With four photos in this week's top ten, and a UKC gallery of stunning images we thought it was time we had a chat with Ben Tibbetts.
With his shots being mostly Alpine, we wanted to know what camera he carries up those mountains, how he captures his images, and as he is currently part way through the training to become a British Mountain Guide, we wanted to know if he plans to pair that up with his photography in some way.
Ben's tips for a better Alpine photo? Carry a bigger camera!
Read on for the full story...
How and why did you start climbing? And the same for photography? Which came first? And which now has priority?
I started climbing when I moved to Edinburgh in 2000. I studied at Fine Art there from 2000-2005 and then finally moved to the Alps to climb and for a postgrad in Geneva from 2007-2009. I spent a lot of this time in the darkroom working with celluloid. I had had a camera as a kid, but the two habits really took off simultaneously in Scotland. I met a lot of climbers through the Edinburgh University club and got into rock and winter climbing quite quickly.
Neither climbing nor photography has priority really, though the emphasis on finding enjoyment through copious low grade suffering in Scottish climbing has stood me well working with a camera in bad conditions, and for guiding in Polar regions. With both climbing and photography I get the related sense of satisfaction. Through climbing you often end up in these beautiful and absurd locations that are sometimes intrinsic to the dynamic of the image. I still get a similar mix of excitement and dread before climbing and shooting – will we get up the climb? will we get some interesting images? Or will we back off, have a gear/psyche/conditions malfunction and head home empty handed?
What camera set up and system do you use in the mountains? What carrying system do you use?
I mostly use a Nikon D800 these days. I match it with heavier or lighter lenses depending on whether I am guiding or shooting photos. When guiding I most often use a light 18-35mm lens. For photographic work I mostly use a 16-35mm and 70-200mm and others depending on the situation. For guiding and personal mountaineering I attach the camera to a standard holster with 4mm cord, and then the holster goes on the waist-belt of my sack as far back out the way as possible attached also to the sack with a screwgate.
When I need more than one lens to hand I use the waist belt of an old Troll harness with camera holster on one side of the hip, and lens (usually telephoto) + case on the other to balance the weight out. (Does anyone have a knackered Arc'teryx harness they could give me for a lighter waistbelt?!!)
Why do you carry such a big camera?
Whilst mountaineering I often see potential images under very difficult lighting conditions. A classic example is on a big north face with no direct light, with a background in the sun. Anything with a small sensor will really struggle to deal with this latitude of light, as it will shooting into the sun. Likewise low light level situations – dusk, dawn and night, are even more difficult for a smaller camera. Quality of image to my mind has little to do with what camera one uses. Indeed many powerful images are taken on very simple equipment, and better for it. However in a tricky lighting conditions I have found myself fighting the equipment too often so I choose to mostly carry a full size SLR nowadays. The weight is just added training benefit!
What advice can you give to people shooting in the mountains?
I think just two things are crucial for getting a great shot – finding an interesting subject(s), and isolating that subject. Both parts are obviously challenging, and I think most other problems one encounters can be wrapped up in either of these two.
I find with landscape photography is often difficult to find the subject. I am rarely interested by the obvious waterfall, flower or big stone. I think a landscape subject will rarely be very powerful before one really explores it to find what it is about it that one finds interesting, or worth shooting. One needs to find the subject, be it the play of light, colour, pattern or some particularly engaging natural form, but I am usually hundreds of photos into the research before I start finding something I am happy with. I move around a lot, shifting angles and moving on from the more obvious subject matter to try and find a way of isolating my interest.
Climbing photography by comparison is actually quite easy from a subject point of view as people, and the funny shapes we make, are inherently interesting. Isolating this however, in the complex spaces we climb in, then becomes the key difficulty. Key strategies for isolation include focus, colour and composition. For composition that may be using the architecture of the mountain/landscape, or more specifically the classic ‘rule of thirds’ which is just a way of maximising the effect of how the eye typically moves over a picture plane.
What is your favourite photo you have ever taken?
Tricky question, but one of my personal favorites is this shot below of a Weddell Seal on sea ice of Marguerite bay, Antarctica, shot from a Twin Otter. It is probably too simple for some peoples tastes, but I like simple things. I find it is often opportunistic images like this that turn out best. I could so easily have missed the shot, flying back north to base after a work trip, low over the sea ice at 1000ft. Twin Otters have unpressurised cabins so I had the copilot window open, my head and camera stuck out, freezing my hands and and shooting away.
