My winter season is made up of three very different categories of snowy terrain that snowboarders utilize in the pursuit of filming video segments and standing atop the competition podium.
First is shooting snowboarding in the streets of a snow filled city (think skateboarding, only with snowboards when a metropolis is covered in powder), second is utilizing the mountains and going deep into the backcountry in search of extreme terrain, and third is the spring time when the sun is blazing and the temps are starting to creep upward. I’m going to focus this article on the springtime element, documenting the utilization of warm spring snow in the controlled area of a mountain resort.
For this assignment I was to document Snow Park Technologies as they built up a terrain park for Burton Snowboard’s Peace Park movie shoot. They would be taking a carefully selected Northstar-at-Tahoe ski run and turning it into a world-class highly modified snowboarding halfpipe. Over a one-week period my job was to shoot pictures of the construction of the snowy feature, grabbing important details along the way that would fit into the overall vibe of the project, then capture the snowboarding element. After receiving the project brief I made my camera, flash and tripod selections to best suit the images needed, the location, access and time of day most shots would be happening. Two DSLR camera bodies would be needed, along with a variety of wide angle and zoom lenses, a couple of small flashes, one big strobe and of course my trusty Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 tripods, a handful of Manfrotto Super Clamps and a Manfrotto FLAT FOLDING light stands.
I arrived on site day one of four that was allotted in bringing this project to life. Having worked with the Snow Park Technologies crew in the past, I was already familiar with their operation and personnel, but we still had to go over all safety practices and time lines making sure everybody was on point. Once completed, I made my plan, a shoot schedule and began my operation of grabbing all key moments as they happened. For these types of photo situations, where you’re responsible for documenting something start to finish running on a schedule, you have to keep in mind most instances will only happen once, you can’t arrange any sort of photo idea that takes away from the pace of the build. However, you can arrange your photo to best suit that situation by the clever placement of flashes and camera, making for a special shot as the moment happens. Looking at this image below of Tyrone welding up the overhang rail. Knowing he’d be there for a few minutes, I moved my strobe into place, adjusted the power to match the daylight, created a shallow depth of field and fired away, resulting in a key image gathered without interrupting the flow.
To build a snow feature of this magnitude, it takes precise planning on where you’re getting the snow from, how far away that stash is (other ski runs) and of course how much you’ll need. Once the pile is ready, two to three Prinoth Snowcats will work non stop pushing this massive stash into two long rectangle shaped sides 300 feet long, 22 feet high while being 60 feet apart from each other running down the slope. At this point the guys drop down a good ‘ol plum line on each side which sets the point for the top of the walls the entire length of the halfpipe, the chainsaw comes out to make a 24inch cut along this line, then the snowcats move in and chip away the snow from middle of the pipe, stepping out each go around from the top to the bottom. After this exercise is completed you’ll have a rough ‘U’ shape, which means it’s time for the pipe cutter. There were no safety concerns while marking the pipe or using the chainsaw, so I moved in close to bring the viewer to the action and make them feel a part of it. However, once the snowcat were up and running, I had to make way and use my zoom lens to achieve the images you see below.
Snowboarding on man-made obstacles requires exact transitions specifically designed in allowing the riders to elevate themselves in the air and land back safely. With that said, the modern halfpipe cutting machines are engineered precisely to what freestyle and competitive riders need to hone their craft, plus it takes a skilled snowcat operator to use this machinery to exact tolerances. With all key components in hand, the operator begins the hours-long journey up and down the pipe putting the finishing touches on the 22-foot high walls. Again, I employed my zoom lens from distance to show the machinery in use, as to not put myself in harm’s way and / or slow down the project.
Under normal circumstances the halfpipe would be complete after the pipe cutter made it’s required passes in fine tuning the walls, but Peace Pipe would go a step further in digging out two channels, features along the deck for the riders to get creative with and a volcano shaped snow mound at the bottom. These extras would require another two days work in preparing this beast for the photo shoot, so I kept on shooting and being motivated to document the process top to bottom. It’s not often a snowcat comes busting through the 22-foot high walls of a perfect halfpipe, so this was the chance for some photos of a unique situation, as most situations will present to anyone holding a camera, you only need to identify, compose and shoot. As you can see in the images below, the snowcat would start on an awkwardly steep angle from the back, scoop out a blade’s worth of snow, turn around and go back up where he came from. After getting most of the snow removed, the guys moved in and cleaned up the sides with a chainsaw and shovels; channel creation now complete.
Four days passed and we now had ourselves a beautifully sculpted snow feature ready for use by some of snowboarding’s elite riders, so I shifted gears from construction documentation to securing images of snowboarders flying through the air displaying good style and technical wizardry. I would still need to respect the riders’ airspace as I did the construction crews’ work area, but now I (and/or my equipment) would be a bit more up close and personal. As each rider found a part of the halfpipe he wanted to work on, I chose my composition, set up flashes (if needed) and got going on completing an image, then getting ready for the next.
Every action photo differs from the previous one due to trick choice, where the maneuver is being performed and time of day, so you have to do your best in capturing a solid photo given all these circumstances. Like many photo shoots you’ll take part in, decisions will need to be made quickly, on the fly adjustments are a given and the trigger is pulled in hopes of capturing the best possible image. If you come in with a plan, have an idea of what you’d like to capture that day (or assigned to capture), ready your equipment the night before and communicate with the athletes and managers, then you’ll have no problem doing a stellar job with your creative vision.