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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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“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.