Big Air, Deep Powder

Grant Gunderson’s epic ski photography comes from a passion for the sport
© Grant Gunderson
Mount Shuskan, North Cascades National Park, Washington.
“My personal motto has always been, ‘If I can create images that make myself or the general public want to spend time in the mountains or want to go ski or mountain bike, I’m going to be successful’. That’s the kind of stuff we are always looking for. What’s going to entice as a skier or mountain biker to want to go do it? Most of the brands that I work with really understand that.”

It could be argued that Grant Gunderson’s photographic philosophy boils down quite simply: His goal is to have fun while making never-before-seen images. Seemingly born with a deep love for snow skiing and mountain biking, he has turned these passions into a thriving career. Still, he’s careful not to let the hard work outweigh the adventure.

“I make sure my work is fun, obviously,” he says. “I tell everyone I can make a helluva lot more money doing anything else besides photography. I have an engineering degree that I could use, but never have. I do this because it’s fun, and I’m passionate about it, and I want to be out there doing it. If we’re not having fun, we’re done for the day. There are always a handful of days during the year when it’s going to be great skiing, and I’ll say, ‘I don’t care how great it’s going to be to shoot today, we’re going skiing.’ And I leave the camera bag in the truck.”

Gunderson’s fun-loving demeanor is more than just lip service. He actually has kept himself from plunging headfirst into more mountain biking assignments—a relatively new addition to his portfolio—for fear that this personal passion might turn into just another job. But when biking clients see the quality of his work, they inevitably want more.

© Grant Gunderson
Rutherford, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada.
“This image is out in the back country, and we had known about that spot for a few years, but it wasn’t really in the best shape to go do it safely. We happened to be out that day and the conditions were pretty much perfect, the avalanche conditions were very low. We had been in that area for a while so we had a history of the snow and we knew it was steep enough that the top layer of snow as going to slide very little, only three or four inches of snow that actually slides. So we knew we would get a little bit, we knew it would be dynamic looking, but the risk of avalanches was one of the big barriers. It’s probably 60 feet. And from that situation and it’s not just me and Josh. We have four other guys there so in case something happened, we had a rescue team with us, basically.”

“It’s the only thing I’ve found that gives me the same rush as skiing,” he says of mountain biking. “I’ve gone all winter skiing, the last thing I want to do is turn my summer passion into a full-time job, as well. I’ve really been resisting it, and it’s at the point now where I’m, like, okay, it’s time to do this.”

Know Your Sport

One look at Gunderson’s beautiful images, and it’s clear why clients keep calling. It’s not just his knack for capturing peak action and decisive moments, it’s his ability to put the athlete in context—to show a beautiful forest or mountain scene with an athlete in motion. It’s an approach he was fortunate to pick up early on.

“I think skiers have always enjoyed seeing the mountains and the environment,” says Gunderson, “and there just so happens to be a skier in there. I’m usually selling an escape. I’ve found there’s a lot of interest from skiers on the East Coast, places where there’s not the best skiing. It’s the average skiers who want to go out West for two weeks a year.”

© Grant Gunderson
Mount Baker, North Cascades, Washington.
This is one of the very few shots for which Gunderson used autofocus. “On that particular shoot, I was working with a film crew at the same time, so it’s a lot harder to set up one still shot that way. I was shooting a lot more auto focus because the action is a lot longer. For me it’s all about the 1/1000th of a second, it’s got to be perfect. For them they need the lead in, the pre action, the lead out so it can blend together. Because we’re shooting a much longer lane, or much longer period of skiing, I’ll do a lot more of auto focus and follow focus to make sure I’m not missing a secondary moment, and sometimes the secondary moments are just as good as the primary.”

No average skier himself, Gunderson made his name in the mountains as a kid growing up in Yakima, Washington, where he and his friends spent all their time skiing. They took turns photographing each other until it became clear that Gunderson’s pictures of them were a lot better than their pictures of him. He was a natural, both on the skis and with the camera. In college, he sold his first photographs and was hooked.

