People often ask “what is the hardest sport to shoot?”. I always say “downhill skiing”. Sure there are 5 hour long baseball games and 5 day cricket matches, football games in the rain, sleet and snow. Heck just making it through an Olympic games is a bit like boot camp. But when you add up all the work and skill that goes into making a good downhill skiing picture, for me, it’s the most difficult sport to shoot.
Lake Louise hosts “Winterstart” each year. The season’s first World Cup alpine downhill skiing races is held at what has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. They come because Lake Louise is cold.
It’s beautiful, but it’s cold. If it’s -20c when you head up the hill in the morning with 50 lbs of cameras on your back it’s an average day. The cold means snow making , and they always have enough snow here early in the season to hold the races; take that global warming!
Now downhill skiing is hard not just because you’re having to shoot a skier coming at you at over 100 kilometers an hour , but the course they ski is some 3 km long and you need to find a position to shoot the race. You need to think about what the line will be, how the skier will come in and out of your limited focal range. You place your bet, set up your gear and wait for the race. Photographers have to be in position one hour before race time, so now you have to say warm. There are lots of ways to do this, but good ski boots, hand warmers, toe warmers and good gloves are essential. Ask any photographer that works in the cold and they will not have enough fingers on there hand to count all the different type of gloves they have tried.
So your camera is out . Your lens is usually long , meaning over 400mm. The skiers come fast. Safety has become a huge concern of the race organizers so each year we get pushed farther and father away from where we want to be on the course. The 400mm lens turns to a 600mm lens and 600′s turn to 800′s and now your dealing with F5.6 and very little depth of field. You become a little more blinded in picking up the skier as they come into range the longer the lens. The best pictures usually come from a lip or edge in the snow, that helps separate the skier and his skis and gives the picture depth. It also makes the position more blind as your down below the skier and they just appear on the edge of the lip out of nowhere, and zoom, they are gone. We are able to work around this by knowing when the timing intervals are for each race, if the racers leave the start every 1:15 seconds we can time our watches so we have a better idea of when to put your glove on a frozen lens and a frozen camera to your face. This all goes to hell if they have to make any repairs to the course, or a racer goes down. Then it’s back to a waiting game, making sure you don’t breath too hard and fog up your viewfinder. I would say most of what I shoot is zone focused, you focus on a location on the course where you think the skier will come through and then hit the button when they do. The new cameras are capable of autofocus, but that means being able to pick up the skier and hold them on target, it works for some positions, but for others it’s not the best option.