Friday, 20 November 2015

The Trekking Photographer

The Spectacular beauty of the mountains

Every muscle is straining after six hours of ascent, at 3700 metres my oxygen deprived lungs are gasping, adjusting the seemingly heavy load on my aching back (where did all that extra weight come from?), in a final burst of energy I climb the final slope and in a sudden breath-taking moment a spectacular panorama unfolds, verdant mountains, veiled in clouds surround an icy lake with flowers in profusion.  Suddenly months of preparation and the cost of the trip become worth it. After I have absorbed the beauty of what I see, I reach for my camera to record for posterity what the eye and mind sees. This is exactly what I experienced when I trekked to the Valley of Flowers in Northern India earlier this year. 

See my earlier blog on the Valley of Flowers on this site and my site on Flickr for photographs for this slice of Gods own corner. Links below: for VoF pictures and for the beauty of high altitude flora at Hemkund above 4000 metres. Including pictures of the famed Brahma Kamal.

The famed Brahma Kamal at an
altitude of about 4400 metres

For the entire seven day trek to the Valley of Flowers I had decided that my primary subject would be flowers and landscape, so I carried a versatile 18-55 mm zoom with my  Fuji XE-1 mirrorless camera and a tripod; keeping it simple I carried no other photography gear. I even left behind my Circular Polaroid filter (CPL), a fact that I regretted as the UV was very sharp at this unpolluted altitude.

the intriguing Bellwort

Most trekkers I saw and continue to see on my peregrinations carry inappropriate equipment or are unprepared for these golden moments, hence bring back mediocre snapshots taken with kilos of expensive equipment carried laboriously to the top of the mountain. A little forethought and preparation will enable you to get superb pictures of your treks and travels.

What to carry

Subject.  When you plan your trip, research and decide what will be your main subject 
during the trip.  All your equipment must be focussed (pun intended) towards this, camera, lens, flash and tripod. Do not “what if….” every scenario, or you will end up carrying the kitchen sink!    I had no long lens, no flash and I never missed them. I have too often seen very enthusiastic but ignorant "photographers" lug huge and heavy equipment (bazooka sized telephoto lens for example), lens wholly ill-suited for the subject contemplated.  Their ardour  literally crushed by the weight of their equipment. Carrying less weight is very very important, I cannot this emphasise enough. When trekking every tiny item quickly begins to weigh a lot and what should be pleasure soon turns into a very unpleasant experience.

Hemkund Sarovar

Camera. The camera is your digital eye and select it carefully well before your trip. Remember that a couple of hours into a climb, every gram is going to seem like kilos, weighing heavily on your shoulders. Hence it is vital to carry as light a camera as possible. Choose between a DSLR or mirrorless (MLC) system (assuming you are an advanced amateur), each has its advantages and disadvantages, but a MLC is generally substantially lighter for similar sensor size as most mid-range DSLRs. Prosumers and point and shoot cameras too have their place depending on what you own, can afford, your capability and your potential subject. 

The outdoors is rough, dirty, wet and dusty, all serious enemies of the camera and lens you carry, hence expose your expensive equipment as little as possible.  Avoid changing lens as an open camera in such an environment can be seriously damaged.  Besides, fiddling with lens at critical a time means you could miss action or fleeting moments. Therefore I recommend the options are to carry:

  1. ·       A prime lens of an optimal focal length for the type of pictures you intend to take. For landscapes and general photography a 35mm to 50mm is suitable.
  2. ·       A zoom that covers the possible range you might want, (this is what I did, 18-55mm zoom covered all my needs).
  3. ·       Two camera bodies with different lens, (watch your back and shoulders).

A jewel in the flower

Tripod.  There is little point in investing in expensive equipment, lugging it around and coming back with mediocre unsharp pictures. For truly tack sharp pics a tripod is vital. Today there are wonderfully light and compact tripods to suit every pocket and need. Get one. heavier tripods are more stable and light ones easier to carry so it is a trade off.  Remember, the heavier your camera the sturdier (heavier) tripod you will need. And don't forget that remote release. Other than when photographing fast moving birds, I almost always use a tripod.
Minimum accessories. As I said earlier, every gram will seem a kilo when it's on your back or around your neck, I have more often than not seen photographers carry everything they own, camera, lens and flash. Recently when on a moderate trek, I asked a well-equipped photographer as to why wasn’t he using a tripod with his lovely long lens, he replied that as it was too heavy it was in the car and he would get it if required! Of course neither of us mentioned that his car was a four hour climb away. It is important to visualize the subjects that one is going to photograph and carry appropriate equipment for that only.  This applies to all the gear, flash, lens, tripod included. Minimum gear also inculcates a discipline and creativity in doing the most with minimum gear. On the other hand remember that most outdoor locations have limited charging facilities so always carry spare batteries and memory cards. I generally carry one extra memory card and two  fully charged batteries as spare.
notice my camera rigidly attached to my rucksack strap

Carry Rig.  Do not for a moment forget that you will be walking for hours if not days with your equipment.  The neck strap that came with the camera is generally not good enough for this and leaves the camera swinging and your neck aching. Besides a swinging weight around your neck in rough terrain inhibits movement, leaves you susceptible to injury and your camera to damage. Some intrepid photographers carry bespoke backpacks and pack in everything photographic they can, leaving little or no room for the other necessities for a trek. There are many types of bags, backpacks, straps and harnesses in the market, choose one that’s good for you. Important points to note are that the equipment should be firmly secured, the load distributed on shoulders and/or hips (not on the neck as most camera straps facilitate), and easily accessible.  I had my camera in front, clipped to my backpack strap using a Peak Diamond clip. The same Arca-type plate works for this bracket and the tripod.
Weatherproof cover: The weather in the mountains or on a trail can change rapidly, always carry weatherproof covers for your camera and equipment. Carry it even if the weather says no rain. If you have to, carry a shelter to change lens if it is raining.  An umbrella or poncho is better than a rain-jacket for this.

My friend Aarish stocks varied equipment for trekking and carrying equipment and Basav is an expert in equipment and fitness, they have advice for equipment for every level of fitness and type of camera. They would be happy to help and can be contacted below:

What to do

Read the manual and practice. Too many people buy new cameras days before the trek of a lifetime and spend the whole trip figuring out the controls, an expensive lesson indeed. If you don’t want every alternate picture blurred or blank, be smart, read the manual and practice, practice till you can handle most common settings without removing the camera from your eye. Find a similar subject and practice angles, exposure and themes.

Knowledge of the location: Research your intended location from the photography point of view. Know exact times of sunrise and sunset, the morning and evening golden hour in the mountains are spectacular.  Know where the photo ops are. Be realistic in your trek timings, factor in the time required to take pictures on the way.

Be fit: Be fully aware of the physical demands of where you intend going and the load you intend carrying.  If possible practise a couple of times near your home and see if you are comfortable. For gear on trekking see my blog The Fashionate Trekker at the link below:

Patience is a virtue and make the journey as much fun as the destination, stop to take pictures, smell the roses and enjoy your trek. Bring back photographs that were a joy to take and more important a joy for others to see.

Majestic Mount Rataban, briefly parting her veil of clouds,
seen through the length of the Valley


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  2. Salkantay Trekking es la alternativa al Camino Inca a Machu Picchu y que ha sido recientemente elegido entre los 25 mejores Treks en el Mundo, por la National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.