Alpine Action

Apply your scenic vision to capture unforgettable skiing and snowboarding shots
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Just as with landscape images, exceptional light is paramount to creating photographs with impact. Early morning is a fantastic time to capture soft light and fresh snow. Athlete: Mike Zangrilli. Location: Wasatch Backcountry, Utah.

It’s the middle of winter, and majestic mountain peaks are dressed head to toe in light, fluffy powder. As the sun crests the horizon, white turns to rose, and rose turns to fire. Lost for a moment in the solitude and beauty, I’m reawakened to the reason why I slogged a half-mile up a mountain in the dark by a familiar radio transmission: “3-2-1, dropping!” In the blink of an eye, a skier gives in to gravity, engaging in a cyclical disappearing act as bottomless powder explodes with every turn. As the shutter rattles incessantly with each depression of the index finger, I know I’ve captured something magical, something unique.

 

Standard landscape photo tools can be particularly useful in capturing bold, beautiful ski images. Here, a Singh-Ray grad ND filter was used to balance the sky. Athlete: Brant Moles. Location: Alta, Utah.

You’ve seen the “standard” ski shot. It’s the one in all of the magazines and every ski shop window in the world. These in-your-face action shots are usually made by highly talented photographers with a background in sports photography. Outdoor photographers, with an added appreciation for the landscape, however, have a unique way of seeing that can produce action imagery reaching beyond the activity occurring in front of the lens.

With a little practice and an understanding of how to apply your scenic vision most effectively, you can translate a three-dimensional, sensory sport into a two-dimensional, action-infused scenic masterpiece. Here’s how to take your ski photography to the next level by combining it with your scenic shooting skills.

Choose A Location That Offers More
There are countless patches of undisturbed snow out there. Any photographer with the slightest bit of local knowledge can find places to shoot a nice turn here or there. Go the extra mile and choose a location that offers more than just a fresh patch of snow.

Look for distinguishing landmarks that add depth and interest to the scene. This might include unusual tree and rock formations, or perhaps a unique cornice or wind lip. The more you have to work with, the less you’ll be tempted to just point and shoot.

Find Compositions That Take The Viewer “There”
Why do we create imagery, if not to give the viewer a sense of being at that exact place during that exact moment? This is one of the most challenging aspects of photography, and certainly one that separates the exceptional from the ordinary. Stretch your creative vision in finding compositional elements that provide context and meaning.


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Looking for unusual snow features to place in the foreground will help to convey depth and dimension in your ski images. Athlete: Weston Deutschlander. Location: Solitude, Utah.

Memorable scenic imagery is often divided into foreground, middle ground and background elements. Accordingly, this different approach to ski imagery is based largely on the same time-tested compositional elements.

Search for engaging foreground elements that will grab the attention of the viewer and complement the skier in the scene. These foreground elements run the gamut, from a well-placed rock or mountain feature to simple contrast between sunny and shaded snow. While the skier remains the anchor in your image, this foreground element can create good visual tension and add drama to the image.

Winterscapes are often shaped and sculpted by wind and weather, making for interesting linear formations in the snow. These formations can serve as perfect leading lines, taking the viewer directly from the foreground of the image to the ski action itself. Search for cornices, runnels, shadow lines and other linear features to add depth and scale.

Tied closely to the use of leading lines is where one places the athlete in the image. If you incorporate leading lines in your image, be sure that they’re leading to a well-placed skier in one of the aesthetic “thirds” intersections we’ve all learned about in elementary scenic composition. Rules certainly were made to be broken, however. Don’t be afraid to experiment and throw traditional composition out the window!

Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM II

Action Shooting Requires Specialized Equipment


Canon EOS-1D Mark IV

Like other areas of photography, you must be adequately equipped to capture the best ski shots.

Most serious action photographers shoot with bodies capable of 8 fps or higher.

Matching the need for a fast body is a “fast” lens. I prefer constant-aperture zooms with maximum apertures of ƒ/2 or ƒ/2.8. Newer DSLRs give stellar results at higher ISOs, making it possible to cut corners a bit with an ƒ/3.5 or ƒ/4.


Clik Elite Contrejour

Find a pack that holds all the required gear for your shooting and that fits your body and the activity for which it will be used. This is especially important with ski photography, as you’ll be required to negotiate challenging terrain with a full load of gear. You don’t want to feel limited by the pack you’ve chosen to use.

Don’t forget extra batteries. Cold weather can be harsh on battery life. Preserve battery life by removing them from the camera and placing them in a pocket next to your body when not in use.


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Look for dramatic backgrounds for strong silhouette images, making sure not to have any encroaching shapes on your silhouetted subject. Athlete: Ben Murphy. Location: Alta, Utah.

