Articles

10 ways to improve your mountain climbing photography

Some time ago, I wrote a short piece on ways to improve your rock climbing photography. As promised there, here comes another article, of the same format, with ways to get better mountain climbing images. This is a much more difficult task, as you can’t afford to focus on photography alone – you also need to climb the mountain! There are no silver bullets that will magically make your images stunning, but here is a short list of things you should probably be doing if you want the best results.

1. Keep your camera handy

A climber at sunrise on the Midi-Plan traverse, Chamonix, France

If this article had been called “1 way to improve your mountain climbing photography“, this point would still be there. This is by far the most crucial thing – if you put your camera in your backpack, you won’t take pictures, period. It doesn’t really matter which camera you are using, but make sure it is always stored outside of your pack, readily accessible, without having to take any gear/rope/pack on and off. The bag you are using will of course be the most important element, and my recommendation goes to a belt system, in particular the Thinktank skin (review coming up). The less hassle there is in taking a picture, the more and the better ones you will bring back home.

2. Keep asking yourself “would this make a good picture?

Climbers and skiers waiting for the first cablecar up Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix, France

Alpine climbing is such a difficult and risky activity that it almost always requires your full attention, and makes it all too easy to just forget about photography entirely. If image making really matters to you, you should have a little guy living in your head constantly looking around and asking “Would this make a good picture? Would this make a good picture? What about this?”. You will want to shut him up when things get really hard, but you should listen to the voice (hem…) whenever possible. The best photo opportunities often happen at the worst times, it is up to you to keep thinking about photography in those moments.

3. Shoot in bad weather

A climber belaying at the end of Arete des Cosmiques, Chamonix, France

Though we always prefer to climb in good weather, we don’t always have that luxury and changes can be very sudden. Whenever that happens, and as long as it is safe to do so (if you are trying to get down before a storm hits, don’t be stupid enough to stop and take pictures), keep shooting. The beautiful vistas may be gone, but you have an opportunity to create very striking moods and stories. You can also focus on the reaction of your party (including yourself) to the change in conditions. In short: don’t put the camera away just because you are in a whiteout.

4. Shoot another party

Climbers on the final summit mushroom of Nevado Chopicalqui, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

As we discussed in the rock climbing article, the best way to shoot climbers is from above while they are leading. Unfortunately, that is rarely an option with mountaineering since you will almost never lead a pitch twice just to fix a rope for the photographer, as it would be far too slow. But instead of just shooting your leader from below or your second from above, a better solution is to shoot another party. Ideally, you would climb in two teams of two and would ask to be the second of the first team, so that you can shoot the leader of the second team at your leisure. Another solution is to shoot other parties in the distance with longer focals, though it requires to carry bigger lenses.

5. Make the mountain environment a subject

Arete des Cosmiques in front of Mont Blanc du Tacul, Chamonix, France

Don’t forget where you are! The mountains are what make your photos extraordinary, always try to emphasize them, include the cool snow features, show the crevasse, put a big north face in the background. Mountaineering photography is not about the climbers or the mountains alone, but about how they relate to each other.

6. Don’t sweat the technical stuff

Headlamp trails on the way to the summit of mont-blanc, chamonix, france

Repeat after me: content trumps technical quality. Always. We have to work in some of the most hostile and dangerous environments on the planet, so it’s ok if the images you get are not quite perfect, as long as the content is there. So stop pixel-peeping and bump that ISO to 12,800 before the sun rises, use that plastic kit lens or even leave your DSLR home and climb with a point and shoot. As long as you get the shot, this is all that matters.

7. Keep your equipment lean

A climber descending Aiguille du Plan after a Midi-Plan traverse, Chamonix, France

Photographers love gear, they can never get enough lenses or big enough cameras. It’s all fine at sea level when the hardest obstacle is a flight of stairs, but things are very different in the mountains. More equipment slows you down, leaves you exposed to objective danger for longer and makes shooting more of a hassle. Take a cue from the rest of your equipment choices (hopefully): fast and light. You have to find the right balance between convenience, image quality and weight. As a rule of thumb, if you pack a piece of gear thinking “you never know, it might come handy”, leave it home. Only bring the bare essentials that will allow you to get the images, and nothing more.

8. Don’t pamper your gear. It’s designed to be used.

The northwest ridge of Nevado Chopicalqui, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

After having spent so much money on gear, it is natural to want to protect it. This is fine, of course, but be careful not to take things too far – unless you are a collector, the gear is designed to be used, not pampered. Yes, there is a chance you will break a lens or drop the camera on your climbs, but guess what: there is also a chance you will break a leg or drop yourself. Climbing is risky and even when things go well, our bodies and climbing equipment take a beating. You can’t expect your photo equipment not to. So be careful, but learn to distinguish between what is really dangerous (torrential rain or dropping your camera to the bottom of the mountain, for instance) and what isn’t (snow, fog, condensation, bumping your lens hood in a rock…)

9. Train operating your camera with bulky gloves

Descending Chopicalqui in bad weather, Chamonix, France

This is a bit of a technicality, but too many people have lost fingers to frostbite because they took their gloves off for a couple of photos. It’s just not worth it, and most DSLRs are perfectly operational with bulky gloves, sometimes even mitts. It simply takes training, just as learning how to tie knots and operate the rest of your climbing equipment. So start when things are easy (say a day of ice cragging) and start taking pictures with your mitts, see which controls you miss, which ones you need to check you haven’t accidentally changed, etc. It is time very well spent.

