Breakdown: The what, why and how of a successful ski image


We all know that quality ski images don’t simply fall into one’s lap. They require vision (pun intended!) communication and cooperation. Read on to get an inside look at what went into creating this keeper of athlete Jamey Parks at Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort.

1. Skier Position

I’m referring to two things here—where I’ve placed the skier in the frame, and the actual body position of the skier. The most important part of ski photography really is communicating with the athlete. They need to know what your vision for the image is. They need to know where they should be dialed in. I made it clear to Parks that “the shot” was going to be primarily from his transition between turns and into his right hand turn. This makes all the difference in skier position.

I wanted to capture lot of action/energy in this shot and thus directed him to really push his left hand turn, which would send up a big cloud of snow and make for an engaging background. I manually selected one of my AF points in the mid to lower RH third of my camera viewfinder, and kept it on him through the entire sequence. Why down there? Check #3.

2. Texture/Separating Elements

I purposely set up in a location that had me shooting “through” this chunky snow, lying on my stomach. I asked the skier to flirt with the edge of this chunky snow section, knowing it would add lots of texture to the image. It also serves as a good separator between a secondary FG focus and the main subject in our mid ground.

3. Open Space/Contextual Background

For me, this is the element that makes the image. The image I had in my head before actually clicking the shutter was one of a skier ripping a turn back through a cloud of snow from a previous turn. This does two things: it infuses the images with energy and gives the viewer a great sense of the speed the skier is carrying (context). It also provides me with a clean background. The sharp skier really pops against this soft cloud of snow. As a heavy AF user for shots like this, it was imperative to pre-visualize where the skier needed to be in the frame to make this image work, and select the AF zone accordingly.

Lastly, this cloud of snow really fills the open space in this image with “value added content”. Not only is it giving us space to see where the skier is going (also contributing to the overall balance of the image), it tells us much more about where he’s been and what he is doing (as mentioned above).

4. Tack Sharp Clarity

I wanted definition in every last little chunk, ripple or speck of snow with this image. It’s amazing what the camera can pick up in a fraction of a second that the human eye doesn’t have time to process. To do this, you must shoot at high enough shutter speeds to freeze the action. This image was shot at 1/3200 sec. at f 4.5.

10 thoughts on “Breakdown: The what, why and how of a successful ski image

  1. I like your breakdown Adam… good stuff to consider when composing “keepers.” But what about “fun factor” (i.e intangibles)?

    I feel like an element of fun is all too often missing in the shots I see in the magazines. Not to knock you… but I do think perhaps ski photogs are constructing their images too much to remember that we’re supposed to be having fun… Skiing is after all supposed to be fun still, right? ;D

    Regardless thanks… I suppose if I can nail these four things consistently, eventually the fun factor stuff will just magically appear!

    • Hey Greg–
      Thanks for the comments. Shooting skiing certainly is work. It doesn’t happen without some forethought and coordination. That being said, I’m not sure there’s a more enjoyable job out there. Tag along some time–the fun factor is alive and well.

  2. I’m not saying I don’t think you’re having fun shooting ski photographs… quite the contrary. I’m sure you are having fun shooting skiing. What I was trying to say is that in general (flipping through the pages of say, Powder mag) I feel like alot of the shots are missing a “fun factor.”

    Grant Gunderson’s star trail shot in Skiing comes to mind immediately to me as an example. I’m immediately struck by the incredible composition and by the technical achievement of the shot. It definitely makes me look (and maybe that’s why it’s a cover shot). But then I’m like… is this guy having fun? I can’t see his face. Is he smiling? Why is he skiing at night without a headlamp?

    The point is, if I can’t spot the fun in an action sport shot (skiing, cliff jumping, rock climbing, sky diving etc), I’m left wanting something. If the shot doesn’t depict someone having fun, in the word’s of Ben or Jerry, I ask myself “why are they doing it?”

    And so that’s why when I shoot I try to find the fun that I can put in a shot… and all I’m saying is that for some folks shooting photos out there (e.g. me 😉 maybe the “fun factor” can find its way into a checklist of things that need to be done when making a “keeper” shot.

    One shot that comes to mind as being clearly fun is the one on your “Wasatch Poster” that I have hanging on my wall. The one looking down the spine with the skier dropping in. I can spot the fun immediately.

    In any case, thanks for a great post Adam! Good stuff to think about.

  3. Just the fact that you are willing to share some tricks of the trade shows your love of the sport and photography. I have usually relied on my AF points to actively select the skier but your selection of a fixed AF illustrates your determination to create the specific shot you invision. The shot that includes all the aspects you mention that makes it a winner. Your photography continues to impress and as a ski photographer I can appreciate your technical expertise and your artistic ability to “see” the shot. I would have to agree with you that communication and understanding between the athlete and the photographer is the most essential element for remarkable ski photography.
    At 1/3200 your light and glass must be excellent at 4.5. Can a DX handle a shot like this for sharpness or is a FX camera essential to be “tack” sharp.


    • Hey Michael–
      Thanks for the thoughts. I shoot all my skiing imagery with a 1.3 crop sensor. You can get a fantastic image with either sensor, regardless of whether it’s full frame or crop. The most important thing when it comes to tack sharp images is using good glass and making sure your shooting technique is up to par (make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to stop action, use a tripod/monopod if necessary, etc.)

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