It is 4:30 AM and I stumble down the hall to my coffee machine. On the ground next to the door is a pile of photography and snowboard gear that I laid out the night before. I reach for my trusty cup-of-joe and look outside to see that it snowed two feet overnight. A quick glance at the night sky reveals several stars and I know it is going to be an incredible bluebird powder day and a perfect day for ski and snowboard action photography. It takes me half an hour to plow the driveway, load the car and start my drive to Kirkwood Mountain Resort. Once there, I’ll be hooking up with several pro skiers and snowboarders for an early morning photo shoot. So how did I get myself into this amazing position and successfully execute the shoot? The article that follows will give you the skinny.
There are many unknowns in the world of professional photography for people just starting out. A lot of time is spent trying to figure out “how” to find and obtain dream clients, and once obtained how to execute the job. While every commercial photography job varies depending on it’s specifications, one thing is certain. The more information you have before you start, the more chance of success you will have. After a long winter season of shooting a commercial project for Kirkwood Mountain Resort I thought it would be a good idea to demystify how the process works.
Getting the Job
It all started last Fall with a call from Aurora Photos (the photo agency I shoot for). They asked me if I was interested in shooting on a three photographer team to execute a large commercial project for Kirkwood Mountain Resort. I would be responsible for all of the ski and snowboard action shots, the snow cat skiing operation and some scenic images. The other two photographers would handle all of the lifestyle, ski school and interior images as well as some additional scenic shots. It took me all of a second to say yes. I was then informed that the agency would be in touch with further details of the assignment and my contract.
So why did I get this phone call? It comes down to several factors.
- I have been shooting skiing and snowboarding for a long time and have a niche portfolio in that area.
- I had done some photography for Kirkwood in the past and already had a relationship with their marketing department.
- I have been snowboarding at Kirkwood for 10 years and have an intimate knowledge of the terrain and weather patterns.
- I already had personal relationships with many of the athletes that I would be working with and have been photographing them for many years.
- I live in South Lake Tahoe and was available to shoot at a moment’s notice when big storms rolled in.
Several weeks later the snow began to fall and I had a contract and shot list in hand. Now began the waiting game to get the perfect combination of snow, light and access.
Setting up the Shoot
Photographing skiing and snowboarding at a ski resort is a completely different beast than photographing in the backcountry. In the backcountry there aren’t any access issues and you can find perfect untouched snow weeks after a storm. This is not the case at a resort. The window for perfect conditions is short. You have to be able to gain access to the terrain before it is tracked out (snow that has already been skied over and has tracks in it is considered “tracked out”) by the general public. That requires a huge amount of communication with ski patrol and the marketing department.
On a big powder day, ski patrol is going to be extremely busy conducting snow safety routes (bombing the mountain to trigger avalanches) to get terrain open for the public. At a Class A Avalanche Mountain like Kirkwood, this is no small feat. So how do you get to the goods with your athletes before the public is allowed access to the same terrain? One word, COMMUNICATION!
In the winter I am absolutely glued to the weather reports affecting the Lake Tahoe Basin. Days before a storm is set to hit I am already on the phone with the marketing department setting up the potential shoot. From there, the marketing department takes the reins and contacts the athletes and ski patrol to keep them in the loop. Once the storm hits, a decision must be made on when it will break. The decision is generally made the afternoon or evening before the shoot happens. At that point, there is a ton of time spent on the phone letting everyone know that the shoot is a “go.”. Before I go to bed I gather and lay out all of my gear. It is one less thing I need to think about in the morning.
After a 4:30 wake up, I arrive at Kirkwood around 6 AM and more phone calls ensue. My first priority is to link up with a member of the marketing department and get a mountain radio. This allows me to communicate with ski patrol to find out what kind of access we will be allowed. Next, all my attention shifts to assembling the athletes. I always have the athletes meet me an hour before the actual time I’m anticipating loading onto the lift. It is not uncommon for someone to be running late or not show up all together. I like to have everyone assembled early so I can troubleshoot any problems that may arise. It would be really bad to get the green light from ski patrol only to look around and realize I am the only one ready to go.
Between 7:30 and 8:00am I get the call from ski patrol letting me know what terrain we can start shooting on. I grab the athletes and we load the chairlift. At this point I really have to focus. There is only a limited amount of time to get the shots I need before the public will have access to the same terrain. It is imperative to work extremely quickly and efficiently. One piece of equipment that is indispensible on these shoots is a set of two-way radios. At the beginning of every shoot, I always ask one of the athletes to be the last person to ski or snowboard for every sequence we set up. This way, they can communicate with the other athletes and let them know when to ski/snowboard and where to turn/air in relation to the camera. Using the radios maximizes the amount of images I will take home at the end of the day.
As the shoot progresses I will be lucky to photograph the athletes twice on the same piece of terrain before the public is allowed access to it. As soon as new terrain is cleared by ski patrol I am notified over the radio and immediately move the athletes to that location. The whole process is fairly stressful because at the end of the day it is all about the final images. If I’m not getting the access I need I’m not getting the shots I need. I always keep shooting until there is no more terrain to work with. This is imperative because there are only so many days in a season where you are going to get deep snow and perfect light.
Image Processing and Delivery
After many amazing powder days and early mornings it is the end of winter and all my shots are in the bag. So all the work is done, right? No, not even close. Now it is time to deliver the project.
Over the winter I shot thousands of images and only the best ones will be delivered to the client. There are two edits of the work. The first comes from myself and the second from Aurora. After days of editing and processing all of my images, I come up with 145 shots that are worthy of submission. After review by Aurora, 105 are selected as finals for the project.
So now I’m done right? Sadly still, the answer is no. There is one last thing to do.
Of the 105 final images 76 are selected for commercial stock distribution through Aurora’s image partners. This means all brands and logos must be removed from every single image. In ski and snowboard photos this is no small task. Each piece of gear someone is wearing is guaranteed to have at least one, if not several, logos on it. Some of the images only take five or ten minutes to complete but others can take hours. This is where I turn to outsourcing. All of the images that even look like they will take more than a couple minutes to complete are immediately sent to a company I trust with all of my extended Photoshop needs. Within several days all of the images are completed, giving me the luxury of working on other aspects of my business. Those images are then delivered back to Aurora and the project is completed.
I wouldn’t trade my job for anything in the world. I have been able to take a lifestyle that I love and turn it into a living. Much of the reason I have been able to do this is because of relationships I have established within the photography industry. In the beginning, there were so many unknowns on “how” I was supposed to acquire and complete large assignments for clients like Kirkwood Mountain Resort. I still don’t claim to know it all but I have come a long way since my humble beginnings. Over the years many older and more experienced photographers have been kind enough to share their experience and knowledge with me. This article is intended to return the favor for the all the upcoming pros out there. All the best!
Left to right "Dave Trout, Corey Welsh, Sean Cronin and me"
Just another day in the office. Here's to many more!