10. Practice, practice and practice some more

Climbers on arete du midi, above vallee blanche, Chamonix, France

Yes, as usual, the most useful advice I can possibly give is: work hard (and it applies to me too, of course). This kind of top 10 lists tends to promote the idea that there is some secret you can learn from more experienced people and start magically taking better photos. There is none (either that or the other photographers are very good at hiding it), the best and only way to get better is to keep on doing what you have already been doing: go climbing, pack a camera, make the effort to use it, review the photos back home, see what worked and what didn’t, rinse and repeat. Oh, and of course:

11. Have fun!

James Monypenny on top of the Cosmiques Spur, Chamonix, France

Getting good photos is awesome, of course, but remember why you want to go suffer on a mountain in the first place – remember to enjoy the climb first and foremost!

Standard
Articles

10 ways to improve your rock climbing photography

Note: There is now a similar article for mountain climbing photography!

Rock climbing photography can be a surprisingly difficult domain. Though many climbers are also photo enthusiasts, it is all too easy to come back with a lot of butt pictures and photos of piles of choss.

Here then are ten ways you can start getting better images:

1. Use a better perspective

perspective.jpg

This is the single most important thing you can do. Shoot from above or shoot from the sides, but avoid shooting from below like the plague, as it’s very rarely good or interesting.

The main reason you want to shoot from a different point of view (beside not wanting close-ups from the crotch of the climber) is so that you can show perspective and exposure. Climbing is a vertical activity which, with the right perspective, can be extremely impressive. This is your best weapon, make sure you use it fully!

This usually means ascending a fixed rope (make sure you know how to do this safely, and how to get down), though sometimes you can just scramble to a good place. Just keep safety in mind, as it’s too easy to forget when a beautiful image presents itself.

2. Show the climber’s face

face.jpg

A corollary of the previous point, shooting from above or from the sides will allow you to show the face of the climber. This will create a human connection with the viewer and will help him relate to your photograph. A grimacing face also says “this is hard!” better than anything else.

3. Wait for good action

action.jpg

We want to see action, shoot the climber when he is doing something interesting. Also remember that climbing photography is sport photography: don’t feel guilty to use that motor drive when the action is good! Conversely, nobody really cares about the climber resting or considering his next move.

4. Show the climber’s feet

feet.jpg

It makes a big difference if the climber is standing on a big ledge or if he has a single toe on a millimetric hold. A natural tendency is to assume that feet you can’t see are standing on something good. You can add a lot of drama in an image if you show them explicitly and on tiny holds.

5. Only shoot above the gear

gear.jpg

Even non-climbers usually have a good idea of what happens in case of a fall – if the climber is far above his last piece of protection, the consequences of a fall will appear serious and this will create a lot of drama as well as tell a story of courage. Conversely, top roping photos are usually very boring.

6. Concentrate on details

details.jpg

It’s often easy to forget about detail shots – close-ups of faces, hands, feet, gear, even the rock itself. Sometimes they say more through suggestion than any “general” image.

7. Use the light

light.jpg

Like in any other area of photography, light is absolutely crucial. Warm evening light will make everything look good (including the climber), whereas harsh midday light will be hard to work with. Also be careful with shadows, as they have been known to ruin many shots.

8. Climb the route yourself

climb-yourself.jpg

Of course, it may not be an option if you are shooting Chris Sharma on his latest project, but having a go on a route is the best way to get to know it and to be able to better anticipate where the best photo opportunities will be.

9. Move back

move-back.jpg

Either because you can’t get to a better point of view or simply to shoot something different, try moving back a few dozen meters and using a telephoto lens. It will show the climber as tiny and insignificant on a big wall (unless you are shooting bouldering, of course) and the perspective compression can be very interesting and more original than what the viewers are used to.

10. Keep shooting

keep-shooting.jpg

Finally, don’t expect great images overnight: it takes dedication, hard work and a bit of luck to get the good stuff. Just keep shooting, day in and day out, even when things look bad and even when you don’t really want to, and you will see improvement.

Standard
Articles

The one thing that will really make you a better photographer

loneliness.jpg

Well, I was certain to get your full attention with this title, wasn’t I! We are always looking for the magic bullet that will suddenly turn us into the lovechild of Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson and, when we find things to be a bit more complicated, we turn to our secret weapon: our wallet. Surely with the latest 2.8 zoom, or if we switch to a full frame camera, then our images will get better. Right?

