We sat down with three photographers – one established veteran of the sport, one previous photo editor at a top industry publication and one up and coming freelancer to get their take on skiing, media, technology and more. If you’ve ever considered a career in photography, enjoy the glossy images often seen in the magazine pages or just an curious as to what its like to be a professional photographer, we encourage you to take a look at this.
In this era of 41 megapixel smartphones, push button GoPro’s that capture in 4K, idiot proof touch screen user interfaces and shoot-at-no-cost digital capture, the career choice of a photographer seems to be an increasingly challenging path. That said, when comparing the work of the “Instagram Enthusiast” or hobbyist to that of a pro, the differences are generally immediately apparent. Whereas it may be easy to get “cool” shots, the best work of a pro will be awe inspiring. It’s art. It’s quality. And like anything worth doing, it’s something that takes years of learning, hard work, experimenting and commitment to master.
We’ve rounded up three of the most interesting photographers we know. All filling different roles in the ski industry…
Will Wissman – Will is an industry veteran having shot for 18 years living in Salt Lake City. Wissman has been published in more magazines and commercial catalogs than we have time to list. He’s often atop the short list of go-to photographers for any “A-list” pro; be it hanging out of the door of a heli with a long lens in AK or humping his gear deep within the Andes in South America. Put another way, what Yoda was to the Jedis, Will is to the ski photographers – A true master of his craft. Will shoots both stills and video, check out more at his photography page and his video work at Stellar Media.
Cody Downard – Cody has been a professional photographer for 13 years, shooting primarily in the Eagle/Vail valley prior to moving to Boulder for a career with Ski/Skiing as their head photo editor. After this, he moved to Jackson, WY where he freelances with a number of clients in addition to helping teach a photo clinic or 10 through the year. Check out his photography work in more detail here.
Trent Bona – Trent has shot professionally for over 3 years and calls Crested Butte home. Although perhaps a lesser known name in ranks of ski & mountain bike photography, he takes his craft very seriously and is certainly one of the “up and comers” in the game. We worked with Trent last season and feel confident his time as a “lesser known” name is coming to an end. Trent too splits his time between photography and video, even working a fair amount of time in the edit bay. Check out his page here.
In this interview we talk new age media, how the profession has changed and even try and get each one to reveal a few tips or tricks. If you like photography or have ever been ever slightly curious, read on…
Get to know the photogs…
[EU] – How did you get into photography?
Wissman – I purchased my first camera in 1995, I was 20 years old and the only thing I was sure of was I liked to explore new things, mostly locations littered with mountains. I figured bringing a camera along might be a good idea. Skiing was a passion for me from my very first turn at Ski Santa Fe. I was 12 years old and I remember it like it was yesterday. I knew right then I had found something special. Photography became a way to express the stoke I had for the mountains and creating tracks on them
Downard – I got into photography at age 8 or so. My dad competed in triathlons and running races and he suckered me into going with him and taking photos of him with his old Canon AE-1. He would set it up for me and wish for the best. I am not sure I got many decent shots, but that’s how it all started. I got into photography professionally in 2001. I had been shooting lots of nature photography after college while living in Yellowstone, but someone offered to pay me for a photograph in 2001, and I realized I may be able to make a job out of it!?
Bona – I spent most of my time growing up in the piedmont of North Carolina dreaming of bigger adventures than my backyard. I was one of the last generations of high school students to learn film photography and dark room skills and I was immediately hooked. All I wanted to do was travel to new places and capture photos. Unfortunately life got in the way and I went to Appalachian State University to pursue degrees in Finance/Banking and Spanish. It was there in the mountains of North Carolina that I realized I wanted to live the rest of my life amongst the mountains. After graduating I moved straight to Crested Butte, totally unseen. I just wanted to get into the Rockies and I had heard it was a pretty real little town with good people and lots of mountains. As soon as I arrived I knew I never wanted to leave. But I wasn’t sure bartending and working at the ski resort were going to support me for the long haul and that is when I started to consider combining my passion for photography and my business school education to create a photography brand that could grow across multiple industries. It wasn’t easy and I subsidized it for a few years working odd jobs and behind a bar in Crested Butte. But after a lot of stumbles, some incredible opportunities and a lot of wild adventures, here I am. I get to travel the world with my camera for a living. It is everything I ever wanted and I am immensely grateful to all the people who have supported me since the very beginning.
[EU] – What photographers inspire you?
Wissman – Galen Rowell
Downard – William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams, and many other photographers inspire me.
[EU] – Favorite place to shoot?
Wissman – Haines, AK
Downard – Jackson Hole, Grand Targhee and Tetons in general.
