A brief guide to shooting winter sports

Here are 7 tips for capturing dazzling winter sports shots from Richard Walch, an award-winning sports and action photographer with decades of shooting snow under his belt.
A snowboarder wearing blue and red winter clothing strides away from the viewer in a snowy mountainous landscape under a blue sky. © Richard Walch.

Shooting fast-moving action in snowy locales presents a unique set of challenges.

As you document the daredevils who barrel down mountains, you are always hunting for better powder and bigger tricks. Your batteries drain fast in the frigid air. Fingers usually nimble on the shutter stiffen up in the cold. And the sun shines bright on the slopes.

Richard Walch, a highly decorated pro sports photographer and Canon Ambassador, isn't daunted by these challenges.

"Over time, I learned that once you're on a mountain, you have to be geared up," he says. "You need the right stuff because if you're up there and something goes wrong, there's no room for excuses."

To ensure that you are fully prepared to capture breathtaking winter photography shots, here are Richard's snow sports photography tips.

Snowboarder grazes snow with hand. Shot on Canon. © Richard Walch.

Richard captures pro snowboarder, Bene Meier, sailing down a mountain in Kamchatka, Russia. Shot on Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. © Richard Walch.

1. Plan your day according to the light. But be flexible.

Richard advises that you need to keep your eyes on the light for when it strikes right – and be patient.

"Sunrise and sunset offer beautiful lighting conditions for photography on the slopes. The Canon EOS R50 is a great camera for use in low-light situations such as sunrise and sunset. Its DIGIC X processor is very advanced, so will still produce great results if you need to push the ISO a little higher to compensate for lack of light."

Despite being an entry-level camera, the EOS R50 can shoot at 15 frames per second, which means less time between shots and more time to seize the moment without compromising image quality.

Richard cautions, however, that you shouldn't rely on a narrow window of time. Rather, you need to be ready to spend the whole day on the mountain.

"Mountain weather is hard to predict and can change rapidly. I would recommend getting up the mountain as early as possible," he says. "That way, you are already in position for those moments of perfect lighting."

A skier performs a backflip off a snowy mountain in Kamchatka. Shot on Canon. © Richard Walch.

Richard uses a fisheye lens to capture freestyle skier Sven Kueenle performing a backflip off a rocky mountain in Kamchatka, Russia. Shot on Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, EF 15mm f/2.8. © Richard Walch.

2. Make a connection with your subject.

When you're shooting any sport, it's essential to open a dialogue with your subject, so that you can work together to produce a jaw-dropping photograph.

"If you're on a photo shoot with an athlete, you start from a common ground because you both want to come home with that outstanding image."

The key, says Richard, is to balance your skills as a photographer with the athlete's prowess. "I can tell the athlete if that's a photogenic spot, or what do I need to make it photogenic. But first, I always ask: 'Where do you feel comfortable? Where can you show me the best of yourself?' Then you can get creative together."

Sunrise in the Alps, photographed with a Canon camera. © Richard Walch

Sunrise in the Alps, taken in frigid temperatures (and with extra batteries) on the EOS-1D X Mark II. © Richard Walch.

3. Cold-proof yourself and your camera (and carry extra batteries).

"The trick in the cold is: if you're in the cold, stay in the cold. Stepping into a warm building from the cold slopes will quickly create fog on your camera lenses, so it is important that you keep your gear outside until the end of the day," says Richard.

"Also, low temperatures can drain a camera of power very quickly, so it is best to carry two spare batteries with you to see you through the day."

Of course, you'll want to eat, so bring plenty of snacks with you. Stay fed – and stay warm – to stay focused, says Richard.

"Cold hands will also make it difficult to operate your equipment, so ensure you bring warm gloves, and strong UVP sunglasses to protect your eyes from sunlight and snow glare. Also bring a sturdy, insulated backpack to protect your equipment should you take a fall."

As for cold-proofing your camera, some Canon EOS R System cameras have weather-sealing, which can help protect all the joints, screws, and openings from residue, including the snowy kind.

Skier rides down mountain, spraying snow. Shot on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. © Richard Walch.

Freezing the action, Richard captures Sven Kueenle riding down slopes in Montafon, Austria. © Richard Walch.

4. Choose the right position to shoot, and then get out of the way.

Picking the right spot on the mountain is as important as choosing the right light. There's nothing wrong with some trial and error, but there are some definite positions to avoid shooting from.

"If you shoot straight up a mountain, it looks flat. You always want to photograph either to the side or a little below your subject."

Wherever you decide to get into position, make sure you don't over-direct the action. Let the athlete – whether skier, snowboarder, bobsledder, or anything else – do their thing.

