Saturation Point: Is The Digital Era Killing Pro Snowboard Photography?

This article first appeared in Whitelines No. 112 - The 2014 Photo Issue

I remember my first day in the Whitelines office like it was yesterday. It was July 2005 and, still wet behind the ears, I climbed the stairs to what was then a pokey old space above a bank in Abingdon. After a brief meeting with the publisher, I bumped into photographer/photo editor James McPhail, who shoved a box towards me.

“Here are the submissions so far,” he said. “Don’t worry, there’ll be more soon.”

I looked at the handful of slide sheets in the box. “OK. But… why are you giving them to me? Isn’t this your job?”

“Oh. Didn’t Jim tell you? I’m leaving. You’re doing my job too.”

It was a shock. Not just because I had enough on my plate and no previous experience of photo editing, but because I knew how big a responsibility it was. Photos have always played a key role in snowboarding, and are central to the success of any magazine. Why? Because like surf and skateboarding before it, ours is not a sport driven primarily by results but by image, lifestyle.

Just as the surfing family includes a handful of brave souls prepared to dice with death lugging three-thousand pound cameras into North Shore close-outs, and skate photographers have long enjoyed a career – as Sidewalk snapper Leo Sharpe puts it – “kneeling in piss”, so too the mountain environment has spawned an eccentric breed of lensmen and women prepared to suffer bad backs and frozen fingers in the name of documenting the shred.

These facts have not changed. Today, photographers are still enthrall to action sports, and the enduring popularity of those sports is largely down to ‘the image’. It’s a symbiotic relationship. But in the eight years since James thrust that box of slides into my hands, there has been a quiet revolution in the whole process.

Ah yes, digital. Of course everyone knows about how the mechanical process of taking pictures has switched from chemicals to megapixels, and how a photo can now be sent across the world in seconds, but less well understood is the way in which the digital era has changed the whole aesthetic of snowboard photography and – according to some – its financial viability as a career.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. In 2005, when I took that box to my desk and began looking at the slides on a lightbox – for instance, some shots Jeff Curtes had taken with the Burton team – I was looking at the end of the process. More than that, I was reliving the exact moment the shutter opened and the light hit the film. Jeff’s choice of film stock might have affected the saturation a little, but beyond that it was a decent approximation of reality as seen through his lens. These days, as anyone who’s used Instagram will know, there’s much that can be done to make a photo look better after it’s been taken.

In fact pressing the shutter is just the beginning. From there, a pro photographer will typically drag his image into Adobe Lightroom (read: a nerdier version of Instagram) and apply any number of changes. A tighter crop, black-and-white, extreme contrast, graduated filters to bring out the sky, retro colours, increased sharpness… the list goes on. What was a steaming turd of an image can, with a few slider adjustments, be polished into something resembling a dramatic shot.

For some photographers, this has fundamentally changed their feelings about the job. “I don’t call what we do any more photography,” says Pascal ‘Scalp’ Gombert, former senior with Onboard Magazine and a pro for over 20 years. “It’s more make-up than photography. What we have left is focusing and a bit of framing. For me it’s the same difference between a guitar player who plays on a guitar and a guy playing on his Playstation; they both play music but one is playing for real.” Others have been won over by the potential of these new tools: “I’m a total convert, I think it’s brilliant,” says UK lensman Dan Milner. “Digital is such a versatile medium.”

Even Dan however concedes that something of the integrity is lost when post-production takes centre stage. “Photographers need to make the decision when they’re taking a picture. They shouldn’t be looking at it and going, ‘If I add these filters then – ah look, black-and-white! It’s much better like that.’” But surely, I put it to him, none of that matters to the end viewer. If it looks good, then who cares how they got there? “It doesn’t matter to the person looking at it, but it’s the photographer that needs to understand [the theory],” says Dan. “How and why to compose a shot at the time. As soon as that no longer matters then I don’t think we’re photographers any more.”


One thing everyone agrees on is that modern snowboard photography has become more eye-catching, reflecting a wider cultural trend for high definition imagery that really pops. Think billboards, online picture libraries and ‘lo-fi’ iPhone filters. Explains Scalp: “It’s the same as fashion. Everyone knows that all the girls you see in magazines don’t exist. It’s completely fake. When was the last time you saw a real sunset in a snowboard magazine? Every sunset is fake – recoloured, pushed. No one cares. It looks good. It sells.” But while the photographer (and his associated software) has assumed a more obvious presence in these highly stylized shots, Scalp takes issue with the notion that they are in any way ‘artier’.

“It’s complete bullshit. Pretending that a snowboard photographer is an artist? Fuck off. We’re action photographers. We’re just lost in the mountains with guys jumping. It’s scenic if you want, it’s beautiful or less beautiful, but art? C’mon. For me that’s so big headed – people have to calm down and come back to earth. We’re just filling up magazines with action.” For him, moreover, something essential has been lost. For while snowboard photography was formerly about faithfully documenting the action – letting the rider and/or landscape speak for itself – “now, what’s important is the final look of the image. Who is actually in the picture? In fact no one really cares.”

Colleagues might disagree with that last statement (Milner for one suggests that “the job itself hasn’t changed. It’s about working closely with the riders you’re there to shoot, or for an editorial feature conveying a good story”) but for better or worse, the aesthetics have certainly changed. So what about the pay? Has the move to digital affected the business side of snowboard photography? In a word, YES. The good news is, if you’re an aspiring young snapper it’s far cheaper (and quicker) to learn the trade. “It used to cost us £12 a roll by the time you’d processed it,” recalls Dan. “That’s a lot of money, just to learn where you’re going wrong.”

