I've been shooting a lot of "gray bird" powder shots the last two days, and have realized a few things that are quite helpful. First off, it can be pretty tough to bring the camera out on a gray day! Especially when there's 18" of new snow overnight. Secondly, there are few techniques that really work on gray days, that you must rely on. More on that below.
I've headed out to get great powder shots the last two days in a row due to the INSANE amount of snow we've received here in Vail. I wasn't looking for cliffs, though those do shoot fairly well on gray days. The shot's I went for were more along the line of "classic" powder images. The skier is chest deep with one arm forward. (I know, I know, it's been done before!) But that's ok, because almost everything has been done before and people have a tendency to forget what they've seen!
The first tip is that you must always over-expose on a gray day or your images will be, you guessed it, gray! Gray is not appealing and our minds think of gray looking snow on a gray day as white. It's crazy what our minds will trick us into believing. To make a picture reflect this we need to over-expose. On a really gray day 1.7-2 stops is needed. Switch to your wide lens and up that number to 2.3-2.7 stops. Wide lenses will expose more for the sky and will darken the image even more.
Now that we have the exposure nailed, what are some techniques that will work? Find objects that give the scene definition. Trees, rocks, or logs will add a lot to a shot. Shoot in the trees and your gray day shots will be 1000 times better than on a wide open run. Try and build these elements into your images to make them far more exciting.
Don't shoot from behind on a gray day with a lot of new snow. Behind shots rarely work unless the lighting is killer. Focus more on capturing the athlete's expressions to bring emotion to the images. This means shooting from the front-side area, or head-on. Maybe to the side directly if you feel risky!
So how do you manage focus on powder shots? Well, if your shooting in the trees it can be tough with the trees affecting your auto-focus every time the athlete passes one. Set your camera focus lag (controls how long it takes to re-focus on a new object) to a longer delay, and shoot on auto with the minimal point selection to make it run quicker. It should keep track and the trees won't affect your focus now. Don't set the focus point to the middle... or all your shots will be way too centered and look amateur-ish. Set it off to a side or to the top or bottom.
Gray day photos can be fun, and are a great time to practice your techniques for when the sun hits after the storm. Just because gray shots don't typically sell as well doesn't mean it's not worth your while. And, if you get bored shooting on a gray day, it's because you aren't trying hard enough to be creative. Have fun when you shoot and your images will shine!
Go get some "Gray Bird"!
Fellow action photographer Daniel Milchev and I are starting a brand new website DEDICATED to action photographers! It's called Action Photo School, and will be up and running within a month or two. We can't wait to share all of our knowledge on action photography with you, and think that this site will be a HUGE help and great place for the action community to discuss/learn action photography! Can't wait to see you there!
For now, you can follow our tips/techniques on twitter at @APhotoSchool, and share/discuss your images in our Flickr group here: Action Photo School Flickr
We will announce the launch date soon via twitter and flickr!