Well, things don’t quite work this way, and deep down, we all know the truth: there is no magic bullet. We can’t buy our way into being a good photographer any more than we can buy our way into becoming a good writer. Talent might give you a head start, but in the end, the only way to become any good at creating images is, like for everything else, to practice it a lot. Nothing can replace hard work and shooting tens of thousands of frames, day in and day out. As brilliant as HCB, Adams, Weston and any of your photographic heroes might have been, they have worked very hard to become as good as they were, and they shot a lot of crap to get there, just as everybody else.

At this point, you might simply shrug, thinking that there is nothing new here and you would be right to find the title of this post misleading. Indeed, just accepting the reality and saying “I need to work hard” is great, but it isn’t of very concrete help.

But I didn’t lie: there is a thing, simple and relatively easy, that you can start doing right now and that is guaranteed to make you a much better photographer than any amount of money you could spend on gear or even workshops. I was lucky enough to discover it by chance when I started getting serious about photography, and I have no doubt that it was the main factor in making me reach where I am today (wherever that is).

Ok, enough waiting, here it is: get your photos out there. But even more: publish at least one new picture every day, no matter how crappy, no matter how tired you are, no matter that no one except two friends and your mom ever look at them.

vallunaraju.jpg

The “daily” part is crucial. There are plenty of people with photoblogs who publish once in a while when they feel that they have a good image, but that is not enough. You should force yourself to go dig in your archives and find that hidden gem, or simply that decent image you had forgotten about. That will make you a better critic, force you to go through the editing process, find out what works and what doesn’t in your images. It will also force you to go out and shoot when your archives have really run dry.

It is not a significant time investment – usually no more than 10 minutes a day, though it can be done even faster when in a hurry, or several hours can be spent on a single image. But this time adds up quickly and, over the years, amounts to a lot. One image a day, minus a few missed days every now and then, is about 350 photos a year. That’s significant. To get that amount of decent pictures, you will need to shoot more, a lot more. Several thousands frames at the very least. And that, quite simply, is mileage, the holy grail of any trade.

frog.jpg

There are other advantages, too. You are getting your work out there for the whole world to see. Initially, the world probably won’t care very much, but if everyday you keep cranking out pictures of better and better standards, you will soon acquire an audience which can give you very important feedback. You can start learning that most elusive quality of being able to handle rejection, and the very regularity of your schedule means that you will be able to go through the inevitable low phases of creativity, where you hate yourself and everything you produce, better than most.

Finally, this will give you a presence on the internet, a way to be known (or even to become internet-famous if you are lucky), a way for people to easily find your photos in a single place. It is always very interesting to see how style and subject evolve over the years, and this is extremely easy to do by simply browsing the archives.

As I said, you can get started today. There are plenty of photoblog applications out there, or you could even use your wordpress or flickr account. The best way to do it, though, would probably be to use pixelpost on a dedicated server, as this will give you the most power and flexibility.

You can also take a look at my own photoblog, Aperture First, which recently got its 1000th image posted. I am sure you won’t have to dig very deep to find some mediocre images, but I hope that its evolution over the years also shows that dedication pays off.

lunch.jpg

You really want to become a better photographer? Stop reading that gear review, and start posting new images online!

Standard
Articles

A plea for HDR

Kebnekaise light

Mt Kebnekaise, the highest mountain of Sweden, in Lappland

A few days ago, the results of the UK Landscape Photographer of the Year Award were announced. BBC News made an announcement on their website, and a very interesting thing happened. Most of the readers comments were not praising the winning images but complaining about one thing: they looked like “HDR”. By that, they meant overly contrasted and saturated images that appear unrealistic (on a sidenote, I am fairly sure that only one of the eight winning photos actually was HDR).

The technique has indeed a very bad press, especially in the “fine art” community, and to be fair, much of the criticism is justified. But the point I would like to make here is that, well used, it can be very powerful and look perfectly natural, and is sometimes the only way to capture a scene as our eyes see it. Because there are so many widespread misconceptions about HDR, and because most online resources focus on how to achieve this overcooked effect that so many of us hate, I would like to briefly make myself its advocate. Do not expect a detailed tutorial but rather a general presentation of the technique.

Elemental

Reflections of Ben Nevis on midway Loch, Scotland

What it is

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and refers to a post-processing method which allows to dramatically increase the dynamic range of a photograph (duh!) by merging different exposures of a same scene. Though the idea is not new, the technique has quickly caught on after new algorithms for the critical tone mapping operation (cramming the increased brightness range into something that a screen or a print can display) were developed a few years ago. HDR is also used a lot in video games as they allow to render a same scene under a variety of lighting conditions, but we will here only discuss the applications to photography.

