How to Take Great Skiing Pictures

We’re talking here about downhill skiing. (And whatever we say for skiers
is equally true about taking pictures of those snowboarders who are crowding
them off the slopes these days.)

Before you take a picture of a skier on the slopes, you should consider the
answers to three questions:

  1. How should I handle the camera in these cold conditions?
  2. How can I capture a sharply focused image of the skier that gives
    the illusion of speed?
  3. How can I capture a well-exposed image of the skier?


ski jumperFirst,
how should you handle your camera in cold conditions? Batteries often fail in
the cold. Shutters become sluggish. Static electricity may fog your film? These
are all problems to be dealt with, and we cover them all in another article on
this site this month that discusses precautions you should take with your camera
during cold weather. So we won’t belabor this discussion here.

When it comes to skiing, the basic tenet is to keep the camera and batteries
warm. How? We suggest you keep them inside your parka, close to the warmth of
your body. Take them out only when you are ready to shoot.

downhill racer
Of course, keeping the camera inside your parka may be difficult if you’re using
a medium-format camera or even a large SLR. Our advice: If you just want to
capture a picture of your friend/spouse/child on skis, use a smaller camera.
A point-and-shoot or even a single-use “cardboard” camera. Slip the camera inside
your parka, and you’re off to the races. If you want to take a truly professional
picture, then use the best camera you can…and keep it as warm as you can until
you shoot.

The second question is: How can you capture a sharply focused image
that gives the illusion of speed?

Timing…timing…timing. The starting point is to know where to position
yourself so that you’ll be in the right location when the skier-subject flashes
by. What’s needed here is communication. We don’t mean that you need walkie-talkies.
Rather, before you set up for the shot, you have to talk to the skier
and agree on exactly where you will set up, where he or she will ski past you,
and – most important – agree on a signal from you when he or she should

This last point is important: If you don’t agree on some sort of signal, dollars
to doughnuts the skier will fly past you before you’re ready. Make sure the
skier is aware of how long it will take for you to set up: You have to ski down
to the agreed-upon location, set your poles, take off your gloves, get out the
camera, get it ready, and set yourself and the camera for the shot. Only then
are you ready!

Our suggestion: Tell the skier not to budge until you give the signal – for
example, until you wave your arms over your head. Don’t rely on a verbal signal,
like shouting “Ready!” The skier probably won’t hear you. And don’t rely on
any sort of subtle visual signal, like pointing a finger. The skier probably
won’t see it. Agree on a large, unambiguous arm movement!

Another point here: Notice that we said you would take off your gloves. We’re
assuming that you’re skiing too and that you are wearing klutzy ski gloves.
You can’t easily handle a camera with these gloves on. So, cold as it may be,
you’re going to have to take off your gloves to take the picture.

Now, where should you set up? In part, this depends upon the type of
picture you’re going to take to produce the illusion of speed.

© Klint Ashby, NYI student   

To get a head-on shot like the one shown here, you’ve got to set up almost
in the skier’s path. In this case, NYI student/photographer Klint S. Ashby set
up right below a big mogul that the skier and he had agreed would be the point
at which the shot would be taken. As explained in the NYI Lesson, you can use
a slower shutter speed to “freeze” a subject moving toward you, than
if the subject is moving perpendicular to you. In this case, Klint obtained
a sharp image of the skier by prefocusing on the spot at which he expected
to take the picture. In other words, Klint focused on the top of the mogul and
waited `til the skier reached that point.

Some of today’s autofocus SLR cameras can focus fast enough that you
don’t even have to prefocus. Just follow the skier in your viewfinder and shoot
at any time – the autofocus will get the picture no matter when you shoot. That’s
one possibility.

But be wary of another: Many of today’s point-and-shoot cameras don’t autofocus
instantaneously. Rather, they delay for a moment after you press the shutter-release
before they actually shoot the picture. If your camera has this sort of delay,
watch out! You may press the button at the “critical moment” and the camera
may record just an empty patch of snow by the time it responds. The message
here: Know your camera!

By the way, the question we have about Klint’s picture is this: Where’s his other

example of panning
Now, here’s another type of picture. Here NYI student/photographer Peter Sharp
panned with the skier to keep him sharp (no pun intended) in the picture.
In this case, Peter set himself up so that the skier would come past him perpendicular.
He might have tried to freeze the action by using a very fast shutter speed
– say, 1/1000th of a second. But Peter had a better idea. If he had merely frozen
the subject, he would have ended up with a picture in which nothing appeared
to move. The skier would be frozen motionless. The trees would be frozen motionless
too. And the entire picture would look static.

