20 Top Tips for Mountain Photography: Part 1- The Essentials

by Ben Tibbetts Jul/2015
This article has been read 17,305 times

Adventure Photographer Ben Tibbetts is keen to share his Top 20 Tips for mountain photography. Here is his first offering of 10 Top Tips to make the most of your time with a camera at the crag or in the mountains...


1 - Train your imagination

Stuart Johnston at the Konkordia Hut under the Milky Way (Bernese Oberland), 192 kbStuart Johnston at the Konkordia Hut under the Milky Way (Bernese Oberland)
© Ben Tibbetts, May 2015

In many ways it is great that technological advances have made high quality imagery very democratic. This has pushed the envelope for serious photographers, who now need to go one step further in imagining what it is possible to capture. A strong photograph is still driven by strong subject matter and content. We still rely on our imaginations to know where to take the camera and when to press the button. I think imagination is like a muscle. It is something you need to train. Many people like the idea that some people are gifted and creative, however I don’t believe this is the whole story. I think if you are passionate enough about great images then you will be motivated. If you are motivated then you should get out and spend more time getting images, and very quickly you will get great shots more and more regularly. I find the process very addictive and get very excited about shooting something interesting, be it a strong subject or great light - ideally both! If you aren't out early and late, once everyone has gone home, getting cold and scrabbling round rocks to get better angles then you probably aren't trying hard enough!!

2 – Take your best camera on EVERY outing!

Tom Grant in the North Couloir, Col du Plan, Chamonix, 217 kbTom Grant in the North Couloir, Col du Plan, Chamonix
© Ben Tibbetts

A tricky place to ski with a 2kg camera on one hip, but worth the effort!

Though small cameras are improving dramatically, and one can very well capture a strong image on a smartphone every now and again, there still really is no substitute for a really good camera. In the last two years I have carried a full-frame camera and multiple lenses on nearly every climbing or ski outing in the mountains. This allows me to bring back shots that would not have been possible without this rather cumbersome equipment. A good camera these days tends to be one with a large sensor. These tend to have better dynamic range, low light performance and colour rendition than smaller sensors, helping us work with the tricky light and strong contrasts we get in the mountains. I have experimented with each new generation of compacts or system cameras and relative to a full frame camera, find they all limit me in many ways. If a camera is too big obviously it will affect your enjoyment of the activity, so one has to find a balance.

When choosing what to use for adventure photography primary features I look for in a camera are good lenses at ultra wide and telephoto range, excellent high ISO/low light performance, fast autofocus and short shutter lag so you don’t miss the shot! It seems there is currently no short cut to good glass… good lenses are big and heavy. Likewise a big camera body isn’t big and heavy just for fun, it has a lot inside that the leading manufacturers have not figured out how to make smaller yet. The new mirrorless full frame designs seem excellent in many ways, but currently still seem to have slower autofocus systems and longer shutter lag than the top SLRs. Having lugged about a 6kg large format camera when at art college I have a deep respect for the old masters who did their whole life’s mountain landscape photography with this equipment. Times change and now a top full frame sensor can capture images that in print quality resemble a traditional medium format camera. For me however the balance between a usable size and weight system and image quality/versatility now sits with the top level DSLR. I look forward to the time when we will have compact size camera that has a 10-300mm f1.8 zoom and a sensor that allows me to shoot handheld shots of the Milky Way. This is still some way off!

3 - Find the subject before you shoot

Misha Gopaul high on the traverse of the Polish Route, Grandes Jorasses, 220 kbMisha Gopaul high on the traverse of the Polish Route, Grandes Jorasses
© Ben Tibbetts

Go ahead and shoot more images, but beware that this will be very time consuming in post processing and will not necessarily help you get great images. I would suggest two approaches that seem slightly at odds, but actually compliment each other. First of these is to ask yourself before you take a photo ‘What is the subject here? Is this interesting?’ If you can’t easily answer this then you are probably about to take a photo of something boring. It takes imagination and training to see these ‘subjects’. When you find an interesting subject then photograph it from all sorts of angles if the situation allows you to. I rarely find the point of view from which I first see the ‘subject’ ends up being the best. So rush about and change the angles to find what works best. My aim is usually to highlight or isolate this subject in the landscape, or describe this relationship more clearly. The second approach relies on taking chances and being intuitive. Often when mountaineering the situations we find ourselves in don’t lend themselves to nice clean analytical thought. We are often in a dangerous place and keen to keep moving. Often it is when I have pulled the camera out at the most grueling, exposed or stressful positions that I later find I got the most ‘real’ images, and the subject may just be the psychological tension, something it would have been hard to identify before. A combination of these two approaches can bring depth and variety to one’s work.

4 - Set objectives

Stuart climbing from the Aletschjoch at sunrise, 201 kbStuart climbing from the Aletschjoch at sunrise
© Ben Tibbetts, May 2015

The image above took quite a bit of planning, a long ski in and a very early start to get right!

Having a project to work on, be it making an exhibition, a website or a book, gives us a lot of challenges and motivates us to get out and get the right image. I am working on a book project to climb and photograph the ‘4000m Peaks of the Alps – The 100 Finest Routes’ (aiming to complete by late 2016). Since I started this project I have been working obsessively and my psyche for doing routes, with 2 am starts to get photos at sunrise, has risen dramatically! Many people may be a bit shy of exhibiting their images. Though you may not have confidence in your images there are so many people who don’t go climbing or hiking to whom these will be fascinating. They will not be up at 3am in a smelly mountain hut, eating stale bread and weak coffee to then experience sunrise on a summit. For these people your images will open their eyes and inspire. Go buy some frames and get some of your best images printed big!

