Chris O’Connell first appeared on our radar when he set out to accomplish the first 500 shutter speed remotely-synched flash sequence in action sports, complete with HDR morph shot in RAW. This is the story of how he got there.
Virginia is not the first geographic location you think of when extreme skiing comes to mind. That’s where Chris O’Connell grew up and began talking photos at the age of 12 or 13, when his father gave him his Mamiya Sekor. O’Connell began shooting his friends skateboarding and riding bikes. “A lot of action stuff. I mean, that’s my roots,” he says.
Unaware he could make a living as a full-time photographer, O’Connell went to business school and moved to Colorado after graduation. His first job was at The Vail Daily. He also shot freelance. At that time, the area was the virtual epicenter of the snowboarding world. Ice climbing, rock climbing, and kayaking were not far behind. O’Connell shot them all, and then some.
Time in business school paid off for O’Connell. “I focused on the business end of things a lot. It made magazine editors feel comfortable when I started doing submissions and then I’d write little articles. I would package my slides very professionally. I think that gave me a boost over some of my peers at the time,” he says.
He became Senior Photographer at Snowboarder Magazine in the late 1990s, and began shooting many snowboard and ski events for editorial avenues around the world. “I had a few Senior Photographer gigs for different magazines throughout the world, and the commercial stuff came next,” O’Connell recalls. Corporations like Oakley, Nike, and Burton began hiring him for commercial work. He eventually left Colorado for the Tahoe area in Northern California. A few years later, he made a radical shift to Orange County, “to be away from the mountains but still closer to the action sports hub of the world, Costa Mesa,” he says.
His new home base is also home to many surf and skate companies, as well as snow gear brands and optical companies. Hurley, Billabong, Quiksilver, and Volcom all have headquarters there. “It’s a great place for an action sports shooter and catalogue guy like myself to be based, because I’m right here. A good percentage of my clients are within ten miles of me,” says O’Connell. He also cites his proximity to Samy’s Camera, Los Angeles rental houses, and the five hour drive to the Sierra Nevada mountains as further reasons for his location. Those mountains have “some of the most epic light and consistent weather patterns of any mountains I’ve been in the world,” he says. “Tons of snow, and there’s always a high pressure system behind it. Then we go grey a lot, so there’s really good opportunities to shoot around here as well.”
Exclusively a digital photorapher, O’Connell relies on digital gear to get it right the first time. “When you have a guy jumping off a 50 foot cliff and it’s super dangerous, you don’t really get two takes. When I get controlled environments, that’s when I can really excel. That’s why the catalog and commercial stuff is so easy for me because I’m so used to only getting one shot at a photo,” he explains.
Last September, inspired by his friend Chase Jarvis shooting in New Zealand, O’Connell got the competitive idea to one-up him. Jarvis shot 20 pops per flash at 250 shutter speed tethered. O’Connell’s mind quickly had gears turning. “I want to be able to do this and shoot it wireless. I can’t really speculate on why he did it tethered. When I started looking into the PocketWizard FlexTT5, I got the idea I could really push this to the next level and shoot RAW files with the wireless sync,” he says. “With action photography, one f-stop is everything, so that’s really what I wanted to do. I started researching it a lot before we shot it, but Chase was the inspiration, for sure.”
Pulling off such a technical challenge made O’Connell do a lot of homework, including investigating a multitude of manufacturers who might be able to execute this photographic feat. “I used PocketWizard Plus receivers, because I think they have better range and are a little bit more stable in colder weather than the MultiMAXs and even the Mini,” he says. “They’re my workhorses. If I’m going to be far away from a shot, I still go to those, even though I’m on the transmitting mode. The TT5 allowed me to shoot at 1/500. I’ve never been able to do that with the PocketWizard Plus. That usually maxes right around 1/320. I used the Broncolor, the Scoro A4 and A2S packs. Those packs are really quite incredible. They’re expensive, but the control you have over the flash duration and having a digital readout on the pack was integral in being able to make sure I was shooting it at a fast enough flash duration. When this shoot came down to it, it was all about magic hour. Things have to be functioning right, and I can’t have room for error. It gets cold at night in the snow, and it’s hard to change things around, so I think that was really integral, as was the TT5. I used Honda generators, the EU series. They’re quiet so I can hear when riders are dropping, and they’re just not obnoxious to use on a shoot; they’re clean and quiet.”
The cameras which helped him pull all this together were Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. “I shot Zeiss lenses. I’m sort of a lens geek, and I’m just finding that a lot of the Canon wides don’t do it for me. The 14mm is just pretty sharp all the way across, but when you get a rider or anyone, for that matter, up into the corners in some of the other Canons, they fail. I think the Zeiss are super expensive and they’re heavy. For a guy like me who has to hike around the mountains, your pack starts getting really heavy when you’re throwing a bunch of Zeiss in there, but the crispness of the lens all the way across is truly unmatched. You give up the autofocus, but I can deal with that. I don’t shoot a hell of a lot of autofocus anyway. That was one reason I chose to shoot the Zeiss. I was really happy with the results.”
O’Connell discovered a tip and would like to share it with our readers. “I see a lot of snow sports photographers all around the world have some misfire trouble. They just set their flash pack on the ground, have the head six feet off the ground, but not the PocketWizard. I set up a separate light stand, ran a long extension cord for my sync and got that thing eight feet off the ground. That dramatically increased my reliability on the syncing. The ground is bad enough as it is for the radio waves, but the water and snow I guess just really throw it off. I never really knew that in years and years of misfires. I always figured because it’s too far away or I was around the corner too much. But it’s really something that could dramatically reduce the amount of misfires is to get that thing. Buy a long extension cord for your sync and get it off the ground. Bring it up eight feet. That does help.”
O’Connell’s next challenge? To stop even smaller increments of time. “Basically this whole process has left me with the desire to learn more and push it more on how fast it could sync and what else I can do,” he says. “If I could shoot a sequence at 1/1,000 sec., I’d be elated. Maybe that’s my next project.”
Written by Ron Egatz