One way to think of HDR is as a glorified neutral density filter. On a scene where the contrast is so intense that both highlights record as pure white and shadows as pure black (i.e. where the dynamic range of the sensor is too low to properly record the scene), its effect will be to darken highlights and brighten shadows so that details can be retained in each area. Two of its advantages over tradition ND filters are that it is a post-processing technique, necessitating no additional gear at capture time, and that the border between the darkened and the brightened areas can be much more complex than a simple straight line.

To create an HDR image, one needs a set of bracketed images (i.e. of captures of the same scene with different exposure compensations) and dedicated software. There are many on the market, including Photoshop since CS3, but the current leader is undoubtedly Photomatix Pro, from HDRSoft. In a first step, the different images will be aligned and merged into a single .hdr file. However, this image cannot be rendered on the limited devices that screens or printers are, and the second step will be to reduce the contrast through tone mapping. It can then be manipulated normally, for instance with photoshop.

Yannapaccha sunrise

Sunrise on the summit of Nevado Yannapaccha, 5460m, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

Some wrong ideas

HDR always looks fake

If you remember only one thing from this article, let it be this: HDR doesn’t have to look artificial.

Let me illustrate my point. Of the following three pictures, only one has been produced with the help of HDR. Can you guess which one?

Nevado Vallunaraju at sunset, Huaraz, Peru

Nevado Vallunaraju at sunset, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

Loch Treig, Corrour, Scotland

Loch Treig, Corrour, Scotland

Sur-Lipez desert, Bolivia

Sur Lipez desert, Bolivia

If you guessed the second image, from Scotland, then you are right. But I hope that even if you found it out, you will agree with me that it is not an image that screams “fake”. Light is even and contrast on the low side (at least compared to the other two images). If you are not yet convinced, I invite you to look at the other images on this page, as all are HDR.

The problem with HDR is that by default, it looks artificial and ugly, and it takes some work to bring it back to something believable. Though knowing how to achieve that result mostly comes with practice, there is one important trick that I should mention here: you should never try to obtain the final look of an image in the tone mapping phase, and instead just focus on bringing all the details back from shadows and highlights. You should aim for a low contrast (especially local contrast), low saturation image at this stage, and only afterward, in photoshop and with local curves adjustments, bring back the full glory of the scene. In the second part of this article, I describe some common traps that you want to avoid when processing an HDR image.

You need a tripod

From time to time, I hear photographers say “I was in front of this great scene and wished that I could have shot for HDR, but I didn’t have my tripod with me“. Since you will be bracketing, it is true that you will want to stay as stable as possible between shots, and a tripod definitely helps with that, but as long as your camera has an auto-bracketing function and a burst mode, which I believe is, in 2009, the case of all DSLRs and most high-end point and shoots, then you should be just fine. All you will be doing in the small amount of time between shots is shifting or rotating the camera a little bit, and software has gotten very good at correcting those and realigning the images. I personally use the “auto-align layers” functionality of photoshop, available since CS3, and this has never been a problem. Not a single one of the images presented here has been shot on a tripod.

Aiguille du Midi

Aiguille du Midi seen from Chamonix after a storm, France

What is a problem is elements moving in the frame independently of each other. With careful masking and cloning (assuming your religious beliefs are compatible with those), it is generally possible to fix the movement of someone walking, but vegetation in the wind is every HDR photographer’s worst nightmare. Unfortunately, using a tripod won’t be any help.

Two things to note, however, if you bracket handheld. First, you will lose a few pixels on every side when realigning the images, so shoot a little wider than what you want to end up with and be careful not to position subjects too close to the edges. Secondly, the way bracketing works is by modifying the shutter speed (if it touched aperture, then it would modify depth of field, which is not what we want), which means that the overexposed shot will be taken with a significantly slower shutter speed than what you started with. It is therefore essential to check the sharpness of this image as soon as you have taken it, or you could be in for a very bad surprise when you get back home.

You can use HDR in any situation

One thing to keep in mind is that the very principle of HDR is to reduce the contrast of a scene whose dynamic range exceeds that of the camera sensor. Since by the nature of what we are photographing, the end result still usually shows a lot of contrast, it is a common misconception that you can use HDR to increase the contrast of a scene. This is not true. All you will manage to do if you apply HDR techniques (in particular tone mapping) to a scene that doesn’t require it is to increase local contrast, giving it this much decried fake look.

Processing an HDR image is so time consuming that I will always try to avoid it as much as possible. If you can nail an exposure with enough details, then processing it in HDR (especially if you start from a single raw file, as sometimes advocated on various internet tutorials) will bring no good.

There is always an alternative to HDR

Again, I wish it was the case, as it would save me a lot of time on the computer. ND filters are sometimes an answer, assuming that you go through the pain of carrying them in the field, but if the transition between highlights and shadows is any more complicated than a flat horizon line, then they won’t be much help. Sometimes, it is also ok to sacrifice details, especially in the shadows, but if not, then HDR will be the only solution to save the shot.

