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Catch the Action


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Great ski photography is sharp and in focus, with perfect color and composition. It comes alive, making you wish it were you in that photo, sinking waist-deep in powder or clocking air time. Whether you have thousands of dollars worth of equipment or a simple point-and-shoot camera, here are 10 suggestions that will help you take great ski photos.

1 : IN MOTION Capturing the adrenaline and motion of skiing is the goal of great ski photography. If your camera allows you to adjust shutter speed, set it to 1/500th of a second to freeze the action. Slower shutter speeds can be used to pan the action, which keeps the skier sharp but blurs the background, creating a sense of motion. Most point-and-shoot cameras have a shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/250, so it’s best to use the panning technique: Stand to the side of the action and follow it with the camera as you shoot.

2 : THE RIGHT LIGHT Lighting sets the mood for the photo. Front-lighting gives the shot a straightforward look, while side-lighting adds interest and depth. Back-lighting-by far the most challenging-creates a halo effect, adding sparkle to shots that would have been flat if front-lit. It’s best to avoid shooting when the sun is straight above you, because the lighting is too harsh.

3 : AVOID FOGGING A fogged lens is a useless lens. To keep your equipment fog-free, place it in a case or plastic bag before taking it from the cold of the outdoors into the warmth of the lodge. This allows the condensation to form on the outside of the case or bag until the camera is warm. At the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, a colleague of mine dried out his $4,000 lens in the condo oven. It worked, but was a little too risky for my liking.

4 : EXPOSURE Calibrating the right exposure is perhaps the most technical aspect of ski photography. Your camera’s light meter will try to make everything-including the snow-medium gray unless you tell it otherwise. The best exposures will come from a hand-held incident light meter ($200-$400) that measures the light falling on the snow, not how it’s being reflected. If that’s not possible, open up your aperture by 1 1/2 to 2 f-stops. Or try metering off blue sky rather than the snow. If your camera doesn’t have controls, try to fill the frame with the skier-the less snow the better. Also, use print film, which is more forgiving than slide film.

5 : CHOOSING A LENS There’s no right or wrong when it comes to selecting lenses; every lens paints a different picture. Normal to wide-angle lenses give more depth-of-field, keeping more of the picture in focus and allowing more room for error. Telephoto lenses require precision because they yield shorter depth-of-field and make it harder to hold the camera steady.

6 : BATTERIES Batteries and cold don’t mix, so keep them near your body until you’re ready to shoot. Once, while winter camping with the U.S. Army Special Forces (SKI February 1999), I slept with my batteries. At the 1989 World Alpine Championships in Vail, where temperatures were minus-40 degrees, I taped handwarmers under the battery compartment. When your batteries are done, so are you.

7 : HOT HANDS For quick reflexes, you need warm fingers. Wear fingerless gloves with tea-bag-type handwarmers, or thin, silk gloves inside a thicker removable glove. When you take your gloves off to shoot, place them on your ski poles or inside your jacket to keep the heat in. At the awards ceremonies for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, my fingers went numb after five shots, but the cold didn’t phase the Norwegian locals, who wore sweaters and no gloves.

8 : SET UP THE SHOT Most great ski shots don’t just happen; they’re orchestrated. I’ve had models hike and redo the action up to a dozen times until we both get it perfect. Background is also important: Keep it uncluttered so the subject will pop better. (Be on the lookout for lift towers, trees, ski poles and ssuch “growing” out of people’s heads.) I once spent two hours building a 6-foot snow mound to get the perfect background. To enhance the action, I also look for loose powder that will explode in the photo.

9 : PLAY IT SAFE Safety should always come first: Don’t have your skiers ski over their heads; don’t place yourself in blind spots where other skiers or boarders can’t see you; and always shoot on less crowded slopes.

10 : SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT Shoot a lot of film. I’ll burn 20 rolls of 36-exposure film for a feature story or more than 200 rolls for the Olympic Games. Be sure to try different exposures, lenses and lighting. Experience is the best teacher. Make mental or written notes on what you’re doing to determine what works best. Critique your photos-good and bad-and learn from both.

Quick Tips

Protect your film from major temperature changes.

Keep your camera bag closed to keep the elements out.

Tilt the camera for more interesting angles.

Use a motor drive to advance your film for sequenced photos.

Shoot the peak of the action.

Learn by asking the pros questions.Tim Hancock’s portfolio includes three Winter Olympics and photography assignments in 10 countries. For more tips, Tim suggests visiting, reading More Joy of Photography by the editors of Eastman Kodak Company or enrolling in a local photography class. Or email Tim with questions at