Winter sports photography is unlike many other forms of photography. Not only are you taking pictures but you’re also doing it in what can be an incredibly dangerous environment. Every year, hundreds of people around the world die taking part in snow sports; many of them in avalanches.
In the last tutorial I looked at the technical considerations of working in the mountains. That is only one aspect of winter sports photography. In many ways, the far more important part is keeping you, your crew and your gear safe. In this tutorial that’s exactly what I’m going to consider.
How to Protect Your Gear
Protecting your gear should always be something you’re thinking about but when it comes to winter sports photography it’s especially important.
Although there is a lot of talk in photography circles about how a good photographer should be okay with any camera, that doesn’t hold true when you’re up a mountain. Entry level cameras and even some professional mirrorless cameras aren’t weather sealed. In perfect conditions they will operate fine but at 3000 metres in a blizzard they can get damaged in moments. If you’re serious about winter sports photography, a weather sealed body, or at least a weather proof covering, is essential.
Next, getting to locations for winter sports photography is rarely as simple as a quick drive in your car. You’ll normally have to ski or climb in. If you’re working in the park this might involve nice, gentle slopes, however, if you’re going into the backcountry you could be dealing with some incredibly difficult terrain. You need to carry your camera so that even if you have a full wipeout it will survive.
The bag I use is an F-stop Anja. On its own, it’s a great hiking bag but what sets it apart is F-stop’s Internal Camera Unit (ICU). These padded compartments are purchased in addition to the bag and attach inside. This provides a lot of flexibility by allowing you to change how the bag is configured depending on what you’re doing but, more importantly, it protects your camera. I’ve fallen plenty of times with my camera in my Anja on my back and no harm has come to it. Most other adventure photographers I know also use one of F-stop’s bags.
Once you arrive at your location, your camera still isn’t safe. You still need to keep it secure while you’re working. With a bag, ski gear, and everything else, a regular sling strap gets in the way. Instead, I use a combination of three Peak Design products—the Leash, Capture Camera Clip, and Clutch—to keep my camera safe.
The Leash is a strap that connects my camera to my bag; this tethers it to me so I can’t lose it in the snow. The Capture Camera Clip is mounted to the bag’s strap and I use it to keep the camera secure when I need to use both my hands or ski a short distance. Finally, the Clutch is an adjustable hand grip. It’s the only one I’ve found that’s useable when you’re wearing ski gloves.
While the exact products you use don’t matter, you do need to think about how to keep your camera completely secure while you’re working. If you’re standing in knee deep powder on a 35 degree slope, it’s a lot easier to drop your camera than if you’re in a flat studio.
Finally, you need to accept that something bad is going to happen to your gear. Winter sports photography is too unpredictable for it not to. Despite your best efforts, if you catch an edge while you’re skiing you could wipeout and break a lens. It won’t happen every day, or even every year, but at some point it almost certainly will. This means you need insurance.
There are a number of different providers who offer insurance to photojournalists and adventure photographers that cover them in extreme situations. Do your research and pick one that operates in your country. As an example, my insurance policy costs me €500 a year and covers up to €10,000 worth of equipment anywhere in the world. I could drop my camera on top of Everest and they’d pay out. Essentially I’m betting that in the next 20 years, I’ll suffer a total gear loss. I think the odds are (sadly) in my favour.
How to Protect Yourself
Protecting your gear is important but no where near as important as protecting yourself. Winter sports are extreme sports. The best images—at least those away from the park—are sometimes captured in the most dangerous environments. If you’re going to go into the backcountry to take photos, you need to take ensure your safety.
Everyone Goes Prepared, Or You Don't Go At All
Every year dozens of skiers and snowboarders die in avalanches. I’m based in France; so far this year there have been more than 20 avalanche deaths within 50 or so miles of where I am. If you’re going to work away from the official slopes, you need to have avalanche safety gear and know how to use it.
Staying out of avalanche zones altogether is your best preventative measure. Be smart and check the warnings: know where danger lies, and play it safe. If the local authorities say don't go, you don't go.
Before going up on the mountain, make sure someone knows where you’re heading and your expected return time. If you don’t check in with them by a certain time, they should alert the authorities. Make it a habit: detail your plans and tell someone before you head out, every time. If a search and rescue team has to find your party in an avalanche knowing exactly where to look could be the difference between life and death.
also be carrying a phone and radio with the contact details of the local
mountain rescue services. If something happens to a member of your
party, you need to be able to call for help. Franticly Googling “mountain
rescue Val Thorens” won’t cut it in an emergency.
Bad Avalanches Happen to Good People
No matter how you cautious you are avalanches happen and it's important to be ready. A basic avalanche safety kit consists of a transceiver, shovel and probe. The transceiver is two-way radio beacon. Normally, it’s broadcasting your location. If a ski partner is caught in an avalanche, you switch it to search mode and use it to find them. A shovel is essential for digging anyone caught in an avalanche out. A probe is used to find the exact location of someone after you’ve gotten as close as possible with the transceiver. I also recommend you ski with a radio. Not only does it make communicating with your talent easier while you work, but it also makes you safer.
Having the gear is one thing but knowing how to use it is just as important. If the limit of your avalanche training is using your transceivers in your garden at home then you’re not going to be much use in an actual avalanche situation. If you can, attend an avalanche training course. If none are available near you, ask some experienced backcountry skiers to show you how to use the gear. Before heading out, make sure everyone in the party is carrying all the gear and knows how to use it.
How to Protect Your Crew
As the photographer, you will normally be directing the shoot. This means that you have a significant amount of responsibility for the safety of everyone involved. When there is a camera around many people are willing to put themselves in unsafe situations for the sake of a good picture; you can’t let that happen.
As most people will answer to you, you need to ensure you’re able to make the right decisions. Unless you’re intimately familiar with the local area, hire a guide and defer to their expertise. If they tell you that doing something is too risky, don’t do it.
If there is any risk of an avalanche, make sure the party is spaced out. The talent and photographer will tend to be in the most exposed positions, but everyone else should retreat to a safe spot to observe. If something goes wrong, they’ll be able to come to your assistance.
If you’re in the park, don’t push the talent to do tricks they’ve never done before just because you’re there with a camera. A backflip might look awesome but if the skier or snowboarder hasn’t spent the time learning to do them safely they could wheel away from the shoot unable to walk ever again. Make sure to stick well within the safe limits of what everyone is capable of.
This gets even more important as the shoot goes on; the more tired everyone gets the more likely they are to make mistakes. Once the talent has warmed up, try and capture the biggest aerial tricks. After that, dial it back and photograph less intense tricks.
Capturing images is just one part of winter sports photography. Far more important is keeping you, your crew and your gear safe.
There are plenty of products out their for protecting your gear in extreme environments. Use them. Insurance is also a must. At some point, some of your gear will get damaged.
Don’t venture away from marked trails unless you have all the safety gear and know how to use it. Most lethal accidents happen in the backcountry which is where the best photo opportunities are found. Never put your life, or the life of your crew, in real danger just to get a picture.