Abandoned truck in the Uyuni salt flat of Bolivia. Good luck using a ND filter to expose this one properly...

Abandoned truck in the Uyuni salt flat of Bolivia. Good luck using a ND filter to expose this one properly…

HDR is automatic

Another thing I hear quite often is the idea that ”you just load your images in the software, press a button, and that’s it”. While one could argue that there would actually be nothing wrong with that (the whole craft vs art debate, which I won’t get into), it isn’t even true to start with. If you try to process HDR images like that, keeping everything at its default settings, then you will end up with an awful artificial looking image. Getting HDR right is as much of a technique to learn as anything else in photography. Anyone who argues otherwise obviously never tried using the technique.

What you want to avoid

Here is a list of things to be on the lookout for when you process your images. Avoid those and no one should bother you about whether your image is HDR or not.

Sunrise on lake Titicaca, Bolivia.

Sunrise on lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Halos

A signature of any method to decrease contrast in bracketed images, those appear whenever a dark and a bright zone are very close to each other, and especially on the edges of mountains on the skyline. They most frequently show in the bright areas but can also hide in shadows. You will need to get those right in the tone mapping process, often by reducing micro-contrast. If nothing else will do, then careful cloning can save the day, but it can be difficult and time consuming, and should be kept as a last resort solution.

Ghosts

Whenever some element in your composition moves between frames, there is a good chance that it will show as a ghost figure, since the tone mapping algorithm will mix a little bit of each image to reach its final result. Software has gotten a bit better at handling those, but it is still one of the worst things that can happen. If the ghost is simple enough, it is sometimes possible to use one of the bracketed images on another layer and clone/mask the ghost out, but be prepared for spending a lot of time looking at your image at 300%. Vegetation is hopeless, and I won’t even bother bracketing anymore if there are both leaves and wind at the same time. HDR is mainly a technique for static subjects.

Inverted contrast

What HDR really does is reduce the brightness of highlights and increase the one of shadows. But if you take the process too far, you can obtain a situation where two neighbouring zones have inverted which one should be brighter than the other. This usually looks very, very ugly (if you haven’t seen it before, open any image in photoshop and apply a strong inverted S curve on luminosity, then try not to throw up). More generally, it is a good idea to try and keep track on what parts of the image should be brighter than others, and verify that your tone mapped image still respects it, as a sanity check. If the sky is darker than the mountains, something is probably very wrong.

Abisko lake

One of my earliest attempts at HDR, showing some defects: inverted contrast (in the clouds) and ghosts (in the transition between stones and water). I also sacrificed shadow details on the left hill to avoid halos in the sky.

Noise

By its very nature, HDR processing will significantly increase noise, especially in the shadows. One way to limit it is to ask the tone mapping software to output an image slightly overexposed, but be prepared for the need of using noise reduction plugins.

Excessive saturation

The scenes we do HDR for are usually very contrasty, so they should also be very saturated, right? Well, not necessarily, no. Also, for some reason, the saturation applied by the tone mapping software seems much more artificial than the one you can get via photoshop. One rule of thumb is to fix saturation as the last step in the processing, just before final sharpening.

Excessive contrast

This is a hard one, and it can be difficult to draw the line and decide what is too much. As said before, though, contrast should not be gained in the tone mapping stage but later, once back on a LDR image inside photoshop. You will have to trust your eye and your memory of the scene. Does it really correspond to your memory of what you saw (and what you felt)? If you were seeing the image for the first time, would your first reaction be “wow, this is beautiful” or “wow, someone had fun with photoshop“?

In conclusion

My only hope that this brief article will make you want to try out HDR next time you are in front of this gorgeous sky with a hopeless histogram. Expect a lot of frustration, but it is a journey worth taking.

Cosmiques viewpoint

Glacier des Bossons and Dôme du Goûter, belowMont-Blanc, Chamonix, France

Standard
Articles

A guide to digital mountain climbing photography

This article was originally published on the website Luminous Landscape.com.

If you find this article useful, you will probably be also interested in my book on the subject, Remote Exposure.

Climbers on the summit mushroom of Nevado Chopicalqui, 6354m high, in Peru

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.

This article will mainly be useful to people who actually climb mountains, but others might find it interesting. Most of the advice also apply to hikers and trekkers, our horizontal cousins. If you ever shoot in very cold conditions or if you go on expeditions where power isn’t guaranteed, you might want to read the parts about battery and memory management. And if you ever find yourself trying to take pictures in a mountain area, then there should be useful things in “what to shoot”.

Clearing the crux of Chopicalqui’s route… or walking into the clouds.

The Gear

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 4×5), 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). When choosing your gear for climbing, you have to add an extremely important variable to your choices, one that is usually given relatively little importance: weight. You are going to carry all of this stuff up for probably several thousands of meters so will be grateful for each gram that you can save, even at the cost of some convenience or even, yes, image quality.

Taking a rest on the way to Chopicalqui high camp.

