How to Shoot a Magazine-Worthy Ski Photo
Liam Doran, one of the country’s best ski photographers, takes better photos than you. Here's how.
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In 2013, Colorado-based photographer Liam Doran was shooting professional skier Caroline Gleich at Grizzly Gulch, a backcountry spot near Alta Ski Area, when the temperature suddenly dropped, squeezing the last drops of moisture from the snow and making it float like dust. The sun took on a rich, late-afternoon hue. Doran knew he needed to capitalize on the prime conditions.
“Go hike, hike!” Doran told Gleich. She scrambled up the slope, then came ripping down, laying one perfect turn in a dreamlike haze of snow and sun. The result would become a Powder magazine cover shot, as well as the publication’s 2014 Photo of the Year.
Photos like that are the unicorns of the ski world, requiring perfect snow, perfect light, and a perfect turn. If any of those elements are missing, you have a Facebook image, not one fit for print. They require luck, but they also require a huge amount of skill, which Doran has in spades. We caught up with the pro last week to find out more about how he captures hero shot after hero shot.
Every day, I ski with a Canon 1DX or a Canon 7D Mark II because of their high frame rates. The 1DX shoots 12 to 14 frames per second, and the 7D Mark II goes up to ten. With each, I can shoot a skier all the way through a turn instead of just getting one shot and hoping for something good. Both cameras also have incredibly fast autofocus systems that let me lock onto a skier.
My lenses are all Sigmas: 12-24mm f4.5-5.6, 24-105mm f4, and 70-200mm f2.8. I like the 12-14mm because it’s wide enough to help me set the scene so the reader knows exactly where the shoot took place. The 24-105mm is a great versatile lens—it’s wide enough for scene setters but tight enough for action. And the 70-200mm is pretty much all action all the time. I carry all three lenses every day. I went with Sigma because the company delivers professional-quality results at a fraction of the price. Full disclosure: I bought my own Sigma lenses, and now they sponsor me.
I also carry spare batteries, all my lens-cleaning stuff, and up to 128 gigs of memory cards, which is enough for a couple days of shooting in the backcountry when I don’t have access to a computer. Most days I also carry a beacon, shovel, probe, skins, water, and food. It makes for a joyful pack that weighs about 35 to 40 pounds.
I use a Clik Elite Contrejour to haul all my gear. It’s meant for cameras but carries extremely well—more like a technical pack than a photo pack. At 40 liters, it’s big enough for everything I need. In snowy weather, the bag protects my gear inside, but I don’t cover the camera in my hand while I’m shooting because I don’t have time to fiddle around with extra gear. By the end of the day, when it’s dumping, everything is pretty wet. I always take my gear back to wherever I’m staying and dry it off really well. I wipe everything down, take off all the caps, and make sure it’s in a warm, dry spot overnight.
In a perfect world, the snow comes in warm and wet and leaves cold and dry. The warmer snow covers everything so the skier can’t feel the old snow underneath. But the colder snow creates that vapor trail behind the skier’s turn. In terms of depth, I like eight to ten inches. Any deeper and you can lose your skier in a white cloud as it flies up around them. That might create a cool look for editorial work, but if you’re shooting for a catalog, you need to see something. And, of course, you want to avoid anything with a wind crust or breakable crust on top. Running around and searching for that storm and then getting the right snow in the right moment is a big part of the game.
Communication is a huge part of ski photography. When you are really pushing for your best stuff and you have the light, it’s very much a game of inches. I need the athlete in an exact spot, which can take a lot of planning. And it changes as you get on the slope. For example, the athlete and I might start at the bottom of a slope and find the best line, but then the athlete will get to the top and realize they have to go right instead of left, which means I have to change my position and what my background looks like. There’s a lot of talking before any photos get made.
You want the light to be directional and hit your subject from an angle instead of above, which creates hard shadows. Early in the year, you can get away with shooting throughout the day because the sun is at an angle. As the season goes on and you get into mid-February, you have to be cautious and shoot on the edges of the day so the light is at a better angle.
South-facing slopes get way too bright by late morning, so you have to shoot those early in the day. Later in the season, I also like to shoot north-facing slopes, just as the sun pops over the top, because that kind of light creates a nice texture.
I always start with a super-wide-angle lens. That gives you a sense of place. A good opener makes the reader want to be skiing in the location you’ve photographed. After that, I can start going a little tighter with a longer lens. A good, tight action shot makes the viewer want to be that skier because the action is so intense. I also try to shoot everything around the skiing—the food and the après scene—because you have to tell the whole story, especially if it’s a travel piece.
Find a spot with a good backdrop and have your skier come through the shot. For example, if you have an angled ridgeline with blue in the background and the skier coming through the frame, the skier is really going to stand out against the blue. You can capture the power of the turn. The worst thing you can do is put your athlete in the middle of the bowl, because they just disappear. Also, be sure to use a fast shutter speed—1/1000 or higher—something that will capture the action.
To see more of Liam Doran’s work, check out his Instagram.