I moved to South Lake Tahoe almost 12 years ago for its proximity to great rock climbing in the Sierra Nevada mountains. But after just one winter here, I realized—boy, it snows in Tahoe. It snows a lot! So, naturally, I learned to ski. I also learned to shoot action ski and snowboard photographs. And for the last decade, I’ve created commercial stills for such Tahoe ski resorts as Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar.
In a lot of ways, creating great ski pictures follows many of the rules and methods prescribed by any other type of action-sports photography. In other ways, ski photography is whole other animal. Let me take you through some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years for creating dynamic ski and snowboard pictures.
The Perfect Storm
Great ski photography begins with great snow conditions. By becoming a storm-tracking meteorologist, you’ll learn to recognize when a “perfect storm” is brewing a day or two in advance, which will give you the time you need to prepare for your shoot.
So, what are those perfect conditions that you’re looking for? First, you’ll want a storm that unloads 12 to 24 inches of fresh snowfall overnight. You want bottomless, untracked snow. Next, you’re looking for it to be super cold. Light, cold snow billows into beautiful clouds of smoke behind a carving skier. It breaks up into interesting particles in a way that wet, heavy “warm” snow doesn’t. Last but not least, the storm needs to clear by morning, providing you with blue skies and crisp light all day.
That said, every rule is made to be broken. Shooting in stormy, overcast conditions is, of course, possible. It can even lead to interesting pictures. Just not as great as those shots captured in crisp, clean light with a backdrop of blue skies.
Scout your Location
One thing every ski photographer should keep is a running list of locations that make for great pictures. Make the time to create such a list. In other words, get outside to play and explore! Look around for unique situations, stunning backgrounds, interesting foregrounds, and try to imagine what the eventual shot would look like. Take a notebook to make hand-written notes, or use a note-taking app in your smartphone to create notes with both pictures and written descriptions. The point is that, when that perfect storm hits, you already have an idea of the specific locations you want to go.
Manage the Skiers
Once you see that a perfect storm is on its way, it’s time to rally the skiers—whether that means a group of professional athletes that you’re working with for a commercial or editorial shoot, or your friends, spouse or kids. Whoever your models may be, you will need to explain to them that on the day of the shoot, they will need to work with you to help you create a fantastic set of pictures. And what that really means is that they may be sacrificing a powder day.
The reality of ski photography is that it requires a lot of standing around. While everyone else on the mountain is doing lap after lap, your ski models will be waiting for you to get into position and set up your camera.
Needless to say, convincing anyone to do this for you isn’t easy. I’ve found a group of reliable pro and semi-pro athletes who I like to work with. They’re great mountain athletes and, just as important they’re reliable. We’ve built a great relationship over the years, and they know that my photos will go places and help them out with their careers as professional skiers and snowboarders. But with friends and family just the simple act of giving them images in exchange for their time often times will do the trick.
Schedule a meeting with your models the day before the shoot to go over logistics of when and where to meet. If you’re planning to shoot commercial ski or snowboard pictures, ask the athletes to bring several wardrobe options. They will need to be wearing the latest season’s apparel in the brightest colors available—new gloves, new skis, new outfits, and helmets that don’t have stickers on them. All of that is extremely important to commercial ski photography. But even if you’re just shooting your friends or family, the bottom line is that brightly colored, contemporary clothing makes for better pictures than muted or dark-colored clothes.
Plan to get to the resort as soon as possible. As a commercial ski photographer, I contact the resort and get special permission to be up on the mountain with my models at 6 a.m. But even riding first chair would give you an advantage—not to mention give you the motivation you need to be in the lift line before everyone else.