Freestyle: So Many Skiers, So Much Time

All the elements were right for Robert Beck to try something different. Shooting for Sports Illustrated at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Robert’s coverage included both the qualifying and medal rounds of the men’s aerials event in freestyle skiing, so there was plenty of opportunity for him to capture not only the razor-sharp peak-action images that typify SI coverage, but also to modify his technique to take a shot or two at turning prose into poetry.

1 second at f/10, ISO 400.
All Photos © Robert Beck

The jump area was well lit; the night sky provided the perfect backdrop. The trick was to capture compelling images when you can’t see what you’re doing.

1/5 second at f/10, ISO 200.

“The shutter stays open for the length of the exposure,” Robert says, “and a quarter of a second is a long time for a photo. With the mirror flipped up, I couldn’t see what I was shooting. I’m used to shooting sports at, say, 1/1000 second and seeing the instant before and after the action. Here I saw darkness, and by the time the shutter opened, the scene was completely different from when it closed. So to keep him in the frame took a bit of discipline and practice.”

1/5 second at f/10, ISO 400.

On the plus side was Robert’s familiarity with the skiers’ moves. “They have their set routines, and from watching their practice sessions I got a good idea of what they were going to do.”

1/4 second at f/11, ISO 400.

His handheld D3S was set for continuous high-speed framing, and often he’d capture two frames of the same jump. He checked the back of the camera fairly regularly to see what he was getting, and he made adjustments to the shutter speed and the ISO.

1/4 second at f/11, ISO 400.

“The more motion there was, the cooler the shot,” he says, “but if the jumper went out of the frame, it was a throwaway. I wanted to have black backgrounds all around the athletes, and I needed the start and the end of the spin in the frame.”

Overall he didn’t lose too many shots. “They went into their jumps, hit the apex and there’d be that twirl and spin, and then they’d start coming back down. I kind of knew that apex spot—no one went way higher than anyone else—and once I got into the rhythm of it, the success rate went up.”

1/4 second at f/11, ISO 400.

All the images here were made with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens. The shutter speeds were either 1 second, 1/5 second, or 1/4 second, the ISO settings either 200 or 400.

And as it turned out, Robert’s visual poetry appealed to his SI editors: they chose a few of the images for the magazine’s web coverage of the Olympics.