How I Got That Shot: Tal Roberts Captures Free Skier Trick At Dusk

January 29, 2016

By Interview Holly Stuart Hughes

PUBLICATION: Forecast Ski Magazine

When outdoor photographer Tal Roberts collaborates with skateboarders and skiers to make images he can license to the athletes’ sponsors, or his commercial and editorial clients, he strives to make photos that look spectacular. “You want to show what the athlete is doing in the best way possible, and do justice to how difficult or stylish [it] is,” says Roberts, who has shot for Smith Optics, Orage, Specialized Bicycles, Redington, Snowboard Magazine, Outside, Powder and Sun Valley Resort. “That’s the first goal. Then you use lighting and composition to make a unique image.” He achieved both in a shot of ski surfer Karl Fostvedt doing a trick in midair above a custom-made jump. 

Roberts, who recently moved to Portland, Oregon, after living and working for ten years in Ketchum, Idaho, says the idea for the shot came from Fostvedt, his long-time friend and collaborator. Fostvedt wanted to build a jump with two ramps facing each other, allowing him to take off from the inside of the right-hand ramp, then corkscrew in the air before landing on the opposite ramp. “We built it so it was really steep and even went past vertical, so it would kick him back so he’s landing on the left-hand side of the jump,” Roberts explains.  

For extra drama, Roberts chose to shoot at dusk, using strobes to illuminate Fostvedt in midair, and to highlight the shape and dimensions of the jump. “I didn’t want it to be a silhouette—I wanted to show what we’d built,” he explains.  

Getting the shot presented more than technical challenges. “We didn’t know if this was going to work, or if he would hit it once, land flat and get hurt on the first trick,” Roberts says. “That’s the reality of shooting this kind of stuff. There’s a possibility that everything will go wrong.”


Roberts and Fostvedt chose a spot with a view of the valley to the west. “People ask, ‘Where did you find a lake to build the jump on?’ I say, well, we kind of made the lake.”  To catch the reflection of the sunset, the jump and Fostvedt’s skis, Roberts held a 4×6-inch shaving mirror under his lens, creating the illusion of a glassy lake that stops a few feet from the jump. 

They built the ramps in mid-December, when there was about a foot of snow on the ground, in an area above the snowline where snowmobiles weren’t allowed. “The scariest part was getting up there,” Roberts says, “We drove through ice and snow up a really steep, dirt road with no guardrail.”  Over the course of four days, a crew of five built the ramps by hand. Roberts checked the time and location of the setting sun, and was able to decide where best to position his camera. When the ramps were completed, Fostvedt did a test jump, then they let the snow freeze on the jumps overnight. “On the last day we made the backs of the jumps straight and the tops flat so they looked good,” Roberts recalls. 

Timing action shots, Roberts says, requires clear communication with the athlete in order to anticipate his movements. “Communication is super important in this type of shooting because there are so many variables. You need to know what the athlete’s intentions are so you can be prepared,” he says. “It’s a matter of figuring out how he does this trick and exactly the right moment when I’d capture it.”   


With only a short window of time to capture the sunset, Roberts set up and tested his lights before Fostvedt began his jumps. “I’m trying to have the lighting done correctly so I can focus on the composition and the timing,” he explains. 

Just out of the frame at camera left, he placed an Elinchrom Ranger A head, running on a 1100-watt-second pack, on a stand 6 or 7 feet high. “I use the A heads because they have a short flash duration, to freeze action,” he notes. Located close to the ramp, the head illuminated the side of the jump, but the end remained in shadow. “I wanted that contrast to show the shape of the jump,” Roberts explains. “If I were to pull the light back toward me, the whole jump would have been lit up, making it look shapeless.”

Behind the jump on the right, he placed another Ranger A head, powered with a 400-watt-second Quadra pack, on a stand also about 7 feet high, so it was hidden by the top of the jump. Roberts fired the strobes using a Pocket Wizard. When Fostvedt flew into the air, Roberts notes, he was “sandwiched” between the two lights, making him pop against the darkening sky.  


Roberts shot with a Nikon D4, using a 24-70mm f2.8 lens, “a pretty wide lens to get all that color in the sky in the scene.” He adds, “I shot at f/8 aperture, so a lot of the frame will be in focus and I have a lot of depth of field.” He shot at ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/125th. “I shot at 1/125 second to expose the sky how I wanted. I was able to shoot at this slow shutter because the flashes had a very short duration and were more powerful than the ambient light, so they froze the action,” he explains. 

The camera was on a tripod, which allowed him to hold the mirror in his hand so the edge fit against the front of the camera. “That was hard, because minor adjustments threw reflections all over the place.”   

He stood about 60 feet from the jump, close enough so that between jumps, he could walk over to Fostvedt, review the image on the back of the camera, and let the skier decide how he might adjust his tricks.

When the skier took his first jumps, the sky was gray and overcast. “The very first attempt was at about 5pm. The very last was at 6:08pm,” Roberts says. Within that time, Roberts estimates they had only about 20 minutes of good light, as the sky turned from gray to red to black. Between each trick, Fostvedt had to climb back up the hill at camera left to get ready for the next jump. “Around the time this photo was taken, he was running up the hill to get one more shot before it got dark.” On his last jump, Roberts captured the shot that he recently licensed to Forecast Ski Magazine


The most important adjustments to composition were done as they were shooting, with Roberts adjusting his timing, and Fostvedt adjusting each trick. When he knows he has the shots he wants, Roberts goes home “to work on them in Lightroom, and do some mild post processing.” He isn’t able to alter the composition of shots like this in post, and doesn’t own a copy of Photoshop. “I can’t alter the scene at all: No one would run a photo like that.”  

Related: How I Got That Shot: Mixing Light Sources to Mimic Sunlight 

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