Who is Dom Daher? Tell us a little about how you got your start in photography.
I’m a French photographer, but I live and work near Geneva, Switzerland. My work is mainly focused on outdoor and non-academic sports. Even when I’m in the studio, it’s to photograph athletes. I’m a former skier and was skiing in the late ‘90s when the trend of freeriding started. I come from the south of France, three hours from the first ski mountains but I fell in love with skiing in the powder and jumping around. I was not good, but I was silly enough to find a couple of sponsors. One day I met Jakob Helbig, a Danish photographer, and my life changed. I started working for magazines, writing stories about my ski trips with Jakob and eventually found a job at Skieur Magazine, the first freeride ski magazine in France. After five years collecting stories from all over the world and meeting and working with many photographers, I decided I needed to be myself in the mountains and live my dream. Over fifteen years I had the chance to go through a broad spectrum of sports and different kinds of shooting, from analog to digital, from skiing to surfing, from sport documentary to commercial, from Alaska to Corsica. My clients have also been very diverse. I have worked with Salomon, Red Bull Swatch, and the Freeride World Tour, to name just a few. Now, with neufdixieme.com, I am starting a new chapter in my outdoor photography.
Words and images by Dom Daher
What is “Ground Control to Gavachkov”, and how did you get involved?
Several times X Games gold medalist in skicross, and main character of Rancho Web Show (the most famous web show in France), Enak Gavaggio called me one day and told me that he had a very weird idea about shooting a ski movie without snow. The producer and the cameraman were from Paris and they needed a crew of people who had a better understanding of skiing, even though they knew perfectly what they were doing. I said that it could be interesting. He answered that it was not a question, but a fact. I had to be with them, as my name was already in the loop. He promised me that I would not become rich, but I would have fun. So, my first idea was to do a kind of behind the scenes of this crazy idea, like a photojournalist approach to it. The two other skiers are also very well known and I saw a potential to cover it. So, basically I didn’t plan anything. When they sent me pictures of the outfits and the location, I started to change my mind and from a documentary aspect I imagined trying to do a couple of artistic shots.
The photos are incredible. How did you approach the lighting?
*Time of day, strobes, camera settings? We want to try and educate our readers.
I did a lot of outside shooting with big studio strobes, such as the Profoto 7B and then the 1B. But we were on a very low budget and short on time, so they told me that we will have only three days to shoot everything. They also told me that they wanted to shoot everything during the day and turn the shots into night with a cinematographic technique called Day For Night. My only knowledge about it was the very old TV show Zorro. I dug in and found a couple of tutorials. The best solution was to use a blue filter plus a couple of tips for the post production. Fortunately, the filter never arrived and I did it only in post production. My only concern was to shoot at the hardest time of the day and with absolutely no clouds. It was important to darken the sky and have as little shadow as possible on the ground. It turns out that the very first light of the day made it even better
For close up shooting, but didn’t work at all from farther away because of the shadow. Also, because of the very high temperatures last summer, we had some clouds at the end of the day (classical end of the day moisture), but it was impossible to avoid. Over the three days of shooting we hiked in at 5:00 in morning and worked until 10:00 at night. We had to do as much as possible every day without thinking too much.
Even though I’m a big fan of back light, it definitely doesn’t work in order to turn it dark afterward, so I had to reconsider a bit my way of shooting. Regarding camera settings, everything was set on the very bright outfits, in manual, to be sure I could keep it set on the highlights. The more contrast you have, the better it is. I worked with a very low ISO and even with a filter (ND2, that I already had) to darken it. My sensor was really dirty, because of the dust, so I needed to keep my aperture as open as possible.
What gear did you use for the shoot?
I’m becoming a big fan of minimalism, because the more you have the more you struggle with. Also, walking on those rolling stones was really difficult (one step up, two steps down …) so I wanted to stay light.
I used only prime lenses, for better contrast, and a tilt-shift lens. By changing the lenses and playing with the tilt-shift, I found the issue was definitely dust. So, my idea was to work with two cameras, a Canon 1D X and a 5D Mark IV, to avoid changing lenses and letting dust get inside the cameras. I worked with three lenses: a 50, a 135, and a 90 tilt-shift. So, two cameras and three lenses. I hid a 16-35 in the car, as well, just to do a crew picture of all of us that I never did … I failed!
What was the most challenging aspect to the shoot and how did you overcome it?
It was really hot (heat wave) during the day and quite cold in the morning, so I needed to carry a lot of water and some extra clothes. Also, I was fully dressed in black, to be as invisible as possible for the video cameras working from far away. But the most challenging was definitely the dust. I kept my f-stop ICU closed inside my pack, but still the dust was everywhere. It reminded me of the Red Bull Rampage that I used to cover back in the day.
How do you collaborate with the athletes you shoot? How much planning goes into each shot?
The main thing was the video, so it was first a collaborative process with Quentin Chaumy, who was the producer. We talked about the different scenes on his story board. On the main actions I tried to work the same angle at the same time as they did. Sometimes it didn’t work, as it was two cameras rolling and I tried to be invisible by crouching on the floor in my ninja outfit.
Then I took every opportunity to either ask them to do something special for me or to catch some action by acting like a fly on the wall. The jump with the skis in their hands, to fake low gravity, and when they walked all together in line were made especially for the photos when the camera crew was getting ready. But my favorite picture is a stolen picture. Hiking in ski boots on those rolling stones was not easy and when they got to the top they were really tired. I don’t know why they put their helmets on to rest, but it worked out perfectly.
I have a special relationship with Enak Gavaggio. We have known each other for more than 20 years now. We are very good friends, but I have a bunch of friends that I will not be able to work with. He has a very artistic vision combined with a very strong technique, and he works hard. Working with him is a back and forth discussion. I’m really open about riders’ ideas. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but it’s a very interesting process.
Style is important in both skiing and photography. Tell us how you identify your own personal style with photography.
When I first started photography, it was analog and the beginning of the Red Bull Era of photography. I pushed my film, added plenty of effects, hid myself in the bushes, worked with tons of strobes to make it even more spectacular. Now I would love to be as minimalist as possible, but it’s actually more complicated. I’m in a phase of backlight and blurry pictures, because it’s still a bit spectacular but I’m working on simplifying it. Also, I come from action, so I learn to work fast, and sometimes it’s too fast and I forget details that would make the shot even better. This series is part of my changing process. The only thing I can’t get rid of is the depth of field. Working outside makes your sensor dirty and I’d rather hit the bar after a day of shooting than clean up my sensors, so I open my lens wider to avoid the importance of the dust in my final images.
Any tips for up-and-coming photographers?
Like Enak, having a good technique with an artistic vision! It’s easy to say what not to do. The biggest tip I have is to forget everything in order to focus on what you put in the frame. It was Christophe Margot who worked with me on the Freeride World Tour for years who taught me that. Moreover, it’s the story you want to tell that counts. That’s also why I’m working more and more with prime lens, because it simplifies the process and I can focus on what is inside my frame.