I sold everything, even my filters. I gave myself two weeks on eBay to get shot of the lot. Then I walked into Calumet and spent £16,000 on Nikon gear!
Ross Woodhall, action photographer
Ross Woodhall knows his life could have been very different. He grew up in the West Midlands, Britain’s industrial heartland, and left school to work as an electrician. It seemed his childhood love for sport and the outdoors would become a thing of the past. Then he met a man in a poncho in a pub…
When did you become first interested in photography?
I met a bloke in a pub. This would be 1991. I met a friend who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years and he turned up wearing a poncho. He had long hair and a tan.
Sounds like an interesting reunion?
I said, “Hello mate, where have you been?” He said, “I’ve been in Chile snowboarding.” I said, “Where’s Chile? What’s snowboarding?” I then met a mate of his, a painter – of door frames, not canvasses – and I asked him where he was working, thinking he was on one of the local sites, but he said he was working in the Alps. I said, ‘You don’t need an electrician do you?’ The next morning I woke up with this hangover and an enormous telephone number on a beer mat. I looked at it, rang it, and two days later I was in the Alps!
How old were you then?
I was 22 and utterly hating life as an electrician and thinking, ‘Have I got to do this for the next 40-odd years?’ I did the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards scheme as a kid and was always outdoors, and all I knew was that I wanted to be outdoors.
What sort of pursuits were you into?
Cycling, hill walking in Wales, canoeing, kayaking and a little bit of climbing. I’d been skiing twice, once with the school.
Did you ever undergo any sort of photography training?
I had no training whatsoever. In the Alps I met one guy from Winchester, a rep for a ski company, and we would go out snowboarding. He had a Canon AE-1, and
he said we should take it and take some pictures of us snowboarding. He never did, but he left the camera in the room and I picked it up, looked through the viewfinder and thought, ‘This is a cool piece of kit.’
When did you get your first SLR?
I went to New Zealand after deciding I was going to be a snowboarding instructor. Before I went, I was told I needed an SLR, so I swapped a crash helmet for an old Russian Zenit! After the instructor’s course I got two months off and did lots of snowboarding. There was this girl at the top who was taking pictures of people as they were coming off the chairlift and I kept asking her what shutter speed have you got and what aperture have you got? Another day, I was snowboarding around and this guy came up and said he was a photographer for a snowboarding magazine and asked to do some pictures of me. It turned out his girlfriend was the girl taking the pictures at the top of the chairlift.
So you learnt your basic knowledge from this couple?
Yeah, that’s right. I was desperate for cash at the time so I asked if they needed another photographer. They said, “Yeah, but we want a girl.” I kept hassling them and three weeks later they hadn’t got a girl, so I said, “Well I have got long hair!” They gave me a camera, took me to the top of the chairlift and said, “Just shoot everything at 1/250 sec at f/8.”
Have you worked in photography ever since?
Yes, ever since that day. After the season was over in New Zealand I went home, bought exactly the same equipment and replicated the business in the Alps. That couple then came over from New Zealand and came to work for me in France. For years, we went back and forth like that.
What camera were you using then?
After the Zenit, it was a Pentax P30T, a fully manual camera. I had a 28mm
I was told I needed an SLR, so I swapped a crash helmet for an old Russian Zenit!
Ross Woodhall Action & lifestyle photographer
wide-angle and for the first two or three years I shot all action with just one shot. I made a million mistakes along the way. By 1995, I cracked it.
What do you mean?
I knew what I was doing!
Did you then become more adventurous in your photography?
When I went to New Zealand all I wanted to be was a pro snowboarder, so my dream was to fly around the planet snowboarding in the world’s greatest locations. When I picked up the camera I realised then that I wasn’t going to make it as a snowboarder because I’ve got too much of a survival instinct. I’d peer over a 60-foot cliff and
think, ‘Hang on, I might break my legs here’, whereas all the top professionals didn’t care less if they broke their legs.
You were more risk averse?
A little bit, yes. I just had that little bit of self-preservation and I thought the guy behind the camera has got a better career
The camera I reach for is the D800. If I’m shooting action, or in a environment where the light’s poor, the D4 is fantastic
Ross Woodhall Action & lifestyle photographer
prospect. I was so into photography at this point, so I changed my plan. Instead of being a top snowboarder I was going to be a top ski and snowboard photographer.
Where are your favourite locations?
New Zealand is fantastic. You can’t go wrong. Norway and the Arctic Circle is great. As soon as you get into the mountains it’s all brilliant. I nearly made it to Chile and Argentina, but it’s still on the hit list. I quite fancy horse riding with the gauchos. Japan too, I’d like to go there, but Fukushima has put me off a bit.