5 – Carry your camera close to hand so you can get an image within 10 seconds…

Stuart Johnston on the airy Gross Grunhorn summit ridge, 205 kbStuart Johnston on the airy Gross Grunhorn summit ridge
© Ben Tibbetts, May 2015

When shooting opportunistically while climbing there is often not much time to react.

I reckon at least a third of interesting shots I get were not premeditated. At least half I might not have been bothered or able to get if my camera was inside of my rucksack! This is one of the biggest problems mountain photographers have on technical terrain. If the camera isn’t right there and ready all the time then many of those chances are lost: the rare burst of sunlight through the clouds, your climbing partner gazing unselfconsciously up the route. There are no miracle solutions to carrying a large 2kg object somewhere accessible whilst climbing or skiing technical terrain so we have to do the best we can. I’ve tried the main solutions I can think of, but would be very interested if anyone has a better idea. To be accessible I reckon it either needs to be on your waist or your chest. I have found that both climbing and skiing with a camera on my chest inhibits my view of my feet which is problematic. Nevertheless some people have holsters that hold the camera around their sternum and find that works well. Others put their camera, without a case, down inside their jacket. The second solution has many advantages for low cardio activities and saves the weight of a case, but I find the lenses steam up regularly when the camera is inside your jacket. Also I don’t always have a jacket on in summer time, or spring ski touring. On the waist is the solution I usually go for with the camera in a slim holster that is attached to the rucksack waistbelt, as far back and out the way as possible.

6 – Lenses – Good glass is heavy

Aiguille Verte at Sunrise from the Tour Ronde, 216 kbAiguille Verte at Sunrise from the Tour Ronde
© Ben Tibbetts

Most people's photos are taken in the middle range of focal distances – c.28mm-80mm (in full frame formats). I would suggest that spending more time shooting with ultra wide angle or long telephoto lenses would help a lot of people produce more interesting perspectives. Not least as these shots stand out from the sea of mid range shots! Nevertheless a wide angle lens is not to let you get just get more into the image! In brief I use wide angle lenses to be really close up to my subject and yet still capture the context of the landscape around them. It tells the big picture. I use a telephoto lens predominantly to isolate the subject, to exclude everything that doesn’t add to the image. Having access to these focal lengths, especially the widest angles, still necessitates an interchangeable lens camera these days. If one uses no other features of a bigger camera, just using the widest and longest lenses will make a huge difference to how you can take a photo. Unfortunately good glass is still heavy and expensive.

7 – Try to get fitter than your mates!

Ross Hewitt and Tom Grant climbing the SW couloir of the Aiguille de l'Amône (to ski the NE face), 235 kbRoss Hewitt and Tom Grant climbing the SW couloir of the Aiguille de l'Amône (to ski the NE face)
© Ben Tibbetts

I often find myself running, climbing or skiing ahead of my subjects to get interesting angles back down on them. This involves lots of sprinting then snapping and repeat. All the while your mates keep up a normal pace. I find most of the good mountaineering shots I get are from above. You often get a better perspective on the surrounding landscape. This however means I am usually breaking trail! Running and interval training helps for all this.

8 - Leave your big tripod at home

Cabane des Dix by night, 223 kbCabane des Dix by night
© Ben Tibbetts

Don’t carry a tripod around the mountains all the time in the hope of needing it. Unless you plan on doing a photography project that requires slow shutter speeds (1 / lens focal length or lower) then it may be superfluous. Even then you may be able to get away balancing the camera on something in-situ. For night shots I usually end up using a big rock and then either making a small cairn on top or using a coiled up rope to allow me fine adjustments of the shooting angles. Ropes are surprisingly versatile and stable even with a heavy camera.

9 - Keep using your camera whatever the conditions!

Victor Saunders under the influence of spindrift on the Migot Spur..., 220 kbVictor Saunders under the influence of spindrift on the Migot Spur...
© Ben Tibbetts

Take your camera out when everyone else has gone home. In my experience you don't need to be too precious or afraid to take the camera out in bad weather. Great memories are worth more than a camera. I've had many types of camera, including compacts with no weather sealing, out in the most ferocious windy and damp Scottish climbing. Working in the Scottish winter sometimes for a few of months, I have come home nearly every day with all my kit totally soaked, including a dripping wet, or iced up camera. Every day I take the battery and card out, dry the body off with a cloth, then let it warm back up slowly wrapped up inside a dry towel (slow warming to stop too much condensation forming inside the camera). I still have had no electronic problems that I could relate to moisture damage. However sometimes the buttons got physically frozen in place and prevent one shooting!

10 - Brighter’s better.

Minna Riihimaki on the East face of the Aiguille d'Entreves, 215 kbMinna Riihimaki on the East face of the Aiguille d'Entreves
© Ben Tibbetts

Bright clothes are a very easy way to highlight or isolate your figure, or subject, in the mountain setting. I pester my friends and regular climbing partners constantly about what they wear… it makes one a real nuisance until they see the images later! You can try lending your mate, who loves his 'ninja' black anorak, something brighter for the day? Good colours don't necessarily have to be fluoro, but classic reds and oranges work really well. Blues often work less well as shady aspects of a landscape have a blue cast, as does the sky, so your subject won't stand out against either of these. Light coloured sunglass frames are great also for highlighting the figures face and where they are looking.

About the Author

Ben Tibbetts is an adventure photographer and IFMGA British Mountain Guide based in Chamonix, France.

You can see his portfolio at bentibbettsphotography.com, and follow him on facebook. Information on Alpine guiding, polar guiding and his blog are at bentibbettsguiding.com.

Ben Tibbetts is supported by: Rab, Lowe Alpine and Ski Trab, Arva and Scarpa (France).

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