Snow sports photographer Scott D.W. Smith has traveled to nearly 40 countries, including Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Chile, in the name of the perfect shot. Not only have the fruits of his labor been published in SKI, Skiing, National Geographic Adventure, and Outside, he logs some 80 days on the slopes each year. Here, Smith offers 10 tips for snapping great snow sports shots.
1. Get Creative With Composition
Cool drifts, fluted shadow lines and textures in the snow can be some of the most fun parts of snow sports photography. Coach someone into a spot with a cool background and sun on the sweet spot. That's a composition principle that isn't necessarily just for snow sports. If you can get a skier to stay within the sun so that the spray of the snow is backlit with a dark background, that can be really stunning. Mimicking patterns in nature with the athlete's turns is one of the things I'm very interested in bringing into my work this winter.
2. Communicate With Your Subject
There are set-up photos and there are photos on the fly. If you're going to set it up, you're looking for the apex of the action—the peak moment—and communication with the athlete, the lift operator, whoever it is you're photographing, is key. A huge help in photographing snow sports is snowballs. If the athlete can't see me, I throw a snowball up in the air so they know where I am and have a visual marker of where to go to be in my shot.
3. But Don't Let Everyone Know About Your Powder Stash
Don't point at your next freshies if someone else can see you, especially if you have a big camera in tow. People will watch me, especially now that people often know who I am on the local slopes. They say, 'oh, he knows where the snow's at, let's follow him.' I get poached all the time.
4. Focus on a Zone
If you're photographing a high-speed skier, it's like trying to focus on a race car. Good luck. Instead, agree on a spot where he'll ski, put a snowball there, then focus on the spot before he gets there. As soon as I see him in the zone, I fire it. That's a really easy way to score perfectly focused shots of someone who's hauling ass.
5. Take Advantage of Your Mode of Transportation
People ask me how I can shoot and be a snowboarder, but at certain times, snowboarding can be an advantage. Sure, it's a total pain in the ass when I have to move only five or six feet to get a shot, but the advantage is I don't have poles and can shoot while I'm riding. I can get some awesome photos like that.
6. Play With Manual Mode
Snow will throw off the exposure because it's white. The camera thinks everything is some version of middle gray, which is halfway between black and white, so it sees snow as really bright gray. Unless the dog's been there, snow's white. You generally have to adjust a stop and a half from middle gray. You can also meter off the palm of your hand, which is a good way to see if you're getting the right exposure. If you have a point-and-shoot, you can often just overexpose it a bit to compensate. If you don't adjust your exposure and use auto mode, you can get photos that look overcast even though it's a bluebird day out.
7. Wear Bright Colors
It's almost equally important for the photographer to be in bright clothing as it is the athlete. I've had some close calls where people didn't see me until the last second. If you're shooting in the trees or you're hiding behind a crest and people are coming at you at 30, 40, 50 miles per hour, you don't want them seeing you at the last second.
8. Avoid Drastic Temperature Changes
If it's snowing, you want your gear to be cold. A warm camera will allow the snow to melt to it. And if you've been out on a cold day and you come into the lodge for lunch, don't pull out the camera to show your friends the photos you've taken all morning. If you pull it out in a warm, humid restaurant, you're not going to be photographing for the rest of the day. It'll condensate and then if you take it back out, that's frozen condensation, which can ruin a camera. I learned that one the hard way.
9. Keep gear dry
What I think is totally indispensable is a lint-free cloth, a shammy, or some kind of synthetic towel 'cause you're going to get snowy. I also carry a little paintbrush because sooner or later you're going to drop the camera in the snow or someone's going to blast you with a powder cloud. Also, if I pull my camera out of my pack I zip it up. Always always always. I've learned that one the hard way too. If you'll get a pack full of snow and it melts, you could lose your gear. I also make sure my gloves are pointed with the opening downhill, so if I do get covered in snow my gloves aren't full of snow.
10. Remember the work-life balance
On the really good days when the powder's awesome, there's a mandatory warm-up run. I've been successful with snow sports photography because I'm extremely passionate about it. I maintain that passion by riding just purely to ride.