The Heli-Ski Blog

5 Photo Tips for Heli-Skiing With a Point and Shoot

Posted by Topher Donahue on Jan 20, 2010 2:00:00 PM
Taking a good ski photo is hard.  The combination of the bright light and dark shadows, the speed of the skiers, and the harsh cold and intermittent moisture conspire to make for many disappointing photographs and frozen cameras.  However, by understanding the limits of the conditions and your camera, and by working within them, you can use a point and shoot pocket camera and go home with photos that will show your friends and family what it is really like in powder paradise.  When shooting on assignment, I use a high-end D-SLR, but on many adventures the bigger camera is too cumbersome and I have taken photos with point and shoot cameras that were published in catalogs and magazines.  Here are the 5 big tricks I use to get publication quality images with a point and shoot camera:

1.    Shutter lag – in the film days, even with the cheapest camera, you pushed the button and the camera fired almost instantly.  With digital, the best point and shoots still have a frustrating delay that is the culprit behind millions of missed masterpieces.  The way to beat the delay is to practice pushing the shutter button part way down before the skier enters the viewfinder.  Then, when the skier sucking down a choker face shot, push it the rest of the way and the shutter will fire immediately.  Try for a single good photo at that magic moment of peak action rather than just holding the shutter down while hoping the frame rate will be fast enough - it's not.
2.    Exposure – Every camera sensor has a different tendency with exposure in the snow.  Some overexpose, some underexpose, and none of them gets it right every time.  To know how yours will behave in the snow, test it on a few shots of a friend standing in the snow outside the lodge before you go skiing.  Shoot in the sun and shade, and at a distance and close up because the amount of snow in the frame will have a dramatic effect on the result.  Then review the photos inside and adjust your exposure compensation according to what your test reveals.  
3.    Shutter speed – If you set your camera on full automatic, which most people do, I guarantee your camera will shoot too slow to stop the speed of a skier and you’ll get a lot of blurry photos.  If you have a sport setting, use it, but you'll get even better results  if you have a shutter priority setting and set the shutter speed above 1/500.   Go here for a clear explanation of why Auto sucks for action photography. 
4.    RAW vs JPEG – Some point and shoots will capture RAW files.  What this means in the real world is that there is more information captured with each pixel, so you will have a lot more potential to improve photos that are under or overexposed.  JPEGS are fine if the exposure is perfect, but skiing is hard to get perfect.  Shoot RAW while skiing and you will be able to turn over- or underexposed photos into  keepers.  However, working with RAW files requires a little more effort than JPEGS.  The difference is nicely explained here.
5.    Condensation – Keep your camera cool.   Store it in an outside pocket so it doesn’t heat up with your exertion.  For shooting inside the helicopter, do it as soon as you can after take off while the humidity is still low from the doors being open.  If you wait until a few minutes into a flight, your sweaty friends will steam up your cold glass instantly.  

Finally, not all point and shoot cameras are created equal.  If I was going on a heli-ski trip and was unsure if my camera was up to the task of capturing the trip of a lifetime, I’d pick up a Canon S90 or G11 well ahead of my trip and take a little time to learn it before that first heli lift.  

Topics: Product Information, heli-skiing