Winter Wonderland

Sports photographer Steve Cuff was in his twenties when he first got bitten by the shutterbug. The year was 1984. Cuff was travelling in Europe, exploring amongst others, the continent’s ski fields, he remembers his friend carrying the camera gear for him as Cuff was such a bad skier he was likely to fall and break the equipment. T Today Cuff is most likely to head off for a shoot at Thredbo’s snowfields with a backpack full of gear… A lot has changed in those 27 years…

Cuff admits it was his interest in sports that fifirst lured him towards the photographic field. “I was always a keen sportsman, played soccer and cricket and loved to watch all sports”. His first job documenting winter sports was whilst he was working in Canada at the ski resort, Whistler. “I had a job as a ski photographer shooting families, groups and ski races. The love of both skiing and photography has kept me there (in winter sports) since, that was in 1990.”

Returning to Australia two years later, Cuff started out shooting junior sports and for a time, photographed cricket and league before finding himself in charge of shooting the Australian Masters Games. “They had 10,000 competitors over ten days of competition in 50 sports. So that was rather stressful at times trying to organise about 12 people each day and schedule all the events, then upload all the images each night and fill orders for prints and digital images. I needed a month’s holiday after the event to come back down to Earth” His advice for anyone wanting to crack the sports photo business is to dream big but think small. He suggests approaching local clubs to take team shots and competition photos while you “do your apprenticeship”. “You can’t start at the top shooting test matches or grand finals, so do the ground work and get experience.”

Of course having the right gear helps, and Cuff is a Nikon man through and through. “You do need to have the right gear but it is expensive to get all the best stuff. You need a pro body (Nikon D3) and at least a 70-200mm f/2.8 and wide/medium lens in the 17-80mm range and a flash. Ideally you need a second body in case one fails or to run two cameras simultaneously and when you have saved up your money you need long glass, again ideally a 400mm f/2.8 or a 500/600mm f/4. That is the only way you get close-up action from the middle of the park.” Cuff also suggests that you study up on your sport in order to get better results.

“It helps a great deal if you have played it or watched lots of games on the TV. Also I used to buy the sports mags when I was first coming through and try to see what the pros were doing and where they shot the image from… If it is skiing, I usually know who the gun skiers in Australia are personally or you read the start list to find out when the favourites are coming down the course.” Still, being at the right place at the right time, can’t hurt… Cuff agrees: “Occasionally you get some luck and you need to be ready to pull the trigger. Or you get the unexpected – like Steven Bradbury winning Winter Olympic Gold – who would have thought earlier in the night? So just keep snapping away and sometimes you don’t realise how important those shots will be in years to come.”

Shooting competitive snow sports can be incredibly tricky – not only are you often at the mercy of the elements, the nature of the sport is also unpredictable. “Shooting skiing you often shoot blind below the knoll on a racecourse and only see the skier when they come over the rise doing 140kmh, so that is always challenging whether it is a club race or the Olympic downhill,” says Steve. “A real challenge was the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver 2010 when Lydia Lassila was a big chance of gold medal in the women’s freestyle aerial event, but the fog was so thick it was hard to get good pics when she was in the air off the jump. So you just had to do your best when she launched and make sure you got the emotion when she landed the jump and started pumping her fists. There was still one Chinese girl to jump who could have won and she ended up crashing, but we did not know that when Lydia was ecstatic in the finish area.” However when it comes to shooting winter sports, there is no typical shoot, although Cuff admits watching the weather plays a big role in his job especially when shooting for a client.

“I watch the weather for many days before and have ski or snowboard models on call. I might text them the night before and say it looks good and then get up very early in the morning, look at the radar, satellite and webcams if I have to drive to the resort. “Sometimes we make the call and the weather is not great, but we can’t afford to not be there. I will usually have new bright clothes for the models to wear, 2-way radios to communicate and a crew of three-four people, girls and guys. We have a quick chat before we load the lifts and explain what I am after, but then fine tune directions as we ride the lift and see what the mountain looks like. We also have to be organised as we often only get one crack at the fresh snow in the best location before the masses trash it to bits. So then we are trying to
keep in front of them and go wider each time.

When all the scenic best spots are tracked we go looking for smaller patches where I can shoot tight and just have snow flying and limited background. That’s when you need the good skiers to help you get those shots that might
make the covers.” Cuff admits with the rise of digital cameras everyone fancies themselves a photographer.

“I think a lot of amateur people think they can get good pictures now, as they all have digital cameras. So the digital side is a massive evolution as you can see instantly what you have. But you still need to know what a good picture is and put yourself in the position to get it.” So what’s his position on talent versus skill? “It helps to have natural talent but I think you can learn with lots of practice before you get to the big arena, and that is at the Saturday arvo at your local park. You also have to understand the sport you are shooting and be able to anticipate what might happen and be there when it does…” To see more of Steve Cuff’s images visit:

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