February 20th 2008

Branching out — Tips on expanding your mountain photography style. Part two

Look for something different

These kind of shots sometimes take a little planning. I knew that very early in the morning the lift operators have to get up to clear any recent snow fall in the night at the Aiguille Du Midi, so at 4am I was waiting and then crept up to get this photo.

There’s really nothing fancy about it. It is handheld and took all of 2 seconds to do but the planning was the major part of it. The benefit of knowledge is always a great help when it comes to photography, and I dont mean knowledge about the camera I mean knowledge about your environment. I’ve lived in Chamonix for 2 years now and the more I get to know the area the better photographer I have become. Learning where the sun rises and sets for the different times of the year, keeping an eye on the height of the moon, remembering people’s rountines (ie this shot) all help you plan for a really good photo. I’ve learned that with some careful planning you can get some amazing shots. But you have to put the time in. If you want a good sunset shot then keep an eye on the sunset and see where it hits and at what time. Then plan to be at a certain vantage point to get the shot well before the sun sets so you have plenty of time to set it up. I know this sounds very formulaic and maybe a bit boring but you will appreciate the image all the more for it.

To me it always seemed that the best climbing photos were when I (the photographer) was in the most awkward position- dangling on a top rope at an awkward angle or hunched up in a small crack trying to take that close up shot. In reality that’s not at all true and you can often get the best photos on a route from just scrambling up some rocks on the side and getting a nice landscape shot of the climber with a fantastic backdrop.

When you are out and about always keep a look out for potential new photo places and remember them for next time. Often as you are walking up you realise that you have missed a great shot of your partner(s) walking below- next time you can run ahead and get that shot. I’m always on the look out for new photos and when I find something I make a plan with some mates to return and do the photo properly. Never be afraid to return to the same spot again and again to get that perfect shot- the weather often plays havoc but persist and it will be worth it.

You don’t need an expencive SLR to take good shots, compacts are just as good

This isnt one of my favorite photos but it’s here to prove a point. You dont need a fancy SLR to get good photos. This image was taken on a very very old 5MP digital compact after my film camera had freezed up hours earlier (it doesnt look cold but it really was). The point here is that even though it was taken on a compact it was still published in the Rock and Ice ‘Best photos of the year’ issue…in 2007 (and no I am not blowing my trumpet here in any way). Of course you will never achieve the kind of detail and sharpness that an SLR will manage, and you wont have the same kind of control over aperature, shutter speed and ISO…but that is the compromise. Instead of lugging around 1.5kg of bulky weight you have got a few hundred grams in your pocket- and the beauty of point and shoot is exactly that…you can point and shoot. You dont need to worry about the settings etc you can just take a shot in a second and put it away again.

‘A bad workman always blames his tools’ and in the case of composition, there is no difference between an SLR and a compact- it’s up to you to compose the image. After all that’s the most important skill in mountain photography; all the technical skills in the world dont mean anything if you cant compose an image properly.
An important thing to remember is dont just assume that anyone holding a SLR knows how to use it. I came back from my first trip with totally overexposed film. Dont fall into the trap of not taking photos just because your partener has a better camera than you- there is a big difference between shots that you took yourself and those that your mate did, yours are alot more personal.

Put the effort in, especially when you really dont want to

As I have stressed quite a bit so far, sometimes the best shots are those that are taken when you last want to take the camera out. The reason being that they are very original. Everyone has a picture of them walking up a big mountain with the sun beating down on them- but you don’t see many moody photos of desperate situations and thats because all you want to do is get on with it and get out of there. In the image above it had been blowing a gale all day long and there had been intermittent storms dumping huge amounts of windblown snow down. As we were making our way back up to the Midi (no easy feat) the clouds parted for less than a minute allowing this moody shot of the sunset on a struggling alpinist. It was bitterly cold and windy and very unpleasant but I’m glad I got the camera out as images like this cant be duplicated and are very original. Even if the image isn’t amazing it still wouldn’t have mattered as I would have had a reminder of that struggle up the Midi which I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

My big mistake was when we were climbing up the North face of the Lyskamm. Whilst I got lots of great shots of the lower half, by the time we got half way the clouds had amassed and the whole experience started to get a little more serious. It was unbearably cold and unpleasant and without any emergency gear we just tried to keep going as fast as possible. As such I dont have a single image of what was probably the most ‘exciting’ part of the climb (in retrospect of course!). This served as a good example to myself and I always try and get at least one photo when the ‘sh*t hits the fan’.

At the end of the day these kind of images will always have more to say than some shot of you on a nice summit day- they say a picture paints a thousand words and a photo of those desperate moments will always live up to that.

Look up!

I find the majority of the time in the mountains is spent looking at your feet instead of up at the 360 degree panorama around you. It’s worth remembering that for every step you take, the landscape around you changes also. The closer you get to a mountain the more imposing it may seem, and sometimes the further away you get the nicer it will be as you can see more of it. Valleys will open up in front of you, and close behind you.

Take time to look up around you and if you see something nice take a photo of it right there and then. Too many times have I thought “I’ll get it on the way back” or “I’ll wait to see if it gets any better”. But in todays modern digital era who cares how many photos you take? You should always take a photo if something catches your eye as chances are you wont take it later- the shot may not get any better or you may pass back too late to get a photo. In any case you can always take another one later on if the shot does improve and you’ve lost nothing by taking one earlier.

The shot above, for example, was such an occurrence. I saw another group of very odd clouds just behind these ones and I thought that they would make a much better image. However I took a photo of these ones anyway, and low and behold the other clouds never actually arrived. I always go out with a mentality of ‘it will never get any better’- if it does then great, but at least I got a shot in case it didnt. Remember that the landscape can alter in an instant with a change in clouds and lighting and what may be a boring scenery can turn very dramatic within a matter of seconds and then be gone again mere seconds later. The mountain landscape and climbers are constantly changing so dont just look up once, keep your eyes peeled!

Don’t stop shooting just because you have

It seems that as soon as some people put their kit down, the camera is stowed away until the next day. However to me it’s a shame to miss out on capturing the after-climb tasks and general mood. I’m not talking about trying to capture some kind of deep emotion in the faces of your mates…just get the camera out and take photos of the general tasks such as setting up a bivy site, melting snow , having a bit of a laugh. When you think about it you actualy spend alot of time from the point when you first put your kit on the floor to when you next pick it up again to go climbing- why not at least get one photo of it for prosperity?

People often talk about bivying under the stars on a 4000m peak but to most people the concept of sleeping without a shelter on a glacier is completely lost to them (I’m talking about non-climbers here obviously). Getting a shot of the actual occasion will help press on your mates what an amazing experience you had- instead of them saying ‘you’re mad’ they might actually say ‘wow that must have been amazing’!
Like-wise the photo above is nothing special but it was a good reminder of our time in the hut- being January there was very little light so we tended to spent alot of time in the hut and had some entertaining evenings with home-made ‘grog’. This photo serves as a good memory of a time that I would otherwise not necessarily remember.

The Alpine Exposures coffee table photo book