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Ray Demski Interview - What To Prepare And Practice For Extreme Winter And Sports Photography

Nikon ambassador Ray Demski has answered some questions on how he prepares and shoots extreme sports and winter photography - exclusively for ePHOTOzine.

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Nikon ambassador and winter sports photographer Ray Demski is no stranger to working in harsh conditions with his kit - recently he answered some questions exclusively for ePHOTOzine, giving some insight into how he prepares for a shoot and why he loves to shoot Nikon.


What decisions do you make when packing a kitbag for these wintery scenarios? 

The way I pack my bag depends on a number of things: where I’m going, the activity and speed in which I have to move, whether there is a crew, and how much non-photographic gear I have to carry, such as safety, survival or access equipment.

If it’s a single day ski tour shoot, in addition to packing warm layers, spare gloves, water and a snack, I also need to ensure I have equipment which is light enough for me to keep up with the athletes, or in some instances, ski ahead of them so I can capture their action on the way down. This requires a single lightweight body and 2-3 lightweight zoom lenses - and a couple of extra batteries, just in case.

My usual photo gear might be the Nikon Z6, NIKKOR Z 24-70 f/4 S, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR or the AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED depending on the specifics. I’d also pack the FTZ adapter which allows me to use my existing lenses on the Z series’ bodies.

If I turn that same ski tour shoot into a multi-day adventure, then the non-photographic equipment increases dramatically. In this instance, I’d probably only take a single Z6 camera with a light zoom lens like the NIKKOR Z 24-70 f/4 S.


Ray Demski

Nikon Z6 + NIKKOR Z 24–70mm f/4 S 1/1600 sec | f/6.3 | 70mm | ISO 100 © Ray Demski


What are the ideal camera settings to capture powerful shots in challenging conditions?

Winter sports can be extremely fast. If I’m working with an athlete where I can control the situation, I like to use pre-focus; figuring out exactly where the peak action will take place and setting my focus there.

For more unpredictable action, let´s say at a sports event or when I can’t predict where the athlete will go, I use continuous autofocus (AF) mode, so the camera can track the subject. The focal-plane AF system in the Z6 has focus points covering almost the entire image area, which I love compared to a classic DSLR system - it allows me to focus on my subject much closer to the edge of the frame.

One thing to remember is that when the sun is high in the sky, it reflects off the snow, potentially reducing contrast, shape and texture. The bright snow can also fool a camera’s metering to expose darker than it should. I shoot manual most of the time, so usually expose a stop or two brighter when working in the snow.

On my first days testing the Nikon Z6 in Brauneck and Achenkirch, I used the camera with the NIKKOR Z 24-70 f/4 S line lens. Having such a powerful camera in such a small and lightweight package is really exciting - and its 55mm diameter mount allows you to work magic with the light.


Ray Demski

Nikon Z6 + NIKKOR Z 24–70mm f/4 S 1/640 sec | f/5.6 | 53mm | ISO 200 © Ray Demski


What are your tips on ensuring both you and your equipment can handle the cold?

Before even thinking about taking photos, it’s super important to know and understand the environment you’re working in, as well as carrying the right safety equipment and knowing how to use it. 

Winter environments can be tough on gear, but don’t let that stop you from taking your camera outside. I use weather sealed cameras to remove that worry. Or, in the instance where a camera isn’t sealed, you can use clear plastic bags and tape to make a snow cover. I use a car chamois cloth for drying lenses before cleaning with a lens cloth. On sunny days in the snow, bring good sunglasses - I keep them on as much as possible while shooting as snow blindness is not a photographer’s friend!

Dress warmer than normal for the sport you’re shooting. There is usually a lot more standing around, setting up and waiting than you initially think. Good gloves are a must, as you need the ability to handle the camera while keeping your fingers frost-bite free. As batteries don´t like cold conditions, I always keep a spare camera battery warm in an inside pocket, or in really extreme conditions, you can use hand warmers while using your gear to keep batteries warm.


How are mirrorless cameras and lenses changing the way action and sports photographers work?

The first and most obvious benefit of mirrorless cameras and lenses is the weight and size. For outdoor adventure shoots, being able to pack in a more compact and light way increases my flexibility, allows me to move faster and gives me the option to bring even more lenses. It also means that, when climbing for example, I can get into positions I would not have been able to access with heavier kit.

The silent shutter on the Z 6 is great when you’re trying to blend into the background, or during intimate moments or conversations where you don’t want the athletes or performers to know you’re there - this is an absolute must on a film set or during dance productions.


Ray Demski

Nikon Z6 + NIKKOR Z 24–70mm f/4 S 1/1000 sec | f/6.3 | 70mm | ISO 500 © Ray Demski


How does the mirrorless system sit along DSLR cameras in your kit bag?

The Z series mirrorless cameras sit alongside my DSLR cameras as another option for shoots where the strengths of the Z6 and Z7 really make a difference.

For a commercial shoot where I have a team of people, and the amount of equipment I carry isn’t an issue, I still prefer to use my Nikon D850 which offers 45.4 MP of uncompromised resolution, speed and light sensitivity.

Yet if I’m planning a more adventurous shoot or trip where I have to carry everything myself, along with my climbing or ski gear, I would definitely reach for the mirrorless system. It gives you the freedom to experiment with light without sacrificing colour and sharpness.

It’s also an awesome option for video - quality onboard recording, as well as the possibility to output 10-bit 4:2:2 video over HDMI to an external recorder gives me the option to go light and fast, or to build a bigger setup for maximum quality output.

I can use the S line lenses to take full advantage of the Z6 and Z7’s great autofocus capability during filming. The intelligent Face-Detection-AF processor detects and holds faces, even when someone is moving quickly. This is especially useful when I don’t have the luxury of a focus puller.

Of course, using the FTZ Mount adapter opens up my entire F-mount lens collection, so I can pick and choose the right lens for the situation in front of me.

Ray Demski

Nikon Z 6 + NIKKOR Z 24–70mm f/4 S 1/3200 sec | f/5.6 | 24mm | ISO 100 © Ray Demski


How do you ensure that your photos stand out from others?

Before every shoot I try and challenge myself to create and capture one shot I haven´t seen before. It’s not easy but taking that risk, rather than just capturing what is known and accepted to be “the best”, can give you a shot that really stands out.

One of the most important things for a good action shot is being able to envision the final result and work with your athlete to get there. This is especially true in winter, where movement can be difficult and tracks can ruin your frame. Figure out where the best action will be in a scene and set your composition for that moment. You need to work with the landscape around you.

I’m also a big advocate of working with your athlete to get their suggestion on what might work best. Often, they will have a great suggestion to improve the image and it’s important that everybody has ‘bought in’ to how a shoot will play out before jumping into action.

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