It’s 5:30 a.m., and my alarm stirs me from a restful night of sleep. I crawl out of my warm bed and into my base-layer clothing of wool and polypropylene that will keep me warm and dry for the day. Coffee drips and eggs fry as I load my skis, boots and backcountry pack into my pickup truck. The snow is deep, so I put the truck in four-wheel drive and head out to pick up my ski partner, Gary. A few miles later, we park at the trailhead and gear up. We are not at a ski area. There are no chairlifts, no restaurants, no groomed terrain, no ropes to tell you where you can and can’t ski, no opening or closing time. It’s simply you, your partners, your gear and the knowledge and skill to travel safely and comfortably through the mountains seeking light and snow while surrounded by endless alpine photo opportunities—the perfect conditions for ski photography.
We ascend in pre-dawn light, racing to get to a spot I scouted earlier in the week. It’s icy cold, just about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but my body warms fast, hauling a heavy pack up the steep terrain. We hike about halfway up a large northeast-facing bowl, and I stop to set up my shot while my partner continues up. I pull out my camera with a 24-70mm attached and compose an image. It’s a bit tight, so I decide to go a bit wider and switch over to my 14-24mm. Perfect.
I hop on my two-way radio. “Gary, I’m ready down here. How you doing?” “I’m almost ready, Liam…let me know where you want me.” I reply, “Left turn 25 feet in front of me, but let’s wait for the sun to crest over the ridge and then follow the shadow line.” I sit in the snow and watch as a pink glow moves down the peak behind me, illuminating the snow with intensely beautiful morning light. I see the sun about to crest the ridge. “Ten seconds,” I yell up the mountain.
Gary double checks his boots, fastens all his pack straps, and then yells, “Dropping!” He accelerates quickly through 8 inches of perfect Colorado powder snow. My lens is focused on the spot where he will make his turn. As he comes into the viewfinder making his turn, the pink-orange snow flies through the air, standing in stark contrast to the dark mountainside in the background as the sun splinters into shards of light as it crests a distant ridge. I press and hold the shutter, firing a dozen or so frames per second until his turn is finished and the moment is captured.
Does this sound like fun to you? Good! Then let’s dig in and see what skills, gear and photo technique you will need for your own backcountry ski photography adventure.
The first and most important skill you will need to learn is how to ski and travel safely in avalanche terrain. The safety gear that every backcountry skier and snowboarder will have with them every day includes an avalanche transceiver, shovel and avalanche probe—and the knowledge of how to use the gear. There are numerous programs that can provide this training. Check out the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) website to find a course near you. Once you complete your training (usually a three-day course), be sure to stay on top of current avalanche conditions by visiting the avalanche forecasting website in your state. For me, that means checking the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) website each morning before I head out. Here, I can get the latest info on snowfall, wind, temperature and avalanche conditions from its team of forecasters.
Photo Gear For Ski Photography
There is no shortage of options when it comes to choosing a ski photography kit. When choosing your camera, put an emphasis on continuous shooting speeds and autofocus capabilities. I think 10 fps is a good mark to aim for, and many cameras shoot even faster than that nowadays. I have shot both full frame and crop sensor cameras, and either is fine for shooting outdoor action sports.
Another factor for camera choice is going to be weather sealing. I often shoot during heavy snowfall, and having camera gear that can handle the elements is critical. Of course, if you know it’s going to be snowy, it’s a good idea to bring a waterproof covering.
When selecting lenses, you will want to cover everything from wide angle to telephoto. Again, you want your lenses to be reasonably well sealed and also be able to autofocus fast and accurately. I have shot a lot of different camera and lens combinations over the years, including nine different Canon bodies (starting with film bodies) and a dozen different Sigma lenses.
My current—and favorite—kit for ski photography looks like this: For all my action sports shoots, I am using the Sony a9 II. This camera has both blazing fast autofocus and also very fast continuous shooting rates up to 20 fps, which is more than enough to capture the decisive moment. My go-to lens kit for backcountry skiing is the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 DG DN | A, Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN | A and the Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S paired with the Sigma MC-11 mount converter. With this setup, I can capture everything from vast landscapes with skiers dwarfed in their surroundings to ultra-tight action shots with powder plastering the faces of happy skiers.
