Like any other type of photography, to make your winter sports images stand out you have to be different. You need to find your style and when you are photographing at a major competition this can be difficult, especially when photographing ski jumping. You are going to the same venues year after year, to the same ski jumps. And there isn’t a lot of space for photographers to position themselves. So my first piece of advice is to always arrive early, try and be the first photographer there to find the best position. I try and avoid where I may have stood last year - you should always try to improve and do something different to what you’ve done previously, even if it might have worked really well.
When finding a position I always look to create an image that doesn’t look ordinary. Light is one of the most important things, and this can obviously change throughout an event, so you need to be aware of that. Then there is the angle. Again, I look for something that will be dynamic and not just a standard shot of a skier or jumper. I can achieve a different look depending on the lens that I use, so I think about what I want to show and, just as importantly, what I want to leave out. I have to make the right choices very early on, which is why I get there early and explore; once the competition has started the athletes will be coming down one after and another, so it’s difficult to change location, especially with all the other photographers there in position too.
Actually capturing the images is often quite straightforward! I use a pair of Sony α9 cameras with different lenses attached so I can quickly change between the two. I set the autofocus to Continuous and use Expanded Flexible Spot or Single Spot which allows the AF to track the subject perfectly. The fast and accurate focus allows me to concentrate on timing the shot and getting the perfect composition.
With ski jumping the athletes are travelling as fast as 100km/h down the slope, so fast autofocus is essential, but to freeze that moment where they are flying through the air I also need to use a fast shutter speed. Usually I will set the shutter to 1/1000th or 1/800th sec, and I will set the rest of the exposure manually. I use manual exposure because the bright white snow can often affect a camera’s metering and make images look too dark. With the shutter speed set I can use the electronic viewfinder and rear LCD screen to see exactly what the final images will look like. This allows me to adjust the aperture, the ISO sensitivity, and also the white balance, to get the perfect exposure in-camera.
There are times when I want to show the incredible speed that the athletes are travelling, so in these cases I use a panning technique. I reduce the shutter speed to maybe 1/100th or 1/80th sec and try and pan the camera at the same speed as the athlete. This keeps the subject sharp, but will show motion blur on the background, which helps to emphasise the speed of travel. It’s a great technique to make your images stand out.
When it comes to lens choice, it really depends where you are positioned and what you are trying to show. I have the FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM lens for when I want to get wide to show lots of the background and environment. I use the FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens as a general all-round lens, and I am a big fan of the FE 100-400mm f/4-5.6 GM lens too. The 100-400mm lens is very lightweight for the focal length, which makes it great for when I have to move around the ski slopes, and it provides the perfect focal range for most of the images I take.
In terms of what I want to capture, the moment that I am really looking for is often one of emotion, as well as action. I want to capture the speed and intensity of a moment, but I also look for the athletes’ reactions after the event. I’m looking for the emotion, and that may not be just from the athlete themselves, but also how they interact with the crowd - the fans and supporters cheering them on. It is these small moments that can really create memorable images.
My final piece of advice would be to use any experience you have from other types of photography. As well as photographing lots of different sports, I used to do a lot of street photography. The experience and practice of taking street photography has helped me look for interesting angles, backgrounds and light. There are always skills from other styles of photography that can be incorporated into winter sports photography. It is all part of the developing your own style and ideas.
"What matters for me in photography is not what a picture is showing and presenting, but rather what kind of questions it provokes"