Skiing with a camera

With a ski trip to Zermatt starting in 3 days time, this seems as good a time as ever to write an article about how I ski with a camera. Hopefully you’ll find a few pearls of wisdom that will help you if you are a skier; and some points will apply equally to tackling outdoor winter photography in wild places. And as always there are images to enjoy, scattered through the post.

Viewing Mont Blanc from Col de Balme, Chamonix valley - click to enlarge

I know that for many non-skiers there is something rather crazy about the concept of encasing your feet in oversized, rigid, custom-fitted plastic boots (that you can barely walk in), locking them into metal bindings attached to two thin planks (very cleverly shaped planks, actually) and then heading off down a very slippery snow slope! It’s an alien concept.

But for me it is the most exhilarating of all the outdoor sports that interest me. There’s something pretty special about being able to ski confidently. It gets me up to high places I could never otherwise reach in summer or winter. It’s challenging and satisfying. Skiing enables me to move around and down mountains rapidly – the scenery constantly changing. There is always something to grab my attention whether it’s the long view, the detail or the action.

The Gandegg Hutte, Monte Rosa (Lt) and Pollux (Zermatt) - click to enlarge

Photographers will understand why I would want to ski with a camera. And the best way to answer those who question ‘why?’ is to show them a few images and most will soon acknowledge that there are some spectacular images out there to find.

The Matterhorn at Sundown - click to enlarge

People have said to me: ‘isn’t it a bit risky carrying a camera with you when you go skiing? How do you do that safely?’ Well, read on and I’ll explain what gear I take, how I use my cameras and how I manage the risks.

Firstly, my gear: For a ski holiday I take two cameras. A compact Canon G10 and a Nikon D80 with two lenses – a Nikkor 16-85 zoom and a Sigma 28-300 zoom. Together they cover the range 24mm up to about 450mm (film equivs). That’s a wide enough range for anything. The Sigma is the same size and weight as the wide-angle zoom despite its huge range. I find it an ideal lightweight lens.

The G10 is my every day camera. The Nikon is for days when I hope to be more creative or for action photography.

Ice Fingers, Whistler - click to enlarge

The accessories are few: A lens cleaning brush, polarizing filter, a body cap and a spare lens back cap. Soft pouches for camera bodies and lenses. And a couple of dry bags just in case things risk getting wet.

All that can fit in a small North Face rucsac – the type used by orienteers, mountain bikers and endurance athletes. It has a slim profile with chest and waist straps so it hugs the body. It’s just fat enough to take the D80 body and the two lenses stacked vertically in the inner pocket, plus the G10 if needed (although 90% of the time that lives in my chest pocket). With cameras packed, it’s profile – front to back – is under 5inches.

You need a slim rucsac to ride chair lifts safely. A chunkier rucsac will need to be removed to enable you sit back safely – and lift operators may insist. Keeping a dSLR dis-assembled until it is called into use has some merits and I choose to do that. Those with full frame dSLRs may find that option sensible too, due to the larger camera body size.

Securing and operating cameras

Skiing is a cold weather sport at altitude. The weather can be extreme. For example, at the moment the forecasted temperature for Zermatt next Sunday is -14C (7F), plus wind chill. That’s cold! You need thick gloves when it’s that cold. But gloves are clumsy. It’s not easy operating a camera wearing gloves.

A Cold and Windy day - The Fee Gletscher, Saas Fee - click to enlarge

Here’s a test for you. Put on some gloves and then try handling a compact camera, and then your SLR. Compact cameras can be as slippery as a fish, while an SLR body plus lens is chunky and there’s something to get hold of firmly. Which would be more likely to slip through your fingers? The answer is probably the Compact.

And which is easiest to operate wearing gloves? Can you press the On/Off switch on your compact wearing thick gloves: tricky if not impossible. Again it’s the SLR you’ll find is easier to operate.

The way I solve this problem is to wear two pairs of gloves – a thin inner glove and a thicker Goretex outer. All I need to do is take off one outer glove (store it safely) and I can operate the Compact and my hands stay warm enough.

Are you coming? - Glacier Skiing, Saas Fee - click to enlarge

For most of the time, the Compact is my prime camera. I want that camera to be easy to get at. It lives in the chest pocket of my Goretex jacket. I know that if I fall (a rare event, but possible) it’s highly likely I will fall on my side. That’s why I don’t store it in a side pocket – I don’t want to fall onto the camera. And it’s actually much easier to unzip/zip-up the chest pocket one-handed. The compact is always tethered either to my jacket zip, or round my neck via a thin but strong nylon cord through one of the eyes on the camera body. So if I do fumble it, it will just drop a foot or two until the cord goes tight. And the Nikon has a neck strap that goes round my neck the moment it comes out of the rucsac.

