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Winter sports photography

Nathan Gallagher gives ePHOTOzine some tips for capturing snowboarders.

|  Sports and Action
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Photo by Nathan Gallagher of snowboarder on side of mountain
 Photo by Nathan Gallagher.
What kit do you use and why?
"I shoot with a Canon, the lenses I tend to use mostly are the 70-200mm f/2.8L and the 24-70mm f/2.8L.  Both these lenses are reliable, fast and sharp.  The 200mm is a long enough focal length in most situations, occasionally I use a 2x extender on it. I also use a 15mm f/2.8 fisheye, 50mm f/1.4 and a 45mm T&S lens.

My main body for a long time has been the Canon 1DS MkII, more recently I shoot with the 5D MkII which isn't as robust but much more up to date and the weather seals are pretty good. I generally hire the latest bodies when I need them during their first year on the shelf. I'm planning on asking Canon for a 1DS MkIV after this interview comes out though.
Bike and snowboarder doing tricks
  Photo by Nathan Gallagher.

Do you shoot sequences, single shots or a mixture of both?
"I very rarely shoot anything but single shots these days. I know a lot of people shoot bursts during the pinnacle of a trick and pick out their best frame, but I like to see what I'm shooting at and the work flow involved in doing that with high file sizes is too cumbersome for me. I used to do sequence shooting much more back in the days of film, but mainly for piece-togethers (montages) back then a roll of film would be shot in around 3.5 seconds - a lot of wastage when your rider lands on their face."

Photo of Snowboarder performing a trick.
  Photo by Nathan Gallagher.
Is it important to have the ground in the photographs or other objects to help with scale?
"Absolutely, it's one of the cardinal rules of action sports photography. The 'guy-in-the-sky' shot tells you nothing in terms of a story, not only a sense of scale is achieved when the background is considered, but also a sense of location and realism. When you see shots where the athlete is surrounded by sky it's usually an old stock-photo used by someone who doesn't appreciate the subject matter (that or it's been over cropped by an equally ignorant graphic designer)."

Do you follow/pan with the boarder or wait for them to come into frame and have the camera pre focused?
"Interesting question. Personally, I do a combination of the two (I've had to close my eyes and re-enact this in my head to remember) - I frame the shot I want, then signal to the athlete that I'm ready (if it's that sort of shoot), then regain the frame, then track back and meet the approaching rider, following them off the jump I wait until what I'm looking at lines up with the frame in my memory, then I shoot. Most of the stuff I shoot has been discussed with the rider beforehand, so I have a fairly good idea what position they are going to be in when the time comes - this helps."

Snowboarder jumping
  Photo by Nathan Gallagher.
Does it take a lot of practise to get right?
"I'd like to think so, this would be an appropriate time to grumble about how much easier practising is with digital cameras..."

What shutter speed do you use?
"Preferably 1/1000sec of a second (apart from Flash work, which is slightly different."

How close do you get to the riders?
"Well that depends massively on the shot, you can be inches away from the serrated metal edges of a ski or snowboard, or you could be the other side of the valley (the former of those two situations is more fun though) I have been hit in the lens by a board once, terribly nice chap bought me a new lens as I remember (Thanks Tim!)"

Do you use flash?

"Yes. Because sometimes I shoot at night! Also, sometimes exposing the riders to a brighter-than-the-ambient-light flash can produce pretty pictures - be warned though, when you start doing that you need to delve into the dark world of flash-durations - not as straightforward as you'd think!"
Snowboarder in the dark
  Photo by Nathan Gallagher.

How do you cope with the glare of snow and still expose the snowboarder correctly?
"On the hill I just wince a little bit, but in the image it can be a problem. Today, RAW files have a fairly high latitude in them, (although not as high as a lot of film did) by which I mean, you can brush through some of the bleached areas in post. Most the time though the over exposing of certain areas of the image adds to the final shot, the human eye has the same problems, so long as it's not a white-out day, you should be fine."

Do you do any post production work?
"Yes. There used to be a strange view among photo editors that shooting digital meant there was no need for processing, this is not true. An image straight off a camera, like the film out of a camera, needs to be developed to the instructions of the photographer. We don't shoot with mind to push and pull any more, but there are still issues with dust and more attention given to colour balance. In addition to this I often shoot with post production in mind, usually for creative portrait work rather than action stuff. I have been known to add the odd cheeky grad filter in though."
portrait of snowboarder sat in fridge
  Photo by Nathan Gallagher.

What's the most important thing you've learnt when it comes to this type of photography?
"Build up a good relationship with the people you're shooting, it's a team effort. Besides, you'll be spending a lot of time together if it works out well - many of the people I've shot have become friends for life."
Snowboarder portrait
  Photo by Nathan Gallagher.

Thanks Nathan!

Visit Nathan Gallagher's website.
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28 Apr 2012 4:28PM
So helpful, thanks.

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