I never cease to be amazed by my modest photographic project here on the blog. The pages are downloaded at a regular rate and I continue to received a steady stream of emails.
A common subject for emails is the taking photographs of high mountains. I’ve resisted talking about this before as I hardly consider myself particularly skilled in this area although I have got one or two good mountain ‘snaps’ on Flickr. However, I thought it was time to have a look at mountain photography and deal with both technique and gear. Hopefully, you’ll add your experiences and tips in the discussion thread.
Mountains present some real challenges to keen photographers who are only occasional visitors. Those who live close to their hills have numerous advantages and we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the best photographers of an area are those who live nearby. They not only now the hills well but have the advantage of being able to be opportunistic. As soon as there’s a break in the weather they can simply nip up their local hills. If you are really serious about your mountain photography then you will want to go the whole hog and get serious. Most of us though are only occasional visitors, but there is still a lot we can do to improve our images.
Weather is a major challenge to most of us. Our excursions in the mountains have to be planned well ahead and usually we are committed to certain dates. We might strike lucky and have glorious weather but we are just as likely to face really challenging conditions.
The unpredictability of mountain weather is not just an issue for places with dodgy climates like the UK. Mountains create their own micro climates and even when the weather in the region is good — and even when the weather in the mountain range is good — any one chosen mountain can be doing its own thing!
Even in warm climates, at the height of the summer, we find problems. Many mountain ranges exhibit similar conditions at the height of the summer with the weather closing in during the afternoon and offering up thunderstorms and rain showers. Dry days can be no less problematical. As the heat builds heat haze simply takes all sharpness away from photographs. When in high mountains I always take a lot of shots. And on days such as these I often find that very few of them are usable.
The best and most bankable conditions tend to be in the mornings. We’ve all experienced glorious, early, mornings that seem to offer so much, only to find that the weather has clouded over by the time that we have got ourselves onto the hills.
In mountains it really makes sense to be up high overnight. This is where wild camping real comes into its own. A number of my best shots have been taken after simply opening the tent door as soon as it is light! Camping high is a well used tactic by some of my favourite mountain photographers, including Colin Prior and Chris Townsend.
When wild camping take a little time to establish a campsite that offers a good morning location. Consider carefully the view to the East. I would generally reckon this to be more important than considering the evening. Yes, you can have great sunsets but as a ‘banker’ I feel that setting up for the morning will ratchet up the percentages. Of course, you can find sights that are spectacular for both views to the East and the West but they’re not that easy to find.
Have a good look around you. Take a compass bearing. Where will the sun be rising? Can you see the Eastern horizon or is there a mountain or hill in the way? And if so, think about how much longer it is going to take for the sun to climb over the hills.
Wild camping may not be your thing. If it isn’t then seriously consider how high you can get. Consider spending a few nights in high mountain refuges and get ready to rise early in the morning. And again, have a look round the night before and get your bearings. A true professional will spend hours setting up a shot but just thinking about the lie of the land for a few minutes will help a lot.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris
You might also consider using one the the best software apps that has been developed for photographers. TPE — The Photographer’s Ephemeris — is a simply but wonderfully effective tool.
TPE is an App that runs on the iPhone and now on Android phones. Basically, TPE works on your existing position (using GPS and location technology) and will show you the path of both the sun and the moon over the land. It will give the times for sunrise and sunset for your location. The really clever bit is that careful use of the program will also help you calculate the effect the the hills in between you and the horizon will have on surmise or sunset.
The TPE app doesn’t just work on your current location. You can drop in any position in advance how see how the path the the sun and moon will work there.
TPE is not simply a phone app. The ‘main’ program can be run on a desktop machine on any browser as it uses Adobe’s AIR system.
TPE on a desktop machine will allow you to thoroughly plan in advance. When planning a long trek I always use this to have a good look at potential campsites. I’m currently doing this as part of the planning for this year’s TGO Challenge. I now have a route planned and a good area of where I want to spend the evening. Now I’m fine tuning the route and campsites to take account of sunrise and sunset!
At the moment TPE works using Google Maps and not topographical maps. But when planning ahead this presents few real problems as you can obtain an accurate longitude and latitude fix from a computer map — or real map — and then enter this into the program. And, of course, if you are in the mountains the App will still show the route of the sun and the moon relative to your actual position.
There’s a little more to it than that but TPE is a pretty simple tool to use.
The iPhone and Android versions of the App are modestly priced and can be bought from the iTunes Store and Android Market Place.
The desktop version of TPE is free!
Whatever you normally take. Obviously a professional kit bag will offer more quality but then you have to lug that stuff up onto the hills.
I’m often asked what gear I use for outside photography, so here goes!
