Breakdown: Anatomy of a Stock Ski Image

It’s a pretty slow start to winter here in Utah this year, so I figured maybe I can tease ol’ Mother Nature into submission with some love from last year. I spend a great deal of time shooting skiing in the winter, and it’s about a whole lot more than shredding pow and high fives (though that definitely makes up a decent chunk of it!). There’s a great deal of work that goes into every image,  on both the part of the photographer and the athlete. It requires vision, communcation and an understanding of the end product from both parties. Read on for a little insight into the making of this image of Carston Oliver at Alta, UT.

1. Rule numero uno in most, if not all ski imagery is tack sharp focus. Obviously, there’s a little wiggle room here if you’re going after some other sort of creative effect (blur, etc.), but by and large, your images MUST be tack sharp if they are to stand any chance at getting published. This requires communication to the athlete as to exactly where you hope for the climactic action to occur. This is vital to communicate, as I typically frame my image around this “hot spot”. If the athlete misses it, the shot will likely be a throw away. Carston hits the mark nearly every time. When working with new athletes (to me), I’ll typically give myself a bit of tolerance in either pulling back from what I expect the final image to be, or by following the athlete to a greater extent instead of having him simply ski through my frame, holding the camera still. If I trust the athlete and can see the exact frame I hope to capture, I will pre-focus on the hot spot, as was the case here.

2. I am a stickler about paying attention to the edges of your frame. It’s vital to have that separation between the skier and the edge of the frame for both aesthetic and functional reasons. Firstly, it gives the subject of the image adequate breathing room, and negates the visual tension that would occur were the skier too close to the edge. Secondly, this is very usable (and necessary) space for copy. This image was shot for cover dimensions, and this space around the subject is a must!

3. With most side profile ski images like this, you need to decide what to include in terms of terrain and line choice. Do you want to show where the skier is coming from or where he’s going? Or do you want to include both? In this image, I knew the backlit powder trail would be an integral part of the shot, which means I needed to show a hefty chunk of turn behind the actual hot spot. Again, this is crucial to understand before the action takes place, as it affects the entire dynamic and composition of the image. Additionally, there was a small cliff directly underneath this turn. So–the shot was best when showing where the skier had come from, not so much where he was going. I’ve employed the ridgeline, turn trench and powder spray as leading lines, taking the viewer from the upper right corner, directly to the skier, where the viewer can then wander into the space below (see #2) and continue digesting the remainder of the image.

4. This background serves two purposes. First, it gives the viewer perspective and a feeling of exposure. It serves as the separating element between the skier and “all the rest”. It’s the contrast I always look for both in terms of subject matter, texture and color to give separation and add depth to an image. By using a telephoto lens here, I’ve compressed the scene, bringing that background directly in and almost “on top” of the action. This is a great way to fill your frame with the goods, and get rid of everything else. Lastly, this background serves as usable space for a magazine masthead. Ideally, it would be a little less busy, but it still works dimensionally.

5. More negative space. Again, crucial to the hopeful editorial success of this image. This space is absolutely necessary if this image is ever to have legs as a cover. Editors need aesthetic, functional space in which to add copy, headlines, etc. It also helps to provide that clean separation between foreground and background.

Want to make this work for you? Find aesthetic locations with good snow. Then hook up with skilled athletes that can exact turns with surgical precision, while maintaining that perfect photogenic form. Finally, learn how to communicate your vision in a verbal manner. It looks completely different from the athlete’s perspective, and it’s up to you as the photographer to make sure you’re both on the same page. Good luck!

3 thoughts on “Breakdown: Anatomy of a Stock Ski Image

  1. Great shot and pointers Adam.

    As an added note, a lot of this has to get nailed on the first attempt. It’s a much stronger backcountry image if the skier / snowboarder is making first tracks. The untouched powder in front of this skier is awesome!

  2. This is one of the most helpful posts I’ve read in the “how-to” genre – most pros say vague things like, “Shoot lots.” Yeah, thanks for that, I’d never have deduced it otherwise!

    Seriously, very practical advice to put into the mix. Thanks!

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