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Showcasing the pace and excitement of alpine skiing

Interview: December 11, 2015;
Posted: March 25, 2016

A native of Toyama Prefecture, Hiroyuki Yakushi has been photographing alpine skiing at the top international level including the Olympics and World Championships since first covering the Alpine Skiing World Cup in 1969. An official photographer for the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, since then he has covered 12 Winter Olympics, the latest being Sochi in 2014. In 1993 Yakushi served as media rep on the organizing committee for the World Championships in Shizukuishi, Iwate, and in 2012 he received the FIS Journalist Award in recognition of his many years of service to the sport.

50,000 revelers gather to celebrate alpine skiing

For over 45 years, sports photographer Hiroyuki Yakushi has been covering alpine skiing on the international scene, including the World Cup, World Championships, and Olympics. As he showed us some of his recent shots from the World Cup and World Championships, we quizzed him on the attractions of alpine skiing, and what it is like to cover the sport from the front line.

Q: Alpine skiing is huge in Europe, isn't it?

Yakushi: They have multiple winter sport disciplines there including alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, and ski-jumping, but in Switzerland, Austria and France especially, alpine skiing is by far the most popular. Over 50,000 spectators a day turn up at the events known as the World Cup classics. Naturally, many have come to see the competitors and the competitions, but overall the atmosphere is more akin to a big festival. It used to be that many spectators would drink the night away, watch the races, then go straight back to the bars. The events are also televised live, so a lot of fans look forward to that.

Fans watching the downhill racing at Kitzbühel in 1975. The hut is still there, but the surrounding trees have grown up around it.

Q: The World Cup is staged across different locations, such as Europe, the US, and Canada, right?

Yakushi: Yes, with all that globe-trotting it's become known as the "White Circus". The 2015—16 season starts in Sölden in Austria in October, then moves to North America, to one location in Canada and two in the US. Returning to Europe the competition will travel to Sweden, France, Italy, Austria and Germany. February will see it in Naeba (Niigata, Japan), then in March, the finals will be held in Switzerland. The four main events are downhill, super-G, slalom and giant slalom, to which are added city events suitable for short runs.

Kitzbühel in Austria: at the downhill racing in 2004, fans crowd around the straight approaching the finishing line. Crowds of over 50,000 flock to this race, with more than 100,000 in total attending three races over the time frame of a weekend.

Over 45 years covering the World Cup

Q: How long have you been photographing the World Cup?

Yakushi: Since the third World Cup season, 1968—69. That year the Japanese team set out to build up strength in preparation for the Sapporo Olympics, and I tagged along with them for three weeks or so.

There we found the athletes' support system to be completely different to what we were used to back then. In Japan people used off-the-shelf skis in competition, doing all the work like polishing edges and waxing themselves, but in Europe in those days manufacturers of skis, ski boots and other gear were already onsite providing backup, like they do in Formula One racing.

A shot from Yakushi's first World Cup. He still remembers how hard the surface was, and how the gate poles were made from thin shaved wood instead of bamboo.

Added to this was the firmness of European slopes, almost unimaginably different to Japan. Japanese ski runs feel like they've just been trampled down, and after a few skiers, grooves and holes start to appear on them. But in Europe the snow was packed down like sheets of ice: I think the team was quite thrown by that.

Q: How many events do you cover in a season?

Yakushi: At times I used to cover pretty much the whole season. Back then, the opening event was in December, and the finals in mid-March. Women's events were often held on weekdays, and in good weeks I could photograph three or four events. Lately I've been mainly covering January's Adelboden and Wengen in Switzerland, and Kitzbühel in Austria.

The heart-stopping highlight of the racing at Wengen is a jump known as the Hundschopf (dog's head). The safety net is a sobering reminder of what can go wrong.

Perfect spray only when all the conditions are right

Q: For the latest Photo Gallery you've supplied photos from the World Cup and World Championships. It's all great stuff: incredible speed, amazing jumps, ecstatic joy. Looking at your shots of athletes at the starting line, and at the moment they take off, the tension is obvious.

