Corbin Crimmins, based in Hood River, Oregon, spent a few years ski patrolling in Alta and then three years as a heli-ski/snowboard guide, and now makes amazing photos of skiers in back-country terrain. Vance Shaw of V Shaw Productions invited Corbin to be the principle still photographer for his ski movie “The Highway”, shot in the Canadian Rockies around Revelstoke, British Columbia during the winter of 2010/11. Vance saw Corbin’s selects from the Oakley/Salomon Sammy Carlson Invitational at Timberline ski area on Mount Hood and ask him to come along.
Corbin admits he was pushing himself near his limits to take on this assignment, but his reluctant competitive drive urged him towards this huge opportunity. Doing the photography for this project with the same energy that he brought to the mountains as a ski guide is exactly what Vance wanted. You see, to be in position to capture amazing photos of top level skiers pushing themselves to the limits, you’ve got to be as comfortable and confident in the terrain both as a skier and as a photographer.
Here’s a small sampling of Corbin Crimmins’ great ski and winter photography, along with great tips that will help you learn from this elite ski shooter, whether your winter shoot is at a big ski resort with your friends, or even at the smallest of sled hills with your little kids.
Cold weather photography requires planning
Outdoor Winter weather photography brings challenges! The top things to keep in mind are planning, and by planning, We want to think about the possible variables every step of the way. This includes dressing properly, packing efficiently, protecting the camera, hitting the correct exposure and capturing the action when it happens.
For me, this means:
Have a definitive planned departure time and leave even earlier. Trying to blog, edit, drink coffee, eat and get on snow covered roads ahead of time can be a great time to fire up the “A” game. Don’t hesitate to hit “The Go Button” and don’t miss those creative first moments of the day. I think it helps starts the whole rhythm of the day. Get out the door! If you are late, the helicopter won’t wait.
Have as much as possible packed the night before, except the batteries. Keep some of the batteries on the chargers until just before departure and the others warm and ready. The cold can suck the life out of batteries super quick, try to keep them in an inner pocket and/or with a hand warmer to keep them from cooling. Make sure your gear is ready to be following professional athletes. It’s kind of a bummer when the photographer’s climbing skins don’t work or are meant for a different pair of skis, or when you fumble with your avalanche beacon during an avi drill in front of your client.
The weather is your friend and most trusted comrade. Watch the forecast closely before the shoot. Is there a big high pressure system that will drop the temperature throughout the day or a big wet low pressure system lurking on the horizon? Planning on the weather conditions to worsen helps me keep a good grasp of the condition. Going into avalanche terrain? Are you aware of the local hazard rating for the area your going to be working in? Will you be working with a guide? When was the guide most recently in the area? Who is your guide?
Ski photography starts with being a skier and ends as a skier. A big trip incorporates so many uncontrollable circumstances that proper planning and communication can help to leap your career forward or end it quickly by losing your life in an otherwise avoidable accident.
Much of this same advice goes for shooting inbounds at ski resorts, at the sledding hill, or even in flat terrain in winter: keep the batteries warm, dress properly for the predicted conditions, but also be mindful that the weather has a mind of its own.
And be honest with yourself as to whether you are up to the challenge of skiing or boarding with a bag full of equipment. Challenging yourself is a great way to grow as both a skier and as a photographer, but mis-judging your abilities and hitting snow you can’t really handle can be game-ender. Taking a tumble with a bag full of camera gear is not an option. It can lead to serious injury and equipment damage. Maybe this means you skip the skis and instead hoof it up the trail to a great spot for capturing your friends in action. Remember, the goal is always for great images and a functioning body for the evening edits.
Dress for success
Dressing for the day properly can be a tricky. The nature of my experiences have been high-intensity exercise followed by long periods of standing around. Maintaining a high core temp involves a lot of moisture control–which boils down to keeping the moisture out and the warmth in. I start with a high-tech base layer and then build up to a shell. Then instead of taking the shell off and layering under it to add warmth, bring a highly compressible down jacket to put over everything.
Same goes for gloves: bring two different weights, one set for hiking that can get sweaty and the other for skiing, waiting around and keeping patient. Keep your hands warm! Hand heaters in a jacket pocket can be a great stash spot for my hands right before the action, so my gloves are off and I’m poised and ready for the shot.
