Snow Photography

By Matt Hull

Just when you think you’ve got the hang of this photography thing you find yourself in a situation that throws you a curve ball. Your metering is out the window, your fully charged batteries are flashing ‘low bat’ and your pro lenses have icicles forming on the lens hood.

Welcome to a normal day in my life! In 2004 I decided I’d had enough of the rat race, driving in peak hour traffic to a job I hated for money that was barely paying for fuel.

I threw in the job, grabbed my snowboard, my little Nikon compact (hey it’s all I could afford at the time!) and hit the road for Falls Creek for the season.

A couple of years in and things were going great, I was snowboarding every day, working a job I loved and had ditched the shackles of a 9-5 lifestyle. My only gripe was my little compact camera just wasn’t cutting it, my film camera was back in a box in storage somewhere in Melbourne, not that it would have been any use to me here, the nearest place to get film developed was about an hour away. Looks like it was time to suck it up and fork out the cash for a DSLR.

With my entry level Nikon DSLR permanently glued to my hand I was reclaiming my lost love for photography, although my qualifications are with Video and TV all that knowledge was moving over to the still camera quite nicely, my photos were starting to make it into local papers and newsletters, I think I just found a career path to compliment this lifestyle!

Now fast forward to 2010 and I’m currently in Myoko Kogen, Japan shooting for a new business called Myoko Snowsports. The business owners Nozomi and Tom approached me during the previous ski season at Falls Creek to come and help them start up a brand new International ski school, ski hire and photography company in Japan, I was sold on the idea straight away.

Myoko Snowsports is blooming, my part here is to go out with guests and get shots of them ripping up powder snow, hitting jumps and having fun with their family… yes I get paid to snowboard and take photos, I’m pretty sure I’ve been at the bottom of a jump in waist deep powder before and said to myself ‘I can’t believe I get paid for this’.

The best thing about this photography gig is that the rest of the company compliments it, we are the only English speaking ski school in Myoko Kogen, international guests arrive, we fit them up with skis or snowboards, take them out for lessons to polish up their riding techniques, take their kids out for lessons and look after them for the day so the parents can go off with me for the day to get some great photos! What more could you want from a holiday?!

So enough about what I’m doing, let’s talk about the HOW. I’m sure I’m not alone here, Ski resorts are a popular holiday destination, I’m sure many people on Photo Art Gallery are avid Snowsports enthusiasts or are at least thinking of taking the family up to the mountains for their next holiday.

So how is Snowsports photography different from shooting anywhere else? Hopefully now without blabbing on too much I can share some of my snow experience with everyone and at least prepare you for what you will encounter.

Equipment

First of all I’ll share with you the equipment I use, what lenses I have in my every day kit and why.

Bodies: Nikon D700 with MBD-10 battery grip  – I’ve gone full frame and I’m not looking back! The focusing speed, dynamic range of the sensor and 8fps with the battery grip have created a love affair for me with this camera, why not the D3 you ask? Well apart from the obvious and painful price tag difference I liked the fact that the D700 had the removable battery grip. I travel around a lot and do a lot of day trips, it’s nice to be able to cut the camera down to a small kit that really isn’t heavy to carry all day.

My second body is an older Nikon D200 , still a fantastic camera I use this with a zoom and my D700 with a wide both on a Rapid R Coupl-R harness for shooting snowboard events etc. where changing lenses would make me miss vital shots.

Lenses: My basic lens kit for going out shooting consists of:

 Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 VRII – this is the bread and butter winner, sharp, fast weather resistant and with the zoom range gives me plenty of time to compose a shot of a fast moving skier/snowboarder.

 Sigma 24-70 f2.8 EX DG – yeah I know I should have got the Nikkor, but at the time I had just bought the D700, battery grip, and needed plane tickets. This lens is obviously your standard kit lens, it’s wide enough to get down low and bellow on your subjects, really good for foggy days when you need to get up close and personal with your subject.

 Sigma 15mm f2.8 fisheye – This has to be one of my favorite lenses, and for the first time it’s actually cheaper AND just as sharp as the Nikkor equivalent. When you have a skier going big and you want to get under the jump or If you want to get that crazy fish eye perspective this lens is great fun and really gets some awesome results.

Flashes: For those days when the sun doesn’t want to come out to play, I always have an SB800 and SB600.

Backpacks: All this stuff is carried around in either my Burton Zoom or Dakine mission photo, both bags have camera blocks to hold all your gear, they are water resistant, have waist and chest straps and also have the ability to carry skis or snowboards on the pack. It is vital to have a good bag, you don’t want to be cruising around a mountain with a over the shoulder bag or a backpack that is moving around on your back putting you off balance.

Things you will have to contend with in the snow

The Cold: Well this seems blatantly obvious doesn’t it? But what does it actually affect?

Lithium batteries: These guys hate the cold, if I go outside with a fully charged battery I will get a battery level reading of about 80% once the camera cools down to outside ambient temps, there is a few things you can do about this.

1. Hand warmers, these little things are normally used in your gloves or boots to keep your digits warm but can also be used in the pocket of your camera bag that your lithium batteries are stored in and they work a treat.

