Ski Photography Guide
What to use, how to carry it, and shooting techniques.
By mattb123 in Articles and Tips on Feb 18, 2015
Have you ever wanted to capture an image that looks like it's right out of a ski magazine? One of those photos that features a skilled skier throwing a plume of illuminated power into the air? Or maybe just a shot of your buddy doing his thing on the local hill? How about capturing your own child riding the lift and sliding downhill for the first time?
It seems pretty simple on the surface, and in reality it is, but there are a few things to consider when you are going to do some ski photography that could save you some trial and error.
In this article we will discuss the gear, how to carry it, how to compose your shot, and the settings and approaches that can help you get a good ski photo.
Whenever possible, a weather-resistant camera is a good way to go for ski photography. Even if the weather is clear there is going to be some snow getting thrown around on the slopes. If you aren't an expert skier, your chances for getting snow on your equipment at some point are even greater. For compact "point and shoot" cameras, there are a number of choices like the Ricoh WG-4 and similarly rugged compacts from other brands like Olympus, Panasonic, Canon, and Nikon. Compacts are easy to carry and take good enough photos for many people, but this article is going to focus on larger cameras with interchangeable lenses.
In recent years, options have increased considerably for weather-resistant SLRs and mirrorless cameras. For DSLRs, weather sealing is often a high-end feature, but Pentax doesn't always follow that philosophy. Most (but not all) of their recent cameras are weather sealed, so there are several models to choose from. The photos in this article were shot with a Pentax K-5 and K-3, both of which are sealed against dust and moisture when paired with a WR (Weather Resistant) lens. The other current Pentax body with weather sealing is the K-50 ($396) and you can also turn to older models like the K-30, K-7, K20D, and K10D.
Prime lenses are capable of wonderful images but skiing with a camera isn't always well suited to the prime shooter. A wide range zoom like the DA 18-135mm WR or even just the 18-55mm WR sealed kit lens is usually a little more versatile. And this helps reduce or eliminate lens changes in harsh conditions, keeping your sensor cleaner. But this is also a matter of taste so use the lenses you like. Just be careful about changing lenses or avoid it entirely while out on the snow.
That being said, a setup with a small prime or two can be more compact and lighter than one with a zoom. If the photographer is fairly confident they can keep the camera dry, a compact body without weather-sealing (like the Pentax K-S1, Pentax K-x, Canon SL-1, etc.) and two compact primes can make a pretty portable and high quality setup.
So to recap, a sealed setup is best if you are new to this kind of thing. It will be your safest bet for not damaging equipment. You can go lighter if you are more experienced, but you have to be more careful to keep the gear dry. This can be especially helpful when cutting weight for skiing under your own power as is the case with backcountry ski touring or Nordic skiing. Unless you are trying specifically for a shallow DOF, fast lenses are generally not needed for most ski photography. It's an activity typically done during the day with plenty of light from both the sky and the snow. Slower lenses are often more compact than faster ones so this can be in the skier's favor too.
Recommended weatherproof setup: Pentax K-3, K-5 (II/IIs) or K-50 with a WR zoom such as the 18-55mm WR, 18-135mm WR or the new 16-85mm WR. This gives a rugged kit with a wide FL range so you can shoot wide or long without requiring a lens change.
Recommended ultralight setup: Pentax K-S1, K-50, K-30 or K-x with a DA 40mm Limited and DA 15mm Limited. If you like longer shots, a DA 70mm Limited rounds out this combo nicely and a double rear cap can keep the un-mounted lenses handy and compact. This keeps it small while maintaining great image quality. The 40 pancake is a good mid range lens and takes almost zero space. The 15 is a highly regarded wide angle that's great in the trees, using a near/far composition and showing apparent steepness. Both lenses offer top notch image quality. The big drawback with this setup is that, if the weather gets harsh, you may need to stick with whichever lens happens to be on the camera to keep the snow out.
Carrying Your Gear
This may be the greatest challenge of ski photography. High quality photo gear always has some bulk to it, and even the more compact DSLRs are not small by today's portable electronics standards. Care needs to be taken to secure the gear to keep it from getting damaged or hurting you if you fall.
The two main approaches are to put the gear in a pack or to carry it in pockets on your body. Both approaches have pluses and minuses which are worth considering before you go out.
If you are worried about damaging your gear or want to bring a lot, a dedicated photo backpack is the best way to do it. These packs have customizable dividers, specially designed padding, and designs to help make your gear more accessible than a general purpose pack. If the focus of your day is photography and you like to bring several lenses for different conditions, a pack makes a lot of sense. Backpacks can be awkward on lifts so if you are skiing a ski area with one don't forget to swing it around to your lap when you load or you might not be able to stay on! Also take care when unloading the lift as packs can have straps that get caught in the seat at an inopportune moment.