What was your first Nikon camera?
I only jumped to Nikon about four years ago. In 1995 I was weighing up my options. All the Aussie guys I worked with were on FM2s with motordrives. I was all set to get an FM2 and an F4. Then the Canon EOS 5 came out. It was capable of shooting five frames per second, and that and the silent wave autofocus system swung it for us. All the Aussie guys switched too so we were Canon for a long time, maybe 12 to 14 years. But when digital came Canon started playing this game with their sports cameras, which only used a cropped chip, so as soon as the Nikon D3 came out my ears pricked up. I got the D3 and some lenses to try for a week and the files were beautifully smooth. I thought, ‘That’s it, I’ll do it.’ I sold my Canon gear, my Hasselblads, my Mamiyas. I even sold my filters. I gave myself two weeks on eBay
to get shot of the lot. Then I walked into Calumet and spent £16,000 on Nikon gear!
What kit is in your camera bag for a typical day’s shoot?
It depends on the client’s needs. Generally, the camera I reach for is the D800. If I’m shooting action, or in an environment where the light’s poor, the D4 is fantastic.
How many camera bodies do you own?
I have a D4, D800 and D300s. I’m thinking of getting another D800, but the D4 files are so superb I can blow them up to 300Mb and it’s not an issue at all. With the D800 you don’t need a medium-format.
Lenses, I’ve got the 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4, and I’ve got an 18-200mm travel lens, plus the 24-120mm f/4. I really like the 200-400mm f/4 too, but I hire those when I need them.
That was a long list; so what is your ‘desert island’ lens?
Well, I’ve just hired a 24-120mm f/4 because I broke my 24-70mm, so I’d go for that. With a D800, if you put the DX crop on the 24-120mm, it’s going to push it almost to 200mm. So you’ve effectively got a 24-200mm at a constant f/4, and it’s a really good quality lens.
What about flash?
I’ve got a couple of Nikon Speedlights, but I use Elinchrom for studio work.
What about when you’re outdoors? The Elinchrom again. Used remotely the range can be limited but I’ve got the PocketWizards as well. I’m toying with the new Speedlights at the moment because they’re a bit more powerful. I’m looking at using them for portraits.
How do you relax?
Fly fishing. I want to go to Alaska, get in a floatplane and go fly fishing. My fishing ideas are out there. That’s one of my retirement plans, fly fishing photography.
It’s very different to the high-speed subjects you’re renowned for…
I know. When you hit that fish, the pulse is racing and there’s an adrenaline rush.
I don’t care if I don’t catch anything because I can sit by the river and watch the water.
It sounds hypnotic?
It is hypnotic and fly fishing is such an art. To catch a fish is such a skill, to put a fly into the right place so that it looks natural. Fly fishing is right up there.
I don’t really do high-end fashion or fashion in the studio – I like working outdoors. I find the backdrops are better!
Ross Woodhall Action & lifestyle photographer
What’s the oddest thing in your bag?
I used to have a beer bottle cap, but I lost it and I’m gutted because when I got it I was sitting in a bar in Alaska after a mind-blowing day. We had been shooting the World Extreme Snowboarding Championships, and were dropped off on a glacier at sunset and snowboarded down in a perfect pink alpenglow in waist-deep snow. Got picked up by a yellow school bus, went to a bar, I had a bottle of beer and I put the bottle cap in my pocket. I used it to take tripod mounts off, like a screwdriver. I used to take that everywhere with me.
Also, I’ve got a pack of Co-codamol in case anyone gets injured. I’ve got a survival blanket and laundry bags to put over the flash heads to act as a diffuser.
You are now shooting outdoor adventure fashion. Why?
There’s me and another photographer pushing it. We were both working on the same idea without talking to each other. We were both pushing the industry ourselves to improve their game. We’ve gone to clients and said, ‘Why don’t we shoot like this?’ Ten years ago I don’t think the flash systems were available, the technology wasn’t available, especially for the location stuff, but when clients see the results they buy into it.
Where have you been shooting?
Mostly the UK and Europe. It’s been a slow burner because I don’t really do high-end fashion or fashion in the studio – I like
working outdoors. I find the backdrops are better! We did a job for a men’s magazine in Canada on a glacier at 3,400 metres. They were really pleased with the results.
How many Gigabytes of images do you think you shoot in a week or a month?
In March I racked up two terabytes. It’s action, so I’m shooting at 10 frames per second. I would say at the moment it’s typically between 500 gigabytes and a terabyte per month. This month is a bit slow but next month might be crazy. The D800 files are so huge we have to downsize them to give them to the stock agencies.
