop at sunrise, there’s still good imagery to be found. Look for places on the hill where the light is hitting at a shallow angle; anywhere that’s happening, there lies great potential for dramatic lighting, especially if you shoot towards the sun. Also, the edge of most shadows can be a great place to create a dark background.
Although this shot was captured at 10am, many hours after sunrise, we were able to find a ridgeline where the light was falling away to shadow, and I knew I could shoot towards the sun to capture some beautiful, contrasting light.
9. Shoot 45 degrees up slope
Shooting up towards a skier at roughly a 45-degree angle (right between straight up slope and straight across slope) keeps the skier visible and the slope looking steeper too. This has to do with “convergence”; if you shoot a photo of a skyscraper looking up, it appears to diminish towards a vanishing point. When you point your camera up slope, the same thing happens to the ski photograph, enhancing the steepness of the terrain.
Shot during the Deep Winter photo challenge in 2013, there wasn’t much snowfall, so we had to make the most of small pockets for fresh snow. This strategic shooting came in handy for making a mellow zone look a lot better.
10. Copy images
I’m a firm believer that this is one of the best ways to learn photography techniques; to emulate the best. Find ski photographs you love, and try everything you can to recreate the image – I don’t mean similar, I mean identical. This isn’t to replicate someone else’s work or claim their creativity as your own, but by working through all the details of an existing composition, you’ll learn to recognize the nuances of a ski photograph and adjust accordingly.
Taken during the Deep Winter photo challenge in 2012, I was trying to emulate Eric Berger’s shot of a skier airing over a snow cave. During this shoot, I learned a lot about size of air, space, shape, falling snow, light condition, skier form, and much more.