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Up the Mountain: Ski and Snowboard Photography Basics

This post is part of a series called Sports Photography.
How to Create Stunning Skateboarding Photography
Ski and Snowboard Photography: How to Stay Safe on The Mountain

Winter sports photography is an extremely challenging photographic discipline. It combines all the work of sports photography with an inhospitable environment. It’s a lot easier to concentrate on making images when you’re sitting comfortably by the side of a pitch than when you’re perched on an avalanche prone slope in sub-zero temperatures.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the challenges, winter sports photography can be incredibly rewarding. It’s also quite a niche discipline so if you’re prepared to put the time and effort in to getting good at it, you can gain, at the very least, a local reputation. If you love skiing or snowboarding as well as photography, combining the two is a great idea.

In this tutorial I’m going to look at some of the unique aspects of winter sports photography. I am assuming that you are familiar with how to use your camera and the basics of sports photography. If you aren’t, I’d recommend reading some of the tutorials in our series on sports photography before continuing.

What is Winter Sports Photography?

Two of the most commonly photographed winter sports are downhill skiing and snowboarding. After that, other sports like cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and ice climbing are becoming increasingly popular. Winter sports photography is simply capturing these sports in action and in their natural environment.

Winter sports that take place in controlled environments—ice hockey, curling, bobsledding—have a lot more in common with traditional field and track sports so they aren’t the focus of this article. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on sports that take place up the mountain.

winter sports image
I shot this image in the snowpark in Val Thorens. Model: Will Derrick.

For skiing and snowboarding, the two most popular locations for photography are the park and the backcountry. Both locations are quite similar, photographically speaking; the main difference is that safety concerns are a lot more important when you’re working away from the marked slopes. While you can take some pictures on groomed slopes, they do tend to turn out fairly boring.

Proper Exposure in Snowy Scenes Takes Special Consideration

The first concern with winter sports photography, like with any other photographic discipline, is getting a good exposure.

Snow Isn't (Usually) Grey

Your camera’s light meter is based on one simple assumption: that the average light level in any given scene is equivalent to 18% grey. In most cases this gives a passable, if not particularly accurate, exposure. It’s a safe middle ground assumption. Snow scenes, however, fall far outside the middle ground. Snow exposed at middle grey looks, well, grey rather than white. Especially on bright, sunny days, your camera’s light meter can be out by more than a stop and a half.

adjusted exposure
I've adjusted the exposure in the image so it matches what the camera's light meter suggests. As you can see, the pristine white snow is captured as a dull grey. Model: Will Derrick.

You essentially have two options. One, you can expose fully manually and use a light meter to determine the settings; or two, you can use aperture priority mode and exposure compensation. The best way to find how much to compensate by is to take a few test shots and look at the histogram. The LCD screen on your camera will not give you an accurate reading.

Snow and Sun Makes for Great Lighting

The benefits of working in snow are really interesting. The dynamic range of a snow scene is often relatively low. In many circumstances the snow and sky have similar exposure values. Unlike what you normally find, on a snow covered mountain the sky will regularly be darker than the ground. This means you can capture all the elements in the scene without resorting to techniques like HDR to expand your cameras effective dynamic range.

The snow also reflects a lot of light. This acts almost like a fill flash. Even when shooting a backlit subject, if the snow is hit by the light everything will be well exposed. As you can see in the image below, despite shooting directly into the sun there is still plenty of texture in the blacks of the subject’s top. This sort of exposure would be almost impossible to capture without the reflected light from the snow.

backlit ramp
Despite shooting directly into the sun, everything in the image is well exposed thanks to the light bouncing from the snow. Model: Will Derrick.

As most winter sports scenes are so bright, you can play it very safe with aperture. There is rarely any need to shoot wide open unless you want a shallow depth of field for creative reasons. Instead, you can quite safely shoot at a moderate aperture and still get a fast shutter speed and a clean exposure. The previous image was captured at f/8, 1/4000 of a second, and ISO 400.