Yakushi: This photo was taken not during the event, but on a training day. On actual competition days there are officials here and there, and lots of commotion, making it almost impossible to take photos. But the competitors are just as serious on training days—after all, it would not do to be half-hearted about it and take a fall.

On training days, the athletes and their coaches do inspections in the morning, surveying the course to see what line to take. In this shot, the skier is warming up at the start, visualizing his desired route.

Q: Do the skiers follow a different line each year even over the same run?

Yakushi: Yes, because depending on the amount of snow, topographical features might be buried, or left exposed. And they don't measure where they put the gates, so the course itself will be slightly different every year. Downhill is an event where veteran skiers tend to excel, because past experience helps them make subtle adjustments in response to the conditions.

Q: That's some impressive spray in this photo.

Yakushi: You don't see it this high very often. Spray occurs when the skier is turning on the ski's edges, which slows them down, so they try to avoid skiing that way if possible. The other factor is the consistency of the snow. Japan has wet snow, which means spray doesn't hang in the air. You only get the phenomenon here when it is cold — around minus 10℃ — and sun doesn't melt the snow.

Predicting when the best competitors will be skiing

Q: How do you decide where to shoot from?

Yakushi: We photographers also check out the course before the main event. The area where photography is allowed is restricted, so you start at the top and move down to pick your spot. Where alpine skiing differs from other sports is that during the event, a photographer is unable to change location. So a succession of different people will ski down toward you, but basically, you only get one shot each day.

Q: So where you shoot from must be absolutely crucial. What elements do you factor in?

Yakushi: First of all whether you have a clear sky or not, and then whether your spot is in the sun or not. Time is another factor. If competitors are descending at a rate of one every two minutes, by the 30th skier, an hour will have passed. So the way the sunlight falls, and the appearance of the shadows will have changed. In the giant slalom and slalom, for example, in the first run the competitors lead from the strongest, then in the second, it's the other way round. So you have to calculate the best place to be while the stronger skiers are on the course.

The Kaiser range glittering in morning sun, from the window of the accommodation Yakushi has been using for almost 40 years. This typical Kitzbühel scene tells the photographer what the weather will be like that day.

Q: Having traveled to the same places for so long, I imagine you have a good grasp of the kind of photos possible at each.

Yakushi: Actually that's not the case, because it's different ever year, down to a single cloud movement. The worst thing a photographer can do is to assume you'll get a good shot from a particular point: do that, and this year's shots will end up looking the same as last year's. In that case, why bother going? It's a matter of constantly looking for new angles to keep things interesting.

Adapting techniques to the conditions

Q: How do you capture such dynamic subjects?

Yakushi: For the most part, I play it by ear in tune with the conditions. If I'm quite a distance from the athlete, and not aiming for a close-up, I shoot in auto-focus. If I think the distance from the subject or their speed could make things tricky, I may engage the focus lock (*1), choose burst mode then pick out one of the resulting shots.

Q: Do you ever take single shots rather than using continuous shooting mode?

Yakushi: Yes, of course. Fundamentally, just holding down the shutter is not my preferred technique. Particularly when shooting continuously in auto focus, you often find the focus is lost from partway through. You can never be sure if you've captured the subject, so naturally some risk management is required. Rather than weighing all this up, I tend to rely on my own reflexes to suit the conditions.

Q: What are your thoughts on selecting the angle of view?

Yakushi: Personally, anything I can take with a short lens I get right up close to and do so; and for long lenses I use something of a decent length, and choose whether to move closer or pull back. I try to avoid in-between angles. So with a 40-150mm zoom lens, for example, I tend to use one end of the range (*2) or the other. It's great to have a lens that produces results this sharp, has fast auto-focus, and is lightweight and maneuverable. The high quality is retained even with a teleconverter attached. I treat it like having two single-focus lenses in one lens.

*1 One of the techniques used to photograph moving bodies, by fixing the focus in advance on the place you wish to photograph. Then, by pressing the shutter in the instant that the subject passes this point, it is possible to take a shot of the subject in focus.

*2 M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO

Interview and text: Koji Okano