of the downhill
© Christian Walgram/GEPA pictures
Award-winning sports and action photographer Christian Walgram spends nearly a quarter of a year on the world’s best ski slopes, capturing remarkable action images from skiers competing in the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup. CPN Editor David Corfield discovers the challenges and rewards of capturing split-second action...
“The army training helps.” Christian Walgram is explaining how his spell in the Austrian military service helped discipline his state of mind and perfect his committed approach to capturing action. “Reflexes and timing make a good photographer. And another thing is the fitness; you need to be strong to be a skiing photographer. That is very important when you are hiking up a mountain with a heavy backpack...”
Walgram received worldwide recognition last year for his World Press Photo award-winning image (below) of Czech skier Ondrej Bank, falling in the downhill portion of the alpine combined contest at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, held in Beaver Creek, Colorado, USA. His image was a perfect example of what magic can happen when all the elements come together: great light, immaculate focusing and split-second timing. These make up the holy trinity of any good sports photograph, but especially a skiing one.
The Editor’s eye
Walgram credits his early days as a picture editor at GEPA pictures for his success as a photographer on the slopes. “When I came out of the military I started as an editor on the picture desk at GEPA and I enjoyed it there very much; I spent nearly three years there but because photography was also a big hobby for me I tried to get out in the field. GEPA recognised my ambition and I have worked as a photographer ever since. But my experience as a picture editor helped me because I know what picture editors look for.”
Walgram is a committed Canon user, citing the EOS-1D X and now the Mark II version as cameras that completely revolutionised his craft. “The [EOS-1D X] Mark II is really great. It’s just perfect! The focusing speed is incredible and it’s so precise, too. It’s nearly impossible to have unsharp pictures now. I use the Mark II with the EF200-400mm, which is a great lens, along with the 600mm and 800mm telephotos, which are my main lenses for action. I also use the 11-24mm, 16-35mm and 70-200mm zooms as well for when I am closer to the subjects.”
But it’s not just cameras inside his kitbag, as he explains: “I also take batteries, crampons and a monopod with me. And gloves, water and hand warmers, of course. We have to carry a lot of gear. My backpack weighs about 20 kilos so with all this equipment it is not funny to ski down icy race courses...”
A winning workflow
The workflow involved in shooting on location and sending images back in real-time relies almost entirely on WiFi these days, as Walgram explains: “When I arrive I do a location check first to view the slope and to find out the key places to shoot from. I also find the WiFi hotspots and ensure there is a good mobile Internet connection when I am out of reach of a signal. It is important to transmit the pictures back to the picture desk immediately and I use the WFT-E8 WiFi transmitter, which works perfectly with the EOS-1D X Mark II. It allows me to send pictures back to the desk reliably and in super-quick time.”
He continues: “When the race day comes I check the course, thinking all the time about what are the most interesting turns and where the jumps are, and then I ski it myself a few times. You have to be fit to do this job and you need to be a good skier, too! I took my skis to the sports shop to get the edges really sharpened this year, as the ice was very bad, especially at Kitzbühel [in Austria]. These are all the things that go on behind the scenes before I even pick up a camera! Finally, from that knowledge I then pick a spot and then wait until the race starts.”
Walgram’s love of skiing means he is always happy to be on the slopes. It’s become almost a second home for him. “It’s a pleasure to be able to photograph these professional skiers,” he explains. “There is a great skill needed to capturing images of these incredible men and women at speed, and it’s not just technically challenging, either. You never know what the light will be like during the day, as you have to choose your position a minimum of one hour before the race starts. So that means that the sun will move, therefore you must always plan to know where the best light will be.”
He explains: “Because the snow is always very bright, it can fool even the most advanced metering systems so I always use Manual settings on my cameras and overexpose by a couple of stops. Thankfully the dynamic range of the EOS-1D X Mark II means that even if I get a shot that is underexposed I can still get a great result because the detail is still there in the shadows.”
Christian’s link to the picture desk is very much part and parcel of his workflow process, and he is in constant contact with the office as the skiing takes place.
“Before the actual races, I shoot a couple of images of the forerunners and send the images direct to the picture desk to let them see what the shot will look like. They can then give me feedback so if I need to I can shoot with a different crop or whatever. It’s a real partnership and the camera is right at the heart of that process, as I can use the crop and send function and show the desk what I am thinking the moment I take the picture, which is a real step forward in terms of the cooperation and helps strengthen the important part the picture desk plays as an event takes place.”
“I have a real good relationship with the [picture] desk,” Walgram affirms. “I am one of the senior members of the team now and together we work very hard with our other photographers to have a proper planning in place when we arrive at an event. We look for more artistic images, as well as the traditional action shots, and that’s the benefit of working as a team. We get the chance to be artistic, as we know the important action moments are being taken care of. So one of us always gets the chance to be creative.”
Planning is clearly vital, as he explains: “We make a plan the evening before and from there everyone has their own shot list – but it always depends on weather conditions of course. It’s not just a question of going there and taking photos. Logistically we also have to look at how to get the pictures back to the desk as the events are always in the mountains and it’s sometimes very hard to get signals and so on. Very often you have to hike in the snow to get higher ground for sending images back. And don’t forget that we do all this with our camera gear on our backs and with skis too. Pressing the shutter is often the easy part!”
Out of all the events Walgram covers, does he have a favourite? “For sure. My favourite place in the whole skiing calendar is Schladming in Austria. Over 50,000 people turn up to watch and the atmosphere there is just incredible. It’s slalom racing and not a long downhill, so the crowds can watch the whole race and not just the end of it when the skiers come off the downhill into the arena. Plus from a photography point of view the hill has a lot of nice spots to get good shots. I love it there, and for me it is the highlight in my calendar. It reminds me why in Austria skiing has become the national sport. For sure it’s number one.”
Walgram enjoys the excitement the skiing season brings him and it’s clear that it’s more than just a sport for him. “I am always busy as a photographer at GEPA and the season this year has been incredible. But now that it is over I can take time off and enjoy a much-needed rest. Sport is such a wonderful subject to cover and I have covered nearly everything under the sun in my career, but skiing remains one of my favourite subjects because it is a part of my daily life, too.”
And as for the one thing he can’t do without? Walgram is very clear. It has nothing to do with a camera, at all. “You must always eat a good breakfast!” he laughs. “If you don’t, your energy will drop and you’ll miss the shot. So that’s my best advice to anyone wanting to do this job. Eat well, and it will help you be ready for when the sporting moments come!”
Christian Walgram’s skiing kitbag
|2x EOS-1D X Mark II|
|EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM|
|EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM|
|EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM|
|EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x|
|EF600mm f/4L IS II USM|
|EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM|
|WFT-E8 Wireless Transmitter|
|Rucksack camera bag|
Biography: Christian Walgram
Christian Walgram was born in 1981. He was raised in Schoeder (near Murau - Upper Styria, Austria) where he attended elementary school. After attending the secondary modern school in St. Peter am Kammersberg for four years Christian went to the BORG Murau where he graduated in 2000. After graduation, he joined the Austrian military service for five years. Christian left the army and joined the team of the Austrian sports picture agency GEPA pictures in 2006. Having worked at the picture desk for almost three years, Christian decided on turning his passion into his career and changed sides – he began working as a staff photographer for GEPA pictures in 2008 and has done so ever since. Christian is married, father of two girls and lives in Eggersdorf, Austria.