Peter applied what he had learned in his very first NYI lesson – he created
the illusion of motion and speed by panning with the skier. The
net effect is to capture the image of the skier in sharp focus against a blurred
background. The key to good panning is twofold: First, use a slow shutter speed
– say, 1/30th. Second, follow the subject in your viewfinder as he approaches
you, keep him there as you shoot, and keep following him after you shoot.
Your objective is a smooth motion like a golfer’s or tennis-player’s swing;
starting with a backswing and continuing “through the ball” to a follow-through.

Now, here’s an example of a picture by NYI student Brent Winebrenner in which
the motion is frozen.

© Brent Winebrenner - NYI StudentWhy
does freezing the motion work here? Because of two factors. One is the position
of the snowboarder: He’s in mid-air. Unless he knows how to levitate while standing
still, he’s flying through the air! That’s the clear implication of this type
of picture to any viewer. The second factor is the flying bits of snow. They
say “Action” to the viewer’s eye! For these two reasons, freezing the action
worked here.

In general, freezing the action can work when the subject is in mid-air. The
viewer thinks: People can’t fly! This must be taken at the height of some action.
Here’s another example, this time by NYI student/photographer Julie Landon,
where “freezing the action” works

All right. Question Three: How can you capture a well-exposed image of the
skier? This is the real key to good skiing pictures. All too often you’re shooting
in extremely bright conditions. The snow is very bright. So is the sky. And
your built-in meter interprets all this brightness to mean that you don’t need
much exposure. Result? Most pictures taken on the slopes are underexposed. Sure,
the snow looks great. And so does the sky. But the skier who’s your subject
is all-too-often a dark silhouette!

© Cliff Fulton - NYI StudentHere’s
a perfect example of the problems you can face. How can the photographer – in
this case, NYI student/photographer Cliff Fulton – get proper exposure of the
skier when his built-in meter is reading that bright sky?  

In a way, this returns us to first of the three NYI Guidelines. What’s your
subject? Your subject is the skier. Well, if your subject is the skier,
then you want to expose for the skier, not for the snow. How can you get the
right exposure? We offer a number of suggestions:

First, while you’re talking together, take a closeup reading of the skier’s
face, and set your exposure accordingly. Use that exposure setting when you
later take the shot.

Second, if you forgot to take that closeup reading – or you couldn’t – take
a “substitute reading” on your own skin. If your skin tone is approximately
the same as the skier’s, the setting you get should be close enough.

Third, you might take an incident reading with a light meter. The incident
reading will read the light, not the subject matter. It should place the brightness
of the snow, the sky, and the skier exactly where you want them.

Fourth, you could take a reflected reading of a gray card with your built-in
meter or a separate meter. The result should be the same as you got with the
incident reading.

Fifth, you might try pressing the backlight button on your camera. We consider
this, a last resort. The backlight button usually “opens up” the exposure about
one to one-and-a-half stops, depending on your camera. We think you’ll have
to open up even more when you’re in bright snow.

Sixth, use fill flash. We advise this especially when you are trying to freeze
a skier who is coming toward you. The light of the flash compensates for the
brightness of the snow and sky behind the skier. On the other hand, realize
the limitation of your flash unit. It probably has a range of ten to fifteen
feet. Don’t expect it to light up the mountain.

So here are six possibilities. The one thing we don’t advise is to rely
on your built-in meter and just “meter the scene.”

There’s one more consideration if you want to take perfect skiing pictures.
Snow and high altitude tend to make your pictures appear bluish. Your snow should
look white, not blue. If you find this to be a problem, consider using a filter
that will cut down on the blue light. The regular “skylight” filter that you
may have on your lens is often helpful. To cut out more bluishness, use a “UV
filter” – it cuts down on the bluish ultra-violet (UV) light that is more prevalent
at higher altitudes. Or use a pale magenta filter like an 81A or a darker magenta
filter like an 85C. The amount of filtration that’s best for you really depends
upon the specific conditions where you ski.

Happy skiing!

Reprinted with permisssion from the New
York Institute of Photography website at

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