Magic-Hour Light Is Still Paramount
Just as it is with most other types of photography, unforgettable action imagery is created when the sun is low and the light is colorful and soft. This means rising early and hiking in the dark through deep snow. Commitment is key if you want your images to stand above the norm, and sunrise or sunset ski shoots certainly will help you to capture moments that will stop your viewers in their tracks.

As photographers, we face unique challenges when shooting during the magic hour. In particular, we must learn how to deal with widely varying lighting conditions—conditions that often stretch our camera’s sensors to the limit and beyond. Challenging exposures are the Achilles’ heel of many a photographer—don’t let this keep you from coming away with a five-star image.

Don’t Forget Your Landscape Filters
As a scenic photographer, I feel naked heading out into the field without my grad ND filters. When I learned how to use these filters in my scenic work, I finally was able to get pictures that looked exactly as I saw the scene happening. In this digital age, there’s another tool to help with challenging exposure solutions: High Dynamic Range (HDR) software that blends several digital exposures. For action, you can create an HDR image of sorts, but a completely static subject and tripod really are required to take full advantage of the software’s multi-image blending capability.

Learning how to handhold your grad ND filters on your lens will make it much easier for you to capture diverse ski imagery. I actually handhold my filters 90% of the time when shooting scenic imagery, which gives me adequate practice for doing it under pressure when on the mountain. Remember that once a skier makes his or her turn or drops that one cliff, that snow is tracked out (and essentially un-shootable) until Mother Nature covers it up!

Know Before You Go

Many photographers choose to venture into the backcountry to shoot ski imagery, where there are less people and more opportunities for uninterrupted vistas and untracked snow. These benefits come at the risk of going into wild and uncontrolled terrain, however.

• Be trained in avalanche awareness and safety protocol. Never venture into the backcountry without knowledgeable partners and adequate safety gear.
• Safety gear includes an avalanche transceiver, an avalanche shovel and a probe.
• It’s best to have a knowledge of the terrain in which you’ll be shooting. If you’re new to an area, find an athlete or a guide familiar with the area.
• Utilize your local avalanche forecast center, where available; www.avalanche.org is a priceless resource for avalanche education and for finding a forecast center near you.
• Consider carrying a SPOT Satellite Messenger. It’s an excellent safety device that can save your life in remote areas (www.findmespot.com).


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Backlighting is perfect for infusing extra drama into one’s ski images. It also helps to draw the eye to a strategically placed silhouetted skier. Athlete: Jared Allen. Location: Solitude, Utah.

Using the larger 4x6-inch filters will help you handhold at the wider angles without getting your fingers in the frame. Ideally, you’ll have communicated precisely what you’re trying to do to the skier to make the magic happen. This includes the what, how and where on their end (see the sidebar “Communicate With Your Athlete/Model”). In order to avoid unnatural filter lines or dark parts of your image, take special care not to pan or tilt while photographing your skier when using grad ND filters.

You’ll be well served to have a polarizing filter on hand. A polarizer will add dramatic contrast, helping clouds and mountain peaks to pop, and deepening blue skies for that complete image. Take care to align the polarizer properly. At altitude, the darkening effect is much more pronounced than at sea level, and if you don’t have it well aligned to the angle of the sun, there will be a marked difference in the darkness of sky from one side of the frame to the other. It really never looks good and it’s almost impossible to fix. The full effect is at an angle of about 90º from the sun. Because the effect can vary so dramatically depending on the filter’s angle to the sun, it’s easier to use a polarizer on a telephoto lens than a wide-angle.

Communicate With Your Athlete/Model

Unlike scenic imagery, ski photography requires you to be in sync with a fast-moving model hurtling down the side of a mountain. Here are a few tips:

• Be explicit about where and how you want the skier to turn.
• Explain the “type” of shot to the skier. Are they filling the frame? Will they be placed in a particular part of the image that requires precision on their end?
• You must be able to explain visual concepts in a verbal manner. This is perhaps the greatest challenge in communicating with your athlete.
• Ask them if they understand; listen to their tone. If they’re unsure, explain again.
• If any confusion remains, have them join you at the spot from which you’ll be shooting. Explain it from your viewpoint. You even can shoot the image without the skier and show them your “vision” on your camera’s LCD display.
• Two-way radios can be very useful for communication during windy conditions or for long-range shots.

 

This winter, before heading to your mountain, don’t forget to pack your array of scenic photography techniques and tools. With a little practice and a commitment to capturing something a bit different, you’re sure to come home with ski imagery a step above the rest.

To see more of Adam Barker’s photography, visit his website at www.adambarkerphotography.com.

3 Comments

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