01 Apr How to become a snowsports photographer
I wasn’t into snowsports photography as much as I was into music photography. I didn’t read enough snowsports magazines or look at enough snowsports photographs to know what made a good snowsports photo. Getting access and passes to photograph snowsports events, however, was very easy, much like gig passes.
We will start with the passes. Remember that I had my music photography website up and running? Well, I used this as my portfolio and business card. When emailing event organisers or PR companies, I always included a link to my website (which at this stage I still thought was the mutt’s nuts).
With the emails to the sporting companies, I toned down the humour a bit and played up the enthusiasm. I did this just because being slopeside requires a lot more skill than standing in a music pit. I wanted to come across as responsible and together. That I’d not use the pass to get drunk and possibly airlifted home (although I have come close to that).
To give you an example of the content and my writing style, here is an email that I sent. This mail lead to a day’s experience with a snowsports photographer. And I also got a pass for the Burton Open in New Zealand 2007:
My name is Melanie May and I am a wannabe snow sports photographer. I used to do photography for rock bands and my work can be seen at www.melaniemay.com. I set up and created this website myself from scratch and had many bands contact me to take their photographs.
However, since discovering snowboarding, I have developed a new love and subject to photograph. So, I'm really trying to break into the snow sports industry as a photographer. I've already had one photo and letter published in Document Snowboard Magazine. But I need more experience and exposure (no pun intended!) to develop (again, no pun intended) my photography skills.
Next winter I was looking at applying for an internship position with your editorial team. For the moment, I am based in New Zealand. I'm down in Wanaka trying to get as much experience as possible. I was wondering if you have any staff, teams, or photographers down here? If so, would they be looking for someone to help them out with, well, anything really! I'll carry equipment, make coffee, blow on people’s hands to keep them warm! Whatever it takes! Even if it was just for a one-off event or shoot.
If this is not possible would you be looking for anyone to take photos of any events or competitions for your magazine? If not, do you know anybody who would, or have any contacts that might be able to help me out? Any help you can give me would be great.
This person, was the editor of Fall-Line Skiing Magazine, and he sent a forward mail out to his colleagues. This was his simple response:
Enthusiasm is good. There are people in NZ - hook 'er up.
Within a day, I had my photo pass and work lined up with the woman behind White Room Pictures.
Through the email I sent, and because it was then forwarded, the editor of Document Snowboard Magazine got in touch. She told me that she would be interested in my images. I was happy about this as Document Snowboard was one of my favourite, if not the only, snowboard magazine I read. In fact, I once had my photo published in the mag. A super cool moment for me at the time.
Therefore, if I can offer any advice at this stage it is this: start sending emails and reaching out to people. It is now easier than ever to reach out, especially if you utilise the power of social media. Be honest about your skill level, what you are hoping to achieve and make yourself indispensable. There is no place for pride or ego when you are starting out. Be humble and grateful and make sure any replies you get, even if they are negative, you respond to in a polite way. You never know when your name will come up in conversation. You may just be remembered and called upon with a pass or internship.
Now, getting down to the nitty-gritty of being a snowsports photographer.
First thing to know – it is bloody hard work. It is not glamorous or cool at all, well it is cool; it is fucking freezing to be more precise. So not only are you dressing for a photography event in clothes that you can move in and not distract others but you also must dress appropriately for the snow! Snow boots, pants, and jacket do not make for gazelle-like movements. Not only do you have to carry your camera equipment you also have to carry your snowboard. This makes for one knackering day especially if you are not super fit, and I totally wasn’t. Being a great snowboarder helps but isn’t essential as I can barely link a turn, but as you are usually in the same position for the event being a great snowboarder is not a prerequisite. You can always use the chair lifts.