Firstly, I like to carry a quality DLSR, in my case a Canon 5Dii. These days more compact systems are getting very competitive but I prefer to have a real viewfinder and i like the system which doesn’t have any shutter lag.
I keep the weight down a bit by carrying only one lens. This is the Canon 17-40 zoom which although not cheap is a cracking lens for the price and a very light one at that. The 5Dii is a full frame camera and so gives me the full range at 17. 40 may be a bit limited on some shots but I find that careful composition usually sees me through. Most of my shots are taken at around the 24 or 28 mark and so a lens with that coverage would be pretty flexible as well.
Tripods do of course offer a lot to the outdoor photographer, but they are heavy. My current system is a Gitzo Traveller with a lightweight ball head from Really Right Stuff. The system is pretty light but really is bought with strength and lightness in mind and while quite pricey it provides me with a good compromise between the two. The whole system comes in at under 1.5 kilograms.
You can get away with far lighter systems. For a long time I used a cheap video tripod from Jessops that was very light. It may not have been that robust but it did the job. Chris Townsend, I think, uses a very light Velbron tripod that certainly works well for him.
Carrying a tripod though is something to really think about. When I’m in the mountains for two or three days I might take one with me, but on longer trips I tend to leave them behind.
This may be controversial with some, but I don’t find that a tripod is that critical for taking decent ‘snaps’ when in the mountain. Often those early morning and evening shots are taken with a view to the exposure of the sky and so shutter speeds don’t drop that low. And these days the quality at high ISO speeds is getting better and better.
But, if you really want shots that have the clarity and precision of say Colin Prior’s you will need to carry a tripod. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think the point of a tripod is really as an aim to really good composition and not simply as a way of dealing with slow shutter speeds.
My friend Ben Collins walked from the North Coast of Spain to the Med a few years ago, along the line of the HRP long distance path. Ben was looking to take the highest quality photos (and he succeeded). To do this Ben also used a Canon 5Dii and took with him two professional and weighty zoom lenses, plus a story tripod! Photography was one of the prime purposes for the trip so Ben minimised the weight carried in terms of his other gear and adapted a grin and bear it approach to the camera gear!
Perhaps the most useful feature of a low weight tripod is a hook underneath the ball head platform. This allows you to attach more weight to the tripod which will make it more stable. When backpacking I often suspend my full pack underneath the tripod. This makes a big difference even with cheap tripods.
Hand Held Shots
However, don’t fret too much about tripods. None of the shots that illustrate this article were used with one!
There’s More to Mountain Photography than Stunning Vistas!
Finally, even the best preparation can be ruined by bad weather. Or you simply might value your lie-in more! Remember, there is always a lot to photograph around you. Look away from the dramatic vistas and focus on what is nearby, on wild life and plants, one weird rock formations or dramatic tree shapes. And even when shooting those vistas consider how a wide angle can bring into to play foreground detail and give more depth to the shot. Also, in bad weather look to the clouds and momentary breaks in the cloud — you may not get great vistas but you might get some real atmosphere!
So, just a few pointers. As always practice makes for better. But get up and out early seems to be the best, simple, advice that I can give.
I’m interested in your own tips and experiences.
Here are a few examples that I’ve selected, with a little commentary on each one!
Barage des Oulettes, the High Pyrenees
This was one of those shots taken after just opening the tent flap! It may not be the most arty of shots but it reminds me of a particularly fine afternoon and evening. The shot faces East and I chose this camping spot over an ‘officially’ marked spot at the other end of the Lake.
Pic du Midi, High Pyrenees
This shot could only really have been taken in the morning. The cloud inversion you see just wasn’t there an hour before. An hour later and the shot would have been impossible because of heat haze. I shot into the sun for this shot which is always problematical but luckily I was able to deal with lens flare with a little Photoshop work. While many tell you never to shoot into the sun you can get very dramatic shots this way. Try it.
Pic du Midi
This shot was taken a little earlier than the previous one. Again this was one of those look out of the tent jobs. I was shooting into the sun and if I’d have waited a few minutes the sun would have come over the horizon. The lens I was using at the time wasn’t that good at dealing with lens flare, so I decided to play the percentages. But I’m happy with it. It has the sharpness that you associate with early morning.
This was taken on a day when the weather closed in. There was nothing to photo from near the summit so I dropped down and tried to make a virtue of the whisky cloud. I wasn’t so sure about this photo, but walkers seem to like it!
On mountains the weather — and the light — can change quickly. Look for those times when the sun suddenly breaks through.
… and finally
These may not be the best mouton shots that you ever see, but they are good reminders (for me) of the time I had in these hills. None of these was taken with a tripod!