Choosing Partners for Wilderness Photography Expeditions

When possible, I prefer to photograph alone. I think most photographers do. But when I am truly exploring remote areas, far from trails, roads and rescue, I prefer to have a partner. But choosing who to ask to come on a wilderness trip is not easy.

I have a very select group of friends I travel with. It has taken many trips to get comfortable with this select group. Some of my partners have literally saved my trips. Once I was on a trip where it just poured rain for days. If I had been alone, I would have packed it out early. But my partner was more than happy hanging out, hiking in the rain, reading books. The final day of that trip dawned gorgeous, and one of the images from that day ended up being on the cover of one of my books!

The cover of my Chugach State park book, printed bt Greatland Graphics, 2011. The cover shot would never of happened if it wasn't for a great expedition partner.

The cover of my Chugach State Park book, published  by Greatland Graphics in 2011. The cover shot would never of happened if it wasn’t for a great expedition partner.

The single most important thing is self sufficiency. You can’t focus on serious photography and on taking care of your own well being if you’re worried about the skills or health of your partner. Their skills should  equal or surpass your own skills in the mountains.

The next is personality. You want someone who is low key, adaptable and self entertaining! Being on a trip with a photographer can sometimes feel like a solo trip to your partner. Getting up early, staying out late is the norm. It is not uncommon on non travel days for my partner and I to split ways for the entire day. Find people who like to pick berries, look for wildlife, read books, take tundra naps or bag small peaks on their own. You may notice I didn’t say, someone who likes to take photographs. I honestly prefer to go with non “serious” photographers, unless I am working as a guide.

You want to make sure you can and want to spend lots of close up time with this person.  Some trips just suck. You fly in and then a storm comes and your tent bound for days. Spending that much time with someone can really test a friendship. It is not uncommon for couples who embark on major expeditions together to split up at the end of the journey.

If you think you have found the perfect partner, make sure you go on a least one shake down trip before the big expedition. Everyone likes to do things differently, from setting up camp, cooking and safety. Make sure that your partners understand that it is a photo trip and though you may have a destination you want to reach or even a peak to bag, the plans can often change because of the weather and the light, getting the shot trumps everything but safety.

Once you go on a few trips with someone you really click with, you become almost dependant on them. I plan many of my trips with certain partners in mind. I know what they like, the type of terrain, the scenery and the difficulty level.

One final note. Talk to your partner about having their picture taken. Some people love it, others don’t. My trips aren’t people photo shoots, I am after the wilderness, the mountains.  But it is important to capture those “behind the scenes’ shots of the trip. This makes for a better story later, pleases the sponsors and may even bring in a few extra bucks. Plus, partners are usually stoked to have a fantastic image of them on the trip to remember it by, just make sure your willing to have the camera pointed at yourself too.

Choosing a Camera for Wilderness-Mountain Photography: Part Two

Reliability and Features

Exploring an ice cave, Ruth Glacier, Central Alaska Range

Exploring an ice cave, Ruth Glacier, Central Alaska Range

There is no use in carrying a camera into the remote wilderness if it’s just going to fail, or cause you constant frustration. Notice I say reliability instead of durability. Most mid priced digital cameras are more than durable enough to handle wilderness photography. But can they deal with the moisture and cold, dirt and wind?

The number one issue with a digital camera is battery life. Some cameras are better than others, most are just bad. One of the problems is the trend towards fully digital cameras that rely too much on the battery. Using live view is the quickest way to drain a battery and any camera that doesn’t have a mirror or optical finder, is essentially in live view at all times. I try to avoid cameras that I can’t see through the finder if the camera is off. I often set-up and compose images before I ever turn the camera on. In extremely cold weather I often don’t have a battery in the camera until I am ready to actually take a photograph. I also try to keep any viewing of the histogram or checking of sharpness to a bare minimum.

When using mirror-less cameras, I keep all the batteries next to my body at all times. I also remove the battery from the camera when not using it. If you are very diligent, you can make mirror-less cameras and their batteries last, but it takes discipline.

Electronic viewfinders can often go “wild” in the cold, producing strange effects or just failing. Without an optical viewfinder, your out of luck. I prefer dials to buttons. A good camera has sealed buttons so moisture can’t get in. The seal between the lens and camera needs to be tight and secure. If moisture or dust gets between the camera and lens things can get bad fast. Electronic viewfinders can also be hard to use in the dark.

Contrary to camera manufacturers propaganda, cameras need very few features. The unfortunate trend these days is to add hundreds of menus and special modes that try to remove the photographer out of the process, to make things easy for the photographer. The dumbing down of photography and development towards “smart” cameras that do everything for the photographer is sad.

Manual and aperture priority, excellent manual focus ability, accurate meter with spot metering ability, RAW recording, mirror lock mode (switch is better), what else is needed for wilderness photography? I do use a few other features like a moderately speedy motor drive,3 fps is nice when doing aerials or photographing people. Accurate auto focus is good, especially as I get older and find some situations difficult to focus manually in.

I have been following the trend of camera companies like Fuji, creating simple, manual cameras that have stellar image quality. Their reliability hasn’t been great but they are working out the kinks and I feel a Fuji camera in my future!

