Tips from the Pros: Capturing Better Winter Sports Photos

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The winter is coming! Many of us love going out into the snow and taking part in all sorts of fun sports. Whether it's skiing, snowboarding, etc, we all ahve our own passion and we all want to capture the moment.

Here are a couple tips on how to capture better winter sports photos from some top industry professionals.



Dealing with the Cold

Before you even get into winter sports photography, we need to make some pre-shooting preparations. There are some considerations to make: such as how to personally deal with the cold and how to ensure that your gear stays in tip-top shape.

According to famed photographer Dan Bailey, “Even moderately cold weather can make things pretty difficult when it comes to using your camera equipment outside in the winter. Your choice is often bulky gloves and mittens or bare frozen fingers that have gone numb. Having had both on many occasions, I’ll take the bulky gloves any day, or else thin gloves and hand warmer packs.” 

“Another thing to watch, keep your bare nose away from the ice cold metal and plastic back on your camera. In extreme temps you can easily frost nip the end of your nose. Believe me. Been there. Don’t want to go back. Hold your face slightly away from the back of the camera or else use some kind of nose shield or face mask. Your nose will thank you.”

To that end, it can also be a great idea to purchase a hand warmer that can be kept in a pocket. These can be super useful for when your hands get too cold.

But that’s not all; batteries (such as those in your phone or camera) will drain quicker in frigid conditions. The first tactic is to carry an extra battery that you keep in a warm pocket, preferably next to a hand warmer. When you’re first battery dies, simply swap it out for the warm one. 

“Tucking the dead battery in your warm pocket may actually revive it for awhile,” says Bailey. “It won’t be at full strength, but with this technique, you can milk a few more shots out of both batteries.”


Autofocusing Techniques

One of the best tips that the pros can give you is to use a single focusing point on your camera. The reason: because then your camera does less hunting throughout the scene to find something to focus on.

PDN 30 award recipient and famous winter sports photographer Mark Fisher states, “For general action photography, I love using AI-Servo mode. When using a camera such as the Canon 1D Mark IV I can set a different focus points, one for landscape and one for portrait orientation." He advises that you should never use all the focusing points at once because in real life practice, you can actually miss your target if the camera focuses on the wrong area. 

"I use a single focus point that corresponds to the composition I want and stick with it. I work closely with my subject to communicate about what they’re doing in relation to what I’m shooting so we both know exactly what will happen. If necessary, I direct my subject in a particular scene, such as shooting a close-up powder shot. I set my camera to the fastest burst mode it allows and then I can shoot while panning with my subject, on autofocus mode, and get a variety of images from one sequence. If the lighting is particularly difficult, for instance shooting into the sun, I preset my focus manually, and then turn autofocus off when shooting. Prefocusing allows for a faster burst shooting and eliminates the potential for autofocus mishaps. Autofocus, after all, is not perfect."

Stopping Fast Moving Action

To capture fast moving action, you need to use a fast shutter speed. Though you could theoretically crank up your ISOs to do this, the pros often use other methods involving flashes. "For flash action photography, I use Pocketwizard mini TT1 and Flex TT5 transmitters so I can override my camera’s flash sync speed and shoot strobe-lit action at a shutter speed of around 1/1200 instead of my cameras built-in sync speed of 1/250th. This makes a huge difference in terms of stopping action and having a crisp image," say Fisher. "Furthermore, when shooting action with a strobe, I always preset my focus on the action moment I want and my camera is always in full manual mode when shooting with a strobe. If possible, I balance the ambient light with the artificial light using a light meter."

But that can be a whole nother story.

Metering

Dan Carr is a world famous ski photographer, and he emphasizes shooting during the beginning or end of the day when the light is less harsh. "With the sun lower in the sky you get far more contrast in your images and that can really add to the depth and textures that are perceivable," says Carr. "When working in a landscape that is predominantly snowy this becomes even more important since the white snow bounces light all over the place providing the world’s biggest fill light, removing a lot of contrast from the undulations on the snow and leaving it hard to define the terrain."

"Of course the ideal shooting scenario is not always possible, especially when you want to shoot at a ski resort where you are governed by the opening times of the chair lifts. To help with this you need to be constantly aware of the angle of the sun relative to the direction you are pointing your lens. If the sun is over your shoulder, even it’s low in the sky you’ll have difficulty creating contrast and showing the terrain. If you get yourself between 90 and 180 degrees from the sun though then all of a sudden you’ll notice the contrast coming back into the snow crystals and textures and undulations will begin to appear in your images again. You’ll notice that I said 180 degrees as well, yes don’t be afraid to shoot into the sun ! I can provide wonderful backlit powder shots and will give a lot of depth if you carefully expose for the snows highlights and not the sun/sky highlights."

In today's digital age, it can be much easier than it was back in the film days. Mark Fisher relates that in the past when shooting film, he would use exposure compensation to overcome inherently bright or dark environments. For instance, snow would reflect way more light than was actually available, and your camera would read this and interpret your scene as brighter than it actually was. He would have to use exposure compensation set to +1 for snow. In extremely dark environments, it was the exact opposite, he would use -1 for exposure compensation because in this case, the meter would think there was LESS light available than there actually was and, in turn, overexpose the image.

