In my quest to learn about off-camera flash, I decided to make use of a rare snowy day where I live and attempt a ski photoshoot — in my friend’s backyard. We only had a few inches of snow to work with, so I had to get creative.

Below I lay out how I managed to fake some “big air” ski photography using just two speedlites, three pieces of firewood and some help from my friends.

The location

The shoot location was my friend’s backyard, which has a very slight downhill slope. We knew that getting speed or any actual airtime on skis or a snowboard would be virtually impossible. Being in a fenced yard without a ton of space to work with, I decided to build the jump on a spot near the bottom of the yard. This would allow the athletes to get as much as a run in as possible before hitting the jump.

We also decided to position the jump beside a tree. I did this to use it as a background to hide the fact that we were in a backyard, not out in the backcountry or at a terrain park.

Next, we constructed a jump by piling three pieces of firewood that we pilfered from her woodpile. We packed some snow down overtop of them to form a small jump. At its highest point, it was only about a foot tall, with a similar width. The goal was to get the athletes off the ground just a little bit. We then had to create the run-in to the jump so that they would be able to actually make it to the takeoff point. We did this by sliding on my nephew’s snow scooter to flatten the snow down. This was by no means a professional set up!

The set up involved me laying on the ground shooting upward while the athletes went off the small jump in front of me. The backlight is near the fence, while my sister is holding the key light.

The technical setup

I positioned one Canon 600ex II-RT speedlite on a light stand behind the jump. I added a MagMod MagSphere to the speedlite to help spread out the light. This light was positioned to backlight the subject, and illuminate the lightly falling snow to add to the overall winter ambience.  I had my voice-activated light stand — my sister — try several different positions with the key light (another 600ex II-RT speedlite with no modifiers) while another friend stood at the jump site for our test shots.

It was late afternoon while we were shooting and I didn’t want the yard’s fence or neighbor’s house showing up in the images. This meant killing the ambient light all together. I put my speedlites on high speed sync in order to get a fast enough shutter speed to do so. Most of the shots were taken around 1/1000s. I was also using a wide-angle lens, as my plan was to shoot from down low.

I didn’t have the ambient light dialed down enough in this image. The result is being able to see the fence and the neighboring house.

The action

Finally, we were ready for our first skier Ginelle, to take her first attempt. She opened her back gate to use as starting point which allowed her to push off from the sides to help gain momentum. Remember, she only had about 30 feet of a pretty flat run-in to get herself to the takeoff!

I was laying on my back on skier’s left of the jump with my camera pointed up. I was as close as I could possibly get to where Ginelle would jump without being in her way. Ski pole impalement was not something I wanted to experience! During the setup, I had pre-focused exactly where I wanted to take the image, so it was just a matter of timing the shot perfectly.

This image ended up being my favorite of the day.

Being new to off-camera flash, I fired my first few images too early. Luckily, I have patient friends. Ginelle looped up and down a few times until I started to get a better sense of her timing. Another friend took attempts on her snowboard too.

When the snow stopped falling, we attempted to throw it at the athletes as they approached the jump to give the pictures more of a high-speed, action feel. The actual snail’s pace of the takeoff had us all howling with laughter, and I’m sure the neighbors were wondering what the heck we were trying to do!

Our attempts at throwing snow at the rider to create the illusion of more action didn’t really turn out with the wet, heavy snow. But it was fun to throw it at our friends anyway!

The take-away

Overall, the session was an awesome learning experience for me. It was great practice for using my transmitter and two speedlites separately, which I hadn’t done much before.

But more importantly, it opened up a world of possibilities in terms of being creative by manipulating off-camera light. Most of the images didn’t turn out perfectly, but that wasn’t the point. The whole process allowed me to see the potential of what can be done with off-camera light when you apply a little ingenuity. Plus, it was a laugh-filled afternoon with friends spent outside, which is never a bad thing!