“I was, like, ‘Wow, I can actually make a living doing this,’” he says, “and it pretty much beats the hell out of being an engineer and sitting behind a computer all the time.”

Break From The Pack

Gunderson founded The Ski Journal, where he served as photo editor for six years. It became an opportunity to surround himself with the world’s best ski photography. He studied the images closely, learning key lessons.

© Grant Gunderson
Revelstoke Mountain, British Columbia, Canada.
“Everyone always asks what my favorite lens is, and I always tell them my favorite lens is the best one for the job. Because it always changes. I own pretty much everything Canon makes, as far as lenses go.”

“As a photo editor,” he says, “I’ve seen so many images come through, it all starts to look the same. Unless it stands out, it’s not going to get picked up. That’s why I have a lot of motivation to try to do stuff that’s different. For me, it’s about wanting to create an image that someone hasn’t seen before. It’s really easy to go out and create really beautiful images in the mountains because the mountains themselves are beautiful and all you have to do is show up. But, you know, how can I do that in a way that hasn’t been done before? For a while, I was looking at skateboard imagery where they were using a lot of flash, and no one had tried to bring big flashes into the backcountry. So we were dragging 25-pound Elinchrom flash packs into the backcountry with us to shoot. Then, as soon as I noticed the rest of the competition was starting to do that, I started doing a lot less of it and I went on to doing other things. I’m always trying to come up with something that the rest of the guys aren’t doing yet, and try to be a step or two ahead of the field.

“The biggest advice I can give,” Gunderson adds, “is to try to be creative and come up with your own style, your own look. That’s what it’s going to take to be successful. If you just go out and copy an image that’s beautiful, it’s already been done and no one is interested in purchasing it. It’s constantly trying to be creative and come up with something new. I always look at what other photographers are doing—not to copy them, but to know what’s going on so that I can do something different.”

One particularly different technique Gunderson has employed is black-and-white imagery. It’s not something that’s seen very often in sports—snow skiing, in particular.

© Grant Gunderson
Monashee Powder Snowcats, Monashee Mountains, British Columbia, Canada.
To succeed commercially, you need to know the sports you’re photographing. “The devil’s in the details. For example, you could have one of the best looking ski shots you’ve ever seen, but if the pole plant’s a half degree off, it’s probably not going to run because the competition’s that high. That’s why it’s important to be an active participant in the sports you shoot. Because you’re going to see those little tiny details that if someone’s not an avid skier, they’re not going to notice. Clients have asked me to shoot things I don’t do, like rock climbing, and I tell them I’m just not the right guy for it. I’m a really strong believer, especially with action sports in the outdoors, you can’t really document it well unless you’re an active participant in those sports, to really know the nuances of what’s going on.”

“Skiing is very beautiful in color,” Gunderson says, “and everyone really wants to shoot in color. It’s bright skis and bright jackets. That’s what was cool with the flash; in these dark and stormy environments, I could get really vibrant color. But once everyone else started doing it, I said, ‘What can I do that would be different?’ So I went on a big black-and-white kick and shot almost all black-and-white for a year. When you shoot in black-and-white, you have to think more in tonal range than you would otherwise. I think doing that has helped me going back and shooting color since then. I think about it both ways now.”

Think Safety First

The main thing Gunderson is thinking about during any shoot isn’t photographic at all, and it’s not particularly about having fun, either. Mainly, Gunderson is concerned with trying to keep himself, his crew and his athletes safe. It’s the number-one priority in the mountains.

“I think experience allows me to make safer decisions easier in the backcountry,” he says. “It’s easier for me to walk away from something that’s not safe. I think that’s a skill that’s very important. I’m glad I finally developed it. A wise old mountain man told me when I was really young that you start your time off in mountains with a handful of luck and hopefully get a handful of knowledge before that wears out. That’s definitely true. Safety is a big factor, especially with avalanche conditions. Speed, a lot of times, goes with that. If I save some weight in the bag, I could get in and out of what could be a crush position way faster and minimize my time and risk.

