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Thursday, March 22, 2012
Updated: April 9, 4:27 PM ET
Lens craft

The Grant Gunderson image that appeared on the cover of Skiing Magazine in September 2008.

In case you haven't opened a ski magazine in the last 10 years, photographers have been pushing it as hard as the athletes. Cover to cover, images pull the reader through the skiing narrative like riders on a rope tow. Beyond the prerequisites of light and composition, photographers seem to be capturing images in more unique ways, ways that often leave the reader scratching their head wondering, how did they do that?

Beyond the lenses, flashes, and CMKY, the other thing that readers might notice is that ski magazines seem to be dominated by only a handful of photographers. Despite reduced costs brought on by digital photography, the upper echelons of ski photography are still comprised of a tight knit group of people.

While one could simply attribute this to travel budget, relationships with photo editors, and having A-list athletes in front of the lens, new photographers still seem to find their way into the mix each publishing season, without any of the above. This beckons the questions: with a more level playing field, what is it that separates the covers from the cutting room floor?

Professional photographer Adam Clark suggests that, above all, it's creativity. "I don't think it really matters what camera you have if you're an amateur photographer -- what starts to separate photos is composition, unique angles and creativity," says Clark. "It's easy for me to get in the rut of getting the 'easy' shot -- something that shows what's going on -- it's much harder to take the chance on getting the unique shot that still shows that but also puts the twist of interesting light, composition, angle, or anything you don't usually see."

Recent Powder magazine covers by Garrett Grove (left) and Erik Seo.

Clark's point is resonated in some of the more memorable covers (photo annuals aside) of the last few years: Grant Gunderson's September 2008 Skiing cover, Garrett Grove's December 2011 Powder cover, and Erik Seo's October 2009 Powder cover. Yes, the action in itself is eye-catching, but it's vision and creativity of the photographer that set the shots apart.

While the digital era has reduced barriers to entry -- professional camera bodies come under $2,000 -- camera lenses are still high-ticket items, and the glass is what really can make the shot. "Even with lower prices on the Canon 7D and 5D, what many new photographers don't understand is that the most expensive part of the setup are the lenses," says professional photographer Mark Epstein, the former photo editor of the now-defunct Freeze Magazine. "To really break into the industry you have to be willing to put up your own money -- pony up $5,000 for a heli trip and know it may not come back."

Above all, however, Epstein emphasizes the importance of dedication and creativity. "Look at some of the guys that have had breakthroughs in recent years, like Will Wissman, Mark Fisher, and Adam Barker, they had the eye, that something special, that got them noticed," says Epstein. "The good emerging photographers are using what they learned from published shots and their own shots, and figuring out what it takes to go above and beyond to get something unique."