Could you shoot a wedding if you had to?
I’m doing one on Sunday. Not commercially.
So it’s for friends? It’s their wedding present. I do weddings for really close friends. I shoot them and then supply them with a hardback book with all the pictures. I have thought about doing weddings and I know a lot of guys who earn a really good living from it. But you know, you’re dealing with a woman on the most stressful day of her life… It’s not even that, it’s what happens if it all goes wrong? I can’t be held responsible for that. A £170,000 shoot might go out the window, but not that! There’s no fury like a bride scorned, so I keep well away from that.
What type of assignment presents the biggest challenge?
I’ve got one coming up next week. It’s a fashion shoot and they want it shot in front of a fireworks display and a bonfire. I’ve got to try to figure that one out.
Who is that for?
It’s a UK fashion brand called Luke 1977. Their idea was ‘Blinded by the Light’ – every year has a theme. The concept is going to be bonfires because by the time it comes out it will be around bonfire time. I’m thinking of using the Nikon Speedlights
because I can get rear curtain sync on that and I’ll probably use slower shutter speeds, then ping them with flash and get some blur.
Is fashion part of a plan to wean yourself off the slopes as you get older?
I’ve been shooting skiing photos for over 20 years. If I’ve shot one skier jumping over a cliff I’ve shot a million. It all starts to get a bit samey. I was a great ski photographer, but I thought, ‘There’s got to be more to photography than this.’ So we moved back to the UK and started commuting to the Alps. As I was back in the UK I thought I’d better start shooting a bit of mountain biking, a bit of running, and now we’ll pretty much shoot anything you like, including outdoor fashion.
The camera is the perfect medium to complement your interests. The camera opens doors; let the camera open the door and just walk in
Ross Woodhall Action & lifestyle photographer
What has been your greatest moment?
I remember standing on a glacier in Alaska once. We went in to land and it had been snowing heavily. The week before the pilot had got his plane stuck. A week later we’re up there and the pilot is freaking out because he didn’t want to get stuck again, and he came in too fast and literally rolled off the edge of the glacier. He pulled back, did a loop around and came back to land in his tracks. The guide and I got out and he took off again. We stood there and the guide said, “Listen to that. Just say nothing and listen to that.” It was the sound of silence and it was roaring in my ears. So we’re just standing there, saying nothing and listening to the sound of silence. Then a butterfly flew past and I thought ‘What the hell is a butterfly doing at the top of a glacier in Alaska?’
If young Ross Woodhall were starting out today, would there be anything he would do differently?
Be a hedge fund manager! I don’t know. Would I go to college? I’m not sure I would. I think they beat the life out of kids before they even start. I’d probably start earlier, at 16 rather than 22.
How much longer do you think you’ll keep snowboarding?
I’ll keep doing that for as long as I can mountain bike, which is for as long as I can walk. I will never stop. I’ll just carry on until I physically cannot do it any more. So snowboarding and mountain biking are bigger passions than photography? You know what? If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t change anything. My life is fantastic, really. Snowboarding is a passion, so is mountain biking, photography, fly fishing, food, music. I’ve tried to create a job out of everything that I’m into. The good thing about photography is that if you find something else that you are into, you can shoot that as well. The camera is the perfect medium to complement your interests. The camera opens doors; let the camera open the door and just walk in.
On the edge D3s, Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, 1/100 sec, f/9, ISO200
Flinging up snow
Nikon D4, Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, 1/2000 sec, f/8, ISO200
Sheer effor t Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED , 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO200
Bri ght on the pis te Nikon D4, Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, 1/2000 sec, f/8, ISO200
Running in wintry shro pshir e Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G, 1/800 sec, f/5, ISO400
mountai n bi king cra zy Nikon D800, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED , 1/125 sec, f/8, ISO50
Wra p up war m Nikon D800, Nikon AF 35mm f/2D, 1/250 sec, f/14, ISO400
Chalet Bra mes, merib el Nikon D3x, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED , 1 sec, f/22, ISO200
Ho me comfor
ts (ABOVE LE FT)
Nikon D3x, Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, 0.5 sec, f/3.5, ISO100
fa ncy fis h supper (ABOVE RIGHT
Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED , 1 sec, f/22, ISO200
Alpine cab le cars Nikon D4, Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, 1/1000 sec, f/14, ISO200
Fas hio n shoo t, Wa les (left)
Nikon D4, Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
, 1/500 sec, f/6.3, ISO400
Suit by Apsley (abov e) Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, 1/500 sec, f/4, ISO500