Ski Trip 2019

I just came back from an exciting ski trip to Les Arcs. Basically, this is the same trip we did last year. I was really excited about it in many ways, including photographically.

I had a great time out there. The conditions for skiing were pretty terrible, with only 2 days of good visibility, and a few snowstorms so bad that the entire resort was closed. I went there motivated to improve my snowboarding, but I feel like my skill didn’t improve at all because of the poor conditions and lots of downtime. I also was planning to spend a lot of time with my friends and coworkers, and I indeed enjoyed it a lot.

As I was preparing for the trip, I packed a ton of gear. Thing is, the transportation is really convenient, and I was confident I won’t have to lug my heavy bags for hours. I also knew the location very well, so I knew which tools I could use in which conditions from last year’s experience. Unfortunately, the conditions were much less picturesque compared to last year, so I came out with very few pictures. I made a few technical mistakes, and I definitely overpacked. Let’s talk about my impressions and every piece of gear I took, with pictures :)

Sony A7R III + lenses

This is my main camera. I primarily took it for shooting a panoramic of Mont Blanc in the sunrise. That’s also why I took my big and heavy 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G and a tripod. That’s 1500g of camera + 1200g of tripod + roughly 150g of the L-bracket.

The result? This 100+ Megapixel pano of the first light of the day kissing Mont Blanc.

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And this other, 75+ MPx pano a few minutes later.

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So was it worth it? I would say yes. To me, these are special images, and I enjoyed hiking uphill with a heavy backpack to be rewarded with this pano. Special landscape images often require heavy, bulky specialty gear in a special location at an early hour, and in this case I was able to get an image I’m proud of within roughly 1 hour from waking up, a few hundred meters from my hotel. Basically the only price I had to pay is the few laughs I got from my friends when they looked at my camera bag.

Drone selfie of me taking the panorama of Mont Blanc. My camera, on the right, is recording a timelapse, now that the best light has passed.

Drone selfie of me taking the panorama of Mont Blanc. My camera, on the right, is recording a timelapse, now that the best light has passed.

The other two lenses — the 16-35 zoom and the 55 f/1.8 prime — I only used once for some causal portraits. I hoped for slightly more use for them, especially the zoom, but the conditions didn’t materialize. A total overkill.

One of the casual portraits with the 16-35 zoom

One of the casual portraits with the 16-35 zoom

Mavic 2 Pro

Last year I took my Mavic Pro with me, and the video I got from it was excellent. This year, I upgraded my drone for two reasons: higher image quality, and follow-me mode that allows the drone to go downhill. My hope was to get some video of us on the slopes, but really we got only 10 hours of riding in good weather, so I didn’t waste it taking videos: I came there for snowboarding first, photography and parties being just a compliment.

This type of perspective you can only get with a flying camera.

This type of perspective you can only get with a flying camera.

In fact, I didn’t even fly it in follow-me mode. All the flying was done in convenient time, and every photographer will tell you that best images/videos come when the light is right, which is almost never a convenient moment. Therefore, I cannot really say much about the improved features of the Mavic just yet. I will say, however, that the photo quality is on par with the Sony RX100 III, which is just great.

I made a small video from the drone clips. You can see that the dynamic range is decent, for a flying camera that is. You can also see how I’m a terrible pilot. Most of the footage comes from the 1.5 days of good weather that we had, with one clip where I sit on the slope coming from the snowstorm, to demonstrate the typical conditions we got in there.

RX100 III

I just love this little camera. I borrowed if from my wife, who’s not shooting with it anymore, using the Fuji X100T and her phone instead. For many, it’s hard to justify having a compact camera like this when you have the phone. For me though, it has a couple of important advantages. A tilt screen and a viewfinder really help taking a shot in bright sunlight; the mechanical controls are more usable in gloves; and the image quality, especially when zoomed in or in low light, is noticeably better than any phone, when viewed on something larger than a phone screen. I tend to view my pictures on at least an iPad, so the phones are still lacking in image quality for me.

And yet it’s so small that I took it with me every day when skiing. This let me take some of the best images on the trip, as the light comes and goes in the mountains.

Last light of the day coming into the valley, as I’m taking the last chairlift up.

Last light of the day coming into the valley, as I’m taking the last chairlift up.

Quick shot on the way home.

Quick shot on the way home.

Avalanche control: snow powder rising after a controlled avalanche release explosion.

Avalanche control: snow powder rising after a controlled avalanche release explosion.

A snow storm rolling into the valley.

A snow storm rolling into the valley.

Honestly, most of these shots on a phone screen will look identical to something taken with a Pixel 3 or an iPhone X. But these I will be able to use as my desktop background on a 5K screen.

Osmo Pocket

Finally, a new small tool in my kit. I bought this mainly for video. I often shoot some video on my hiking trips with my iPhone, but the jerky movements look terrible. I was hoping that this will smooth out the shots when walking and when panning; I also was looking forward to the motion timelapse feature.

For the purpose of this trip, I had high hopes for the subject tracking. In the ideal world, I should be able to double-tap on a person and just follow them on my snowboard while sticking my hand out, with the gimbal pointing in their direction automatically. In reality, the subject tracking is disappointing: it is really hard to acquire the correct target using the small screen, and the camera often just loses the subject seconds after locking on it. Interestingly, one time it worked in fairly low light and low visibility; other times it didn’t work in ideal conditions like bright light, colorful skier on a white background. Here are two short clips demonstrating the issue.

But despite the average ergonomics, video quality equal to a good phone, and poor subject tracking, it’s hard not to like this camera. It is really small and the stabilization is a lot better than any phone I tried. It is more comfortable to use in gloves, and pans look beautiful. I think this will stay in my pocket for many years, unless its non-weather-sealed body dies soon.

Lessons learned

I have made a couple of regrettable mistakes in terms of photographic technique that I regretted quickly. For instance, when I was taking the panoramas, there was a tractor grooming the slopes nearby. I should’ve increased the ISO to drop the shutter speed, but this never occurred to me; besides, I only checked some of the pano shots for sharpness on the spot. The annoying part for me here is that I made the same exact mistake last year - trying to chase a lower ISO made me discard most of my panoramic shots. Luckily, I made it out with two whole panos with no motion blur, but I could’ve had 10 to chose from.

The other thing I came to regret is not learning how to use the follow me mode on the drone. The only time I attempted it on the slopes, I chose the wrong mode and managed to not start recording at all. As a result, I didn’t really use the capabilities of the new Mavic, and I didn’t get any of that sweet follow-cam footage.

One more issue that I have to admit is that I overpacked. I could’ve left at least two lenses at home and I would’ve come out with just as good of a result.

But by far the most important lesson is that when the weather isn’t good for skiing, and isn’t good for photography, there is still a lot of fun to be had. I just had a wonderful time with my friends, going to bars, watching Game of Thrones, having a conversation over a dinner — basically being a normal person and not a gear-obsessed photo geek. I am looking forward to the next year’s ski trip :)