Wanna have some fun this winter? Go photograph kids sledding. When your subjects are having fun, you’re sure to have fun, too. It’s a great excuse to get out and make pictures and keep your eye sharp through the winter.
As much fun as it is, there are some surprising challenges you’ll need to overcome if you want to make epic sledding pictures. Let’s talk about camera settings and shooting techniques so you can get great pictures quickly and focus on having fun.
Why is white balance at the top of the list? It’s simple, but you’ve got to pay attention to it, especially when you start shooting JPEGs, as we’ll discuss below. Although you may be making pictures on a sunny day unless the sun is shining directly on your subjects their faces will actually be illuminated by the blue sky and they will look really blue. If it’s a sunny day, choose the cloudy or shade white balance setting so everyone looks warm and healthy when they’re not facing the sun. Don’t choose auto white balance because the camera is easily fooled by everyone’s colorful snow clothes and it will shift the color from shot to shot. In the pictures here, I used the cloudy setting.
The main thing to remember about photographing on snow is that your camera’s meter is only providing information — it’s neither right nor wrong. Thinking that your exposure meter needs to be in the middle at zero would be a big mistake in the snow. The meter sees all that white in the picture and says the exposure is too bright. The meter wants everything to be a nice, boring gray. If you set the meter in the middle, your subjects will be under-exposed with very dark faces. In this case, my meter read approximately +1-1/3 stops over-exposed. The snow should be ultra-bright in your picture, and maybe even clipped and blinking, but it doesn’t matter because your subject’s face is the important thing to see.
Use Manual mode for all this, too. If you use Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode, then the exposure settings will change as your subject gets closer and closer to you and fills more and more of the frame. The bigger they are in the frame, the less snow will be visible and that will affect the way the meter reads and the way the camera shoots. Instead, lock in your settings so they don’t change. As we’ll discuss below, shutter speed is your most important setting, so set the ISO low (there’s plenty of light; use 200) and set the aperture in the right place to give you the right brightness at the shutter speed you need.
Mine were shot between f/8 and f/4 as the brightness of the day changed. Keep an eye on your exposure every now and then to make sure the light didn’t change while you were having fun. The brightness can be very sneaky on overcast days.
Focus for action
The main idea is to capture movement, so you need to choose continuous focus in your camera. That’s usually AF-C or AI-Servo. This setting allows your camera to change the focus while your subject is moving closer to you, even while the shutter is working. Just keep the focus point positioned on your subject. If you leave it on AF-S (One Shot on Canon cameras) you’ll end up with lots of feet in the focus at the back of the sled with faces out of focus. At the same time, remember how to change back to AF-S so you can make some quick portraits, too.
You should have plenty of light to use a very fast shutter speed to freeze action, like 1/1000s. The problem is that the fast shutter speed makes your subject appear to be holding still. You can freeze snow spraying and that can be fun, but I think that after a few shots freezing the action you’ll be ready to use a slow shutter to show the action.
When there’s a lot of movement, you can emphasize that movement by using a slow shutter speed. The key is to move your camera with the subject so that the subject remains sharp while the background blurs slightly. Although you may be using a small aperture, like f/8, you’ll still get terrific separation of your subject from the background because of the background blur. I shot anywhere from 1/120s to 1/20s.
Remember, too, that a blurry picture is different than an out of focus picture. When you see a problem with your picture on your screen, try to figure out if it’s bad because you didn’t get the focus or because you didn’t get the action right. Action shots don’t need to be perfectly sharp to be a good shot, either.
The best shutter speed depends on the lens you use and the distance you are from the subject. I used a 42.5mm lens for all these pictures. If you use a telephoto lens as I did, then you’ll get more time with your subject in each run. When you use a wide angle lens, the size of your subject in the frame changes very quickly — any change in distance from you makes a huge difference in their size in the frame. That means that you get more opportunities to shoot with your subject large in the frame when you use a long lens than when you use a wide lens.
Your background blur will also be greater with a long lens than with a wide lens at the same shutter speed, so you’ll need to shoot slower to see the effect with a wide lens. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use a wide lens — it can make some terrific photos that feel more intimate — I’m just pointing out the differences.
Also, you’re less likely to get run over with a long lens 😀
Don’t hold back
There is a lot of trial and error involved here, so plan to shoot a lot of pictures. Leave your camera set to continuous high shooting so that it makes several pictures each time you press the shutter. You’ll be making lots of pictures, so once you get color and exposure dialed in well, you should probably switch to shooting JPEGs instead of RAW. JPEGs will let your camera write to the card faster so that it’s ready to shoot again faster, and it’ll take a lot less room on your card and computer. I shot 1299 pictures during my afternoon with friends.
Don’t be satisfied. Once you get a few great shots in one spot, it’s time to move and try again. It’s also best if you go with a lot of people so you don’t have to wait very long between shots. If I was only photographing my kids, there’d be ten minutes between shots while they climbed the hill and I don’t think my patience would last.
Now that you’re all set on the technical aspects you’re ready to get creative. You should alter your position and your perspective. You’ll find that some spots offer more action, like next to a jump or on a turn. You’ll probably find that shooting from inside the turn is more exciting than shooting from outside the turn — if the turn were a circle you’d be inside the circle, not outside. Look for the spot where your subjects have great expressions, then get an angle where they are facing toward the camera.
You’ll probably find that the most exciting pictures are made when you’re laying on the snow. This way, you’re almost looking up at the action and it looks very cool. Wear the appropriate clothing and appropriate a spare sled to kneel and lay on so you stay a little drier. For me, though, having freezing cold legs at the end of it is well worth the pictures I can get laying down low in the snow.
Although you may shoot 1300 pictures in an afternoon, you should be very picky about which shots you share with others. Do your best to only share one or two with each person. This way, they’ll see that 100% of the pictures you shared were great, instead of seeing that only 1% of what you shot is worth sharing. It’s not just about your reputation, either. When people see too many decent pictures, they value each one less and less. So keep the value high by sharing only the very best. Plus, if you went sledding with 10 kids and had 10 great photos to share, you could easily afford to make a small print of each photo and give them something real that doesn’t require batteries to be viewed.
Help yourself in the selection process by starting your culling at the end of your shoot —that’s when the pictures were better and you’ll go through them faster. More on that here.
Or don’t cull anything. Just make a time-lapse of the whole day.
Yes, it’s cold out there, and yes, it will probably end in tears, but it will be worth it. If you sit inside all winter waiting for warm weather to go make pictures you’ll get rusty and you’ll have a lot of catching up to do when it’s warm again. Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. So get out there and have some fun making exciting sledding pictures. It’ll be great memories and you’ll earn every drop of hot chocolate you drink afterward.
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