Ross shines a light on resourceful outdoor lighting
Outdoor photographer ROSS WOODHALL’s resourceful lighting in natural environments gained him a flourishing career. He sheds light on his favourite pictures in an interview for PM with Lorna Dockerill
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You could liken interviewing Ross Woodhall to a chat with your next door neighbour who got lucky. Extremely lucky. By that I mean he’s the kind of bloke who remains down to earth despite going from being an electrician, to a snow slope photographer in New Zealand and France for ten years, to being hunted down for his modelling potential. Some people just land with their bum in the butter.
“I was an electrician in the 80s, but a chance meeting with a friend of a friend in a pub resulted in me going to the French Alps with him, armed with a screwdriver and not much else,” Ross begins. “After a couple of seasons there I went to New Zealand and ended up being asked by a photographer to model in some snowboard action shots.
"I knew nothing about photography, but I knew I wanted to be behind the lens instead of in front of it for a more long term career prospect. I then spent the next ten years chasing endless winters between France and NZ with my camera before moving back to the UK.”
See what I mean? No fair eh. That said, it hasn’t all been sunny skies and icing sugar topped peaks for the professional photographer. It was five years before he made any headway with his pictures and the world of film was tough.
Ross said: “I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Back then it was all film too, so I’d take a dictaphone out to record aperture and shutter speed settings so I could play them back after my prints had been developed. Film sharpened you up because it cost a lot and if you got it wrong, it went in the bin. I still remember using hand roll Velvia to save cash and learn.”
And getting it wrong can include leaving your camera bag by the wayside too. Ross’ beloved Hasselblad Xpan and two lenses were crushed to confetti by a pal who accidentally drove over his camera bag when he was on the slopes on a shoot one day. A painful but surefire way of learning to look after your kit. But it is this kind of resilience which has obviously been vital in Ross’s action photography success, as has learning to use lighting in natural environments to the best effect.
Ross concurs: “I’ve only recently got into using flash over the past four or five years because, in my opinion, there are very few good location flashes and a lot of the time I choose not to use it, but it’s important to know how to adapt. Whichever way you look at it though, you need to use light to your advantage because it’s right up there with composition and photographic talent.”
Since then, Ross has shot for The North Face outdoor clothing line, Fall Line skiing magazine and is now represented by Getty, so he must be doing something right. As knowing which lighting technique to use can be difficult when you’re faced with the elements, we were keen to ask Ross about his method in his signature action style. So here, he shares with you some of his favourite outdoor images with personal insight into his shots. Have your cameras at the ready folks, these pictures will have you raring to get out into the open air.
This image was shot in Austria in a blizzard at about -5° with two Elinchrom Ranger RX flashes, with reflectors lighting the skier; I used the flashes at full power in order to underexpose the rest of the image by about two stops to add drama, and show up the snow flakes. I mostly use reflectors rather than softboxes to avoid the wind blowing the heads over. If the light is too harsh I diffuse it with white dustbin liners, they also give the gear protection when it’s raining or in a blizzard. Hotel laundry bags are a great source for these. Use hairbands to secure them and it will work nicely on a battery powered location flash. It’s about being resourceful. I have used umbrellas in the past but they tend to fly off and I landed myself in a sticky situation when a hired one ended up in a lake once. It just floated off like a boat!
This was a bad weather shot at lower altitude in the forest, hand metered and shot at 1/500sec at f/3.2 at 100 ISO on a 70mm lens using AF servo, which tracks the moving subjects - pretty amazing technology. If you go below 1/500sec there is way too much movement and you can’t freeze the action as well. I didn’t use flash because you have to be careful not to light up all the snowflakes right in front you. Trees also offer shelter and, more importantly, definition because you will get nothing in a whiteout. I use a hand meter for most situations, be it natural light or flash, because it gives a ballpark figure but I do meter in-camera as well. What I don’t do is bracket unless doing a landscape. If it’s really bright I’ll zoom onto a rock for a centre-weighted reading.
This was shot on assignment early in the morning on a cold, rainy October day. I shot straight into the sunrise at 1/500th, f/3.2 at 400 ISO and I opened up slightly and sacrificed a little detail in the sky to gain more detail in the cliffs. I actually never worry about shooting into the sun and often use it to good effect in the image. If I’m not lighting the shot I’ll just balance out the exposure so I’ve got the detail I need in the areas I want and let the rest of the image sort itself out. Weather and the sunlight can affect shoots terribly, but with a bit of creative lighting in rain for instance, you can underexpose to add some drama.
Shot at 1/640sec, f/4 at 400 ISO with 31mm focal length, this picture was taken in North Wales in November last year. Although Elinchrom Rangers were available, I decided to shoot this using the available light and opened up to gain some detail in the foreground at the expense of sky detail; we also shot it as a straight silhouette but I prefer this version. It’s interesting because I don’t use UV filters — they are just another piece of glass to me and I soon get fed up of them and they just become lens caps! I quite like the glare without them and many Nikon lenses have a Nano coating which helps to prevent flare. My inspiration stems from a few TV advertisements, as well as photographers such as Colin Prior and New Zealand photographer Andris Apse. If I decide to shoot some stock images I will normally do a little research before trying to shoot what I have in mind. If I’m on assignment then I have to just deal with what I see when I get there, which I prefer to be honest, as it normally takes your creativity to places that you hadn’t imagined.
This was taken in Chalet in the French Alps. It was shot using a Canon 14mm ultra-wide lens in order to get under the skier and add some rock detail. I rely on wideangle lenses a lot when shooting skiing or snowboarding, and use the Nikkor 14-24mm zoom — which was another huge factor for the move to Nikon — I had to carry three lenses to cover that with Canon. Wide angles are great for filling the frame with action when snow isn’t at its best. In the original shot the sky was very washed out so I processed it using Photomatix HDR software and gave it some heavy grading. I shot it at 1/500sec at 200 ISO.
This shot was taken at Treble Cone, South Island, New Zealand. It’s all natural lighting and as with most pictures taken down there, you don’t need to add anything because the landscape is so spectacular. It was taken at 1/1000sec at f/9 at around 70mm-100mm. In available light I motor drive most action pictures, but if I increase the production values and introduce lighting it’s basically one shot only, so your timing has to be spot on. The sportsman in this shot was a professional free ride skier and we were doing some shots for his sponsors and a magazine I was senior photographer for at the time. We had actually spotted that location a year earlier but didn’t have the opportunity to shoot it, so I bookmarked it for the following year. We had to hike up the mountain to get to it. Although I do shoot all day long, if you try for the middle of the day, you get the backlit effect and can get creative. It can get pretty dark in snowy places too sometimes, so fast lenses are essential, and be prepared to bump up the ISO. Focusing is critical at these wide open apertures.
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