What I bring

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.
  • Thinktank Skin belt system: probably the most critical piece of equipment. I used to carry a shoulder bag in the mountains, but have recently switched to a modular belt system and am not looking back. It’s light, allows me to carry exactly what I want, balances the load on my hip, is comfortable even with a backpack and a climbing harness on and most importantly of all, it gets out of my way!
  • 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.

Bad weather doesn’t automatically mean no photography. Striking images underlining the plight of climbers can sometimes be achieved. Here, downclimbing Chopicalqui after 12 hours of summit push.

What I don’t bring

  • 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.

Early morning photography without a tripod. Nevado Huandoy from the summit of Nevado Yannapaccha.

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.

Memory.

This is the easy one.

There are two basic options: either buy enough memory cards to last you the whole trip, or get a hard drive that you can download pictures onto. Though weight would be lower with the first choice, it has many disadvantages: it is more expensive, cards will likely not be of the highest possible performance, and having dozens of cards could easily lead to confusion. But most importantly, photos will only be in one single location, a tiny piece of plastic that has a tendency to easily get lost or corrupted.

For those reasons, I carry two hard drives and download all my pictures on both every day (usually in the tent, at night), then format the card immediately. I try to keep the drives in separate locations, for instance one in the photo bag and the other one in the backpack, in case that, well, shit happens. The Sano Hyperdrives that I use have a pretty impressive autonomy and the UDMA version can probably backup 100GB before I would start worrying about its battery (the official specifications give 250GB per charge), i.e. more than I will shoot in any reasonable trip. Just for safety, I also bring a plastic casing in which I can put the LR6 batteries of my headlamp to be used as an external power source.

I only carry 10GB in cards, with the high performance Lexar UDMA 133x 4GB being my workhorse. Since I rarely shoot more than 4GB a day (that’s about 300 RAW files on the D90), I have a big safety margin. This also means that I can leave the hard drives without remorse for summit days.

Always keep an eye open and a camera ready… You might get a shot of the climbing dog!

Batteries

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.

Looking up to the task to accomplish in Chopicalqui moraine camp. I could probably have gotten a better image by asking him to pose, but didn’t feel like breaking the mood.

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.

Having it with you

Try the following experiment: take a DSLR, put it in your backpack and go climb a mountain. I can pretty much guarantee that you will get pictures from exactly two locations: the camp, and the summit. The reason is that those places are the only ones where you are going to stop long enough for the hassle of getting your gear out to be worthwhile. If you think about it, you need to: unclip your pack straps and possibly parts of your harness (e.g. if you are wearing a chest one), take your pack down, open it, dig your camera bag out, open the camera bag, take the camera out, shoot, and reverse all of that. It’s at least a couple of minutes before you can take the first picture, and no less than 10 minutes break for the whole party. And even if it taking that long that wasn’t a big problem, the real reason that you won’t stop is that climbing is an extremely involving task, both mentally and physically, and that you will be unwilling to break the “flow” by switching to an entirely different activity for that long.

What is needed, then, is to have the camera as accessible as possible, in a way such that you barely need to stop to take pictures. The solution, of course, is to keep the camera bag on the outside, connected to the harness. With the Skin system, I can simply slide the pouch containing what I need to the front and open it in a few seconds, even with big mittens on. In adverse weather, I simply put the raincover on and can stop worrying on whether my equipment will get wet (instead worrying on whether I will get wet…).

The camera will be inside my backpack in only two cases: the first one is on alpine starts, as shooting by night is too much trouble for usually too little reward. I will generally get the camera out an hour before sunrise and try to get shots of climbers with headlamps on. Having moonlight helps a lot, too. The other case is when the climbing gets real hard. On steep ice or mixed terrain where I need great freedom of movement, the weight of the camera bag and the way it is distributed (badly) through the shoulder straps is just a pain, and I probably want to concentrate on the climbing anyway. There is often a small break after technical parts, to catch your breath and calm down, and I use that time to get all the photo gear out again.

Note: it has also been suggested by several readers that chest bags could be as efficient. I don’t have direct experience with any of those, but it seems that the main problem with that solution is that the bag tends to hide the feet, which makes progressing on difficult terrain much harder and more dangerous.

Pre-sunrise photography with climbers headlamps can give great results. Get the camera out early

How to not drop your stuff

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

I probably don’t need to mention it, but light is usually very good at sunrise and sunset. And if you have good looking clouds, you are in for a treat! Here, Nevado Chacraraju seen from Chopicalqui moraine camp.

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:

  • How long is this opportunity going to last? If it is relying on someone doing a climbing move or on fast-changing light, then you need to act quickly. If it is a landscape, conditions don’t look about to change dramatically and your path is not going to alter the perspective, then you have more margin.
  • How safe is it to stop here? Can everyone on the party anchor safely? Is there no risk of stonefall, nor of avalanching?
  • How convenient is it to stop now? Did everyone just take a break recently or is one due soon? Are you pressed for time before nightfall or snow warm-up? Is it getting cold? Are your partners starting to get annoyed at your photography slowing things down? When is the next stop likely to happen?
  • How good is the picture likely to be? Did you already take similar shots earlier in the day? Can you take more than one image with this one stop?