Bring only the right gear and treat your gear right
Camera equipment is fragile and heavy. Packing all of the gear comfortably while not scrimping or going over-board is a game of balance. I will be totally honest: I start with my own survival as my main priority. That means food and drinkable water. Staying hydrated is so important, so don’t let your water freeze. To keep my water from freezing I’ll pack the main bottle on the inside of the pack below the camera gear and then keep a thermos of tea handy and excusable for warming sips. First-aid and avalanche equipment must all be easily accessible as well. After much experimenting, I’ve settled into carrying the camera and select gear rolled up in the extra hats and sweaters in my The Dakine Guide pack back pack. It’s a back pack I’ve had input on since my guiding days in Alaska and it is also a local Hood River company. Even the simple action of opening the pack and grabbing the camera rig out and then closing the pack back up must be efficient. Athletes, and magical lighting, and the cinematographer who hired you hate to wait. So you need to be quick and efficient not to miss the timing or ending up with a bag full of snow!
Deciding what lens to use and how to keep the moisture out of the equipment is very simple for me: I pick a great piece of glass and don’t take it off that camera body until I am back home so the internal components of both camera and lens are never directly exposed to the winter weather.
I pack two bodies for many shoots, with prime lenses like my Sigma 30mm f1.4 EX DG and Sigma 85mm F1.4 EX DG and the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8. Which subset of these lenses gets packed depends on the scouting and how much of a story I’m trying to tell. You’ve got a lot of control when it’s just you and top-tier skiers at a shoot spot, so primes are a great way to go, but sometimes there are times when the sharpness, reach and range of the 70-200mm F2.8 is what the adventure is calling for.
Inbound, on crowded slopes, or at the local sled hill a zoom will probably give you a lot more versatility, but the most important thing to remember here is this: stick with the lens or lenses you pick, on the camera bodies you’ve chosen. Avoid the temptation to swap out lenses out in serious weather.
Contact with moisture is a day killer. Keep the equipment at the outside temperature to avoid condensation on the glass of the lens, and on the eyepiece. When the day is over, wrap the camera and accessories up in a plastic grocery bag until the gear reaches inside temperatures–the outside of the bag will gather moisture as the gear warms up, but your camera and glass will stay nice and dry.
Shooting in the snow
When almost the entire frame is a white canvas except for some rocks, trees and a tiny skier subject, the camera screams “too much light, I’m over-exposing myself”. Don’t worry, it will be alright. To find my comfort zone while the sun is out I like working with the high-light alert on while shooting at almost a full stop over. I like to see good detail in the snow and look for the darker details in the rocks too.
But when the sun hides behind the clouds, or snow starts to fall, the contrast begins to soften, finding a good background such as trees or some rocks is what I use to make the skier stand out.
When the framing of the skier is loose with a lot of the mountain and sky telling the story, I expose for the landscape, When the skier is framed tight, I expose for them. And of course, you’ve got to keep in mind to underexpose a little if the skier is outfitted in dark colored clothes, because a black and green parka that you’re spot-metering off will fool the meter the opposite way the snow does!
Know the LCD screen and check your histograms! Zoom in and check those shadows and highlight details around where the action will be.
Remember that white isn’t always right for snow. The color cast of the snow tells part of the story, shadow areas may fall to deep blues, and golden glowing snow tells of great light late in the day. If you try to white-balance for that warmth or coolness, the results might not really be what you were after.
Communicating with the athletes on where they are going to ski and how to execute the shot takes lots of careful explaining and back-and-forth. Investing in some good hand-held two-way radios really helps a lot and knowing how to properly use them by keeping the microphone a few inches away from your mouth and holding the key down for a second really helps to broadcast information more clearly.
Capturing the action shot is dependent on the story every wants to tell. You may choose on one pass to shoot really tight to show the expression and intensity of the skier as they fill the frame, and take a second pass pulled back much wider to capture the beauty of all the surroundings. If the athlete is in the air, try to include both the take-off and landing in the burst. And “guy-in-the-sky” shots work much better if there’s at least some of the mountain in the frame–without it, the image isn’t grounded.
When there’s a set spot for the shot, pre-focusing and switching off AF is a good way to ensure sharp focus–you lens won’t search for focus as the skier hits the launch–the shutter will fire the burst the instant you decide to pull the trigger. But when your tracking a skier down the hill, continuous AF is the way to go. And these two tips hold as true on your kid’s sled hill as they do in the most vertical of situations.
Winter photography creates challenges, for sure, but can be amazingly rewarding. My advice in a nutshell is to take the most care of yourself. Stay warm and dry. Then be prepared for the action and light, then fire away as the magic happens in front of you.