Skinning up to Helbronner, the Vallee Blanche - click to enlarge

Planning for a day’s shooting

Zermatt is a resort I know well, so there’s little need for scouting. But if the venue is new, then usually the first day is a familiarization day both from the point of finding my round the lift system and pistes and spotting the location of potential images.

The weather forecast is all-important, but in a high mountain environment it’s not always 100% reliable. And it’s not just about cloud and snowfall – but wind and temperature too. If the weather’s not brilliant then the SLR is likely to get left behind. If it’s a good day, then I’ll take both cameras and both lenses.

The Fluhalp Piste, Zermatt - click to enlarge

The night before I check batteries, clear space on the memory cards, clean lenses and reset settings on the cameras to my normal base settings for skiing. Simple things, but I know that in the past I’ve forgotten each one of those simple pre-shoot checks. Who hasn’t?

Locations: Locations fall into two categories.

Solid level ground – in the resort, at base and upper lift stations, mountain restaurants, and view points. Skis are off and that makes life easier.  But if the ground is snow covered don’t be fooled into thinking it’s easier to walk on. I’ve actually had my hardest falls on iced up flat surfaces. Ski boots have no rubberized tread at all – beware!

Rimpfischhorn reflected in the Hohtalli lift housing (Zermatt) - click to enlarge

Beside the piste – by definition this will be sloping ground of all degrees of steepness. Here are my golden rules:

  • Find a safe place to stop, never ever stop in the middle of the piste. Move to the side, and stamp out a stance wearing your skis.
  • Plant poles in the snow firmly.
  • If the snow is hard packed or steep, take your skis off, stake them into the ground, then stamp out a platform for your feet. Without skis you have the scope to move around a bit – with care.
  • If in doubt take your skis off, you do not want to find yourself skiing or side slipping off your stance. Minus poles it can be tricky regaining the ground. Don’t risk it.
  • If you take off your rucsac to access a camera (or anything else for that matter), loop the shoulder straps over or round either the poles or the skis securely.
  • Nothing should be left unattached  – it can suddenly decide to slide off, all on its own.

Storm approaching, the 3 Valleys - click to enlarge

Working with an SLR

If you have elected to carry your SLR dis-assembled, then it is obviously more straightforward to assemble it in a safe sheltered environment when you plan to start using it. Beware of wind, spindrift or snowfall – all of these pose problems for an open camera body. But life for a photographer isn’t always that clear cut, and you may find a situation on the piste where you want to bring the SLR into use or switch lenses.

On the piste, always take your skis off first! Work at ground level with the body and lens over, if not in, the open rucsac. Try to face down wind so the camera and lens are shielded. Store the caps safely in a pouch in the sac.

Piste skier, on the edge - click to enlarge

Occasionally I ski with the Nikon round my neck. For example when I’m likely to be stopping repeatedly to take images (usually action shots). Then skiing with the camera ‘out’ – although it carries a degree of risk – is a lot easier and faster than repeatedly having to get the sac off my back and get the camera out, and then replace it. Previously I’ve always skied with the camera ‘bare’, out of any bag, pouch or cover. This winter I’m going to experiment with the Nikon anchored to my chest in an old thin camera pouch. It’s worth knowing that a number of suppliers sell waist and belt bags for cameras – LowePro being one well known in the UK.

‘Me and my Shadow……’ – click to enlarge

I ski with the camera (or pouch) strap shortened, so the chest strap of the rucsac is fractionally above the camera, holding it tight to my chest: it still wobbles a bit, but it won’t bounce around. I only employ this technique on pistes I know well, and are well within my capabilities, and I ski slower.

Image Capture

A few points that are particularly relevant to ski photography, but not exclusively:

  • To take images you will almost certainly need to remove goggles or sunglasses. Don’t lose them!
  • In full sun on a ski slope, the light can be extremely bright. I routinely set the exposure compensation to minus 0.3 or 0.5 to avoid blown highlights.
  • Metering is set to matrix (evaluative), unless there are harsh contrasts, in which case I switch to spot metering and lock the reading from a highlight using the AE lock button.
  • The extreme brightness may also make it difficult to read the screen and the histogram after taking a shot.
  • If using a compact you may in addition find it difficult to see the image you wish to capture on the back screen. A compact like the G10 with a viewfinder is an advantage – but what you see through the finder is not entirely accurate, so don’t crop too tightly when you compose a shot.
  • Repeatedly getting a Compact out of a pocket wearing gloves and stowing it back in means you are highly likely to rotate one of the setting dials inadvertently. Get into the habit of always checking the dials before shooting.
  • If the light is contrasty, I will take a preliminary shot – check the histogram, and then if needed adjust the settings before taking further shots.
  • I rarely adjust White Balance – I can always sort that out in Bridge later.
  • When you’ve taken your shots, store the camera and make sure the zips are done up. If you’ve changed camera settings, change them back to your normal settings before you stow it.

