This was a fun shoot with a lot of logistics involved together with problem solving to reach the final result.

My client, Angel Fire Ski Resort in New Mexico, wanted a new night ski/boarding image so I captured some more “traditional” style images on the mountain whilst night skiing was in operation.

However I had conceptualised an idea in my mind some time ago that took this idea to the next level.  I wanted to capture an action ski shot at night – freezing the action but also keeping the shutter open to record the night skies.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity to test my theory.

We waited until night skiing was over for the evening so that we would have complete darkness and then headed into the terrain park loaded with various lighting tools.  Working with the assistance of headlamps I set up two Elinchrom quadra strobes, one hidden behind the feature rail providing backlighting to highlight the snow and to also give a glow to the translucent perspex panel beneath the rail.  The other – with a small softbox – was firing directly at where I planned for our snowboard model Chrissi to be on her snowboard.

The approach to the rail needed some work to create a smooth entry and so Chrissi along with Terrance and Michael set about doing this whilst I fine-tuned the lighting setup. Once we had everything sorted we did a couple of test runs.  Because Chrissi would essentially be riding the rail in complete darkness (other than when the strobe fired) we had a small LED panel lighting the start point on the rail, and a headlamp focused on the snow landing.  Both were turned off immediately she hit each mark.

I had my camera set up on my tripod, pre focused, shooting wide open (f2.8) for 30 seconds. I was remotely firing the strobes in front sync – at the beginning of the exposure.  I therefore had to predict where Chrissi would be in the darkness.  The challenge was to get the timing right so that the lights would fire when Chrissi was in the right spot on the rail, with the shutter remaining open for another 30 seconds to expose the night sky.

After the first test shot I found that there was too much ambient light hitting the scene therefore creating a “ghosted” image of Chrissi as the background to the main image created by strobe.  The cause were some outdoor spotlights on a house that was quite a distance off.  Whilst I was working out how to overcome this problem with camera and lighting settings Chrissi actually ran to the house, chatted with the owners and they kindly agreed to turn the lights out.  First problem solved!

Too much ambient light causing ghosting…

Time for the second round of shots.  Chrissi hiked back up the hill, did another run in what was fast becoming an extremely cold night, I fired the shutter – nothing…  I did another test shot – still nothing…  The cold was affecting the wireless transmitter which of course was never designed to operate in these very frigid conditions.  It seemed that the transmitter was switching modes of its own accord….  Terrance who was assisting me for the week went back to base and picked up some pocket wizard transmitters from my kit, these were bigger units that were able to handle the cold conditions better.  A quick test to make sure the lights fired and everything was looking good.

Chrissi hiked up the hill yet again and was just about to set off when a snow grooming machine came up the slopes – his headlights were pointed our way and completely “blowing out” our carefully set up scene…  He stopped nearby to pick up a snow making machine, so we settled down to wait, hoping he would drive off past us.  To our surprise he actually reversed back down the mountain!  Meaning the lights remained pointed our way for longer still, more waiting….

After repositioning the snow gun the groomer headed back up the hill again, his lights still pointed our way and giving the impression he was determined to remain in the area.  Before we had a chance to discuss other options Chrissi had her board off and was once again running over to solve the problem.  She politely let the driver know what we were doing as part of a photo shoot for the mountain and how his lights were affecting our ability to work.  Of course he had his own job to do and a schedule to keep so wasn’t too interested in co-operating.  After getting nowhere with more friendly discussion Chrissi decided on a more direct approach and told him sternly to “go away” (though not quite in those words)!  That worked!!  What a star Chrissi was for going above and beyond the call of duty to make the evening’s shoot happen.

However all of our waiting meant that the clouds had now started rolling in and we were at risk of losing our starry skies if we didn’t get the shot perfected pretty soon…  We shot another pass but unfortunately the LED light had remained on a fraction too long, leaving lines of color in front of Chrissi where she was partially exposed during the 30 second exposure.

Image with color streaks from the LED staying on too long…

Time to really risk everything to get the shot we were after.  One last go and this time we turned Chrissi’s guiding light out early and used no landing light – she completed most of the run in total darkness like the superstar she had been all night.  It worked!  The small amount of cloud that was present by this time didn’t detract from the final shot but added interest and drama to the night sky.  Chrissi’s position was perfect, the lighting was perfect, everything went to plan (eventually)!

The final shot was exactly what I was after and I am really pleased with the image, so too was my client when they saw it the next day.  Worth all of the waiting, the cold fingers and toes, and Chrissi’s extra effort running around through the snow that night…

A big thanks to all involved in creating the final image, a job well done!

Final Image!


All images copyright Chris McLennan.

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