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The Guide to Mountain Photography
Tagged in: Photography and Video
by Alexandre Buisse
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In my (very biased) opinion, mountains are the most beautiful environment on the planet, and certainly a very important source of great photography. But besides their intrinsic beauty, those big stacks of rock have another attribute that makes them of special interest to imagemakers: they are inaccessible. Or rather, very difficult to access, requiring special knowledge, equipment, and physical abilities. Which means that the perspective from mountains is likely to be very unique, only having ever been seen by a very select few. Beauty and originality, the dreams of any photographer, come (almost) for free in climbing. It is no wonder, then, that most of the climbers I know have a deep interest in photography.However, the blessing of mountain climbing photography is also its curse. Because it is so difficult to get there in the first place, because the climbing itself takes up so much effort and concentration, one has to make all sorts of compromises with the photography, and often bring back pictures that are disappointing, at least when compared to the experience that has just been lived. Virtually all the climbers I know bring a small point-and-shoot camera (digital or film) and use it only during long breaks and on the summit. But it doesn't have to be. DSLRs have gotten good enough that they can be brought on a technical climbing expedition, all the way to the summit. Here is how.
It used to be recommended to bring a small, mechanical, film camera with as little electronics as possible, as they will keep working after cold and adverse conditions killed anything else. But as much as I may like film photography (I even briefly shot in 4x5), I am of the digital generation, and I want the ease of use and the versatility of my DSLR. Not having to change film rolls with mittens while hanging from an ice wall is also a big advantage. Still, I think it is a good idea to bring a small backup camera, possibly film, to save those few crucial shots when the big camera suddenly decides it's really too cold to keep going(or when it decides to get back down much faster than planned).
Here was my whole photography equipment on my recent expedition to Peru:
Nikon D90. My current main body. To me, it is the right combination of features vs weight (not to mention price). It has enough direct controls that I can do all I need with heavy gloves on and without accessing menus. It is not weather sealed but still very well built and has withstood all I threw at it so far, including a flooded tent. Less advanced cameras like the D40 or my old D50, while even lighter, lack features I need, such as direct access auto-bracketing, easyISO, precise battery information and are much more difficult to operate with gloves on. More advanced ones, like the D300 or D700, add a lot of bulk and weight for relatively little extra benefit, especially if one adds for the much heavier pro-grade FX lenses.
Sigma 18-50 f/2.8: My wide zoom, and the only lens I take on summit pushes. I use it around 20mm most of the time but appreciate being able to zoom to 50mm when needed for a scene. The fast aperture allows me to shoot well before sunrise. And it is beautifully sharp at almost every apertures, even in the corners. If I was going super light, I would consider taking the kit Nikon 18-55 VR II instead.
Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 VR: The lightest long zoom I know of (well, except for the older 70-300 f/4-5.6 but low optical qualities and no VR are two reasons I'm glad to having gotten rid of mine). Optically superb, even at 300mm. VR means no headaches for early morning and late evening shots, and you can even get the occasional (daytime) wildlife shot with the nice AF-S motor. I use it a lot for landscape and portraits, especially while in camp, but I usually leave it on summit days, as it is less useful for environmental shots.
UV filters: All my lenses are equipped with a Hoya multicoated UV filter, mostly for physical protection. They can also provide a cheap trick when you are having a condensation problem and a photo opportunity that can't wait: simply unscrew the filter, get your shot, screw it back on and only then deal with the condensation.
Lowepro Nova 170AW shoulder bag: probably the most critical piece of equipment. It has to be a shoulder bag (see "having it with you" to know why) and the Nova 170 is just the right size for me to store the D90 vertically with either lens attached, with room for the other one and one or two hard drives. It is reasonably resistant, though the plastic of the strap connection broke on mine. More importantly, it remains fully usable with the weatherproof cover on, contrarily to older models, so when on snow, I leave said cover on all the time. When zipped up completely, it is sealed and waterproof, exactly what I want.
Microfiber cloth: A very useful addition, as front elements tend to often receive snow or dust. When shooting on a glacier, I tend to have to wipe the lenses several times a day.
Hard drives: I actually bring two Hyperdrives (one original Space and one Colorspace UDMA) for redundant backup, but take none to the summit.
10GB worth of SD cards, including a high performance one.
