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Be ever ready

There is one message I keep repeating more than any other when asked how to create good photography: the most important thing is to always have a camera ready, no matter how inconvenient it may be to stop and take a picture, as you can never know when the next great photo opportunity will appear. But rather than just repeat this somewhat abstract piece of advice, let me give you a concrete example with my last trip.

Last weekend (that would be around June 18th), I was in Chamonix to do some alpine climbing with James Monypenny. We had hoped to try the Frendo spur on the north face of Aiguille du Midi, but recent snowfall and poor weather forecasts changed our plans, and we headed up to the cablecar station and did the relatively short (120m) Rebuffat route on the Éperon des Cosmiques, finishing on the Arête des Cosmiques, my very first alpine route two years ago. We then slept in the station and were hoping to try a rock route on the south face of the Pointe Lachenal on the next day, but wet snow fell all night and the weather was terrible, so I finally decided to descend and go visit my family in Lyon instead, as the hopes of getting any proper climbing done during the rest of the weekend were almost nonexistent. Before leaving, just for fun, we climbed from the Cosmiques platform to the top of the station on the central pillar, thus bypassing the 3€ fee for the lift, a short mixed climb equipped as a via ferrata (though we tried to avoid cheating too much) in full Scottish condition.

All in all, I stayed 24h at altitude and took about 150 photos, all of them with my new 16-35 f/4 (I had brought the 70-300 but ended up not taking it out of its bag at all). Though I haven’t processed them all yet, I already know I have four great images and a few more good ones. Let’s take a look at when and how they were taken:

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  • The first one I expected: we had just topped out of the rock route on the Eperon des Cosmiques, I was belaying James after leading the pitch, so I had free hands (with my Reverso used in autoblock) and I could show his face instead of his butt. The weather was good but still interesting with a few clouds and the composition shows both our climb and a more distant snow covered Mont Blanc du Tacul. Finally, James is in a good position, just before the belay ledge and with obvious verticality below him. I was expecting a good photo opportunity since the moment I set up my belay and wasn’t disappointed. This was an easy one.

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  • As we proceeded on the mixed climb of Arête des Cosmiques, the weather took a definite turn for the worse, it started snowing and visibility dropped dramatically. Moreover, we were alone on the ridge, so things appeared rather hopeless for photography. But since it wasn’t snowing too heavily, I knew my camera would be safe in its bag without the rain cover, and I kept it with me, just in case. I did well: as we finally reached the last section, and while James was leading away, I heard voices behind me and had the good surprise to see two Japanese climbers belaying a few meters back. The weather was worse than ever, but it actually made things a lot more interesting, since one of the huge gendarmes (giant granite pillars in the middle of the ridge) barely showed through the fog in the background. I just had time to take a few shots of the other climbers in this special atmosphere before James called for me to follow. Had I stowed my camera in my backpack, I would never have had the time to capture any of this.

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  • On the next day, for our joke climb to the central pillar, we took no backpacks and no gear beside a couple of quickdraws and slings, since we weren’t planning on taking more than 20 minutes and could retreat from any point on the short climb. The conditions when we departed were awful: it was still snowing, we had a good 10cm of very wet and sticky snow from the last night, and visibility was barely a dozen meters. Since we were going light and the weather hadn’t given any sign of changing since morning, I very nearly didn’t take my camera at all. And yet, as soon as we left, the snow stopped and the sky (sort of) cleared. It allowed me to take the third good image, of James climbing ahead, with a bright red jacket in a black and white landscape gorgeously lit.

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  • Finally, the fourth image, or rather fourth series, was the view from the top platform. We were just above the lower layer of clouds, but still had overcast skies which gave a very special post-storm light on the snow plastered mountains all around us. Combined with the clouds, this gave one of the most beautiful mountain views I have ever witnessed, and a very different one from what I was used to seeing from the cablecar station. Taking pictures here was like shooting fish in a barrel, but I wouldn’t have been able to get any of this if my camera had stayed in my bag, several floors below.

That’s the final score: out of four images, three would never have existed had I not decided to keep my camera ready despite the odds. And furthermore, at least two of those are more unique and original than usual. Conditions may be more forgiving in less extreme endeavors, but it makes no doubt that having a camera ready at all time is one of the surest ways to bring home good and original photographs!

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