© Grant Gunderson
Heliskiing in Seward, Alaska.
Even when on high-profile commercial assignments, Gunderson usually works solo, without a big crew. “90 percent of it is me and two or three athletes. A lot of times in the backcountry, it’s just not safe to bring in a big production team. Definitely there have been times where I’ve worked with 30 people, but that’s in a way more controlled environment, closer to the resort, in bounds, where ski patrol is going to make sure everyone is safe. Most of the stuff I do is deep in the backcountry where you can’t bring a big crew of people.”

“I see a lot more people going out and trying to do what we’re doing,” adds Gunderson. “That really weighs on me. I think they see these beautiful shots, or they see this amazing footage in a ski movie, but they don’t realize the support network that we’ve developed behind the scenes to produce an image. For example, everyone that I work with carries a VHF radio, and I’ve developed relationships with the ski patrol where, if there’s an accident, I can immediately talk to them. If we’re in the backcountry, I can immediately call up a helicopter for a rescue, or if we’re at a heli-ski operation, I’m going to be directly with the pilots so they all know we’re on the same page. The average Joe doesn’t know that.”

Protect Your Gear

The other safety issue Gunderson faces, while certainly less serious than life or death, is no less important to the functioning of a photography business. Working in cold, snowy conditions can be perilous for camera equipment, too.

“Moisture is a bigger issue than cold,” Gunderson says. “Basically, if my gear is cold, I can’t unzip that pack until I’m done for the day. So, if I come inside, that pack either stays outside someplace safe, or if it comes in with me, it doesn’t open up until we’re done for the day. I’ve tried using various tricks in the past, putting stuff in Ziploc® bags, then opening it up gradually, but once you open it, it’s done.

© Grant Gunderson
Laguna del Inca, Andes Mountains, Portillo, Chile.
“That was kind of a funny deal,” says Gunderson of this image. “We were on a photo shoot at a place called Laguna del Inca, which is right on the border of Chile and Argentina, pretty high up in the Andes. That particular summit when we were down there didn’t get any snow, and it’s like what are you going to do? You can’t ski without snow. We found out that the owner of the resort had sea kayaks on the lake in the afternoon. So we commandeered them and took them across the lake to find some snow. I was pretty happy they were yellow and orange, but I was even happier that I didn’t tip the kayak with the camera and all my gear in it.”

“I’ve gone through a lot of camera bodies,” he continues. “I was still shooting the 1D Mark IV when I actually ruined two camera bodies in one day. That was a very expensive day. I try to keep everything zipped up to minimize the amount of snow that gets into the camera bag. The other thing I’ll use is basically jackets on the cameras. For a while, I would make my own. Then I found out OP/TECH makes really good jackets for the cameras. And it’s definitely cut down a lot on the amount of cameras I go through. Now I’ll wear them out before the moisture destroys them.”

Follow The Light

When he’s not fighting with the weather as it’s trying to destroy his gear and drive him off a mountain, Gunderson is battling changing light. There’s always too much or too little, and only rarely is it just right.

GUNDERSONS’S EQUIPMENT

Canon EOS 1Dx
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM
Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8
Canon 85mm f/1.2 L II USM
Canon 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye
Elinchrom AS Speed strobes with Type A heads
Pocketwizard transceivers
F-Stop Satori packs

“Shooting skiing,” he says, “the biggest thing you’re dealing with, photography-wise, is that you have too much light. With mountain biking, it’s the exact opposite because you have too little light. The best mountain biking seems to be deep in the forest. So the best days to shoot are overcast, gray days, more consistent light, but there just isn’t much of it. But the thing with snow is, if you have too much light, it means you probably have too much sun, so it’s not going to be good for skiing anyway. With skiing, good snow tends to follow good light. We’re kind of looking for a combination of both. The challenge with skiing is that you can set a shot up, but you only get one chance, so if the athlete misses the mark or the flash doesn’t fire, all that setup work is done and you have to move on. It’s a pretty fast pace of constantly trying to be following the light and being productive at the same time.”


To see more of Grant Gunderson’s work, visit grantgunderson.com.

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