In the world of action sports photography, it is the photographer that often garners the press, or at least the photo credit, but the subject is of equal importance, as an action photo requires the skills and talent of people working on both sides of the lens. Here’s a look at a pro skiers perspective on life behind the zoom lens.
As I reach the top of the peak, the ambient light of an approaching sunrise provides enough illumination that I kill my headlamp. The chill of a stiff mountain breeze begins to extinguish the body heat I have generated while skinning over the last hour in darkness to reach my lofty perch. In an effort to stay warm I sip some tea and try to keep moving. My radio crackles and the photographer tells me to get ready as the shot he is looking to capture happens in the first 15 seconds of sunrise. What he can’t see from his vantage point far down the ridge is that we are looking at another 15-20 minutes before the sun crests the horizon. The air temperature is well below zero and then tension mounts with each passing minute. Once the sun hits the summit I will have to coax my now rigid body to flow down the mountain and nail a handful of high speed turns in the perfect location or the 4 AM wake-up call shared by the photographer and I was all for nothing. Missing my mark by as little at 2-3 feet one way or another ruins not only the framing of the image but likely the focus.
I have been here a thousand times before over the last 25 years, preparing to drop in and analyzing every single element of my line. My mind races as I think through everything from slope stability to size and flow of every single turn I need to make leading up to the shot. It is critical that everything on my end is absolutely perfect or the shot doesn’t work. After what feels like hours, the orb of life starts to crest the distant horizon. I wait for the sun to ease down the ridge and illuminate the sweet spot. In the radio I tell the photographer that I am dropping in five seconds. I push the radio deep into my pocket and push off the summit. As I gain speed, all the anxiety and tension melt away and I am just a kid again skiing at the local ski hill with pure joy coursing through my veins. I ski into the sweet spot and everything comes together perfectly. I ski through the line and continue into the shade below where I pull into a safe zone in a cluster of trees. My heart is pounding as my body finally relaxes and begins to drink in the moment. After a minute, the radio comes to life interrupting the silence. I can almost hear the photographer smile as he says, “Stunning, I’m buying the beers tonight.”
In a career as a professional skier I have heard just about every possible verbiage that can come from a photographers mouth after skiing a line for photos: You missed the spot, your arm was in the wrong spot, I forgot to turn the motor drive on, didn’t have enough frames on my roll of film (thankfully don’t hear this is the digital age), my focus was in the wrong spot, my camera battery died and so on. Making perfect ski photos is an art form and everything than can possibly go wrong when shooting has at one time or another. That is why you shoot day in and day out all winter long, hoping to create some nuggets among tens of thousands of frames.
Making great ski photos has almost nothing to do with luck and everything to do with preparation and communication. Both the photographer and athlete must have skills, but above all else, they have to communicate effectively. They need to see the shot before it happens and talk about every variable and how to coordinate efforts for the optimal effect. When skiing a line for a photo, you get exactly one chance to get it right. Unlike mountain biking where you can repeat the same line a hundred times without altering the scene, snow is not resilient and can never be “untouched” once it has been tread upon.
Being the athlete on a backcountry ski shoot has some elements that can be viewed as both perks and challenges. For one, the athlete usually has to break trail as they are usually going further and higher than the photographer. While breaking a lot of trail at high elevation leads to exceptional fitness, it can also lead to fatigue. The athlete also gets “first tracks,” but with those tracks comes additional risk as the subject becomes the guinea pig usually being the first to drop into unsanitized terrain.
While there are many risks to shooting and skiing in the backcountry, many of the dangers can be mitigated through education, training and communication. The snowpack is thoroughly evaluated before skiing and I work closely with the photographers to make sure we are on the exact same page about what we are doing. The photographers I shoot with are consummate professionals and never ask me to do something I am not comfortable doing. Many photographers have a vision about a shot and simply tell the athlete what to do. I prefer to work with the photographers that allow the athlete to share in the vision and provide feedback into the shot. While the photographer can determine where the optimal action needs to happen to create the perfect shot, the athlete can confirm that they can be in that spot, and if not, they work together to figure out where the optimal action can happen and how best to shoot it to create a composition that works for the photographer.
It takes time to get comfortable working with any photographer. You must develop trust and a style of communication that works in a mountain environment. Sometimes you will spend 15 minutes coordinating a shot and when you hike up to ski the line you discussed, the light has changed and you have to rethink the shot on the fly. Sometimes you can stand right next to the photographer and discuss the photo side-by-side and things make sense, but when you hike to get into position, the line often looks dramatically different than it did from the shooter’s perspective. At that point it comes down to communication and the ability of the photographer to guide the subject into position. Sometimes that can be done by throwing a snowball to where the athlete needs to be, but more often it is telling the skier to make the apex of their 3rd turn three feet below and two feet skiers right of the 15-foot pine tree. When you work with someone for years you start to understand nuances like their own sense of measurement. You learn to appreciate that three feet actually means more like eight.
Ski photography is equal parts art, technology and athleticism. Visualizing and composing the perfect shot takes creativity, capturing the image requires the manipulation of a complex piece of technology, and getting in the perfect spot in peak action requires tremendous skill and timing from the athlete. There are countless ways in which the shot can go wrong, but when everything goes just right, the resulting images can be spectacular.
The next time you see an image in a glossy ski magazine that inspires you, take a moment to think about what went into that frame captured in 1/1000 of a second. That one frame may be the culmination of an entire days work for people working both sides of the lens. While shooting ski photography is “work” for both the photographer and the athlete, chances are that neither would trade their jobs for anything. No matter how tough it can get in the field, the view from the office is always world-class.
Written by: Sven Brunso