Choosing the right camera pack to put all this gear in has gotten easier over the years. It was not so long ago that camera packs carried one thing: camera gear. For the backcountry skier, your camera pack needs to carry not just the aforementioned avalanche safety gear and camera gear but also food, water, extra layers, goggles, a two-way radio, sunscreen and other odds and ends. My pack of choice today is the Think Tank Backlight Elite 45L, as it does a great job of carrying all this gear comfortably.
What To Look For Creatively
A day of backcountry skiing in the mountains can be a photo-rich environment, but it can also be overwhelming when deciding where to point your camera. Narrow down your options by looking for a few key elements like great light, good contrast and perfect snow.
In all genres of photography, light is key to exceptional images, and in ski photography it’s no different. It’s common knowledge to photographers that great light is found at the ends of the day, but the low-angle sun of winter means you can get good light even in the middle of the day.
Finding areas of contrast in a sea of white snow can be tough. For starters, try not to shoot your skiers in white-on-white situations that lead to dull, flat photos. Maybe get them on a ridge line with a blue sky or shadowy mountain in the background, or use a copse of trees for the skier’s powder cloud to stand out against. Also, don’t be afraid to back light your subjects as it can make the snow really pop against a darker background.
First tracks are the ultimate win for the powder skier, and you’ll want to imbue your images with that feeling of perfection by making sure there are no other ski tracks in your photos. Finding a clean canvas of perfect snow is half the battle, so be sure to maximize photography options once you do. Do this by creating a plan with your skiers that enables you to get three or four untracked shots instead of just one.
Camera Settings For Ski Photography
When I teach ski photography workshops, the first thing I have attendees do is set up their cameras to best capture the action. This includes:
- Shoot in RAW. This will allow you the most latitude when processing images.
- Shoot in manual mode. Having complete control over your shutter speed, aperture and ISO will ensure you get the exact exposure you want.
- Set your drive mode to the highest frame rate possible. Continuous shooting speeds of 8 fps is OK, 10 fps is good, and 12 fps or faster is even better. With some cameras, you may need to make sure you are using your electronic shutter and not the mechanical shutter to achieve the fastest continuous shooting speeds.
- Use the lowest ISO possible. Even though cameras are fully capable of shooting at very highs ISOs, keeping it low will result in images with more dynamic range and less noise.
- Use fast shutter speeds to stop action. How fast? The general rule of thumb is about 1/1000 sec., but I often shoot at faster shutter speeds than that to ensure a sharp shot. Conversely, you might experiment with slower shutter speeds for creative motion blur effects.
- Learn your camera’s AF system. Knowing the ins and outs of your particular camera’s AF system is really important. Read your camera manual and try out the recommended modes for tracking action before heading to the mountain.
- Snowy scenes will often fool your camera meter. Overexpose by 1 to 2 stops so that your snow is white and not grey. Make a test exposure of the scene before the action starts.
Lastly, I want to talk about when to use either one-shot or continuous AF. I use single-shot AF when I shoot what’s called a “lock-off.” In this situation, I will compose the shot, pre-focus to a particular spot and then communicate with the athlete, so they know exactly where I need them to turn. I will not move my camera as the athlete moves through the frame. I set up lock-off shots when the background and sense of place take precedence, and I will typically use a wide-angle lens to capture the surroundings. With these shots, it’s very important that the athlete hits the exact spot I need them in, so communication is key.
When the background is less important and what I’m after is the athlete, the snow and the action, then I tend to shoot with my AF in continuous, or “servo,” mode. In this mode, the AF system will track the athlete as they move through the landscape. When shooting in continuous mode, practice getting your autofocus point out of the middle of your viewfinder so that your shots don’t always have your athlete “centerpunched” in the image. More often than not, I am shooting with my 70-200mm (and to a lesser extent my 24-70mm) when using continuous AF mode.
There is nothing quite like a day of ski photography, touring the mountains with friends and capturing the action along the way, from hot coffee mornings right into cold ascents that hopefully lead to bottomless powder skiing. In truth, it can be frustrating at times, too. There are so many variables that come into play every time you head out with the camera. Wind and sun can ruin what was perfectly good snow just an hour before, while an errant cloud can have you waiting for it to move. But when all the elements do come together and you get the shot you envisioned, it makes it all the more satisfying. Get trained, be safe, and see you on the mountain this winter.
See more of Liam Doran’s work at liamdoranphotography.com.