20 Top Tips for Mountain Photography: Part 2 - Refining Techniques

by Ben Tibbetts Nov/2015
This article has been read 13,961 times

Earlier in the summer Ben provided us with the first half of his Top Tips. Now with the soft Autumn light advancing, and winter round the corner, here are 10 more tips to develop your photography skills.

11. Edit your photos

Moon rising over L'Aiguille Verte, Chamonix, France, 202 kbMoon rising over L'Aiguille Verte, Chamonix, France
© Ben Tibbetts

Through all my photography education I used celluloid film. The processes were slow and thoughtful. I took fewer images but spent longer taking them. I would spend as long working in the dark room with the large format negatives as I would out in the landscape researching and taking photos. Days turn into weeks and months working away editing, selecting, cropping, dodging, burning and toning with magic chemicals under the red “safe light”.

These days it is clearly easier to take a lot of photos in a day. It is consequently now more time consuming to edit through and find those shots where everything one hoped for came together. The ‘lightroom’ of tools now available to process this image to reveal its potential are more powerful and intuitive than ever, but the whole process still demands a great investment of time beyond just hitting the trigger! I would recommend people select their top 5 images on each outing. Develop these to the best of your ability in whichever software you have access to and maybe post them on a site such as 500px for feedback. Show the best one or two to friends and learn from what other people see in your images. Don't put every photo you take on Facebook or Flickr. Be selective or people get bored!

12. Isolate the subject

Liz Smart ski touring at the Dent d'Emaney, Marécottes, Switzerland, 184 kbLiz Smart ski touring at the Dent d'Emaney, Marécottes, Switzerland
© Ben Tibbetts

I suggested previously (#3) how to identify a subject. The tricky part, and for me crux and great challenge of photography, is how to isolate or highlight this subject. I don’t think it is necessary for the climber to be on the steepest climb or the gnarliest ski descent, but I think what is essential for an excellent image is for the subject to be clear in its relationship to the surroundings. Some key strategies to help isolate your subject include shallow focus, colour and tonal composition.

Composition is probably my primary method of isolating the subject when on the move on the mountain shooting friends or clients. I try to use the architecture of the landscape, and how the light is playing over it to highlight the subject. Likewise I use the direction of movement of a person, or the lines in a landscape to then guide they eye in and around the image. Placing the subject on one of the horizontal or vertical ‘thirds’ of the image surface is a classic way to highlight the subject. You have to have a good reason to put the subject in the middle of the image as it makes it more difficult for peoples eyes to move around the image. Having the subject moving from the ‘third’, or edge of the frame towards the centre classically helps draw the eye into the image.

As I mentioned in #10, colourful clothes are a great way to draw the eye to a climber or skier. I find dark clothes incredibly difficult to work with other than in silhouette or against a very homogenous background.

Shooting a moving subject such as a climber from close up using a normal to wide angle lens (Full frame eq. 14-24mm) it is very difficult to capture a shallow depth of field. It requires big apertures and fast focusing (or some people use heavy post processing with photoshop). Shooting subjects further away with a normal or telephoto (50-400mm) lens it is much easier to blur the background. Combined with good clean compositions this can be a great way to isolate the subject and get interesting perspectives. However this often necessitates being comfortable moving around on the mountain at some distance from the people you are shooting.

13. Anticipate the subject

Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and Grand Combin at sunrise from the Rimpfischhorn, 195 kbMatterhorn, Mont Blanc and Grand Combin at sunrise from the Rimpfischhorn
© Ben Tibbetts

Always be thinking ahead. Whether shooting climbers or even landscapes anticipate from what locations or angles you might get the shot you want. When you are in place you can always wait for the right light, or direct the action you want to capture. I often use Google Earth to give me an idea what places on a mountain I might get the landscape composition I am after. As often as not it doesn’t work out as I expect, but if it does you are ready and framed for the shot. Nevertheless it usually provides a good starting point from which, when the crucial light arrives, to move around changing the angles and framing to get it just right.

14. Stay on the rope!

Valentine Fabre on the North Ridge of Rimpfischhorn, Switzerland, 176 kbValentine Fabre on the North Ridge of Rimpfischhorn, Switzerland
© Ben Tibbetts

When shooting in an exposed location look after your own safety. Make sure you are attached to something! It easy to get carried away moving around on steep terrain without a rope.  When concentrating on the image through the viewfinder you are not so attentive to what your feet are doing. The odds are that one day you will make a slight error. Try to take that extra time to look after yourself before the image.

When lead climbing or on a separate fixed line the rope can also allow us to hang in extraordinary places and get interesting perspectives. When on lead and heading for a belay I will often place a high last runner and then traverse off sideways to make a belay to one side. This allows me to shoot across the last pitch to help give perspective of the terrain my partner is climbing up. (Of course one also needs to be using an autoblocking belay to take images and pull the rope in…)

15. Manage battery power in cold conditions

Windy as usual at the 'Melon' Hut, Sky Blu, S75º, Antarctica, 141 kbWindy as usual at the 'Melon' Hut, Sky Blu, S75º, Antarctica
© Ben Tibbetts

Are your batteries dying in the cold? Cold temperatures slow down the chemical reactions in the cell that convert chemical energy into electric energy. This in turn reduces the amount of current it can produce and also the effective capacity of the cell. The standard rating for battery capacity is at room temperature. However a batteries capacity can reduce by as much as a 50% at -20ºC. This capacity decrease is temporary, but when you are out shooting it can be critical. To keep the chemicals flowing in your batteries you need to keep them warm. An effective way to get the most out of your batteries is to have at least two, and keep one in a warm pocket. When you come to shoot a long batch of images, or when the indicator suggests charge is reduced you can pop in a warm battery. Each image you take will deplete a warm cell less than a cold one. Obviously it is not convenient to swap batteries for every shot, but the warmer they are the better.