Some of your photos have a certain style to them, a desaturated background - how do you achieve that?
I’m trying to move away from any obvious ‘styles’ like this…! Nevertheless sometimes in a complex image a little manipulation can help simplify the composition and help isolate and draw the eye to the subject. In software such as Adobe Lightroom, ‘vibrance’ and ‘saturation’ affects the colour intensity of different parts of the spectrum. Often for instance the rock + lichens, especially Chamonix granite, are so vivid that they can pull the eye away from the intended subject. Sometimes reducing the vibrance can mute these colours, whilst increasing the saturation a little can bring up the colours of the climber/skiers clothes and help isolate them in the image space.
What post processing tips can you give us for our mountain shots:
I think the better the original image the less post processing one needs. I try and just use post processing to further isolate the subject. It is all about balance and taste though. Some people like heavily processed images that tend to lean away from naturalism, others find this distasteful. I think it is all too easy to use too much Lightroom adjustment like ‘clarity’ which are often very obvious and leave haloes around high contrast areas. However some careful and isolated use of these tools, for instance using masks to slightly reduce saturation/vibrance in some areas and increase it others one can subtly help isolate the subject. I tend to try and edit in a balanced way so that the editing itself never becomes the subject of the image.
Which mountain / climbing photographers do you rate and why?
I admire the early mountain photographers and the likes of Bradford Washburn who sometimes carried large format cameras up first ascents of highly inaccessible Alaskan and Yukon peaks. The like the quality of conviction that this could be done and that the quality of the image, rather than just the proof of conquest, was worth the effort! Of our contemporaries there are lot of really strong photographers out there! I particularly like Renan Ozturk’s images, though most of his work is paintings or video.
You are also do a lot of ski racing - do you shoot this as well?
I usually don’t take a camera on a race as most are fast and furious and there is no time even for snaps. I did manage to take a reasonable camera on the Patrouille des Glaciers in Spring though [The PDG is a classic SkiMo endurance event from Zermatt to Verbier 53km with over 4000m ascent]. Rab paid for our team’s entry. As I didn’t fancy our chances of getting a noteworthy result, I though we should at least get some images and write an article for them. In the end we did quite well and also got some images!
What’s the main differences in shooting skiing and climbing?
Shooting recreational skiing requires a lot more direction of the skier and where they draw a line in the snow in relation to your camera compared with climbing. Climbers usually follow the route/line of weakness so you can predict where the will go. Without direction skiers can come down the mountain wherever they feel and one needs to react very fast to stand a chance of getting a good composition!
You currently live in Chamonix and have almost finished training to be a British Mountain Guide, how was that course?
So far most of the training has been spot on, very informative. Last year I spent several months of the summer then several in the winter back in the UK for the respective tests. It seems hard at first to see why an alpine guides scheme spends so much time training in the UK. Having gone through these parts I see clearly how British rock guiding and then Scottish winter guiding form well measured stepping stones in ones development of the skills and judgments required for guiding in bigger mountains. British trad is particularly relevant to ones development as an efficient alpinist, placing gear safely and skillfully, in a way that European sport cragging is definitely not.
I always knew it was going to be a challenging and committing exercise going through the guides scheme, but it has been even more serious than I expected. When I first considered it as a possible career path I saw guides working away on exposed moderate Alpine ground, short roping clients. It all looked incredibly precarious and serious back then, but I assumed that through a rigorous training scheme there would be some kind of magic bullet to make short roping really safe. Unfortunately I have now come to the conclusion that though you can make it safer through experience, by no means is guiding a particularly low risk occupation.
Are you looking to create more links between your guiding and photography in the future?
I certainly want to find more ways of engaging the breadth and overlap of these skills. Already an Alpine photo shoot requires all my judgment skills to move around the mountain, sometimes solo on serious ground or using some funky rope-work to get the image I am after. Likewise I can offer people who have a dual interest in mountaineering and photographic skills workshops in high, remote or technical ground. I have worked for significant periods in Antarctica and Greenland. These places are visually so remarkable and many clients and scientists I work with are passionate about their photography.
We have an exploratory ski and climbing expedition planned to the Stauning Alps of North East Greenland for spring 2015. Hopefully some of the clients are also interested expand their photographic repertoire!
Thanks Ben - great talking to you and best of luck with the rest of the Guides tests!
Ben Tibbetts is an adventure photographer and aspirant British Mountain Guide based in Chamonix, France.
Ben Tibbetts is supported by: Rab, Lowe Alpine and Ski Trab
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