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Wintertime in Alaska is often dark and cold, with no sign of bare dirt for months. That doesn’t stop us from riding bikes, though—we just bundle up and use bigger tires. It’s the same with photography. Winter adds significant challenges for shooting action, and in order to deal with it, we just bundle up and use bigger lights.
One particular winter day, I had an idea to shoot a snow-biking action shot with my friend, Tim. I knew I wanted to use flash, and not just because it was going to be dark when Tim got off work. Wintertime light in the forest can be pretty tough to deal with. It’s mostly dim, indirect light with heavy blue cast in the shadows, so I figured that by using external lighting, I could help make the image pop more. Also, I was hoping to shoot against the waning color of the late afternoon sunset and catch the twilight colors in the sky before the true blackness of night settled on our scene.
My idea was to try and capture a deep blue background of cold, dimming Alaska winter sky and then light Tim up with my battery-powered strobe and a large soft box as he jumped past me on the bike. This would throw a wide blast of light and illuminate not only my subject, but also light up some of the snow-covered trees as well, which would give the shot some context. In addition, the fast recycle time of the strobe’s lithium battery would keep up with the action, and stay firing even though it would be below zero outside.
The sun was already down when we reached our location. So was the temperature. We quickly got down to business. Tim built a small jump in the middle of the trail while I scouted for a good vantage point and set up the lighting gear. I like the Photoflex 24 x 32" medium WhiteDome soft box because it’s quick to set up and tough enough to withstand the outdoor abuse that I tend to unleash on my gear. Also, it has removable side panels that allows it to cast soft, omnidirectional light that looks very pleasing in photos. It’s designed for shooting interiors and architecture, but I like to drag it outside and shoot action with it. I enjoy the challenge of using gear in new ways because shaking things up helps expand your creativity.
Another thing I like about the WhiteDome is that it rolls up and fits into a relatively small stuff sack that I can strap onto the side of my photo pack. My photography style dictates that I have a highly mobile lighting kit, and so I prefer gear that’s portable and not too heavy.
When Tim had the jump built, we did some test shots. Then I picked out a spot, crouched down in the snow, and gave him the go. Using my Nikon DSLR, and Nikkor 14mm f/2.8 lens, I was able to get in really close and still show environment as he sped down the trail, got air from the jump, and launched himself right by me. I got so close on a few passes that Tim and I actually made contact as he flew past me. And I swear, I had nothing to do with the couple of times times when he ended up crashing into the trees!
Exposure was 1/10 second at f/2.8, ISO 2000, which let me hold onto as much ambient as possible from the deep blue sky. The pop from the strobe (I fired the strobe with PocketWizards) made it so that the subject was sharp, even with the slow shutter speed. For processing, a little bit of luminance-smoothing in Lightroom toned down the ISO noise.
About Dan Bailey: I’ve been a full-time adventure, travel, and location photographer since 1996. I strive to create dynamic imagery that shows the power and mystery of the greater scene with a style that can be defined as a cross between the raw immersion of first-person photojournalism and the focused creativity of high-end commercial photography.