Batteries: 2 en-el3e. More on memory and power later.
Tripod: Even though I own a very nice carbon fiber tripod for hiking, I always leave it home for actual climbing. I know that except at sunrise and sunset, light will be strong enough for me to shoot at optimal aperture and ISO with very comfortable shutter speeds. It would only be really usable in camps anyway, as it is complicated and time-consuming to set up. And finally, even carbon fiber weighs something, and with a reasonable ballhead, it probably is a minimum of 1.5 to 2kgs. For low-light shooting, I simply bump the ISO and for night photography use rocks or makeshift platform (a sturdy snow pile with a crampon on top works great). So far, I have never found myself in a situation where no tripod meant no shot.
Flash: For it to look interesting, one would have to take the flash head off camera, which is simply too complicated to do while climbing. Managing batteries would also be a nightmare (I can barely do it for a dayshoot from home...). And of course forget about light modifiers. Finally, mountain light is very unique, and I want to exploit that fully.
Filters: Besides the UV that are permanently on, I don't take anything. Screwing and unscrewing very thin things with big gloves isn't very fun, and they are likely to be dropped at the worst moment. The only one that could be really useful would be a grad ND, but they are even more of a pain to use and set up than regular screw-ons. I use HDR instead in situations that would require them (see "Exposure").
Exotic lenses: As much as I like exploring new effects and trying new things, the weight requirements limit what I am willing to fool around with. That being said, I will probably carry an ultra wide-angle on an easy climb one of these days, as I think it could create some very interesting things.
Managing Your Resources
With digital, there are two basic resources that you need to take care of: memory space and battery life. Since most climbing expeditions span several days (or weeks for the most extreme ones), and mountains usually don't come pre-equipped with power outlets in campsites, one has to be careful and plan ahead.
Meet the biggest problem with climbing photography. The issue is that mountains tend to be pretty damn cold, and that batteries don't like that. At all. Their capacity drops to a fraction of what they usually are. The good news being that as soon as they are warmed up, they go back to full capacity.
Summit pushes tend to happen at the end of a trip, so one needs to be very careful in order not to suddenly be powerless (pun intended) when the truly great photo opportunities finally arise. In order to avoid that, there are several possible strategies.
Note: I assume having two batteries, which is a minimum for any expedition. It is easy to adapt to more. The dumb strategy is to deplete the first battery entirely, then switch and repeat. The only advantage is that you don't have to think about it at all, but there is a good chance that you will find yourself without power by the end of the climb. Even if you are careful to have capacity left for the summit, you are at the mercy of cold and this is a recipe for missing shots.
A variant is to swap batteries regularly so as to have them roughly at the same capacity. When wanting to shoot in cold weather, keep one close to your body, where it's warm, and the other in camera. Once the capacity of the cold one drops below a certain level, swap them and keep shooting. The advantage is that you are guaranteed to always have a warm battery. The inconvenient is that you still need to be careful about having enough power left for the summit, and also that it's a pain to switch batteries with gloves on (whoever designed the door for the battery compartment on Nikon DSLR obviously wasn't thinking about climbers).
Finally, my favorite option relies on the observation that most of the shooting happens while in camps (because of having more time, no distractions from climbing and often good light), but that most of the good pictures are taken while doing actual climbing. I then reserve one the batteries for climbing days (and especially summit pushes) and use the other exclusively for shooting from campsites. This way, I am more or less guaranteed a near-full charge on summit day and when the photography really counts. On the down side, I may have to limit my campsite photography, and if extremely cold when climbing, I may run into power troubles. In case this happens, I will swap batteries with the other one, hopefully not too depleted, only long enough for the first one to warm up a bit.
Carrying the Gear
You might not believe me (at first), but this is by far the most important part of this guide. It is knowing how to have your gear accessible that will make the difference between getting back home with photos or not.
Though I have only ever dropped my camera on concrete in big cities, falling gear is a constant concern while climbing (and the reason many climbers don't want to take a DSLR up there), for the obvious reason that the chances of recovery are remarkably close to nil. The key to not losing anything is then to not rely on your skills (between altitude, cold, tiredness, uncomfortable stances and big gloves, everyone can find a good reason to be clumsy) but to instead assume you will drop stuff, and figure out systems that will ensure they don't fall too far. Of course, being very careful helps as well.
