It’s the last day of shooting, and Jaakko Posti is in a race against time. Spring has hit northern Finland, and with it the warming sun. Snow sags, water turns from white to blue, and the shores of Lake Kilpisjärvi slip and soften into treacherous slush. Abandoning their snowmobile five or six kilometers from Mt. Terbmisvaara, Jaakko and pro-snowboarder Antti Autti slog on skis through “rotten snow on the valley bottom,” hoping to reach the peak’s rapidly thawing couloirs in time.
These couloirs – steep, narrow gullies, running down the mountain – are perfect for free snowboarding, and will form the last segment of SCAN, a documentary film featuring Antti as he explores the highlights of Norway and Finland, just inside the Arctic Circle.
“That section,” recalls Jaakko, “is probably my favourite part of the film. What I’m really proud of is that we pushed ourselves so hard to make it. I always like the shots which are aesthetically good, but there’s something special about knowing the effort required to make them paid off. In the wintertime, you can get right under the couloirs with the snowmobile, but it was too risky this time so we hiked all the way up to the 1140m peak and shot the ride back down. We managed to film two of those couloir runs, before we had to get back to civilisation. My average heartbeat must have been something like 160!”
Why is success such a big payoff? Because it’s not assured, says Jaakko. “Most of the time in these sorts of projects you just have to turn back” he laughs. “So you might do a five hour climb, only to find you can’t shoot because the weather has changed, or it’s not safe, or too risky. It can be really frustrating, but when it works, it makes it even better.”
Originally a stills photographer, Jaakko now shoots more and more video, working with athletes close to the sports he loves. The project featuring Antti, a pro for more than 20 years who represented Finland at the Olympics, saw a coming together of interests.
“Around 10 years ago,” Jaakko explains, “he started to get more into backcountry snowboarding and is still on that journey. The film is about him going back to these places that he fell in love with.”
Operating in those areas means filmmakers need a special set of skills, experience, and kit they can rely on. “Snow safety is paramount,” he explains, “and the more information you have about the snowpack in that area the better. So, you might see something that you think will work, but it takes planning, even digging holes in the snow to see the condition – anything to avoid being caught in an avalanche. If in doubt you don’t go up, because bigger faces have bigger avalanches and then it’s in God's hands.”
His affinity with the subject helps him spot better shots, he says. “When you’re working with a pro snowboarder, it’s a collaboration, and I trust them because they know what looks good on camera. And they trust me because between us we know the lines that work. If you don’t know a sport you can get stuff that’ll look pretty to some people, but for those in the know, you need certain things like the right stance.”
His α7R III gear makes this easy, and the main reason is its versatility. As a hybrid shooter, it means he can get brilliant stills and video from the same body, in a situation where weight and space is a huge factor.
With just one body,” he continues, “you only need one set of lenses, and the cage for adding mics can be smaller too. The smaller the photo gear, the more space there is for vital stuff like snow safety gear, extra clothes and water. I typically use the FE 24-105mm f/4 G as I find it covers most of my needs, but I always carry a fast prime like the FE 35mm f/1.8 in case the light levels drop.
The α7R III’s reliable autofocus and image stabilisation is vital for Jaakko, too, letting him work handheld when a gimbal would take up more space, and allowing him to easily keep a boarder like Antti in focus with the subject tracking AF. Performing just as well in video as in stills, “it means I have the speed to react in an instant, and get the candid shots that are vital for a documentary like this,” he says, “keeping the camera clipped to my shoulder strap and grabbing it as soon as something happens.”
Of course, in the Arctic Circle, strapping a camera to your shoulder means it needs good weather sealing and “in six years of shooting with the α7 series,” Jaakko says, “even if the original screen gets a bit icy out in -30 or -40 degrees, or there is water from the melting snow, I’ve never had a problem with it. My Alpha has never broken – and with experience and planning, nor have I.”