You've seen pictures of downhill skiers holding their skis and poles while standing in front of a chalet, or posed on flat ground in a crouched position, looking toward the camera. But have you seen shots of skiers moving along at thirty miles an hour down a slope? This is the proof that they really are skiers.
If you want to take pictures of friends or relatives who are downhill skiers, it helps if you are also a skier. By having this skill, you'll be able to position yourself on the slopes to photograph actual skiing situations. Knowing the sport will also help you anticipate the skier's next move. For example, you'll know that when the skier plants a pole, he or she is about to make a turn. When you see the skier position the pole in the snow, press the shutter release. With the slight delay in the shutter opening, you'll get your subject at the peak of the action, and the result will be a very dramatic shot.
If you plan to ski as well as take pictures, limit the amount of photo equipment you take along. A compact camera is excellent for this activity because its lightweight and small. If the camera has a zoom lens with wide-angle and telephoto options, all the better.
Whatever type of camera you use, you'll want to keep it as warm as possible, and protected from snow and collision damage in case of spills. If you have a heavily-padded jacket with an inside pocket, you could carry the camera there, or you could carry it in a padded belly pack, under your jacket. In any case, the camera should be easy to get at when you're ready to use it.
When the time comes to take pictures, you'll want your hands to be warm, but you'll also want maneuverability in your fingers. This is almost impossible if you wear thin nylon gloves under warm, slightly oversized mittens. Remember when you were a kid and your mother fastened your mittens together with a long string and ran it through both sleeves of your coat? This is an excellent idea for the photographer-skier. To take pictures, just slip the mittens off and operate the camera with gloved hands.
When photographing downhill skiers, its absolutely necessary to use the panning technique. If the skier is kept well-positioned in the viewfinder while you pan, the results can be sensational. But keeping a fast-moving skier in the frame is difficult because the action takes place diagonally, and diagonal panning is not a natural movement. Practice on a few random skiers before your intended subject comes down the slope.
To exaggerate the feeling of speed when photographing a downhill skier, tilt the camera backward in relation to the subject. For example, if the skier will pass you traveling right to left, tilt the camera clockwise, but only a little bit. A slight tilt will give the impression that the hill is steeper than it really is. Too much tilt will make it look contrived.
When you're on the slopes, remember that bright snow can cause underexposure. To compensate, press the camera's backlight button, or use the +1 or +2 feature if you have an SLR or digital camera that has the exposure compensation option. When shooting print film or digital, exposure compensation isn't critical, but colors will be a little crisper and shadows will have a little more detail. With some cameras, you'll have to make the exposure compensation for each shot.
Look for other photo opportunities. Before you line up for the chair lift, place the camera strap around your neck and have the camera semi-ready. While ascending, take some aerial shots of the slopes - the more skiers the better. Turn around and snap a few pictures of fellow lift travelers. If you know them, a set of the pictures will just add to their recollection of the event later on.