Professional photographer and longtime Mammoth local, Christian Pondella got his break in the action sports photography world when he was skiing on Mammoth Mountain. Today he is a photographer for Red Bull, a senior photographer for Powder Magazine, a member of the San Disk Extreme Team, and a staff pro for F-stop.
We caught up with him to talk about how he got his start as a photographer, the evolution of his career, and how he gets the perfect ski shot.
Note: This story was first written for and published on the Visit Mammoth blog. Check out the site for more photos from Pondella.
Christian Pondella on learning photography
My freshman year in college I took a black and white intro photography class. I just fell in love with the process of developing photos and making prints in the darkroom. I was primarily shooting my friends skiing and rock climbing during the day and I would find myself spending three hours in the darkroom at night. It wasn’t a photography school, so when I graduated it was more of a hobby. I moved to Mammoth and shot backcountry skiing with my friends for fun.
On getting a foot in the door with Powder Magazine
I was skiing Lincoln Mountain one day and just ended up skiing all day with this one guy who I’d never met. It turns out he was the photo editor for Powder Magazine—David Reddick. He said to send him some photos, and he gave me some really good constructive criticism. That spring (1995) I went out with some friends on a backcountry ski trip to Red Slate. Hans Ludwig was getting into writing at the time, so he wrote a story and we ended up sending it to Powder. That following year (1996) they ran the feature.
On keeping up with professional athletes
In ski mountaineering, you obviously you have to be able to ski the same lines as the athlete. In rock climbing you don’t have to climb as hard, but you have to be comfortable with ropes, jugging up, and getting into position, same with ice climbing. Shooting a lot of mountain sports you have to have a pretty good knowledge of what you are doing. I try to stay fit, but I don’t work out regularly or anything. I just go out climbing with my friends and go skiing as much as I can. For photographers like myself, photography is probably second of their passion. The camera is just a tool that allows you to make a career out of doing sports you love and being outside
On balancing fun and work
That’s the great thing about living in Mammoth. I probably ski Mammoth Mountain a lot more without a camera than with a camera. In the backcountry if we just want to go ski a peak for fun, I’ll just have a camera on my hip belt. It’s more like photojournalism; we aren’t going out there to do this photo shoot, but when we get to a really cool spot my friends know that I’ll want to get a shot. Even if I wasn’t a photographer I would go out and ski a mountain with my friends regardless.
On photography today and making a living
It’s tougher to make a living as a photographer now than it was ten years ago. There are so many more cameras now and they are so much better than they used to be. Anyone can pick up a digital camera and go out and get good shots right away without a whole lot of knowledge. When I learned photography I really had to take notes and then go back and look at it. Now you can put a photo on the computer, look at it on the screen and see what you are doing right or wrong. The learning curve is a lot faster, but at the end of the day you still have to be a photographer, take photos, get the composition, and the light right.
On adventure sports and who you are shooting
A lot of action sports work is who you are shooting. If I went out on a shoot one day with a kid who is a ripping skier and got a great shot, and then Seth Morrison or Glen Plake did the same thing, the magazines would be more prone to run a shot of Seth Morrison or Glen Plake. There is a bigger demand for photos of big name skiers like Seth and Glen.
On travel and working on spec
Skiing, climbing, and ice climbing is generally spec work for me. I’ll go on shoots with a bunch of pro skiers even though I am not contracted by any companies. We’ll go somewhere for a few weeks and then I’ll try to sell shots to their sponsors knowing that the following year they are going to be running ads with these guys.
On shooting skiing and getting the shot
Light is a big factor. It’s one of the primary components of photography. You have the golden hours, sunrise and sunset, but in the wintertime, shooting in the middle of the day is a good thing especially if you are on a true north-facing slope.
If the slope has a northwest or northeast exposure it is going to be what we call skim light, just kind of kissing it. You look up and the sun is going to be just five feet above the horizon line. It’s going to be coming right down the side of the slope.
When you are shooting skiing you want the snow to be textured and shadowy, so you want the sun to be coming at an angle creating a shadow in the snow.
On powder days a lot of time you’ll get one chance. You might only have a few minutes to get it when the light is just right. It’s a combination of me having to get it and the athlete getting it.
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