Think strategically about your position and the type of photos you want to get. If you don’t want to be moving around then you are going to get similar shots for each of the riders. I stayed on one side of the slope and ended up getting nothing but shots of the underside of the board because I was too close to the riders. However, these shots are great advertising for the board makers so sometimes you can pass these photos on to those companies who want to show its boards in action. I would position myself mid-way along the slope, as it is usually where the most interesting tricks and moves happen since the riders have built up enough speed by then. Be sure to snap the rider as they approach you, when they are nearest to you and when they are moving away from you, as this gives you many different views of the rider, which make for more interesting photos.
Think about the publications that you will be interested in sending your photos to; as Document Snowboard was a UK publication, they told me that they would be interested in British riders. If you want to get into US publications, find the American riders and make sure you snap them.
Make sure you bring something to sit on, not a bloody seat or anything, but something padded and waterproof, like a spare coat or bag, as sitting on the snow and ice for hours is painful, and you will get wet and cold. Also, bring a spare pair of socks; you have no idea how good it will feel having warm feet for the afternoon session after hours of soggy socks.
In terms of equipment I only had a small point and shoot camera so bring what you have, what you are comfortable using and what you can carry. Obviously, the more lenses you have the better the variety of shots and a fast lens will be great for stopping the action and movement of the riders. However, the one thing I would say to try to bring along is a polarising filter to cut out any glare and it will brighten up the sky and give you a cool effect if there are fluffy clouds.
I got a lot of practice shooting my friends when we were just riding the mountain for fun or when they were practising their jumps and tricks. This gave me an idea of the most interesting part of a move and when I should click the shutter button. If you have any mates that will do this for you and let you photograph them don’t be shy, rope them in and tell them you will give them the photos and some beer in return, my mates were easily bought.
When you have a chance to take a break do it, don’t be lazy and say, ‘ah I can’t be bothered moving’, you need to move. You will get cold and you might not realise it. Don’t worry about losing your spot, you will get another one, maybe a better one. But take advantage of the privileges of the press pass. Eat as much free food as you can. Use the private toilets. Sit on proper chairs and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. You need to drink especially if it is a bright sunny day. I drank my own body weight in Mountain Dew when I was doing the Burton Open and I don’t even like the stuff.
Try to catch something interesting in your photos. Mine are boring and very samey – riders in the air, all sky or all snow. There is no sense of perspective in them. The rider may only be a few inches off the ground in my photos, you just can’t tell and this isn’t good. So, try to add in the lip of the kicker, or the mountains in the background or the chairlift, anything to give some perspective. To make the shot look livelier try to get some of the kicked-up snow or spray.
Try and get the rider sheet with all the numbers of the riders. Then, when you have a great shot you can work out who that rider was and send that photo to them, to their management or to a magazine saying what rider it was. Folk like to know who they are looking at in the photo.
The biggest thing that I learnt whilst shooting these events (I didn’t just do the Burton Open, I also did the MTV Snow Jam) is don’t be put off or put down by anyone else. Just because you are starting out doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to be there with the big boys. I remember looking back at the photos I had taken on my camera and in some of them I completely missed the rider and just got the sky. One asshole photographer was looking over my shoulder and said to me ‘nice sky shots you are getting there’. He was really being a dick and trying to put me down so I just said ‘thanks, yeah they are pretty’. Then I moved spots right across the other side of the slope so I wasn’t near him and being put off by him. This remark must have really cut me or shattered my confidence because I can still recall it today nearly seven years later, but at least I didn’t let it affect me at the time and I went on to get a few decent shots.
Like I said in my other posts on rock photography, don’t be the only one to judge your photos. If they are half-decent send them to publications, teams etc. Put them up on your site and out on social media. I never did this with mine, until now, as I just thought that they were shit. I’m sure that had something to do with that guy’s comment. I really wish I had put them out there, as who knows maybe one or two might have been picked up and published, or maybe they wouldn’t, but at least I wouldn’t be sitting here wondering what if? So, last tip; be brave and go for it.
If you have any questions or want to know more about my experiences please leave a comment or question below. I’d love to answer them. Find all my snowsports photos on my portfolio page.