In short, everything is, directly or not, connected to my harness. The first link, as already mentioned, is a biner from the camera bag to a gear loop (those are usually rated for between 5 and 20kgs, by the way, so assuming you're not bringing that 500mm f/4, you should be fine. If you want to be paranoid, use a cow's tail or a daisy). The next step is to connect the camera strap to the camera bag. The most convenient way I have found is to use a large biner and clip it to the bag strap, as this setup will slide up and down freely. The downside is that it needs to be reset every time the camera is going back to the bag, and there is a small chance you might drop everything in the window of time between opening the bag and clipping the biner. Another solution is to girth hitch a thin sling to the camera strap and then clip it to a biner on the bag strap, leaving the sling sticking out of the zipper when the camera is stored. You gain security but lose waterproofing.
For the small stuff (lens caps, memory card, batteries, etc...), I do everything inside the camera bag, not even above it. I have lost count of how many times a lens cap slipped from my fingers. Memory cards, and especially SD, are even worse. Bags like the Nova are nice because as long as you maintain them by their strap, they will stay upright and not spill their content out, but just to be on the safe side, I always shut the bag (but don't zip it up) as soon as I have taken what I need out.
Taking the picture/When to Shoot
Assuming you have your camera handy, it is easy enough to take pictures during breaks, when you have time and are not busy with climbing-related thoughts. But that also means that you are not choosing when to take pictures, and that you will be missing most of the "climber in action" images that can be so interesting. For that reason, you need to be actively looking for pictures all the time, and often will have to create your own opportunities. Whenever you see a good photo, it is time to assess the situation, taking into accounts the following factors:
Once all of this has been weighed (it goes without saying that the safety part is the most important and that if you have any doubt stopping would be dangerous, just forget about photography and get out of there), you can take the decision to ask for a quick stop or to wait for the next break. It is very important to discuss it with your partners, maybe even before the trip, and to be ready to compromise if they object. After all, while you are happily snapping away, they will be standing around and getting cold.
In my opinion, the best moments to take pictures are at belay and abseil stations: you are already anchored, someone is maybe climbing close by (if you are the belayer, you should obviously not be taking pictures) and you are likely to be in an impressive looking location. And it is usually ok to take an extra minute for photos when the team is getting ready for the next pitch. Then, of course, there are regular breaks, summits and camps.
Here is a more or less complete of all the steps I go through to take a picture while climbing:
Take a test shot.
When I am done shooting, I will take a few seconds to reset autobracketing and exposure compensation if I modified them, then revert the initial steps in the exact same order. I try to make the whole thing a small ritual, as forgetting anything could range from mildly annoying (forgetting autobracketing was on) to downright catastrophic (wasn't this biner clipped to my harness?). With a little bit of practice, the whole thing takes less than a minute.
You will maybe have noticed that nowhere do I mention taking off my gloves. That's because it simply isn't needed, and I encourage everyone to not take the habit of relying on having small gloves or bare hands to operate their camera. It is very easy and fast to get frostbite, and even if it doesn't go that far, there are few more efficient ways of turning a climb into an ordeal than having cold hands. It's true that I can't take pictures when I have mittens on, but then I can't tie knots either (I know, I know...), and if I have to be wearing mittens, photography won't be my main concern anyway.Since it is very important to shoot fast, I often don't have the time to compose as carefully as I would usually do, so I tend to try multiple compositions and angles, shooting away, and do the selection once back home. I also often shoot several frames of the same basic composition if I feel the image is good, simply for safety, as it is often hard to judge sharpness on the spot. That's one of the big advantages of digital over film, and I make full use of it.
Light in the mountains is often very harsh, especially as altitude increases, as every climber who forgot to wear his sunglasses learned quickly. Snow is as reflective as things get, and there tends to be an awful lot of it. Add to the mix luminous clouds and dark patches of rock, and you have a perfect recipe for blowing out the dynamic range of any camera. For that reason, special care should be given to getting a correct exposure of every image - sometimes not an easy task.
What To Shoot
If you have managed to stay with me so far, you should by now have a fairly good idea of how to carry and operate your DSLR in the mountains. But an important point hasn't been discussed yet, and that is what to point the lens at.
Keep in Mind
Finally, a few (very) important things to keep in mind at all times:
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