Accessing the mountainous backcountry happens in a number of different ways, with snowmobiles being a very popular choice among professional snowboarders in the British Columbia area of Canada. With endless amounts of terrain choices in BC, you could pick a different location to snowmobile everyday for weeks on end, making this a very attractive home base for residents and visitors alike.
As a photographer, using the snowmobile as your means of transportation translates into the smallest amount of photo gear you’ll carry in a backpack on any given mission. Entering the backcountry via the snowmobile requires energy, time, skill and patience in navigating everything from single-track trails to open bowls filled with deep powder. With these factors in place, rolling with a lightened set up allows you to spend the necessary energy navigating the snowmobile, managing the snow (hiking, digging) and still being productive as the photographer, while having enough left in your tank to make it our at the end of the day.
My snowmobile backcountry kit is one DSLR body, a 70-200 telephoto lens, and one 50mm lens, along with a wide angle, one small flash and one Manfrotto 190cxPro3 tripod. Along with the camera gear, I carry an avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe, water and food, all fitting into the Burton F-Stop Camera Backpack.
With a limited amount of camera gear in the backcountry, this becomes a unique opportunity in using available light, shadows, varied snowpack, tress and rocks as the make up of your image. During many photo situations you have unlimited gear to tweak your image how you see fit; shooting with limited gear forces you to tweak the natural environment to best suit your photographic vision.
A typical day snowmobiling puts you on snow as the sun is rising, providing locations with soft natural light mixed in with north facing snow that hasn’t been affected like it’s south facing counterpart. Moving quickly around the area is a must because this early morning light quickly gives way to the harsh midday overhead sun that becomes a bit more challenging to use. As soon as we arrive, the plan is made where the rider will drop in, land and ride out, so I immediately position myself for the strongest composition. After I’m satisfied with the images from angle number one, it’s off to other angles to bring in as much variety as possible from this location. Not only am I focusing on the action, I’m doing my best to pull in the lifestyle associated with these activities, portraits from time to time and the natural landscape around me.
After the morning spots are wrapped, we move to the next zone to either keep riding or start preparing a feature for the afternoon light. It really depends on snow quality, the riders’ energy levels and what type of terrain is making itself available to us. Either way, I’m snapping photos anytime the snowmobiles are parked and my subjects are discussing a plan, hanging out or riding.
Midday starts to soften as the afternoon light takes over the mountains, so we’re winding down the adventure by taking advantage of the fading ambient. During these hours of the day (especially early winter), the small flash that’s in my backpack can do quite a bit for an image, spicing up the action or the scenery. Quite surprisingly, this little fellow packs quite a punch, so it’s worth the extra weight in the backpack.
As we depart the backcountry and make our way out, there’s always a feeling of satisfaction knowing we secured some great photos and film shots, all while playing it safe by respecting Mother Nature, knowing when to say when and zipping around in the snow on motorized vehicles!
Not every photo shoot involves a snowmobile and the snowy mountains, but the workflow in this situation can be applied to any shoot you take part in. Making a plan, having your equipment ready, using every minute of the day and keeping a good attitude will bring you the images you planned for and so many more unexpected moments that sometimes surpass your greatest visions of the day. Luck favors the prepared.
Dean Blotto Gray
Principal Photographer Burton Snowboards