Taking a really good photo requires a lot more than the click of a button and a haphazardly applied filter. Photos that evoke feeling require intuition, passion, a creative vision, and most importantly, technical skill. That’s why this season we have decided to take a step back and provide an in-depth “How-to” series for all of the budding photographers and future media gurus of the world. Make sure to check back weekly as the series develops, and unpacks the many “do’s and don’ts” of snowboarding photography and media.

Understanding Exposure

For the first installment of our “How to Shoot Snowboard Photography” series, we will take you back to the very beginning with the most fundamental of all photography skills understanding exposure and a camera’s basic components. For those budding photographers already at a more advanced level, make sure to check back soon as we dive deeper into the inner workings of the media world.

Campers and Instructors dial in their shots at High Cascade’s Photo Workshop. PHOTO: Darcy Bacha

Broken down in the simplest terms, a camera captures an image by exposing the sensor on a digital camera, or the film on an analog camera, to light. When light enters the camera, it is recorded as data that ultimately comprise the completed image. An image that contains highlights, shadows, and a well-balanced midpoint is considered properly exposed. Whereas, an image that was not exposed to enough light, and therefore is lacking data, will be underexposed, and an image that is too bright and blown out is overexposed.

When creating said image, a photographer has three distinct variables that they can adjust to create the properly exposed image. These are the ISO or film speed, the aperture, and the shutter speed. All three of which have distinct functions and lend different characteristics to the completed image. There are multiple ways to create a properly exposed image, and how a photographer chooses to adjust these different variables will result in a variety of completed images.


To begin, it is helpful to start with the variable that is often manipulated the least, the ISO. Simply put, the ISO is the cameras sensitivity to light. On a traditional film camera this is adjusted by using different film, whereas, on a digital camera, this value responds to the sensors sensitivity to light and can be adjusted sporadically. These values are most often understood as multiples of 100, where an ISO of 100 is less sensitive to light than an ISO of 1600. A standard middle of the road ISO will often be somewhere in the 400-600 range and is considered to be a good starting point for most shooting that occurs either during the day or at a very well-lit night shoot.

In low-light situations, it is important to increase the ISO to produce a properly exposed image. PHOTO: Chris Wellhausen

If youre shooting a darker street spot at night, think higher ISO, in contrast, if youre shooting a large jump on a bluebird day, think lower. Once the correct ISO is determined, the remaining variable adjustments will be made in response to that decision. So it is important to determine the amount of available light, and how sensitive you want your camera to be from the start.

One thing to keep in mind when considering the ISO is that the higher the value, the more digital noise, or “grain” that will appear on a final image. Similarly, the lower the ISO, the crisper and less noisy an image will look. Because of this, while it is often necessary to increase the ISO in darker situations, it is also important to try and maintain the lowest possible value to avoid producing noisy images.

As seen in this enlarged view of the previous image, increasing the ISO will also produce digital noise. PHOTO: Chris Wellhausen

Shutter Speed

The next and most intuitive step in dialing in the correct exposure is picking the right shutter speed. The shutter speed on a camera relates to the amount of time the shutter remains open while exposing the image, and is measured in terms of fractions of a second. For instance, a shutter speed of 1/1000 would be significantly faster and let in less light than a shutter speed of 1/2.

Mastering the correct shutter speed allows for crisp images that “freeze” the moment, but also convey active motion. Seen here is Fredi Kalbermatten mid party wave in Saas Fee. PHOTO: Silvano Zeiter

However, it is important to consider that the longer the shutter is open, the more light, and therefore data, is being recorded. Lower shutter speeds will allow more light into the camera, but will also run a higher risk of producing blurred images as there is more opportunity for the camera or subject to move. Because of this, when shooting snowboarding or other action sports, it is often better to have a faster shutter speed, of say at least 1/300, so as to cut down on the possibility of motion blur. That said, once you have dialed in a solid understanding of exposure, shutter speeds can also be used to create unique perspectives with intentional blurring. There is not one correct way to shoot a photo, and a thorough understanding of exposure only opens more doors for the creative mind.

For highly technical riders like Scott Stevens, often times a creative use of shutter speed allows a photographer to create much more dynamic composition than would otherwise be anticipated. In this case, a slow shutter speed paired with a strobed flash creates both frozen action and a blurred background and elevates the final image. PHOTO: Andy Wright


Finally, the last step in producing a properly exposed image is dialing in the correct aperture. The aperture is a measurement of the width of the lens opening and is measured in terms of f-stops. For clarities sake, compare aperture to the difference between squinting and opening your eyes as wide as you can. The wider you open your eyes, the more light that is let in, and the lower the f-stop. Comparatively, the more you squint, the less light that is let in, and the higher the f-stop.

Unlike the ISO and shutter speed, the aperture is a function of the lens and is ultimately dictated by lens selection. An f-stop of f/4.0 is commonly considered the lowest possible f-stop on most entry-level DSLR lenses. Thus, f/4.0 would be the widest possible lens opening. On the other end of the spectrum, an f-stop of f/16 would be considered significantly higher, and would produce a much smaller lens opening, and therefore would allow less light into the camera.

Using a lower f-stop also creates a shallower depth of field, as seen here in this image of Roope Tonteri in which both the foreground and background are out of focus. PHOTO: Nick Hamilton

In addition to controlling the amount of light let into the camera, the aperture also dictates an image’s depth of field. A photo taken at an aperture of f/2.8 will have a shorter depth of field, than an image taken at f/5.6. Because of this, when composing an image it is important to determine if you want the entire image to be sharp and in focus, (in which case you would choose a larger f-stop) or if you want a portion of the image to be blurred and out of focus, (smaller f-stop).

In contrast to the previous image, the use of a higher f-stop on this image of Red Gerard allows for the entire image to remain sharp and in focus. PHOTO: Darcy Bacha

Putting it Together

Lastly, it is important to consider all three variables together when putting together a composition. Remember, a properly exposed image will contain a wide range of tones and will have bright highlights, dark shadows, and balanced midpoints. This is accomplished through the correct combination of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

Because each of the three variables works together, we can adjust each one individually for different effects and to allow for more breathing room with another. For instance, say you are shooting at night, and that the image is properly exposed, however, the rider is still appearing blurry. This can be fixed by increasing the shutter speed to reduce blur, and then either increasing the ISO or decreasing the aperture so as to allow more light into the camera. On the other hand, if an image is properly exposed but does not have the depth of field desired, you can either increase the shutter speed or decrease the ISO to limit the amount of light entering the lens. Then, you are able to achieve the desired depth of field by decreasing the aperture and increasing the width of the lens opening.

As with everything, practice makes perfect. Next time you venture out into the great outdoors armed with your trusty DSLR, challenge yourself to abandon the handy green squared “automatic” setting for the bold manual “M”. Get practicing and come back for more soon.

When it all comes together. This image of Greg Bretz taking in the views is a strong example of a properly exposed image which utilizes ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to create a distinct completed image. PHOTO: Nick Hamilton

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See more from our “How-to” Photo Series here.