Throw in the aforementioned ability of digital software to rescue imperfect shots and, as Scalp puts it, “You can become a ‘pro’ at 16, you just need to spend time in the mountains and shoot.” On the other hand, the faster learning curve means this is no longer a niche trade plied by a well-paid few. “The reason we made what money we did – which was not a lot, but enough to live on at least – was because there weren’t many of us doing that job. Working with film was more expensive, more complicated and more specialized.” Today, even those of us without any commercial aspirations but who enjoy messing about on phones have found ourselves adding to the competition. As Dan explains, “The digital era has helped people take their own pictures, and get a little bit more creative with how they see things, which is really great. On the flipside it’s also cheapened photography. The default position now is that anyone can do it.”

For the old guard, in fact, it’s something of a perfect storm. For alongside this challenge of supply-and-demand is a decline in revenue for their traditional print patrons and the relentless rise of the internet – still a lawless land of stolen or (at best) cheap images. The few mags with adverts enough to survive can’t afford to pay much, and as mentioned they have plenty of choice (by way of example, that first box of photo submissions contained maybe 200 slides; today I’m sent over 50,000 jpgs each summer).

In order to stand out amongst the crowd, it therefore pays to travel further in search of original stories and pictures – as those of you who read our recent dispatches from Kyrgyzstan, Svalbard, Afghanistan and Antarctica will appreciate. Unless Shaun White is hosting you at his latest private pipe and the whole crew has signed legal NDAs, it’s not even enough to capture a groundbreaking trick these days. Back in 1996, when Ingemar Backman launched his now-legendary backside air at a contest in Sweden photographer Jeff Curtes was able to sit on the evidence for several months before unleashing it on the unsuspecting public via numerous covers. How quaint that seems today. If it had happened this last spring, some punk in the crowd would’ve grammed that shit in seconds.

Even the syndication model (i.e. selling your exotic travel story to numerous titles worldwide) is an endangered species. In this day and age, mags expect to republish their articles online, so it only takes a few shares for a photographer’s best shot to pin ball its way across the globe, ruining a pending exclusive in another territory. As for enforcing copyright claims on random websites or individuals that steal your work, forget it. “Are you gonna chase down every person who’s downloaded that image to use as a wallpaper on their laptop and charge them 10 cents?” asks Dan. “It’s just not gonna happen.”

For now, magazines remain the best place to enjoy an edited collection of great snowboard shots, and of course most folk will agree that photos still look best on paper. The question is: how long can publishers and their contributing photographers afford to put them together? Milner is cautiously optimistic: “Five years ago we were talking about the demise of mags and that hasn’t happened. Print’s still there. Where it goes in the next 10 years is up for debate – but there’s less money there.”

Perhaps snowboard photography is going through the same crisis as the music industry. Newer, smarter means of production and distribution have come along, and those involved have simply got to adapt or die. It’s no use pining for the good old days – that was then; this is now. “Photography has become like a product,” accepts Scalp. “Something you can easily get, easily have, not something you necessarily have to pay for. Just like music. Who’s paying for music now?” Furthermore it’s tempting to suggest that as technology progresses, the general user experience only ever improves. But is that necessarily true? As traditional snowboard shoots cease to pay the bills, the audience is arguably left with more brand-driven content (a.k.a. advertorial) and/or amateur pics – plus the usual online mish mash.

Maybe it is all for the best, this march into the future that takes no prisoners, but the scary thing is how little control we seem to have over any of it. We all love the scratch of a needle on vinyl, but as Scalp points out, most of us just plug into Spotify; we lament our enslavement to screens but spend half our free time on Facebook; we miss the peace you used to find in the mountains whilst checking our messages on the chairlift. Snowboard photography is just one more piece of cultural flotsam being swept along on the technological tsunami.

As for the pros, that eccentric old crew of lens-lugging sherpas, some of the best-known names of the past decade have dropped away. Others have diversified into other areas – bike shoots, product, weddings, whoever’s hiring. “There’s not one guy in the world who lives only on magazines,” claims Scalp. “That option has gone.” A new generation, meanwhile, has grown up in the digital era and is smashing down the door with evermore-imaginative post-production. Whether they’re embarking on a viable long-term career (at least in snowboarding) is less certain. It certainly seems as though the churn has become greater – as an editor, I see submissions from new names pop up every year, many of whom quickly disappear off the radar again, like images on an Instagram feed.

Dan Milner’s advice to budding snappers is to use the new tools to your advantage whilst taking the time to learn the basics. “Shots are more and more dramatic and you gotta make that cut, so learn those techniques but don’t just go and shoot; study why that picture does or doesn’t work. Look at the light, and where it was shot from. Get a good website going, get your stuff up and spread it out there on social media. Create that swell of interest. If you’re not seeing the exciting thing of what photography’s offering nowadays, then you shouldn’t be in it.”

One trick, five different photos. Open the gallery to see them all.

Reassuringly, he adds, while making it pay can be challenging, “everyone wants photographers.” Scalp suggests that it would be wise to avoid shooting the park. “There’s still a place in snowboard photography for real, big mountain riding – that part will remain for people who have quite a lot of experience. It’s the same as the guy who shoots in the water in Hawaii. There aren’t many guys like him, first because there’s no room and second because it’s fucking dangerous.”

Whether or not a riding picture can ever be called art, and whether new software is improving or detracting from what French pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”, it seems to me that photography – like snowboarding itself – has always been an evolving medium. And just like snowboarding, new trends and equipment can never replace one essential skill, namely: a good eye.


What do you think? Is all this digital trickery a con, or has the new era made things better? Have Instagram, Lightroom and the like made it possible for anyone to be a photographer? Let us know your thoughts on the comments below.

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