Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ski Photography

Eric Hjorleifson at Chatter Creek by Dan Hudson
"Ski Photographer" must be high on the scale of the plumiest jobs on earth. World renowned ski and snowboard photo-journalists like Canadian, Dan Hudson not only get paid well for doing what they love, but they also get a kind of vocation vacation whenever they work, scouring the backcountry powder for poignant pictures.

With an art degree from Ontario’s York University, Hudson fell into photography by chance after moving to Banff for an artist residency program. A San Diego surfing background led him to cross over quite naturally to snowboarding at Lake Louise and Sunshine. “Once I started snowboarding, the next natural evolution of that for me was going into the backcountry,” says Hudson from his hometown of Canmore, Alberta.

Eric Hjorleifson at Lake Louise
by Dan Hudson
He started in snowsports’ journalism in the early days of snowboarding when competition for magazine-quality photos was scarce. “I started off trying to work with photographers but a lot of them couldn’t get to where I wanted to be, so I started taking photos myself,” he says. The transition was logical, after working with photography before on art-related projects. Throughout a year of backcountry forays, he waited until he had accumulated a panoramic portfolio of extreme ski/snowboard photos before submitting to magazines. “All the editors phoned for more, so it snowballed from there,” he explains. “They all said that what I was doing was very different from what they were getting.”

What followed was over 12 years of assignments, travelling, and increasingly extreme snowboarding for Hudson. One of his most radical trips was Russia where he preceeded Putin in identifying the ski hill at Krasnaya Polyana (used in the Sochi Olympics) as a top venue:  “It was a fantastic trip. I was among the first North American crews to go there. There’s a great ski hill at Krasnaya Polyana with old double chairs bought from various European ski hills. They stack up in a continuous row of four lifts which take you to the top of mountain, one after the other: a really long trip. There’s a bit of hiking, then you have 3000 vertical feet couloirs, scary, steep stuff. When you come out, you just traverse to the bottom chair and go up again.”

A Day in the Life of a Ski Photographer

Colin Puskas photographed by Dan Hudson
at Kicking Horse
“Taking photos is not a random kind of thing. People tend to think you go up the hill with a camera and take pictures of people passing by. To get a top quality photo of a pro athlete, doing the kinds of things people want to see in magazines, is not random,” Hudson warns wannabees.

A typical day starts before the shoot, when Hudson works with his pro athlete models, finalizing details and monitoring the weather. “The night before we’re on the phone back and forth, checking weather, which we would have been monitoring for weeks on end to get the right conditions. We’re looking for high pressure – if it looks like it’s good, we start to coordinate with the ski areas, planning where we’re going, what we’re doing, where we’re meeting.”

Backcountry near Sunshine,
Eric Hjorleifson by Dan Hudson
There is much consultation, too, with ski patrol regarding avalanche updates. “The key thing is we spend quite a bit of time talking to people and checking the internet for avalanche conditions. There has to be a certain stability before we even go,” said Hudson, whose crew always has basic or even advanced avalanche training. “If I’m going backcountry out of Sunshine, I go and talk to the snow safety guys there first. They know more about what’s going on than all the websites, all the specifics.” Snow Safety at any ski resort, he says, will always have additional and often important knowledge about the snowpack in the vicinity of the resort. "Their advice is invaluable and it is also an added layer of safety if they know where we are going."

With pre-shoot prep complete, and safety equipment packed, the day starts out early. “If you wait until the lifts open, by the time you set up the shot, maybe 10 people have already gone through the powder. But I don’t often take pictures on the ski hill: you have to go just off if you want powder shots,” says Hudson

Backcountry trips start before daybreak in order to reach the assigned area in optimum light. Early March to early May yields the most propitious weather, snow conditions, stability and light.
The shoot is a collaborative effort where Hudson works closely with his subject: the pro skier. “Say the pro says ‘I want to go off this cliff’, I then have to find the place to shoot, below or to the side, coordinate with radios and also throw a lot of snowballs to indicate the trajectory or the turn,” he explains. He must then line up the shot to include scenic landscape elements, mountains, and the steepness of the slope. “Then I let them come through my shot as opposed to me following them with the camera,” he says.