2. Nickel metal hydride batteries (Ni-MH) are not really affected by the cold, most battery grips come with a AA battery tray you can use instead of your Lithium battery, load it up with some rechargeable AA’s and your laughing.

3. Just don’t worry about it! My battery last so long on my camera even if I’m starting with 80% battery the battery will outlive the amount of memory cards of I’ve got easily.

The human element of the cold dilemma is your hands, I’m sure we’ve all been up at the crack of dawn to get the golden sunrise shot and have spent more time with our hands in our pockets or wrapped around a thermos of coffee instead of holding the camera.

I am still yet to find gloves that really work for photography in the snow, most of the time I shoot with a pair of liners which are pretty good until they get wet, then I’m in a worse situation than not wearing gloves at all. Obviously you can’t use normal ski gloves as they are too thick and you can’t feel the controls, I’ve got a couple of pairs of gloves on order which I’m going to test, but please if anyone has a solid solution that is warm, waterproof yet still gives maximum control of the camera shoot me an email! (matt@themattimage.com)

So until that day I just have cold hands and try to ignore it, I had a shoot one night at Falls Creek, it got past midnight and I went to take a shot and my index finger just didn’t move, that was my queue to go in for the night!

Moisture: With snow come moisture, you can try all you want to wrap your gear in plastic bags or rain covers, but from my experience they just get in the way and you end up ripping them off a few minutes into the shoot.

It now becomes obvious why you pay a lot more for pro gear, the lenses have rubber seals where it meets the body, the body is all sealed and the lenses don’t have any external focusing or zooming movement meaning that it’s difficult for water to get in, not saying that are fool proof but you stand a much better chance of keeping your gear intact if it’s pro.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t go out shooting with your 400D or D60 , you just have to make sure you put the camera back in its bag between locations and try your best to shield it from the elements.

When arriving back at base it pays to try to let your gear warm up slowly, I haven’t experienced this yet but apparently lenses can fog inside or crack from rapid temperature changes, so to be safe maybe leave your camera in its bag so it warms up slowly or leave it in the entrance so the temperate change isn’t so drastic.

Once the camera is up to temperature if it did get covered in snow strip it down, take lenses off, battery grips off, open your memory card door and any other flap just in case some water got in the and let it dry, DSLRs are tougher than you think and mine have always lived to fight another day.

Ok so enough about the Tech stuff, how do you take photos in the snow?

If you put your camera on program mode *shivers* and take a picture of a skier on full auto, your photo will most likely come out with a messed up white balance (usually blue) and the subject will be very dark, this is understandable, how is your camera supposed to know that you want the skier to be well exposed?

First off set your white balance, you can use a grey card or I find that setting your pre set sunny for sunny days and cloudy for cloudy days works just fine, but if you’re serious about your photos, shoot in .RAW then you can always fix that up later.

Metering: There are two schools of thought about metering modes, if you have a good autofocus system you can use centre weighted and with any luck it will expose for the rider, the background might blow out a little on a sunny day abut at least your rider is correctly exposed.

Alternately keep your metering on Matrix and dial in +0.3 to +0 .7 exposure compensation, this is the method I have been using most of this season and it seems to be working out for me, it still usually leaves the subject underexposed but digital photography 101 tells us that underexposed photos have more image data in them than the over exposed equivalent, you can always jump into Lightroom or capture NX later on and batch boost the exposure on your shots.

No golden hour: This is something that kills me about Snowsports photography, the golden hours (the couple of hours surrounding sunrise and sunset) is obviously the best times to shoot, you get the best colours, richer photos, it just looks better full stop.

The problem with Snowsports photography is that the lifts only run from after the first golden hour and close well before sunset, so if you are serious about getting some awesome snow sport shots the only solution is to hike it, or wait around after the lifts close, hidden in the bushes and risk meeting ski patrol and the local police at the bottom of the hill.

This doesn’t mean that all is lost, the good thing about winter is that the sun is low in the sky and in the afternoons it is almost approaching golden hour before the lifts close. Alternatively break the rules of photography, shoot into the daylight sun (don’t go stuffing your eyes or your camera though) get some silhouettes or some powder spraying in front of the sun, mix it up a bit.

Fog: With mountains and snow comes fog, there is no quick fix to this, but there is a couple of things you can do to try to overcome this photo killer.

1. Put a wide angle on and get up nice and close to your subject, make sure you’re confident in their abilities and they aren’t going to take you out.

2. Flash, once again you will still need to be up nice and close to your subject, but try using a flash, this should really make your subject stand out, the problem you then face with this is that the flash can reflect off the fog almost putting you in a worse position. If your equipment has the ability, use the flash on your camera to trigger another remote flash off to the side of frame, with the light not coming directly from your camera the subject should stand out and yet not have the reflection problem.
So if anyone is still reading this hopefully I’ve given you a little insight into my life and given you some hints and tips on how you can get your snow photos to really shine, if you would like more information on Myoko Snowsports or my photography please visit www.myokosnowsports.com

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