Action photographer Dean Blotto Gray took the image below known as “Guy in the Sky.” We asked him: “How did you get that shot?”
This photo is referred to as “Guy in the Sky” meaning there’s no reference of takeoff, airtime, or landing. I wanted to be up close and personal to reveal the facial expression during the snowboarding maneuver. Traditional snowboard and skateboard photography has the unwritten rules of showing the viewer where the athlete started and ended, giving you a complete story of what’s going on in the picture. I wholeheartedly subscribe to this idea, but I also know that you can squeeze in a few shots like this one from time to time.
Ben Ferguson was on board for the idea, so he picked out a feature that would allow him to complete a backflip in a relatively small space, which would allow me really close proximity to the action. Keep in mind professional athletes need to be briefed on any specific photo idea so they can give you the yes or no.
The snowy terrain we used was a simple quarterpipe, an obstacle that projects the snowboarder upward, with the landing being exactly where they took off. After a quick 20-minute build, the quarterpipe was ready, Ben checked the run-in speed, hiked back up, gave me the thumbs up, and he dropped in.
With many action sports photos, your subject matter is moving at a very rapid pace, so it’s critical to keep your shutter speed notched up to completely lock in the action and eliminate motion blur. The speed Ben was taking into the feature wasn’t mind blowing, but the backflip itself would be very quick because we were using a very small obstacle to complete the maneuver. With that said, I set the shutter speed to 1600, aperture at f6.3 for my desired depth of field, ISO to 100, given the time of day and available light.
Under many circumstances when I’m going to use the same exact composition over and over, I gaff tape the focus ring on my lens (16mm in this case) to the desired focus point, so I don’t bump it out of place while a snowboarder is flying right in front of my face. This piece of gaff tape lives on the top of my DSLR and can be easily removed and reapplied time after time after time.
Within a handful of tries, Ben had a perfect backflip landed and I was happy with a number of frames to choose from through the four or five sequences I shot. It’s rare to grab a still frame from a sequence, as these compositions are entirely different about ninety-percent of the time, but in this case I could pan with the rider and complete a sequence while still achieving the look I was after.
After the shoot was completed, we flattened our jump, cleaned up the area and proceeded down the hill to the editing room, which is really a rental flat with my laptop. Upon arrival, I dried out the camera gear, backed up the day’s images on three separate hard drives, picked out the frames we worked on and had Ben give me the thumbs up on the best shots, while deleting anything he didn’t like. The next step is metadata and file renaming, followed by image manipulation and export.