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.

Shooting from a lower position exacerbates the impression of exposure. Though to be fair, that traverse was truly scary.

Modus Operandi

Here is a more or less complete of all the steps I go through to take a picture while climbing:

  • Assess the situation as explained previously, paying special attention to safety. Let’s assume I decided to stop (or that a break was scheduled anyway).
  • Inform the rest of the party.
  • Anchor myself safely to the ground (as one should always do when stopping). Even on very easy glacier terrain, I at least bury one ice axe: since I will redirect some attention from keeping my balance to taking pictures, I want to have some safeguard.
  • Get into a comfortable position where I can freely use my two hands. It often means sitting down.
  • Unzip the camera bag.
  • Without taking the camera out, get the biner attached to the camera strap and clip it to the bag strap. My camera is now safe from falling.
  • Pull the camera enough to be able to access the front of the lens, but still keeping it in the bag. Take the lenscap out and drop it in the bag.
  • Put the camera strap around my neck.
  • Take the camera out of the bag
  • Close the bag (but without zipping it up).
  • Check that there is no snow on the lens (I learned this one the hard way).
  • Turn the camera on.
  • Check that the battery level is high enough. If not, swap batteries (inside the bag!).
  • Check that the shooting mode and the parameters are what you want (in my case, it’s 98% of the time aperture first, f/8, ISO 200).
  • Check exposure compensation is correctly set (-0.7 stops if sunny, 0 otherwise, see the next section)
  • Check autobracketing is off.

I am now ready to shoot. For each image that I want to shoot, the process is:

  • Take a test shot.
  • Check histogram. If highlights are clipped, dial exposure compensation by -0.7eV steps until they are not blown anymore.
  • On the last image, if shadows are heavily clipped, then bracket for HDR (again, see next section).
  • If I can see anything on the LCD and if battery is not expected to be too big of a problem, then zoom in to evaluate sharpness.

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.

This would be boring without the clouds or with a wider composition. Black and White can also be a good option for landscape images. Summit of Nevado Chacraraju seen from Yannapaccha base camp.

Exposure

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.

Back in the days of early light meters, exposing for snow could be a little tricky, as it is far brighter than 18% gray. It used to be recommended to overexpose by 1 to 2 stops whenever a substantial portion of the frame was (sunlit) snow. Nowadays, however, matrix meters have gotten so good at recognizing those scenes that this is not needed at all anymore. The problem tends to be quite different: unless the whole image consists of objects tonally close to snow, in which case correct exposure will be achieved right away (as it should), the dynamic range of the scene is likely to largely exceed what the sensor can record, resulting in deep shadows and blown highlights. However, in most mountain scenes, the important stuff is pretty bright (snow texture and clouds) while the dark parts (rock patches, climbers) can usually be close to black without doing too much damage. Following that observation, I keep a -0.7 stop continually dialed in on my camera while climbing in the sun. That saves me a lot of clipping, and a good rule of thumb is that if there are no clouds in the frame, the exposure will be fine, especially with the option of raw recovery. Which of course doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t check the histogram, certainly a good habit to take for every shot.

If the highlights are still being clipped with -0.7, I keep dialing down by -0.7 increments. Once nothing is blown anymore, it’s time to look at the shadows: if they are reasonably detailed, then I just leave it at that, usually keeping all the intermediary shots. If not, however, it is time to start bracketing for HDR. The formula is simple: you want 3 frames at +/-2 stops (I have yet to see a scene which doesn’t fit in this range), such that the darkest image of the lot is -0.7 stop than the last image you obtained previously (the one correctly exposed for the highlights). In practice, it means adding 1.3 stop to whatever exposure compensation was previously on. I then simply take a hand-held 3 images burst in high-speed mode (4.5fps on the D90). Since a handful of pixels will be lost when aligning, it is a good idea to frame a bit wider than what is really wanted. One important thing to check is the sharpness of the brightest image, since it will have been taken with a significantly slower speed.

This is not an article about HDR, but suffice it be said that it doesn’t have to look like the LSD trips one sees so often on flickr. By being quite conservative and using the HDR software only to recover details, it is possible to get very natural looking results, though it might take some practice. I think the investment is well worth the effort, however, as this is the only alternative to carrying ND grad filters (not really an option for climbing photography). I personally use Photoshop CS4 to align the images and Photomatix Pro to do the HDR generation and tone mapping.

Saying a lot with few graphical elements: the track, a climber and the summit. Simple but effective. Here in front of the summit mushroom of Chopicalqui.