Viewing images

A word about condensation – there’s a great temptation, when I stop for lunch and go in somewhere warm, to get the cameras out and start going through the images.

Whiteout! - click to enlarge

But in a warm room with high humidity those are the circumstances when I am likely to get condensation problems. So the cameras get left in the rucsac or buried in a pocket. If I want to check, then I’ll do this outdoors in a sheltered shaded place or wait until the end of the day

The MacBook travels with me, images get uploaded to the Mac daily. Reviewing the day’s shoot is always useful, there’s always something to learn, not everything turns out right first time, and sometimes I go back and re-capture an image that I messed up first time round.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and found something in it that’s helpful, even if you’re not a skier.

If ski photography interests you then do take a look at other images in the Skiing category (see the sidebar).

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About LensScaper

Hi - I'm a UK-based photographer who started out 45+ years ago as a lover of landscapes, inspired by my love of outdoor pursuits: skiing, walking and climbing. Now retired, I seldom leave home without a camera and I find images in unexpected places and from different genres. I work on the premise that Photography is Art and that creativity is dependent on the cultivation of 'A Seeing Eye'. I'm not averse to manipulating images to produce derivatives that may sometimes be far removed from the original.
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15 Responses to Skiing with a camera

  1. Len Saltiel says:

    Wow Andy, that’s a great detailed description of how to shoot in the winter months. I picketed up a few tidbits that I will follow. I had a couple you didn’t mention.

    To deal with the condensation, carry plastic baggies and put them around your equipment before going inside or outside. The condensation will be on the baggies instead of the equipment.

    Try a Hoodman to view images outside in the light. It works wonders, is easy to carry and is relatively inexpensive.

    Great images by the way.

    • LensScaper says:

      Len, many thanks for writing. Those are useful comments and additions. I hoped readers would chime in with their own ways of solving some of the difficulties encountered in being out in a hostile environment with a camera. Great to read your comments.

  2. Jimi Jones says:

    Totally awesome post, Andy!
    I had chosen a favorite about 3 times here. Every time I’d read on and scroll down I had another. LOL

    Really outstanding images, man. I’m not a skier but I am surely enjoying the experiences you’re having by reading this posts. Be safe!

  3. Curt Fleenor says:

    Awesome images Andy! I’ve never been skiing but his looks like the ultimate photographer’s how-to guide.

  4. Hi Andy, great post today with some excellent tips for winter photography and beautiful photos as well. I can’t ski, but the tips should work just as well the next time I go snow shoeing. Have you ever heard of the cotton carrier? It is a vest-like camera harness system. I have one and love it and I believe many people involved in action sports use it because the camera is secured firmly yet easily accessible without having to get it out of a pack. Just thought you might be interested in that. They have a demonstration video on their site using a skiing as an example.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks Anne for that information, I’ll look it up. I’m glad you’ve extracted some information for snowshoeing – certainly quite a lot of the tips transfer to other winter activities.

  5. Eden says:

    I really like “The Matterhorn At Sundown”. Very nice!

  6. Simon Morris says:

    Superb post Andy, with images to match… great photo tips too – thanks for sharing!

    PS
    I sure do miss Europe – hopefully we’ll be having a trip back soon to see friends and family… plus plenty of photography!

  7. Marc Collins says:

    Some beautifull shots there, especially the Matterhorn with the sunburst!
    You certainly know how to capture great snow/ski shots.

  8. Excellent post Andy. Some really terrific tips that’s certainly applicable to skiing but also for other winter sports. The 2 glove system is something I did this year for the first time and works really well. I saw Anne’s comments above and she’s right you should have a look at the cotton carrier system as it seems that would work really well for you. Excellent images as well.

  9. Adam Olson says:

    Super cool shot Andy! I love skiing, this makes me miss it even more. Well done capturing these and bringing back awesome memories.

  10. Rick Louie says:

    Great tips! I’ve never thought of carrying more than a point and shoot doing downhill, but have carried it when doing cross county. Thanks for the tips!

  11. Adam Allegro says:

    Andy, you held my interest from the first word!! I have agree with all of your info. One thing I found on my trip a couple weeks ago to Austria was compensating in the +3/5/7 region. Try that next time and see how it works for you. Someething about tricking the camera because of the light reflection… Who knows 🙂 I also found myself skiing with the D7000 and 28-300mm Nikon out around my neck most of the time. Although I am a pretty competent skier, I still egt a bit nervous, but it is significantly easier to shoot if you don’t have to stop and reorganize every 5 minutes. On chairlifts, slinging the bag around right before sitting down worked well for me every time. Anyways, Great writeup!!! I can’t wait to get out there on the slopes again!

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks, Adam. Haven’t yet got the Nikon out this week, but like you the 28-300 is an ideal lens for most occasions. Skiing by feel rather than vision isn’t quite the weather to cart an expensive camera around. But forecast is better later in the week. Here’s hoping.

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