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!

Breakdown: The Complete Outdoor Image

Carston Oliver samples some deep powder in golden light at Alta Ski Area, UT

With fresh powder, golden light and skilled athletes, the ski shooting earlier this week was…all time. My fingers still hurt from the cold, but when it’s good, there’s no time for hand warmers…
I’ve adopted a credo in my shooting that there must be three elements in an image for it to be considered a “complete” image. …You must have:

1. Superb light
2. Engaging subject matter
3. Dynamic Composition

This image of Carston Oliver at Alta Ski Area is a testament to all three of these elements coming together, and the impact it can have from a visual standpoint.
We waited for nearly 40 minutes at this spot as the sun gave us the ultimate in and out tease. The waiting paid off as the clouds parted for ten minutes of delicious golden light. Like I’ve said before, if I could bottle this light up and sell it, I’d be a rich man!
I composed the image in such a way that placed the skier in the left hand side of the frame, and left the entire remaining 2/3 of the frame open. This gives the viewer context, and lends a satisfactory balance to the entire image. It also gives the image depth, including the setting sun and Little Cottonwood Canyon for the full three-dimensional effect.

Believe it or not, no filters were used on this image. Just careful exposure for the highlights, ensuring that there was still enough mid tone and shadow detail by checking the histogram. Use your histogram! It’s a ridiculously useful tool for digital photography.
Find a way to include the three elements listed above, and you will fin yourself with more complete outdoor images than ever before.