What about weight and size, isn’t that a major concern? Yes, but that is why I train hard and use the lightest weight outdoor gear possible. Even then, modern dslrs are pretty light compared to medium or large format film cameras of my past, even lighter than many of the pro 35mm film cameras. Having a little weight actually makes a camera more stable on a tripod. It also depends on the trip.The guideline I use for size and weight is simple: The weight and the size can not threaten the success of the trip or the safety of myself or other expedition members! On a week-long summer backpack trip, a dslr with a two lens kit is usually fine. However, if a trip is longer than a week, involves technical terrain, I am on somebody else’s trip or working as a guide, then I try to get my kit down to a bare minimum, this is where the smaller cameras pay off. Unfortunately, tiny cameras have tiny batteries that perform poorly, and as mentioned before, you need to be very disciplined with the batteries to keep those cameras working.

I often find it’s the bulk of a dslr kit that is more the problem then the weight. Having an unstable, poorly packed pack can be unsafe and tiring. If you shoot lot’s of expedition images, then you need to be able to access the camera without taking off your pack, this is something I struggle with when using dslr cameras and one of the major benefits of the smaller mirror-less cameras.

If you have any questions about cameras, please ask. Upcoming post about photography will include: Dealing with cold weather, accessories for wilderness photography and my Nikon D800E review. Please keep in touch.



Choosing a Camera for Wilderness-Mountain Photography: Part One

Image Quality

Sunset, Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park (not in the Alaska Range)

Sunset, Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park (not in the Alaska Range)

There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing a camera for remote wilderness photography, the first and foremost is image quality.

Since the early days of mountain and wilderness photography, from Vittorio Sella to Ansel Adams, maximum image quality has been the goal. The old rule was “carry the largest negative possible”. Today we could argue the motto should be” carry the highest resolution you can afford”.

One of the most frequent questions I get is “Does the number of mega-pixels directly translate to high image quality?”  If we had two cameras that were created equal, with the same processors, dynamic range, ISO performance, but one had a higher pixel count, then in theory the camera with the more pixels would produce an image with more information and essentially higher  image quality. But not all cameras are created equal. Each manufacturer has their own designers and engineers, some are just better than others. I would go with the most you can afford as long as the mega pixel count doesn’t affect the other important qualities like dynamic range and noise (which I will discuss later).

What about sensor size and its relationship with mega pixels and image quality? In the early days of digital photography, image quality was all about pixel size, the bigger the sensor, the lager the pixels and the higher the image quality. Those days are slowly coming to an end. We must remember that we are dealing with programming and with each new year programmers and engineers create new processors that work more efficiently and create better images, regardless of the size of the pixels.  There is also the issue of depth of field, the larger the sensor, the narrower the depth of field, something that is critical for portrait and video work, not so much for landscape and mountain photography.

Another factor that controls image quality is noise performance. Modern digital cameras are truly amazing  when it comes to low light image taking. Noise and other  artifacts are rarely present under ISO 800 on most high quality DSLRs. Some look great even up to 3200. Just the ability to change ISO whenever you want seems like a miracle to anyone who has worked with film. But why would a wilderness photographer need a high ISO anyways? While it is true that I almost always use a tripod and rarely shoot over ISO 200, there are times when having the ability to switch to a higher ISO is essential. The two most common times are when photographing in high winds when either my camera is being blown around(even on the tripod) or my subject is (flowers, grasses, leaves…). The other time is on the flights in and out of locations.  I also use a higher ISO for those needed expedition shots of people.

Dynamic range is another factor of high image quality. In layman’s terms, dynamic range is how much detail is recorded in the highlights and shadow areas. Unlike the fake looking HDR images that have taken over the photo world, in camera dynamic range is a gradual, nature, smooth transition between tones. A camera with good dynamic range will allow you hold highlight detail while at the same time be  able to pull shadow detail without those shadows getting noisy and full of artifacts and that terrible HDR glow.

What about that AA (anti-aliasing ) filter? The highest quality digital cameras, medium format, don’t use them and I don’t think DSLRs should either. On rare occasions, cameras without them can produce a moire effect when photographing certain patterns. That is what the filter is there for, to remove the moire effect. But that filter slightly softens the image. The AA filter is just not needed for outdoor photography, I would prefer to get maximum sharpness right from the start.

The higher the resolution, the more attention we must pay to craftsmanship and technique. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy. If you aren’t willing to take the time and photograph with patience and attention to detail, there is no reason to purchase a high image quality camera. Wilderness and mountain photography demands high image quality and solid techniques.

 Next Post Part Two: Camera Durability and Essential Features

So It Begins!

Welcome to the Alaska Range Project blog.

Mount Silvertip, Delta Mountains, eastern Alaska Range.

Mount Silvertip, Delta Mountains, eastern Alaska Range.

It feels great to finally get this blog rolling even though our first big photography expedition isn’t until March. Along with expedition reports and new photographs, I will be writing about the challenges of mountain and wilderness photography, outdoor skills and gear and a variety of other related topics.

If you have any questions or suggestions don’t hesitate to contact me.

Carl Battreall