Winter Sports Photography with Dan Carr

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Brrrr! It's winter, and there is bound to be snow, or you may be vacationing in a snowy region, for some good old skiing or snowboarding. I recently got to talk to Dan Carr, the famous winter-sports photographer, about himself, his photography, and some basic tips for enthusiasts.




Chris: How long have you been photographing winter sports?

Dan: About 5 years now.

Chris: What got you into it?

Dan: Before I went to university in the UK, I took a year out to come to Canada. That year, I fell in love with the town of Whistler in British Columbia, and as soon as I finished my degree the following year, I came back. At the time I had no training in photography—my degree was actually in Aerospace Engineering—but photography was turning into a hobby. I skied a lot with some guy who used to ski pretty hard, jumping of cliffs, and just generally doing crazy things. I always had my camera with me, and I started to take photos. After a while, a local magazine asked to use some of the photos, and they ended up running one as their cover. As soon as I saw those shots in print, I knew that I wanted to take photography further, so I set about teaching myself everything I needed to know. Living in a resort that was consistently voted as the top ski destination in the world certainly helped, and one thing led to another! Now I shoot a lot of the advertising for the resort (Whistler Blackcomb), so it worked out pretty well. A couple of years ago, I moved over from the UK to live in Canada.

Chris: Do you still get up every morning and feel the same adrenaline rush to shoot something fast paced and challenging as you did when you first started?

Dan: Shooting the type of skiing I shoot is small bursts of intense adrenaline. A lot of things have to come together to get the conditions I want. Perfect snow conditions, perfect weather, and a stable snowpack that will not cause an avalanche. It often doesn't all come together, and there can be a lot of time where I am waiting for things to happen. When it comes together, though, there's nothing like it. A lot of the guys I am shooting are risking their lives—but in a very calculated way. They trust me to get the photo right the first time, because they don't want to have to do it again! As soon as they start skiing their line, it is a huge rush, and when they land and ski out, and I see that we got the shot we were after, it's just an awesome feeling.

Chris: What are the most challenging aspects of shooting—or even just the logistics? I can imagine that correct exposure can be tough.

Dan: As I mentioned before, one of the most challenging aspects is just getting the right conditions to shoot. Weather plays a major role, and we'll often head out into the backcountry, only to find that the weather has come in and ruined our plans. It can be days of hard work just to find the right feature, and get a shot. Exposure is not such a problem once you get the hang of it, but it's much better to shoot in Manual, because even the best cameras, like my Canon 1D MK IV, can get confused with such a bright white scene, so they often try to underexpose the shot. I just use manual mode and check the histogram constantly. As soon as the skier radios to tell me he/she is about to drop in, I fire a shot, and then check the histogram and flashing highlights on the camera screen. That usually ensures it's perfect, but you still have to respect the age-old rule of photography: Shoot in the morning and the afternoon—never at mid-day when the sun is high in the sky. When the sun is lower, the snow takes on a whole new look, and you can pick out every undulation and pocket of powder. Keeping a good angle between you and the sun is also a necessity.

Chris: Can you offer some basic tips to amateur winter-sports shooters to get better photos?

Dan: If you are just starting out, you probably don't want to be shooting in manual mode, so put your camera in TV (shutter priority). A good rule of thumb is that you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second for getting sharp action shots, so start your camera in that setting, and let it figure out what aperture you need. Next, you need to become familiar with your exposure compensation dial. Every camera—from high-end point-and-shoot cameras through to medium format—will have an exposure-compensation function. Basically, this allows you to override the camera's auto-exposure function by telling it to over- or under-expose what it thinks your shot should be. Although today's cameras have extremely complex processors, there are still certain situations where they don't get it quite right. One of those situations is a scene that is almost totally white, and most people will have experienced taking a photo of a beautiful snowy scene, only to discover that the photo they see on the back of the camera looks dark, dreary and gray. The reflected-light meters built into cameras are programmed to expect an average photo, with an average amount of reflected light in the scene. Snow reflects a lot more light than most surfaces. Most cameras will mistake the extra reflected light for an overly bright scene, and will therefore underexpose the shot to bring back the average reflectance that it is expecting. 

By using the exposure-compensation function you can override the camera's mistake, bringing things back to the way you saw them. I find that if I shoot in TV mode, I need anywhere from + 2/3 to + 2 stops of compensation to get the scene correctly exposed. The value varies depending on how many trees or rocks are included in the shot, but you can be sure that SOME compensation will be needed. Use the flashing highlights on your camera's image-preview screen to make sure you haven't blown the detail in the brightest areas of your image.

Chris: What gear do you recommend at different price points?

Dan:

BEGINNER

Canon Rebel T2i with 18-55 kit lens & EF-S 55-250 IS

INTERMEDIATE

Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 F/4 L IS, Canon EF-S 1 0-22, 50mm F/1.8

PRO

Canon 1D MK IV, Canon 70-300 F/4-5.6 L IS, Canon 24-70 F/2.8 L, Canon 17-40 F/4 L, Canon 15mm fisheye (soon to be replaced by the 8-15mm f4 L) Canon 300mm F/2.8 L IS

For those that want to see a list of the gear that I use on a day-to-day basis, I have a recommended-gear page on the B&H website, here.

POINT AND SHOOT

Even a pro needs point-and-shoot, and I'm a huge fan of the Canon s95.

Chris: What is your favorite winter sport to photograph? What is the most difficult, and why?

Dan: My favorite—by far—is backcountry skiing. I love to ski myself, and I think that enjoyment finds its way into my photos, somehow. The most difficult—I think—is ski racing, because it can be really hard to find a shot that looks different from one location to another. A slalom gate in the middle of a ski run looks much the same wherever you put it. It can be tough to be original with those shots, especially when you are somewhat limited as to where you are allowed to shoot from.

Chris: What’s your dream job?

Dan: Well, I guess I have my dream job to some extent. The only problem is that winter doesn't last all year, and even if you travel to the Southern Hemisphere as well, which I do quite often , the winters down there are a bit shorter, so it still leaves some time left over. Right now, I fill that time by writing for my websites, and by practicing elements of photography that I want to know more about. If I were to have another photography job, though, it would be a job as a motorsports photographer, shooting things like Nascar, Indycar and Formula 1. I have done a little of this in the past, and I love the speed! It's a tricky business to break into, though, as they don't allow too many people trackside these days.

I have further ski- and snowboard-photography tips on my website www.theskiphotographer.com, which is also my new blog, where I write about everything to do with my snow-sports work. You can also check out stories from my trips and travels, learn what gear I use for every situation, and learn how specific photos were taken. I also run a photography blog over at www.dancarrphotography.com/blog which covers more general photography subjects and gear reviews, from lenses and lighting to HDSLR accessories.