This week I was fortunate enough to be asked to shoot the Rockstar Ski Cross Grand Prix at Blue Mountain for the second consecutive year. This year’s course looked amazing and the Canucks were coming off an incredible gold medal sweep at Deer Valley, Utah in the World Freestyle Ski Championships. The Canadian team was riding high and looking to continue their claim to the top spots on the box. I covered the event last year and had been looking forward to shooting this one ever since.
I got up to Collingwood early on Wednesday morning to catch the first round of qualifying. The always pleasant and deadly organized Kelly O’Neil got me all setup and I was off to capture the action. It was great to see Kelly but it was also nice to see a shot I took of her last year all over the resort. Blue always does great things with my shots and I was really happy to see this one being used so successfully. It was used on a billboard as well but I missed it. Don’t care what kind of photographer you are, nothing beats seeing your shot on a billboard. Thanks for the great smile Kelly!
I wanted to reacquaint myself with the course and the athletes. My game plan this year was to get flavor shots during the two days leading up the main event and killer action the day of the race. I wanted to grab a few candid photos and athlete portraits around the start gate then scope out the course and see where I wanted to be positioned come race day. I also wanted to get my client different images from the previous year to complete their image bank. I had lot of blowing snow during last year’s event and was really hoping for some clear sky to shoot this year’s. Conditions at the bottom of the hill were decent but I wanted those candid shots so I headed up top. It’s like its own micro climate up there. Conditions were cold and not favorable for what I was after. I wanted some razor thin, intense shots of racers’ eyes and faces. I was shooting at apertures between f/1.4 – f/2.8. At these apertures you’re only getting one eye sharp and focus is critical. There was a lot of fine snow in the air and getting good focus lock was difficult. I focused manually when I could but that’s tricky to do with candid shots. Normally shots at this aperture are prefaced with, “ok, now don’t move!”. I tried to use the snow in my favor and incorporate it into my images. I managed to get a couple of shots I am really happy with.
Satisfied with the shots I pulled in the morning, I made my way back down and hiked up to a hip I had spotted earlier. I really wanted that tight, fast action and this seemed like a good spot. Like most of the locations I liked on the course however, this one was back-lit. One of the elements I was looking for was a bit of roost. As fast as the skiers are going, a bit of spray really goes to emphasis how much they are pushing the edge. The back-light worked for me here, giving me a bit of rim-light and lighting up the spray.
I normally pick up a long lens for a shoot like this but Nikon Canada was at the Canada Games and couldn’t help me out. Last year I used a 200mm-400mm f/4.0 and this year I was looking to use a 400mm f/2.8. I had to improvise and ended up using my teleconverters. I brought a AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E-II and TC-20E-III. The later is Nikon’s newest model which offers a new optical design, adding an aspherical element. Teleconverters only work with top level, uber fast glass and the reviews of them paired with my 200mm f/2.0 were good. The TC-14E gave me an effective focal length of 280mm at f/2.8 and the TC-20E got me out to 400mm at f/4.o. AF performance was decent and the image quality was as good as wide open at f/2.0. I did stop-down a bit to see the difference but it was marginal. I like the extra reach and options this setup gave me and am really happy with the shots.
Thursday was the longest day on the hill with practice running pretty much all day. I drove up top and made my way down to some spots I had earmarked the day before. Skiers were going solo for the most part so I was after clean backgrounds and subject isolation. The advantage of shooting only one subject was that I could still shoot pretty much wide open whereas once the four skiers came though I would have to stop-down to f/11 and smaller to get the group in focus. This also makes everything else in focus which isn’t a great look – Très point-n-shoot. Rendering pure white backgrounds out of focus seems pointless but if gives you that slight separation that makes all the difference.
The other new item I added to my kit and was testing for the first time were cold weather gloves designed specifically for photography. There are a few on the market but I went with the Aquatech Sensory Gloves. Action sports photography is a little bit like finger gymnastics and while the concept behind these gloves is sound they didn’t give me the dexterity I was hoping for. The tiny hole in the neoprene left the ball of your finger exposed for tactile input but it was too small to really get a proper feel. You had to pull the glove over your finger which, in these temperatures was not feasible. The major design flaw though is that your finger has to go through this tiny neoprene hole and in doing so cuts the circulation to your exposed finger tips. I would have been better off cutting the finger tips off a warmer pair of gloves. The grip was good and they allowed the camera to sit comfortably in my hands. These gloves will work well on warmer days but for -20 shooting they just don’t cut it.
Race day, I decided to make my way back to the hip from day one. I knew that’s where the action was and that if the group of four skiers were still together at that point in the race I would get something really interesting. There were a few other photographers covering the event and I knew they would all be converged at the big kicker. I knew that everyone would have that shot and I wanted something different. I shot there a bit last year, and while it looked great to the naked eye, the photos of it were mediocre. It made for a better motion grab than a still. The skiers looked awkward in most of the shots and I didn’t find it best showed the race to win. I got to my spot early and was the only shooter there. I built myself a nice platform to stand on and hunkered down to get the shot I was after.
I shot the entire event with my 200mm f/2.0 with the exception of a few images with my 85mm f1.4 up top. I love shooting this race and am already looking forward to next year. Big thanks to the team at Blue Mountain, Rockstar and Columbia for once again putting on such a great race. It was a World class event at a world class resort. Congrats to Chris Del Bosco for the big win on home turf!
If you weren’t able to catch the action live, Rogers Sportsnet plans to broadcast two, one-hour shows from Blue Mountain on Saturday, February 19.
FEBRUARY 11 – BLUE MOUNTAIN – FIS FREESTYLE WORLD CUP – MEN’S SKI CROSS
Top five: 1. Chris Del Bosco (Sudbury, Ont.); 2. Andreas Matt (AUT); 3. Tomas Kraus (CZE); 4. Filip Flisar (SLO); 5. Nik Zoricic (Toronto, Ont.)
Canadians: 14. Stan Rey (Whistler, B.C.); 21. Davey Barr (Whistler, B.C.)
FEBRUARY 11 – BLUE MOUNTAIN – FIS FREESTYLE WORLD CUP – WOMEN’S SKI CROSS
Top five: 1. Anna Woerner (GER); 2. Fanny Smith (SUI); 3. Jenny Owens (AUS); 4. Katrin Mueller (SUI); 5. Kelsey Serwa (Kelowna, B.C.)
Canadians: 10. Julia Murray (Whistler, B.C.); 14. Danielle Poleschuk (Calgary, Alta.)