Bona – Anywhere it has been puking snow or anywhere with cultures unique to mine. The best is when you get both, which is probably why Japan is pretty high on my list of favorite places I have shot skiing
[EU] Any shots or moments that will always stand out in your mind?
Wissman – Picking a single favorite is difficult. The one image/day that always stands out is the first sunrise action shoot I attempted. It was my second year on Alta’s graveyard snowmaking crew and I had quickly become fond of watching the sunrise each morning. The previous summer I purchased my first camera an old Minolta with a blazing 4 frames per second motor drive. At the time I knew very little about photography, the one thing I did know was I loved to ski powder and their was nothing like standing on a summit covered in snow during the phenomenon know as alpenglow. I distinctly remember standing in the Borge Anderson photo lab here in Salt Lake City when I got my first look at the role of film. I was blown away! Its difficult to describe my reaction looking through the slide loop. That role of film sparked something in me that continues to grow. As if I’m always chasing that perfect moment.
Downard – I have a few shots from Vail, Colorado last winter that will be very hard to beat. There was a micro storm that hit a certain portion of the mountain and dumped a ridiculous amount of snow in a very short time. It was so deep and snowing so hard that I actually had a hard time shooting. It was a day I won’t forget anytime soon.
[EU] What is the biggest “false assumption” about being a professional photographer?
Wissman – 10% photography 90% the rest
Bona – I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of other work that goes into being a full-time professional photographer. I spend the vast majority of my time running a successful business. It is a lot less time out shooting than a lot of people would think.
Downard – People think it an easy/laid back job. It is a great job, but you are always working…emailing clients, working on your website, thinking about marketing, shooting, editing and thinking about it.
[EU] Things you are most tired of seeing in ski photographer?
Wissman: Sub-par print advertisements..
Downard – Nothing ruins a perfectly peaceful, beautiful night camping in the mountains than a bunch of drunk people with fireworks. (author hides fireworks…)
[EU] How many days are you clicked into skis on snow?
Wissman: -About 175-200 days a year
Downard – 80-100
Bona – At least 100, some years maybe a lot more
[EU] With how easy image capture has become in recent years, where does “button clicking” end and the real art begin?
Wissman – I feel it starts and ends with passion. Creating quality imagery isn’t that difficult these days. Creating compelling imagery is another story, passion for your subject can help fuel ones ability to turn images into art.
Downard – Good ski photography is artistic. If you remove the skier from the photo, the shot should still be beautiful. That is a generalization, but a good rule to consider when setting up a shot. When framing up the shot, photographers should always think about the background, foreground, general composition and framing, lighting, depth of field and many other basic photography principles.
Bona – Honestly, have been an artist my entire life, since I was a kid I have related strongly to visual arts. I was also a gear nerd and loved technology. Photography has been the perfect combination of those two for me. Sure, it is equipment operation. But even that is an expertise. To be successful in the ski photography industry one needs to be surgical in their equipment operation. But at the end of the day the photographers that are successful and get published and rehired are the ones that are true artists and continue to capture our sport in different ways. Copy cat “equipment operators” won’t ever make it because they don’t have the artistic vision to progress the industry. To the person that says, “photography isn’t art but instead equipment operating” I would say this. In order to operate a 10+ pound DSLR rig in 0 degrees fahrenheit without gloves on, while on belay above a 48 degree couloir and be able to produce a print publication worthy photo that will give chills to skiers across the world as they anticipate the coming winter season, one must be both an expert equipment operator and dedicated artist, not to mention tough as nails.
[EU] Just how heavy is your pack?
Wissman – Typically im running 35lbs. The extra heavy loads can push over 50lbs.
Downard – Standard daily Ski pack=35lbs; Overnight, Backcountry Ski pack=65lbs+; Nature pack with tripod 50lbs
Bona – Totally depends on the shoot. I would say in the ballpark of 25-60 lbs
[EU] Canon or Nikon
Wissman – Canon
Bona – Nikon
Downard – Canon
[EU] What bodies do you shoot?
Wissman – 1Dx, 5DIII
Downard – Canon 1d Mark IV
Bona – D610 & D810
[EU] Favorite lenses?
Wissman – Canon 16-35 and 70-200. I also enjoy my 50mm 1.8 and 400 2.8
Downard – Canon 70-200mm f2.8
Bona – I love the fisheye. Really let’s me do justice to some gnarly spots we manage to get ourselves into.
[EU] Thoughts on the new mirrorless stuff? Do you believe that it will take the place of true DSLR setups in the future?
Wissman – In the end equipment is really secondary.
Bona – I am not sure. There are certainly plenty of pros and cons. I for one love the idea of less weight and more freedom to ski while shooting in the mountains.
