Pre-visualization in Ski Photography

With snow totals thus far this winter far below normal, my portfolio of fresh work has been looking a bit meager. Nearly 50″ of fluff fell from the sky last week, which means it was a busy one for yours truly. It felt good to finally get out and get some work done. One of the challenges, however, remains in the high avalanche danger that exists in the backcountry. This means we’ve been doing a lot of shooting in resort. Couple this with the lack of light during the stormy days, and it makes for some challenging obstacles in capturing unique and fresh imagery. Essentially, as a photog in these conditions, you must address two things: unless you have pre-public access to freshies in resort, you must deal with all the tracked out snow in the foreground and background of your image. Secondly, in greybird conditions, you must add contrast to the scene, which means most often that you’re shooting in the trees.

Pre-visualization, or the ability to “see” the shot before it actually takes places, is crucial to finding success in these conditions. Not only will it help you do what you need to do from a technical standpoint, but it will also help you in communicating with the athlete to make sure that all the variables line up to get a keeper image. Read on for a behind the scenes look at a particular powder sequence shot through the trees of Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort.

The first step is finding an alley in the trees. Most often, you see something from above the shot and then ski down to the side (making sure not to track out your shooting frame) where you can then get underneath and find a legit angle on the action.

The first photo you see here is essentially the first thing I see when settling on a spot from which to shoot. It’s a decent alley with adequate contrast and spacing for the skier. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do–especially if photog and athlete can combine to make the magic happen. At this point, I’m trying to envision a shot that will a) work within the space I’ve settled upon b) convey enough action to feel as though it’s part of a continuous line and c) work naturally and smoothly for the athlete.

Once I’ve settled upon a frame, I’ll envision a line and then pick out the points within that line that will shoot best. Choosing these select points of the line is crucial to both establishing your focusing zone (if utilizing AF) as well as communicating to the athlete where you hope to capture the climactic action. It’s important for them to know where “the shot” is as this will dictate how they ski the line and how they look (form-wise) throughout the line.

This second image displays the line envisioned, with several select points highlighted. As can be seen from the graphic, the skier was to enter skier’s left of the tree in the middle of the frame in a right -hand turn, transition to a left-hand turn and then skiing out of frame to skier’s left of the blurred tree in the LRH corner.

In my mind, the select points of the line most likely to render legit images were weighting in to the right-hand turn (#1), transitioning out of the right-hand turn (#2), weighting in to the left-hand turn (#3) and finally, skiing out of frame with contrail behind (#4).

Complicating things a bit further, I chose to prioritize the select points that would allow me to utilize the same focus zone(s) in my camera throughout the sequence while still allowing me to keep the general framework of the image intact (blurred trees in FG, etc.). These prioritized points were #1 and #4.

This was all communicated to athlete Parker Cook before shooting the a single frame. The line, as well as the select points were well understood. I chose my focus zones in my camera that would allow me to follow focus on the action, and still maintain the framework of the image (this is where previsualization is crucial).

The images below show the focus zones selected as they apply to the frames as they were being photographed (utilizing AI Servo on my Canon 1D MkIV).

Finally, the finished product below without the focus zones.

Were there other possibilities with this particular shot? Absolutely. I could have approached it in a way that filled the bottom part of the frame. But as a horizontal image, placing the action smack dab in the center of the frame nearly kills its chances of running as a double spread.

I could have chosen to pre-focus on just one spot, but I wanted to maximize my potential for keepers. There are plenty of times when I choose to go with one shot, rather than the potential for several, but this was not one of those times.

So what does this all illustrate?

1. Pre-visualization is key in both envisioning and capturing five-star imagery.

2. Pre-visualization is key in communicating your vision to the athlete, who plays an integral role in this whole process.

3. The more focus zones your camera has, the more latitude you have in framing up follow-focus shots like this. This image would have been much more difficult, if not impossible with a camera that only has 7 or 9 AF zones.

4. The more confident you are in your AF system, the more likely you are to utilize it, which opens up many more possibilities than simply pre-focusing.

Remember that this is all happening in a matter of seconds! Think it all through before-hand. The more you do this, the more intuitive it will all become. Good luck!

Capturing that five-star powder shot!

Skier Ben Wheeler skiing deep powder at Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort, UT.

Pow. Pow. Powder!!!

Still getting through my edit from the Warren Miller shoot last week at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. This shot of Ben Wheeler happens to be one of my faves from the day. It’s nothing revolutionary by any means, but there’s something about an action-infused, frame-filling powder shot that gets the blood going.

So what’s the key to getting that powder keeper? Luck? Super rad really huge professional looking camera? Cool guy goggle tan? Yes. Yes. Annnnnnd yes. Ok not really.

In all seriousness, there are a couple of key elements to successfully capture powder shots time after time.

1. Great snow. Yes. Thank you captain obvious. But it’s true folks. Without great snow, you can’t expect to create that mouth watering pow shot.

2. Skilled skier. This is perhaps the most important element. A very good skier can make even marginal snow look better than most can imagine. There’s a huge difference between a strong skier, and a skier that knows what to do and how to do it in front of the lens.

3. Fast camera/fast lens. While these are not absolutely required, it will make it much easier for you to capture that one perfect keeper. The Canon 1D MkIV shoots 10 fps (frames per second), which is ridiculously fast. Every frame matters, however, when both the skier and the snow are changing places at fractions of a second. A fast lens (preferably f2.8 or faster) is key to stopping the action in low light conditions and separating your skier from the background with shallow depth of field shooting.

4. AF Confidence. I trade off between focus tracking with auto focus and pre focusing with manual focus. It all depends on the type of shot. In this, as we were shooting with a cinematographer, the skier must ski a fluid line, which makes it much harder (if not impossible) for the photog to pre-focus. This is when you must understand your AF system and how it functions. Read your manual. Some AF systems are super customizable, and the better you understand it, the better it will perform for you.

5. AF-on button. This is Canon specific, but I imagine Nikon has something similar. By tweaking your custom settings, you can set your shutter button so that it affects only the actual shutter operation and metering. By utilizing your AF-on button (with your thumb) throughout the entire burst shooting sequence, you allow you camera to micro-adjust focus and track the skier between each frame.

6. Pre-visualize. Understand what you want to fill the frame. Understand how the snow will react to the skier. Understand where in his/her turn your money shot is. All of this translates into which lens you use, how you compose the image, where you place the skier in your frame and how you follow him/her throughout the sequence.

Now pray for snow, and go get em’!

Canon 1D MkIV, 70-200 2.8IS, Clik Elite Contrejour backpack