How to tackle winter sport photography

THE MISSION

To capture well-exposed images of winter sports like climbing and skiing

Time: One hour

Skill level: Intermediate

Kit needed: D-SLR

Action portraits are always challenging to take, as you’re faced with fast, erratic movement and, often, difficult conditions too. 

In winter, the snow can create added complications. You can’t rely on your camera to get the exposure right, as the abundance of white can confuse its metering system. In essence, your camera expects the bulk of the image to be a midtone, and will therefore try to render the snow as grey.

As we’ll explain, the trick is to override your camera’s metering system, to brighten the image up, and ensure the snow looks white, not grey. This has the added advantage of brightening up your subject, so they don’t look ‘silhouetted’ against the snow. We’ll also explain how to gauge how much to brighten your image up, depending on the weather and lighting conditions, and also how to double-check that you’ve exposed the snow and your subject correctly. 

For our shoot, we headed up onto the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe, in the Highlands of Scotland, to shoot mountaineer Alex – though the fundamental technique will be the same regardless of what winter sport you’re shooting. 

For out-and-out action images, the obvious temptation is to crop in tight on your subject using a long lens, but in very dramatic locations like this, it’s usually a good idea to try to capture the drama of the location, and a sense of your subject making a journey through the landscape. With this in mind, we opted for a 24-85mm kit lens, to enable us to fit in more of the surrounding landscape. Here’s how we got on...

STEP BY STEP: Snow business

1 GET IN POSITION 

Whether you’re shooting climbing, skiing or even a snowball fight, you need to find the best backdrop for the action, so explore the location until you find the best vantage point, and then experiment with the angle and focal length until you’re happy with the framing. 

2 STAY SHARP

Use shutter-priority mode, and make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to capture sharp shots of your activity. A speed of 1/160 sec should be fast enough for walking and climbing, but you will need a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec or faster for very fast sports like skiing.

3 EXPOSE FOR THE BACKGROUND 

Next, you need to expose for the background. At 1/160 sec and ISO200, our D610 was suggesting an aperture of f/3.5, but  as mentioned in the intro, this resulted in an image that was an average mid-tone, so the snow ended up looking grey and Alex was completely under-exposed.

BRIGHTEN THEM UP

Make sure that your model is wearing bright colours, to help them stand out from the background – orange or red are ideal. Very light colours will blend in with the snow, while very dark colours will end up looking like  silhouettes. Most outdoor clothing is very colourful to ensure that you can easily be seen when out in the hills, which of course means you’ll be easier to spot in photographs, too.

4 COMPENSATE FOR THE SNOW

The way round this is to dial in some positive exposure compensation using the +/- button, to brighten things up. In very overcast conditions +1 should be sufficient, but in bright sunlight you might need to go up to +1.5 to ensure the snow (and your subject) are well exposed.   

5 BUMP UP THE ISO

In shutter-priority mode, the shutter remains fixed at your chosen value, so when you dial in positive exposure compensation, the camera has to set a wider aperture. If you’re already at your lens’s widest aperture, you’ll need to up the ISO to 400 or 800, or set Auto ISO.  

6 REVIEW YOUR IMAGES

Once you’ve taken your shot, it’s a good idea to check the histogram. As the whites are the most common tone in your snowy landscape, you want the bulk of the graph to fall on the right hand side of the histogram, without falling off the edge (as this would indicate detail has been lost). 

KEY SKILLS: Staying focused

QUICK TIP!

Enable your camera's Highlights in Display mode under the Playback menu. Blow-out highlights will flash when you review shots, so you'll quickly know when you're losing valuable detail.

1 FOCUS TRACKING 

Switch your camera to AF-C mode to enable continuous autofocusing while you’re tracking your subject. Set the autofocus to nine points to give more room for error at speed. If you’ve got a clear background the 3D mode is excellent, but it can get confused by busy backgrounds.

2 CONTINUOUS SHOOTING

Set your drive mode to Continuous, so you can capture a rapid sequence of images as the action unfolds. Don’t just ‘spray and pray’ though – anticipate the action, and shoot in short bursts as the action reaches its peak (on a skiing turn, say, or as a snowball is thrown).