Chest packs can also make a lot of sense for skiing. Firstly, the awkward chairlift situation is eliminated so you don't have to be conscious of it when loading and unloading the chair. Second, your gear is much more accessible and can be retrieved without having to swing the pack around which is going to be faster. Sometimes this can be the difference between getting that cool shot of your subject hitting a jump and still fumbling with getting to the camera. The downside of a chest pack is that it makes it tough to see and do things directly in front of you. On very steep runs, it can block your vision of the trail. It can make buckling your boots or getting in and out of bindings awkward as well.
Whatever the style of pack, it's likely there will be some movement of the pack if you are skiing challenging terrain or are tempted to hit some air in the terrain park now and then. If this describes you or you just prefer a more minimal approach, packing the gear in your pockets may be your preferred method. This limits what you can bring but either of the recommended setups mentioned above (or even a hybrid, just keep it compact) will work with the right pockets.
To effectively use the pocket carry method, you need big front pockets in your outer layer that also have large openings for getting the camera in and out. Many nicer technical hard and soft shells are designed with two big front pockets with larger vertical zippers which tends to work well. The Patagonia Primo jacket pictured above is a good example of such a jacket. It was designed for ski patrollers who must often carry a lot of gear on the mountain and the front pockets will hold a dSLR or an extra lens pretty well. If you are shopping for an appropriate jacket I'd recommend taking your intended camera kit to see how it fits. For optimum versatility, a layering piece that could be worn with or without insulation from another layer is best so you can use it in the widest variety of conditions. For additional protection, some kind of cover, such as a Clik Elite Camera wrap can be used. These layers are also good for activities that require a specific pack (backcountry skiing, mountain biking) to keep the camera from getting bumped against other objects in the pack.
Composing Your Shots
This is another matter of taste but there are some generally accepted techniques that can help the image be successful.
All the usual rules of composition of course still apply:
- The rule of thirds
- Leading lines
- Subjects coming into the frame instead of going
- The power of three
- Breaking the rules
But your subject is now a very dynamic object. Ideally you can discuss with your model where they plan to go, but that isn't always possible. Also, knowing the sport helps with predicting a skier's movements. Tracks in the snow can make nice leading lines. A tree, rock, or even the sun can become another compositional element. Back light looks good with spraying snow, and low sun winter light can be beautiful and flattering well outside the golden hour.
Taking the Shot
Now that you have your gear out in the field and have your composition all lined out, it's time to get the shot. One nice thing about ski photography is there is usually plenty of light, which will help you get fast shutter speeds at low ISO. On a bright day, ISO 400 will still allow for shutter speeds of 1/500s or faster (much faster if it's very bright) which is usually plenty to capture the action. ISO 400 on a K-x or newer (K-5, K-3, K-30/50/S1...) is going to make a low-noise image if properly exposed. The fast shutter speed will freeze the action and flying snow.
Speaking of exposure, another thing to consider is exposure compensation (the +/- button). When a scene is very bright, like a snow-covered landscape, the camera's meter will not set the exposure correctly on its own. The camera assumes the scenes you photograph are going to average out to be 18% gray and sets the exposure accordingly. When a scene is very bright, the exposure is too quick and what should look like white snow will come out underexposed, looking gray or blue. For a snowy scene, plan on setting the exposure compensation to +1 or so. The amount you need to set will vary with the light, sky, and the proportion of snow to other things like trees and rocks. With lots of snow and bright sun you may want to go higher, like +1.5. With more trees and shade only +.5 might be enough. I recommend using the histogram and enabling the blinking highlight/shadow warning feature to try to avoid blowing out the snow and correctly exposing other things like your skier. Monitor this and adjust as necessary as conditions change.
Snow makes a great light reflector and as a photographer you can take advantage of this. A large light source will very evenly light the subject and will often be flattering light.
Backlit subjects also work well for ski shots. With all the light around, details in the shadows are usually not hard to preserve and flying snow looks great with light behind it.
Auto white balance and shooting raw typically has a good success rate, or is easy to correct in post. If you are shooting in jpeg mode you should just try to match the wb to the conditions (cloudy or sunny).
Ski photography is a great way for you to show the non-skiing world the magic of the sport we love, and it allows us to share the fun with other skiers as well. With a little bit of preparation, your images can not only share the experience but do it in a professional manner. Your memory-preserving snapshot can instead become a piece of print-worthy wall art. With these tips and some practice, you too can take ski photos worthy of publication or at least a spot on your wall.
You can even apply this to other snow sports, since the principles are all the same.