Dean Blotto Gray
Lake Tahoe, California, USA
Time / Date:
14:30 / March 19, 2013
Camera Body: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikon 70-200mmm f/2.8 VR II
Other: Pocket Wizard Remotes, out of production flashes and Elinchrom strobe
Shutter Speed: 1/250s
Focal Length: 70mm
I’m a self-taught photographer from Phoenix (Arizona, USA) documenting snowboarding during the winter months, switching over to bicycles in the summer, while taking pictures of all the travel and moments in between. The background on the this image was wanting to capture snowboarding action in a very unique environment, with a soft focus on how little snow this region had been receiving. My approach to making images is if you envision a photo, go make it happen.
Documenting snowboarding in the alpine environment presents a whole list of complications and challenges, while at the same time offering up glorious moments day after day every season. Mother Nature will never set up a mountain range exactly the same from one winter to the next, given weather patterns, wind direction and precipitation levels. Access is the biggest issue for any photo mission into the wilderness, as you’re dealing with mountain terrain, avalanche risk and sudden changes in weather. With good planning and risk assessment in place, you can safely go about your business of taking fantastic pictures everyday you make the trek in.
With that said, I had photographed these ice caves in Lake Tahoe, California years ago under record snowfall accumulation, but this time would be different due to record low snowfall amounts. Getting to the spot was no problem, especially with minimal snowpack and zero avalanche risk, not much time and effort was required transporting gear and personnel in.
My third time to this location, with the previous visits offering a lot more snow resulting in an entirely different approach to the snowboarding and the photos. In thinking about this spot, I knew there would be very little snow, so I hoped there was something that could be done, which is usually very difficult for snowboarding action, since you need a fair bit of snow to snowboard.
DSLR, three lenses to choose from (given which maneuver the snowboarder would be attempting), one strobe, two flashes. Camera kit philosophy: Bring the gear you need to make a photo happen, bottom line.
Making the Shot:
With many snowboarding images, the location needs to be built to specification in order for the snowboarder to complete his maneuver successfully (if the snowboarder doesn’t land his trick, the image doesn’t get used, regardless of what went into the shot). Prepping this location took a half-day’s work twenty-four hours prior, with the benefit being you show up to an obstacle that’s ready to go.
Already familiar with the location, my biggest concern was having enough snow to create what snowboarders call a ‘quarterpipe.’ A small cornice had formed above the location, so two hours breaking off medium sized snow chunks and letting them free fall into the flat bottom created enough supply to build and shape the obstacle and run-in. Another three hours of moving snow chunks and making a perfectly shaped quarterpipe rounded out the afternoon of ‘spot preparation.’ I then let the obstacle set over night so the snow would completely harden up and maintain its shape when being used for the photo shoot.
The spot preparation was a solo affair this time around due to Danny’s schedule, but the upside to ‘pre-building’ a location is when Danny showed up the next day, he wouldn’t need to expend any energy building, only riding, which would give him extra juice in the tank for more attempts, which ultimately would give me more photo opportunities! Under most circumstances, the entire photo, film and rider crew builds together to get an obstacle ready in a timely fashion, shot and torn down when completed.
We arrived the next day under cloudy skies, which was perfect so I wouldn’t have to deal with harsh sunlight and dark shadows; already Mother Nature was lending a hand! Danny got to sorting out run-in speed and what the transition of the quarterpipe would feel like. I got to moving flashes around and setting up a lighting scenario. I used a strobe inside the cave to backlight to the ice, and two small flashes to illuminate the snowboarding action. Thirty minutes of moving flashes, adjusting intensity and getting my exact angle and lens choice brought us to the first attempts.
This obstacle is considered small in the grand scheme of snowboarding terrain nowadays, but with Danny’s infinite talent on a snowboard he was able to boost high above the lip to create a great piece of snowboarding action. He probably hit the quarterpipe twenty or thirty times over the course of two hours, mixing in different maneuvers and grabs.
Any artificial lighting scenario takes thirty to forty-five minutes to dial in, as with this image. Placing a strobe in the cave required constant monitoring of the melting ice as you walked in and out of this zone, as it would crush you had a chunk broke away. The small flashes lighting the action were on opposite sides at different intensities, also snooted to keep the flash fall off to a minimum. The timing of the photo is critical to the snowboarder, as he wants to be at maximum amplitude and have perfect style. It’s possible you’ll snap the perfect image, but if the rider misses grabbing the board or their style isn’t to their liking, you need to try again.
I was able to keep my shutter speed at 250 (considering the speed at which he was traveling through the air wasn’t very fast) and the aperture around 8.0, with the cave strobe on half power and the small flashes at three-quarter power. I used a standard reflector on the strobe, while snooting the small flashes to keep the artificial light exactly on Danny, while minimizing any flash fall off on the rock face around him.
Once completed, we tore down the obstacle, cleaned up our gear and left the area as if no one had ever been there, minus a few footprints! All in all a great day enjoying the backcountry vibes while capturing some quality photos amidst a poor winter season. Everything is what you make of it.
Editing & Processing:
Adding metadata and renaming files surely isn’t any photographers’ favorite task, but a necessity nonetheless in the modern photo world. After getting through this numbing activity (my schedule only allows for editing every couple of months, so the files pile up until the big edit comes along), I then move into file manipulation. With this image I had a couple of different ‘looks’ I wanted to achieve, as this image would be used in different print publications with very different paper stock, so the actual edit didn’t take very long, as most of the work was done on location with the composition and lighting. As I mentioned in the story, Mother Nature delivered cloudy skies this day so I had very even ambient light to work with, which made the entire process that much easier (and faster).
I set out to capture a unique snowboarding action shot at a very neat location and feel that I did as best as possible given record low snowfall.
If you want to shoot snowboarding, you need to travel with snowboarders full time or live in a place where snowboarding is happening. From there you’ll find so many cool opportunities to capture one of a kind photos and document amazing moments, along with plenty of fun and laughter.
Snowboarding inspires you to get outside and be active, seek snowy destinations, locate good terrain and have fun with your friends. Documenting these activities is my inspiration to shoot photos, along with all the beautiful places your snowboard, friends and camera will deliver you to.
About the Photographer
Snowboarding becomes a culture only when the experience is shared and Dean Blotto Gray is a photographer dedicated to sharing the snowboard experience. For over 250 days each year, for the past 14 years, Gray has been documenting the snowboarding life. In doing so, he has become one of the most inexhaustible photographers the young sport has yet seen.
Indeed, the volume and quality of the images he produces go beyond mere documentation to become expressions of thematic motifs in this youth culture movement. At once emotive, artistic and journalistic, his images create a natural bridge between the subject and the viewer. His work has not only elevated and influenced how snowboarding is viewed, but also how it is documented by others in the field. As the Principal Photographer for Burton Snowboards, he is among the sport’s most prolific, most widely published, and most keenly aware of snowboarding’s cultural significance.
Somehow, Gray also finds time to aim his camera at other subjects with the natural curiosity of the artist and technical precision. Gray continues to expand the scope of his work by bringing his well-trained eye to cycling, landscapes, architecture, travel, and beyond.
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