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. Well, mountains. Duh. Or is the answer really that simple? I may be the biggest mountain lover you will ever meet, but few things bore me quicker than a slideshow of peak after peak which have been shot for no other reason than the fact that they were around. Good photography engages the viewer, and more, good climbing photography engages the non-climber viewer. If one can’t somehow relate to the scene, then it will be no more than a picture of a big piece of rock. I would put images from a mountaineering trip in two different categories: on one side, “pure” landscape images, where the scenery is the subject, and on the other “climbing images”, where the goal is to show humans doing silly stuff to get to the summit.

Landscapes

Of course, entire volumes could be (and have been) written on the subject, and I don’t claim to have the ultimate answer of what a good landscape image should be, but here are some things that you might find useful:

  • You must have something to say with your images, just like in any other form of photography. For me, it usually is how majestic the mountains are, how small humans are in comparison or how inaccessible and inhospitable they can be. If you don’t care, the viewer won’t either.
  • A good test to find out how interesting and engaging your image is likely to be is to try and describe it with words. If you can’t say anything else than “it’s a picture of a nice mountain”, then you can pretty much delete it on the spot. Some examples of what to look for might be “it’s a rough looking windswept vertical rock face that looks particularly hostile”, “it’s an alien looking snow formation whose shape is underlined by low directional light” or “three-dimensional clouds partially hiding a snow-covered summit”.
  • While climbing, you have the unique opportunity of being able to look down on other mountains. Use it to differentiate your photography from all the lemmings who stay in the valleys!
  • Think about getting close with a tele-lens, to isolate details and get cleaner composition. Distances are usually pretty high, so shooting wide will often result in tiny looking humps.
  • Snow and ice are among the most amazing things to photograph. They can form crazy overhanging sculptures that would shame Manhattan buildings or bottomless crevasses that would scare the bravest of us, and if you add directional light, the most exquisite curves and gradients.
  • Clouds often make amazing pictures, especially if they are around the peaks themselves. Clear skies are nice for climbing but boring for photography.
  • Panorama software are getting real good these days, and I have rarely had stitching problems from handheld shots. Just make sure to have a lot of extra space at the top and the bottom. Unless in a whiteout, a 360° summit panorama is pretty much an obligation.

As inhospitable as it gets: Chopicalqui’s northwest ridge. I had to stop the whole party to get this image.

Climbing images

The most interesting images, however, often feature climbers. It can be simply to give an idea of scale, or to show someone involved in a very dangerous looking activity in a very vertical environment. Here are again some remarks:

  • Perspective is extremely important, especially if you are doing a wide shot of someone close by. Try not to shoot horizontally, as this tends to be quite boring. Even if the subject is at the same level than you, either get low or shoot above your head.
  • Feel free to cheat a little. The route might avoid this big crevasse and this overhanging ice wall, but the viewer doesn’t necessarily have to know it. Playing with perspective can also often make things look a lot more exposed than they really are. But of course, don’t push this too far: it’s all about suggesting something. Things like cloning ropes out, for instance, are obviously unacceptable.
  • Take action shots. If you can get this climber while he is swinging his ice axe, the image will be a lot better than if he is just hugging the wall. Likewise, get pictures of walkers while they are mid-stride, possibly with a cramponed boot in the air.
  • Show what’s around the climbers. The main interest of such images is the environment in which they are, so be sure to shoot wide enough to show all of it.
  • If you are lucky enough to have another party at some distance, use the opportunity to get shots of tiny people in front of big mountains.
  • You can get very good portraits of fellow climbers. Backgrounds won’t get any better, light is often very good and more importantly, you can show them doing something that they really love. Plus few things say hardcore tough guy/gal than frozen hair and this unique “exhausted but happy” look. Just remember to make them take their sunglasses off and shoot fast, as sunblindness isn’t very fun.
  • Don’t underestimate simple shots of climbers life, such as the inside of a tent, camp, cooking food, putting shoes on, etc… This is a completely foreign universe to most people, and such documentary shots can be surprisingly strong.

Capturing the reaction of climbers to what they are exposed to can give very good images (especially if it’s a look of terror!). In this case, Hermann was just worried by the lack of proper protection on the traverse.

Keep in mind

Finally, a few (very) important things to keep in mind at all times:

  • Mountains are dangerous. People get killed. You can die. Don’t climb without the proper gear and instruction, and do not head in the mountains without really knowing what you are doing. I warmly recommend taking a mountaineering course before attempting anything.
  • If you screw up your photography, you miss a shot. If you screw up your climbing, you and your partner get injured or die. Put your priorities where they belong. No summit and no photo is worth getting injured for.
  • Once again: don’t remove your gloves to take pictures. No shot is worth frostbite.
  • In the mountains, speed is safety. If your photography is going to slow down the party, make sure that your partners are ok with it and that you are not putting everyone in danger by doing so. Always assess the situation before halting.

It’s all about perspective. Descending Chopicalqui’s summit mushroom.

Standard