"Posed shots are also best avoided – you always want to be a third-party observer, with the subject looking in the direction they're skiing or snowboarding."

There are, of course, times you'll want to capture a portrait shot. But Richard says not to keep this separate from the action.

"In terms of portraits, either it's an 'in your face' portrait where you're close and talking to the person, or you're a fly on the wall, documenting what's happening. Don't try in-between."

Skier travelling down snowy mountain, with the sun blazing in the background. Shot on Canon. © Richard Walch.

Richard captures professional skier Johanna Holzmann riding through Austria’s largest glacier ski area, Stubaier Gletsche. Shot on Canon EOS R5. © Richard Walch.

5. Shoot into the sun and throw some snow.

Usually, you would want to avoid shooting into the sun. But Richard says this is a rule made to be broken.

"When the sunlight breaks through the clouds, it really is a blessing for mountain photography. Don't be afraid to shoot into the sun – that's how you get some of the best winter sports photos."

Before you aim your lens sunward, though, you'll also want to make sure you don't let too much light into the image.

"The best way to prevent overexposure in these conditions is to manually set the shutter speed to 1/2000 sec, the aperture to f/8 and the ISO to 200. If you are shooting in an automatic mode, be sure to compensate the exposure by +1 to +3 stops, otherwise your images will be too dark."

If you can find the right settings, the resulting effect is worth it.

"The sun will backlight the snow that sprays as your skier or snowboarder moves. If you can get the sun right behind the person, even better. The lenses we have now are really powerful."

Richard says there are hands-on ways to embrace the sun, too. "When you have snow to hand, try throwing a handful of it into the air and shooting straight into the sun – it creates a brilliant effect."

Richard Walch stands holding a Canon camera with RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM lens and looking out at a snowy seashore.

Richard travelled to the Arctic with a modest Canon EOS RP and the compact RF 24-240mm F4-6 3 IS USM lens. He says the lens's lightweight, 10x zoom range and optical image stabilisation make it the perfect lens for shooting anywhere you want to travel light but be prepared for any situation, such as on the slopes.

A close-up of the mode dial on a Canon EOS R7 set to Manual mode (M).

When shooting in the glare of snow-covered slopes, Richard recommends setting your camera to Manual mode (M), which gives you full control of all its settings.

6. Use the right settings for snowy backdrops and fast-moving subjects.

When you’re photographing in snowy surroundings, part of what defines these images are the pristine white peaks. But pure white snow is also highly reflective.

"Now we must get a little technical. The sensor of a camera is calibrated to grey. It understands the reflection of grey. So: if the scene is predominantly white, you need to adjust for that."

Fortunately, there are ways to accommodate the snow.

"In order to avoid the snow looking grey in images with a lot of white, my starting point is a particular combination of settings." Richard recommends putting the camera in M mode (Manual), setting the shutter speed to 1/2000 sec, the aperture to f/8 and the ISO to 200.

For extra points, Richard says a colourful jacket looks especially striking against a snowy background.

In addition to setting up your camera for snow-white scenery, you should prep it for fast-moving downhill action.

"The trick is to guide the autofocus, which means as soon as you can see your subject, you need to start firing. The autofocus learns from frame to frame – it understands which direction your subject is moving in and what speed it is moving and will anticipate where the next image is going to be."

Skier rides down mountain, surrounded by snow. Shot on Canon, © Richard Walch.

Here, Richard captures Legs of Steel member Bene Meier, freeriding down a mountain in Haines, Alaska, USA. Shot on Canon EOS-1D C. © Richard Walch.

7. Bring the right camera for the job.

Richard says that a lot has changed about cameras since he started shooting snowboarding for the sport's leading magazines.

"I remember I was shooting in Fleck Glacier and then after the first week I drove to Vancouver to a laboratory and put in 20 rolls of film. Three hours later, I got them back, and started crying. Because every shot was underexposed," says Richard. "In slide film, if you were half a stop off, you were off."

Nowadays, film processing problems like these are entirely avoidable thanks to digital editing. But you still need to take care to bring the right kind of camera and kit.

"When taking to the slopes you want a camera that is powerful and compact," says Richard. "You are also going to need a viewfinder, as it is often too bright in the mountains to compose an image using just a screen. If you want to shoot a fast action sport, you need to have a camera with a fast frame rate – anything above 5 frames per second."

The Canon EOS R7 and Canon EOS R8 are great companions for on the slopes. Both have extremely fast continuous shooting speeds and Dual Pixel CMOS AF II for fast and accurate focusing. Both the EOS R7's APS-C sensor and the EOS R8's full-frame sensor will capture images in crisp detail.

"Just go for it," says Richard. "You need to start experimenting and find your style. So don't be shy. Start shooting."

John Marshall

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