Downard – Mirrorless or DSLR, I just want a smaller set up!! I am sure the mirror will be gone completely within 2 years. I have a small mirrorless Sony Nex7, and it does a great job as a pocket camera.
[EU] If you could only take one setup (one body, one lens) anywhere in the world what would it be?
Wissman – Canon 1DX with the Canon 16-35 2.8
Bona – D610 and 24-70 f/2.8.
Downard – Canon 5d MarkIII with a Canon 24-105mm f4.
[EU] Coolest accessory you’ve bought for shooting in the last ten years?
Wissman – My touring set up. It allows me to go light on ski gear and heavy on camera gear.
Downard – One of those little bubble levels that you stick on the top of your camera so you can tell if it’s level when you set up your shot….just kidding.
Bona – I am a huge geek when it comes to off camera flash and remote camera operation so I really have enjoyed getting creative with the Pocket Wizard Plus III transceivers.
For the Aspiring Photographer…
[EU] Best thing to spend your money on…
Wissman – Spend your money on lenses!
Downard – Try to get a Canon(or Nikon) Rebel with a couple of kit lenses. Then go spend the rest on a couple of photography courses!
Bona – If you plan to be in it for the long haul start with an affordable camera body and start investing in quality glass (lenses) immediately.
[EU] Best advice you ever received as a photographer?
Wissman – Shoot more
Downard – Go shoot 100,000 frames, then get feedback on your work, and then consider becoming a professional photographer.
Bona – “If you aren’t making money, it is only a hobby”
[EU] Worst advice you received as a photographer?
Wissman – Get a better camera.
Bona – “Everyone wants to be one so there is no money left in it, don’t waste your time”
[EU] Biggest mistake new photographers make?
Wissman – Not shooting full manual all the time.
Downard – Showcasing mediocre shots. Show the best only!
Bona – Giving away all of their work or thinking they have to have the best equipment right out of the gate and spending money that should be saved for travel budget.
How do you shoot most of the time? Aperture priority, shutter priority or full manual?
Wissman – Full manual
Downard – Manual 99%, Aperture Priority .5%, Other .5%
Bona – For skiing I usually use shutter priority or full manual when shooting with strobes or in tricky available light situations.
On the Digital Revolution…
[EU] With the rise of the digital publishing environment, it is now nearly free to distribute media and “develop” photos. With it, a surge in supply of mostly free content (photos/videos) has come about. How has this changed your work? Has it been positive, negative or both?
Wissman – Both, lots of positive and lots of negative. The biggest thing it has done is put me behind a computer screen more.
Downard – As with any industry, everyone involved must adapt to changes in technology, styles, etc. The internet is a very large thing, and no photographer is going to beat it. I think the ski industry is small enough that photographers don’t have to worry about this as much as other types of photography.
Bona – I have really only operated as a pro since the rise of digital publishing. I have embraced it from the beginning and I used it as a means to quickly get my name out in the industry at fairly little expense to me.
[EU] How do you deal with the ease of online-photo-stealing?
Wissman – I do my best to scan for stolen images. When I find them I reach out and typically I’m compensated properly.
Downard – For social media load super low res files with your watermark plastered across it. That’s about all you can do. There isn’t enough time in the day to police the internet for photo robbers. If your work is good enough, people will steal it. If you put your name and website on the photo–at least your name is getting out there!
Bona – I don’t put anything on the open internet that I can’t afford to have stolen. If a photo of mine is posted on the web for free I always have my logo on it so that as it makes its rounds I still receive some value of exposure from it. The rest of my images that appear online have been licensed for web use and I have already cashed a check. If someone wants to screen shot it at that point, I don’t care.
[EU] Do you like or hate Instagram?
Wissman – Like… I love seeing how many people are capturing good images.
Downard – I like Instagram. I follow other photographers and industry people and enjoy seeing what’s going on out there. It’s currently the best social media platform for photography in my opinion.
Bona – Love it. I really enjoy sharing my work with people and connecting through social media based solely on photographs. Everyone is a photographer and everyone is sharing their creativity. It is an environment for collaboration and inspiration. I am not intimidated by it at all. I am confident in my abilities as a professional service provider, that goes far beyond being able to create a gorgeous square composition and add a filter.
[EU] Are the buyers of your work mostly within the ski industry or are there other avenues? (fine art, out of industry commercial clients etc?)
Wissman – Lots of different avenues you never know where your next sale will come from.
Downard – I sell lots of fine art work (nature, wildlife) to consumers not connected to the ski industry. My editorial work is mostly used by ski industry clients.
Bona – I work with both individual and corporate commercial clients across all industries.
Many *many* thanks to Will, Cody and Trent for their time. We learned a lot and we hope you did too!