Winter Sports Action Photography Tips

How to get cool shots of hot doggers

Skiing and snowboarding are incredibly photogenic sports, but they're fraught with gotchas: extreme weather that can harm both you and your camera, difficult lighting (only for the inexperienced), and of course participants who could be zooming right at you at the speed of a fast car.

Good planning, the right equipment, developing a sense of timing and knowing where to stand (or crouch) can all help you overcome weather-related problems so you can capture some serious winter action.

Low-flying boarder: Even a snowboard jump that's only a few inches off the ground will look impressively airborne if you shoot from a low angle with a wide-angle lens. Photo © Heywood.

It's cold out there

Let's talk about the weather: It will be cold. Dress appropriately. Wear layers, and an outer jacket that has flaps and vents that can open and close so you can regulate airflow and control your body temperature. Keep in mind that dressing for photographing skiing may be similar to, but not exactly the same as, dressing to ski (or to snowboard). Unlike skiers, who are active and warm up naturally that way, you may find yourself staying in one place for a relatively long time, and may need more warmth. A handwarmer couldn't hurt.

Bring the right camera gear

Snow, when it melts, is wet, and the electronics inside your camera don't like getting wet. So, make sure your camera is sealed against it. (See Bob Atkins' excellent article about using your camera gear in the winter). Consider buying a rain/snow cover for your camera such as the Kata Pro-Light E690 Rain Cover.

To capture skiers and snowboarders, a DSLR is a must. Compact cameras may take longer to focus, have slow reaction times, and their tiny buttons may be impossible to operate if you're wearing gloves.

Pentax K-5 IIThere is a handful of water-resistant cameras available at Adorama, but most of them are compacts. A relatively small, lightweight DSLR option is the Pentax K-5 II, which is fully sealed against rain, snow and sand. There are a handful of other DSLRs that are weather-sealed, but they are considerably pricier.

For a lens, bring two: a wide angle lens and a midrange tele zoom, in the 70-200mm (35mm equivalent) range. You won't need a tripod—it's going to be bright out there, and a tripod can get in the way. Mobility is key. And bring the highest-capacity memory card possible—you'd hate to have to change cards in the middle of all that snow and cold.

Exposing for snow

Snow, because it's so white, will mislead your camera's light meter. But here's an easy fix: If it's a sunny day, point the lens at the sky, away from the sun, and lock in that exposure setting. If it's overcast, simply set your camera's EV compensation to +2. This will overexpose the scene by two stops, which should counteract the camera's natural inclination to underexpose a snowy scene.

The other thing to keep in mind is that since you'll be photographing action, you'll need a fast shutter speed to freeze movement. Go for at least 1/1000 sec. and if you have the option, use the camera's "S" (shutter-preferred) setting, which will automatically set the aperture while you control shutter speed.

Take a few test shots. If you're shooting digital, check the histogram in your camera's preview mode to make sure the exposure is good. If there's a lot of snow, the curve should go higher near the left edge of the histogram. If the curve is more to the center, then the snow will look too dark; adjust exposure accordingly.


Break the (snow) bank: The holy grail of ski photography is a skier jumping/bursting through a bank of snow. It's not that hard to get , if you have a willing subject. Notice how the photographer caught the skier's expression!
Photo © Blankenburg.


Get in position

Ask at the lodge about good spots on different trails for getting interesting pictures. The pros will tell you. Airborne skiers are an exciting subject, so look for jumps, ramps, and banks of powder that skiers might ski through or jump from.

If you are photographing skiers or snowboarders doing jumps, get as close as you can to the action without getting in the way. (Before getting in position, watch the spot to see the direction people go so you know what area's safe to shoot from.) Get down low, and use a wide-angle lens: Even a very short jump that put the participant only a few inches off the ground will seem a lot higher and more impressive when shot from below the level of the skis or board. Pre-focus on the spot where the skier is likely to be airborne, and be ready for that split second jump.

Another advantage of shooting up from a low angle is that it helps to eliminate distracting trees and other background objects. A blue-sky background will help the viewer concentrate on the action.

Consider shooting towards the sun. If a skier or boarder is kicking up a lot of powder, the sun will emphasize this, emphasizing this dynamic element.

Take a powder: Backlit snow looks great--as do its strong diagonal lines, which emphasize the active nature of the image. They don't call it "downhill" skiing for nothing!"
Photo © Faulknor.

Find a cooperative partner

One secret to effective action photography in general is to get close enough to get the athlete's facial expression. Skiing and snowboarding photography is no different, even if the faces are more covered up than in other sports. Most skiers wear sunglasses, and the reflections can add a point of interest. To get these expressions, you need shoot close and use your tele zoom lens. But don't get too close--you want to see the skis and hands. Include a bit of space (but not too much) above, below and on either side of the action.

Photographing random skiers on the slopes and hoping you'll get a successful shot is not a great plan. One way to improve your chances of getting winning ski shots is to have at least one skier or snowboarder who will work with you, and is willing to do repeat runs. If it's a friend, that's great. But if you have some sample shots with you and offer to email a hi-res image to the skier as a way of saying thanks, you'll be surprised at how many volunteers you'll get. (Even better: Offer to have a print made at Adorama Pix and sent directly to your subject.)

Find a great jump, get in position, and have your partner do the jump. Then, have him or her do it again, and again. It may take several tries before you get it right. Check your LCD monitor each time while your partner is trudging back into position, see what you've got, and adjust your composition and timing accordingly.

Can your skier partner plow through powder? Brightly-lit powder adds a dynamic note to ski photos, and you can shoot from a bit farther away to capture powder trails. Or, you can zoom in and catch the skier bursting through.


Find a funky angle: This unusual viewpoint--through the legs of another skier, may not show the action, but it's a great point of view that implies action is imminent.
Photo © Ward.

Warm up--carefully!

When you're done, be sure to follow Bob Atkins' guidelines for re-entering a warm indoor climate with cold camera gear in his Winter Photography Tips article. You don't want sudden condensation to ruin your gear.

See you on the slopes!

Where are your favorite ski destinations? Leave a comment below!

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