Dennis Bannock at Lake Louise by
Dan Hudson
Most of a typical day is spent trying out different stunts, various angles and diverse terrain and the crew rarely gets back before dark. But it’s all action, with little waiting around unless it’s for elusive sunny windows on a cloudy day. “For me it needs to be a fun day out for everyone,” says Hudson. “I really enjoy taking photos but also really enjoy the skiing. We’re doing a lot of cool stuff out there. It’s not quite the same amount of vertical as if we were not working, but we’re still getting really good quality skiing or snowboarding.” Although he also skis, Hudson prefers snowboards as the real powder tool, for playing with the terrain.

After the shoot, it’s time to edit the photography and present the best portion of it to editors. Because of his art background, Hudson is a stickler for standards in photography: “Some of the skiers, I drive mad because I’ll only release what I think is good. I edit pretty tight.” He reduces his shots to a selection of around 20 from which editors will pick maybe 10 of the best.

Hudson’s Photography Tips

Andrew Hardingham at
Sunshine by Dan Hudson
Use Canon - it’s the leader in sports photography. Although lenses are expensive, you can replace the body as new technology comes out. Right now I really like the Canon 7D: I like minimal gear.
-       My style is on-slope photography, not across the valley. You need to shoot across the slope to get a sense of the steepness or gradient.
-       Never shoot up the slope.
-       Shoot the person in the sun and in colourful clothes such as red or yellow.
-       Go out with a crew of two skiers or snowboarders – any more can lead to waiting.
-       Cross lighting is really important on snow to show the landscape. If you have the sun right behind you, it is like using a flash, it flattens everything out. If the sun is behind and to one side of the photographer, then you get shadows and definition.
-       It is best to take little sections of landscape - if you try to capture everything you end up with nothing.
-       If using a ‘point and shoot’, set shutter speed priority to 1,000th of a second and pre-focus.
-       Repetition is the best way to get good pictures.

Future Plans

With changes in technology, the rise of the internet and the recession wreaking havoc on the magazine world, Hudson says his photography career peaked around 2007. “Now is probably not a good time to become a photographer – everyone has a camera, it doesn’t cost anything to print photos anymore. Cameras themselves are cheaper, you just buy a memory card and there are no more costs. Video is cheaper, too, and good quality on regular cameras.” This has led to a plethora of video and photo contests, established by resorts and ski companies, to get free photographic marketing for their products.
Hudson says he sees a lot of good photography posted for free on photo-sharing sites and Facebook where photographers have happened to be at the right place, at the right time. The ever-improving photographic technology will encourage many amateurs into professional photography, he thinks, but “the downside is there is very little recourse for them to sell their photos.”

Karleen Jeffery at Klondike Heli, Atlin, BC
by Dan Hudson
Even a snowboarding sensation like Hudson has to know when to hang up his split board and telephoto zoom lens. “Doing this kind of photography working with top pro athletes, they seem to stay around the same age of 19-25 but I keep getting older and it’s becoming harder to keep up with them,” he laments. Now semi-retired, Hudson has reverted to the life of a full-time artist while keeping his hand in shooting and snowboarding at Sunshine and on catskiing trips.

Elements of Hudson’s photography career have filtered into his art, where he now produces media-mixed works, combining painting, video and sculpture. His time-lapse video/sound installation, called The Quarry, won three international awards in the 2010 film festival circuit.It’s in the Art Gallery of Calgary, an LED in a gold frame. It looks like a picture, except it moves,” he explains. Taken over a year, in the same spot but with seasonal changes, the video plays with different ideas of linear and cyclical time. In his usual untrammeled way, Hudson says “I never know if anyone will want to buy my art, but I want to do it anyway.”
Check out his art and photography at:

Joey Vosburgh at Kicking Horse by Dan Hudson


  1. Yeah Really! It is true that being ski photographer is not easy because there are many challenges when you have to prove yourself. Definitely you have also done fabulous job through this article. You have wonderfully explained about ski photographer.

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  2. Its truly great job by you to aware the people about the ski photography. I just love to see your clicks because you had captured every moment brilliantly.

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