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Misadventures in Ski Photography

February 03, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

At the beginning of 2017, I was very lucky to be selected to go to Verbier in Switzerland to cover the British Army's Royal Armoured Corps and Army Air Corps Alpine Ski Championship.  I knew the job was coming up in the previous autumn, so I set about preparations for the climate, type of imagery I wanted to deliver and also how to best achieve this while improving my own skills on the mountain.  This consisted of a massive amount of research, which luckily for my wife kept. me pretty quiet for a couple of weeks.  My main focus was the location and knowing stuff like the direction of the sun and how to adjust custom white balance.  Also looking at sources of information about equipment to use while at altitude and how to protect it.  For more insight into this visit Jonathan Griffiths website, an absolute goldmine of information and inspiration:  

alpine exposures

So with a great deal of information and apprehension, I set off for Switzerland just after New Year (without a hangover!)

Concerns

My main concern was my own ability to get around once on the mountain, sure I had skied before but many years ago, therefore some training was required, luckily we had an instructor on the officials team who gave me some pointers and then let me loose on some easier slopes, though this was after the first days racing where I generally fell down the mountain to get to where I wanted to be (#tragic)!  In hindsight, some pre-trip practice was what should have done and booking some lessons prior to travelling will be the first thing I do, should I go next year.  My second concern was equipment.  I usually shoot in the UK and as long as you wrap up warm, all is fine likewise your camera equipment can cope with the British climate as long as it remains dry.  In the Alps the daily temperature ranged from -2 to -17 so there were a few things I had to consider:

  1. Battery life - The cold does some weird things to batteries.  I carried 4 every day and ensured that they were charged each night.  I kept them in my inside jacket pocket to keep them marginally warm and they didn't let me down.  The most I got through in one day's racing was 2 and bit!
  2. Lenses - luckily my ski jacket has a tether in the pocket with a goggle cloth attached, which was ideal for cleaning the front of the lens when any spray was blown up.  That said I also had 2 large microfibre cloths in my rucksack.
  3. Gloves - Climbing around the mountains it is inevitable that you will get snow on your gloves (it gets everywhere) therefore I had 2 pairs of gloves and a pair of mittens for when I was static.  When shooting in these conditions I have noticed that you are constantly changing your clothes to suit the conditions.  If you didn't you will have a miserable time and are increasingly susceptible to the onset of hypothermia.  Moving around the slopes keeps you warm and once you stop you are in for a rapid cooldown.
  4. Personal equipment - If you are heading to the mountains, the right equipment will keep you comfortable, warm and dry all day - don't scrimp on it.  Although I didn't shell out thousands of pounds for my clothing, I took advice from people who knew what I needed and bought the best I could afford.  None of it let me down, which I was incredibly impressed about.  Apart from salopettes and jacket, good quality merino base-layers are must and if you can afford them, buy your own ski boots - they are custom fitted to your foot and will make all the difference.  Lastly, goggles and sunglasses.  On a clear day the snow reflects the sunlight and it can give you headaches!

Getting the images you want

 

After the first day's racing, I was more confident on the slope and knew the key places for the shots I wanted.  During my research, I looked at other photographers images to get a feel for what works and give me an idea of what I wanted.  American photographer Mike Juliana was a great inspiration here - check out his amazing work at the link below:

http://www.mikejulianaphotography.com

Camera equipment & settings were pretty mixed throughout the day but my main setup was as follows:

Canon 5D Mk III & Canon 70-200 F2.8L Mk II

Shooting at F2.8 gave me the shutter speed required to capture the skiers, and the canon was well up to it, although heavy it produced some great results, even in the early morning when I was forced to use higher ISO settings.  I also made sure I captured all shots in RAW and JPEG - that way I could get shots out quickly to the various media platforms which we using to promote the racing and then process my best quality images from RAW when time permitted.

Positioning

Where you shoot from makes all the difference.  I found that creating a leading line with the skier passing through one gate but aiming for the next was a great approach for my first time.  As I gained confidence, I tried to be more creative by changing my aspect, getting low down or higher up (not easy climbing trees in ski boots).  This worked well but I was constantly aware of my time constraints, with racers passing every 45 seconds and although I didn't have to get every single skier, I wanted to maximise my chances.

Of course, should you want to try this type of photography you will probably not be against the clock, so take your time, get a good exposure and enjoy it.

A word on fitness..

Get as fit as you can!  The legwork involved is pretty tiresome, the bag gets heavy, and you are also fighting the cold.  Before going up the mountains, do some leg work - I'm talking squats, lunges deadlifts - lots of them.  Putting in some quality training will pay dividends.  The article below from Traver Boehm is a great starting point:

Ski fitness

Ski Photography has a lot to offer, it's brilliant being out on the mountain, the views are incredible (next blog maybe..) and you get to ski every day!  What is there not to like?  My final comment is one of thanks to all the teams and the Race Officials team who made it possible for me to be there in the first place!  Thanks guys!

 


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