16. Keep your lenses clean

Pam van der Brug battling the maelstrom on Spiral Gulley Direct, Coire an t-Sneachda, 127 kbPam van der Brug battling the maelstrom on Spiral Gulley Direct, Coire an t-Sneachda
© Ben Tibbetts

Keeping your lens clean, especially if you end up shooting towards the sun, is critical. Otherwise you get bright dust spots, flare, reduced contrast and all kinds of other problems in your images. I end up cleaning my lenses several times a day on most days shooting in the summer, and sometimes much more in the winter.

Personally I use protection filter on lenses that can take them (several such as Nikon 14mm don’t support screw on filters). This is a very controversial point, and I know many photographers prefer not to use them. Undoubtedly it adds another layer of imperfect glass to your expensive lens but I prefer to protect the front element of the lens from abuse, and thus permanent image degradation that the lens would otherwise incur.

Personally I use good quality transparent (UV/protection) filters, but treat them as disposable items - if you scratch the filter, or it’s anti-flare coating, you can bin it and start again. More commonly however I find myself in a tight spot shooting in poor conditions such as blowing snow and the lens gets wet. This so often happens just at the critical moment when there is no time to pull out a cloth to clean it. For critical shots my filter ends up serving as a second lens cap - I unscrew it and can start shooting with a clean lens straight away.

17. Light and time of day

Laurent Soyris and Gabriel Mazur bivi on Verte summit after climbing the excellent Grand Montets ridge!, 235 kbLaurent Soyris and Gabriel Mazur bivi on Verte summit after climbing the excellent Grand Montets ridge!
© Ben Tibbetts

Quality of light is crucial to photography. Knowing when the sunrises and sets, how high it will get in the sky, how cloudy or moist the air will be and the phase of the moon are all very useful in getting the right light for the image you want to make.

For most instances it suffices to get up earlier than you would normally! The light in the morning from a little before sunrise, through the ‘Golden Hour’ until a little after sunrise often makes for some spectacular images. The low angle sunlight diffuses through more atmosphere providing soft contrast, and warm saturated colours. Also the low angle sun across the landscape provides deep shadows defining the shape of the terrain. In the evening we have a similar reverse shift of contrast, colours and shadows as the morning, but often the warmer air is less clear than in the morning.

In Alpine terrain it is standard practise to get up early to benefit from the cold refrozen snow to speed up the mountain. Likewise it is usually safer as rocks and ice are locked in place in the overnight freeze. At lower altitudes however I normally find getting up well before daybreak and hiking to shoot a landscape at sunrise quite grim. I find I either shoot more often at sunset and then hike down by headlamp or take the time to stay out overnight in a hut, tent or bivouac. This allows you to already be ‘on scene’ when the light comes right. Also the camp can make a readymade ‘subject’.

When organizing a professional shoot much of my planning and timing revolves around scouting the location I hope to attain to catch the light at sunrise/sunset. There are now plenty of useful apps to help one find out the local times of sunrise, moon phase etc.

18. Shoot in RAW file format

Oberaletsch Hut under the Milky way, Switzerland, 211 kbOberaletsch Hut under the Milky way, Switzerland
© Ben Tibbetts

Modern cameras will have a good attempt at choosing the best exposure level, contrast and white balance for your images, but when the going gets tough in low light conditions they often end up with a blue/gray cast in white balance, lacking in contrast or with a lack of detail in shadows or highlights. This is when you really need to start pulling all that information out that your sensor is able to capture. That information is in the RAW file!

19. Use exposure compensation when shooting in snowy environments

Alpinists heading towards the Tete Blanche, Switzerland, 55 kbAlpinists heading towards the Tete Blanche, Switzerland
© Ben Tibbetts

In snowy terrain when much of the image field is white do you often find your images come out grey? The auto exposure on you camera is set to expose your images so that over the area you select (spot, centre weighted or wide etc.) it will try and achieve an average exposure of the image. This works well in most circumstances when we have rocks, vegetation and some sky for instance. The camera doesn’t know however that what you are pointing it at is actually white, so it tries to expose it in an average kind of manner, which in turn makes the snow grey. To expose correctly try using the +/- exposure compensation control that most cameras have. Setting it to +0.7 is a good starting point to bring your whites a bit closer to white and to avoid underexposing and losing detail in the shadows. If you compensate too much however it is easy to ‘burn’ out the whites, so go easy when trying this.

20. Get lighter mountaineering equipment

Ally Swinton on the Peuterey Blanche of the Peuterey Integrale, Mont Blanc, Italy, 227 kbAlly Swinton on the Peuterey Blanche of the Peuterey Integrale, Mont Blanc, Italy
© Ben Tibbetts

Try offsetting the weight and volume of your camera so you can justify taking it out more often. Upgrade to a lighter weight rucksack, waterproofs, fixed point crampons, featherweight harness and helmet. If you haven’t already then slinging out a few archaic items and getting some new gear can easily shave over a kilo without any penalty in performance.

Also, as your camera can live outside your rucksack so you can always get to it, (see #5) you could take a smaller rucksack. Unfortunately this doesn’t apply to residents of western Scotland or similarly moist climates.

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 at http://www.facebook.com/bentibbettspolarguiding.

Information on Alpine guiding, polar guiding and his blog are at bentibbettsguiding.com.

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

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