Later in this series we'll cover how to use a flash to fill-in detail in situations where the light isn't perfect, to stop motion, and give things a little more pop. We'll also cover photographing with flash and available light at night.

Working With Talent

Finding talent to work with is incredibly easy in the winter sports community. Most people are just delighted to have the opportunity to work with a competent photographer. There aren’t many people with the ability to ski and take good pictures.

In most cases, just giving the talent permission to use the photos to try and get sponsors, and post on their social media profiles is enough. If you want to secure a model release, a couple of beers and a few pictures for them is all the payment you’ll normally need.

Communication is key when you’re working with talent. In the park, you’ll have the luxury of being able to take multiple pictures of the same tricks. The talent can do one pass so you can work out where you want to position yourself, then on the next few runs through you can capture the images and adjust as needed.

backcountry drop
Here I've skied down the slope ahead of the talent. This way I'm in position to photograph them when they ski past. Model: Conor Farrell.

In the backcountry, things are a little more awkward. You’ll normally need to drop into position to get the images ahead of the talent. You’ll also only get one attempt in each location; hiking back up a slope is no fun for anyone and an already skied slope is visually a lot less appealing. For this reason, radios are invaluable. You’ll be able to get into position and communicate to the talent what you want them to do, where you want them to pass, and so on. They can then let you know when they’re about to start dropping.

Peak Action

To get the best winter sports photos, try to capture an image at the peak of the action. Peak action is that moment in the flow of the athlete's movement that shows an optimal expression of the event. It is the moment when there is a harmonious balance of expressive, stylistic, and story-telling elements in your frame.

Depending on your situation, moments where peak actions occurs might include the perfect execution of a move, a complex turn, a jump, or drop. For example, if someone is doing a big trick off a ramp or a turn in pure powder you want your image to show the apex of their jump or a big spray of powder as they ski past. Showing them a few inches off the ground or seemingly static just won't cut it. Think through, in your mind's eye, how the skier or snowboarder might run down the hill. Can you anticipate moments of peak action?

Anticipate and Follow the Flow to Capture Peak Action

There is no one trick to capturing peak action. A lot of it comes down to anticipation, understanding your camera, understanding the sport, the terrain in front of you, and a quite a bit of luck. As someone flies past you at 50 mph you won't have the opportunity to frame and take a picture. Instead you need to have anticipated their path and framed the image in advance. This way when the enter the frame, all the other elements are in position and you only need to worry about capturing the talent.

missed peak
This image was captured at the start of a burst and is obviously not peak action! Model: Will Derrick.

This is where understanding your camera and its limits comes in. The two most important features to know are how fast it can autofocus and capture images in succession in burst mode. Professional sports photographers use cameras that can track a moving object and capture upwards of 12 images per second. Top-of-the-line models (at the time of this tutorial) such as the the Canon 1DX or Nikon D5 are two popular choices.

If your camera isn't able to autofocus on moving objects you need to pre-focus on where you think peak action will occur. If your camera doesn't have a particularly fast burst mode you'll to work harder to anticipate when to push the shutter button and rely more heavily on the third factor: luck.

When it all comes down to it, luck plays a huge role in capturing peak action. Even with my Canon 5DIII, which has a reasonably fast six frames-per-second burst mode, I've missed plenty of shots. In winter sports photography things are happening so fast that the difference between a missed and an exceptional image is often factors outside your control.

Wrapping Up

Winter sports photography is a lot of fun. If you like skiing or snowboarding, and photography it’s a great way to combine your passions.

There are a lot of unique aspects with winter sports photography. Getting an accurate exposure requires a little more thought. Your camera will underexpose every image by default. The benefits of working in snow, however, outweigh the challenges. The narrow dynamic range and light bouncing off the snow mean you can get incredibly detailed images without having to resort to techniques like HDR.

One core part of winter sports photography is working with talent. Fortunately, it’s easy to find extremely talented skiers and snowboarders who are happy to work with you.

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