"With the sun lower in the sky you get far more contrast in your images and that can really add to the depth and textures that are perceivable..."

Mark now shoots in RAW, so it's not a problem at all for him when it comes to the post-production phase. This is essential because it’s not always possible for Mark to meter his subject because they’re on the top of a cliff 100 ft away, and he has them stand on top of the cliff so he can manually balance the flash and ambient exposure. Fisher's advice is that, "You only get one shot using strobes so make it count and take your time setting it up."

Dan Bailey adds that, "Winter often brings flat light and overcast skies, which don’t always often make for great photography. What I usually do in situations like this is to get closer. Pretend the sky is  a giant softbox." In practice, it’s the world’s biggest diffuser, so get up close and make the soft light work for you. Portrait photographers know this fact all too well! Shoot the subjects that don’t necessary work in strong directly light. Shoot faces, details expressions and closeups. Going tighter rather than wider will prevent your photos from being too washed out.

Creative Vision

When thinking about action photography in terms of composition, the most important thing for the photographer to do is to envision what your final product will be and understand where the best moment of action in a particular scene will be, and then set your composition for that moment. This comes into play when deciding whether to shoot a vertical or horizontal image, and where to set a focus point. It's importrant to practice and envision your scene as much as you can before the action actually happens, looking through the camera to see what it looks like horizontal, vertical, etc. After you're confident that you like your composition, get ready to shoot.

Mark's  general “rule of thumb” when shooting action photography is to make sure your camera’s shutter speed is greater than 1/1000th of a second. "If I’m panning with my subject, this speed usually works. If I’m static and shooting action, I try to increase my shutter speed to 1/1500th to 1/2000th of a second to ensure a crisp image."

One of the most important things to do is to work closely with your athlete. For instance, if you’re going to shoot a mountain biker going off a jump, take some time to look at the jump WITH your rider before they hit the jump. Make sure they understand your vision, and what they’re supposed to do to execute that vision. In many shoots, you have to be the director with the athlete. In addition to taking time on the front-end to make sure your athlete understands your vision, make sure you have 2-way radios to easily communicate with your subject. Shouting is annoying and doesn’t work. Getting some cheap radios will reduce frustrations and enable you to have a higher success ratio.

Using a Fish Eye Lens

Dan Carr loves to use fisheye lenses becase they can be a creative tool to give you a much different look. Maybe that's why the GoPro camcorders maintain that extra distortion. "It’s a very unique look so you don’t want to go using it all the time and filling your
portfolio with fisheye shots! The trick with speciality lenses is to know under what
circumstances they add to the image. With a fisheye there are two main ways that I use it and sometimes, in fact quite often, you can combine those two things."

"This kind of lens is going to give you a large amount of distortion and I say run with it, don’t try and hide that at all. Practice with the lens and you’ll begin to see that elements with the image react to the distortion in different ways depending where they are with the frame."

Dan uses this lens in two main ways:

- To accentuate the height that a skier or snowboarder is jumping. If you get down low and use your fisheye
lens underneath him it’ll look more like a 10ft cliff, but only if you get low. If you stand
right next to him it just won’t work, you have to get low down.

- To accentuate the length or shape of an element within the
frame. The second scenario that might have me reaching for a fisheye is to accentuate the shape or length of an element in the frame. The image above also elongates the slender burnt trees which is an important part of the image.

The example to the right accentuates the size of the jump. With the subject itself (the skier) quite far from the
lens there is little apparent distortion to the person which keeps it looking more natural.
Careful positioning of the  trees and the jump highlights their size and shape though and
confirms to the viewer that they are also an important part of the image, not just the
skier.

After the Shoot

Condensation is a very big issue when shooting in extreme climates.

Dan Bailey states, "Never ever take a cold camera inside if you intend to go back outside and shoot again. IT WILL condense, and if you take it back into the cold before it completely dries, all that moisture will turn to ice. Your camera will be rendered totally useless until all of the moisture is gone."

"If you need to take your camera inside, place it back in your camera bag or backpack before you go back into the warm area. Your camera bag is filled with the same cold air that was surrounding your camera outside, so keep it closed and no condensation will form. If you stay inside for awhile, eventually, it will warm up gradually, and everything will be fine.|

"If your camera does condense, your only remedy is to keep it warm and dry until it completely dries out. Then you can safely take it back outside."

Sources:

Dan Bailey: Dan Bailey Photo

Mark Fisher: Fisher Creative

Dan Carr: Dan Carr Photography; The Ski Photographer and the ProPhoto Coalition.

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Shooting snow is a real challenge for me.  Most of my photography is black and white and sepia.  However I find that shooting in RGB gives me a wider range of tonalities from the outset.  After I convert to monochrome in post production the initial color information gives me richer blacks and more layered whites.  This holds true for any large relatively unbroken color surface, such as water or sand.

Great article...