How to Shoot Winter Sports

For some photographers and videographers, winter becomes a period of downtime.  Many folks feel that there is nothing to shoot, and also don’t care for the cold and the snow.  Yup, I get that, but shooting in winter, particularly winter sports, is a great learning experience and can also be a lot of fun. By winter sports, I mean any kind of action done outside.  Skating, skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing, snowmobiling, and hiking, all qualify and I’m sure that you can come up with others.  Consider other winter sports done inside such as figure skating or hockey, or sports not usually associated with winter such as swimming or ringette. See?  There are lots of things to shoot.  Let’s get through some quick tips to make your images more successful.

Shooting on Snow

Snow is both very reflective and mostly white.  This is going to fool all camera light meters.  Find out how to use exposure compensation on your camera, and add two EVs of light to your settings.  This will bring up the detail in everything that is not white and will also make the whites white instead of a dingy grey.

Action Means Higher Shutter Speeds

No matter what mode you use your camera in, action will need higher shutter speeds if you want to freeze the motion and have the pictures be sharp.  You may be able to choose a mode that allows you to set a shutter speed, or you can shoot in Program and force it to go higher with a simple change.  A higher shutter speed means that all things being equal, you will need more sensitivity at the sensor, so raise your ISO setting.  Modern cameras are really good so do not be afraid to set it to ISO 800 outdoors.

If you are shooting indoors, such as in a pool, or indoor rink, the lighting is typically really lousy.  Set your ISO to 3200.  Don’t get all frazzled about digital noise, because if you do a great job on making interesting images, the noise does not matter.

In either case, try to fill the frame with your subject and don’t leave in a lot of background or other information that will clutter the shot and take away from your subject.  This leads us to…

Longer Focal Length Lenses

This concept of filling the frame is extremely important.  You’ve all seen photographs where the principal subject is really tiny, or there is so much in the image that it looks busy and confusing.  A successful photograph directs the eye to the principal subject.  Using a longer focal length lens allows you to fill the frame with the subject and also addresses the reality that you probably cannot get as physically close as you might like to be.  By longer I mean at least 200mm full frame equivalent.  Anything shorter is not going to make it, and the greater the distance, the longer the lens you are going to want to have.  I’ve put together a basic table with recommendations on where to start with shutter speeds and focal lengths for different sports.

Choosing the Right Focus Mode

The default focus mode for all cameras is for a single shot, with the focus points being selected by the camera.  While this works OK for stills, it does not work well for motion.  Most all cameras support some means of continuous autofocus, meaning that the camera will track whatever the focus point is on while you track your subject and keep that focus point on the subject.  Tracking does not mean that the camera will automatically figure out what’s moving and adjust the focus point accordingly.  It really doesn’t work that way.

Consult your manual on how to switch your camera to continuous autofocus.  On many cameras this will be called AF-C, but some call it C-AF and Canon calls it AI-Servo.   I would also suggest that despite amazing technology in your camera, it does not know what your subject is.  Check your manual on how to select a single focus point.  I recommend choosing the one in the centre of the display.  It’s easy to drop this on your subject and so long as you hold the shutter release down halfway, your camera will maintain focus on that point.  When shooting this way, I leave myself a bit of space in the frame to allow for some cropping to recompose after the fact.  I know that on my cameras you can use a joystick or wheel or even touch screen to select a different focus point. After a very long time doing this, I can promise that using the chase the subject method of selecting focus points will be both frustrating and give you poor results.

Guide Table

Minimum Recommended Shutter Speed Minimum Recommended Focal Length Recommended Starting ISO Exposure Compensation Subject
1/800 sec. 200mm 3200 +2 Indoor figure skating or minor hockey
1/500 sec. 200mm 3200 +1 Swimming
1/800 sec. 200mm 800 +2 Tobogganing
1/1000 sec. 400mm 1250 +2 Downhill skiing or snowboarding
1/1000 sec. 200mm 1250 +2 Snowmobiling or ATV Riding
1/2000 sec. 400mm 1600 +2 Iceboating
1/500 sec. 50mm 800 +2 Hiking
1/800 sec. 300mm 1600 +2 Skating outdoors
1/800 sec. 200mm 1600 +2 Horseback Riding

What Else?

What winter shooting scenarios can you think of?  Do you have a shooting situation where you would like some guidance on camera settings?  Is there a winter sport that you shoot all the time and are willing to share your success settings for?  Leave a message in the comments, we would really appreciate it.

If you have questions about the different focal lengths proposed, you will note that I did not specify a minimum aperture.  I make recommendations to fit the common aperture ranges found in generally available lenses. If you have specific questions, you can always ask your Henry’s sales associate, or pop the question into the comments and I will answer you myself.  Be sure to let us know the make and model of your camera.

Until next time, peace.

Ross has been a photographer for over four decades. He has worked as an apprentice, is a professional photographer, videographer and imaging educator. Ross leads workshops, seminars, photowalks and delivers customized mentoring programs. He is also an instructor with Henry’s Learning Lab. You can read more of his thoughts, read product reviews, watch videos and listen to the Make Better Photos and Videos podcast at www.thephotovideoguy.ca.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ross Chevalier

Ross has been a photographer for over four decades. He has worked as an apprentice, been a professional photographer and a photographic educator. He is an amateur videographer and offers mentoring programs. He is an instructor with <a href="http://www.learninglab.ca">Henry’s Learning Lab</a>. You can read more of his thoughts, read product reviews, watch videos and listen to the <em>Make Better Photos and Videos</em> podcast at <a href="http://www.thephotovideoguy.ca">thephotovideoguy.ca</a>.