The Revelation Mountains

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The mighty Mount Hesperus, taken from the East. Revelation Mountains, Alaska

There isn’t a cluster of mountains in the Alaska Range that holds as much mystery and intrigue as the Revelation Mountains. When I look up the statistics for this site, the most popular search term is”Revelation Mountains”. And yet with so much interest, there is very little information about this mighty anchor of granite spires at the far western corner of the Alaska Range.

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Unnamed rock glacier, Revelation Mountains

My first visit to the Revelation Mountains was in June of 2006. Six of us did a long backpack along the western edge, over rolling tundra and below towering monoliths. It was one of the best backpacking trips I have done in Alaska, rivaling the mighty Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range.

In 2006, beta about the range was completely vacant. The only written information I could find was in old American Alpine Journals. The most prominent entry was the legendary 1967 Harvard Mountaineering Club expedition. The six members, which included David Roberts and Alaskan Art Davidson, spent 52 days struggling up peaks and enduring mind boggling bad weather. Many of the named peaks like: The Angel, South Buttress and Golgotha, that appear on USGS maps, can be attributed to that expedition.

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Looking west towards the Lime Hills, Revelation Mountains

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West side of Babel Tower (unclimbed) and The South Buttress (one ascent, west side unclimbed). Revelation Mountains

I learned early on that the Babel Tower, which is south of, the South Buttress, had obviously used its power of “confusion of tongues” and totally scrambled the mind’s of the map designers. The names on the maps are all mixed up. The 1:63 maps are correct but the 1:250 maps are completely off.

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The unclimbed west face of the Angel. Yes that perfect coulior has not been climbed or skied. It was, however, descended in the dark by Clint and partner after the peak’s second ascent.

In 2008, the young Alaskan alpinist, Clint Helander, made his first expedition into the Revelations, making a bold first ascent. He has climbed in the range every year since. Clint has become the guru of Revelations climbing and the Revelation Mountains recent surged in popularity can be directly linked to his many, wild exploits. If you have questions about climbing in the Revelations, he is the man.

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The beginning of the Swift River, Revelation Mountains

The area’s remoteness has contributed to its mystery. Access to the range is difficult and expensive. The range is also unfriendly to visitors. The terrain in very rough, glaciers are broken and littered with debris, rivers are milky, swift and cold, the alders are relentless and plentiful. For non-climbers, the only pleasurable terrain, is along the perimeter of the range, especially the west side. The backpacking there is superb, on easy tundra, with lots of wild critters. We enjoyed sharing the landscapes with bears, caribou and countless ground squirrels.

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Lichen and Ground Squirrel skull, Revelation Mountains

The Sled Pass area has some limited options, it is a beautiful spot, but you quickly get “cliffed” out or must endure endless, character building bush-whacks. Pack-rafts have been used to escape the endless bushes. The far north side looks promising, but access is unknown, and so are the mountains there. If you are looking to truly disappear in Alaska’s mountains, the north end of the Revelations is the place, you just have to get there. The heart of the Revelation Mountains is a place for experienced mountaineers, many of which, have been completely crushed by the mountains there.

 

Summer access is either by float-plane (if your going to backpack along the west side), Super Cub on tundra tires or the almighty helicopter (TAT has one now!). If your climbing, you want to go in winter or early spring, when there is plenty of ice plastered to the crappy rock. Ski landings are possible on the majority of the glaciers, until mid-May or so.

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Nameless river that feeds into the Post River, Revelation Mountains

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The Amazing Mount Hesperus being engulfed by clouds, Revelation Mountains.

If the thought of travelling in one of Alaska’s most remote and pristine mountain regions intrigues and terrifies you, you could consider going on a guided trip with Alaska Alpine Adventures, the only backpacking guide service with real experience in the Revelations Mountains.

 

 

 

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To Sled or Not to Sled?

Sleds and alders=Fun!

Sleds and alders=Fun!

Sleds, or ski pulks, have been part of my Alaska explorations for as long as I can remember. And like most explorers of snowy regions, I have a love-hate relationship with them. The terrain I may encounter is the primary factor when deciding on whether to bring a sled or not. Is there steep terrain? Will there be lots of bush whacking? Heavily crevassed glaciers? Dirt? So many possibilities can be encountered traveling through Alaska’s mountains.

On long, mellow trips, over easy to moderate terrain, with extensive winter gear and camera equipment, the comfort and ease of a sled is hard to beat. Two trips this spring warrant the use of sled, long glacier ski tours. One trip, to the Eldridge Glacier, has some big crevasses, but its early season and they should pose little difficulty. The second trip, to the Kichatna Mountains, should also be perfect for sleds.

This is the terrain that sled were meant for. The Black Rapids Glacier, during a 2006 traverse.

This is the terrain that sleds were meant for. The Black Rapids Glacier, during a 2006 traverse.

I have many times, brought a sled when I should have brought a big pack. What looks good on the map, doesn’t always translates to reality. A short, steep, alder choked slope can be a nightmare, taking literally hours to negotiate. Whenever there is a possibility of coming across bushy terrain, I make sure I have a good system for carrying my sled on my back.

Mountaineers are notorious for overloading sleds, paying very little attention to their design or the packing of them. I have been learning lessons from many of my winter, distance racing friends, and I have decided to give my sled an overhaul. The goal is to make it more streamlined and less haphazard. I will also be switching to a fully rigid system (designed by skipulks.com) removing the annoying slack that has the sled chasing, and frequently crashing into me, or passing me or worse of all, rolling down every hill or bump.

Overloaded, this is my sled on a ski traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier in 2013. Its way too top heavy and I am not using all the space in the sled. I plan to fix this problem this year.

Overloaded! This is my sled on a ski traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier in 2013. Its way too top-heavy and I am not using all the space in the sled. I plan to fix this problem and reevaluate my sled packing and design.

I will post images of my revamped sled on the #photographalaska facebook and Instagram pages so make sure your following them if your interested. Or course, full trip reports will be posted here on the blog when I return.

Mountain Profile: Mount Russell

North ridge of Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve

North ridge of Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve

In the far western corner of Denali National Park and Preserve towers a peak of unrivaled beauty, Mount Russell. Unknown by the majority of Alaskans, only those who search out such beauty know of its presence. Mount Russell is a classic, pyramid shaped peak, with crumbling black rock and dripping, fractured glaciers that defy gravity.

At 11,670 feet in height, Mount Russell isn’t super tall, but it remoteness and miserable weather make it a challenge to climb. The first ascent was in 1962 via the south ridge and ten years later, in 1972, the north ridge was climbed. The north ridge is now considered the “standard” route. Both Alaska climbing guides feature Mount Russell and its north ridge route and yet, the mountain sees maybe one ascent every couple of years. The loose, steep and terrible looking east face was climbed once and for those looking for a true adventure, the awesome west face is still unclimbed.

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South Ridge and the wicked east face of Mount Russell.

There are two ways to see Mount Russell from land. One is to land on the Yentna Glacier near the base of the North Ridge. The other is to land on the remote Purkey Pile strip and hike a few days to get a fantastic view.

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The sunlit west face of Mount Russell, the north ridge splits the light and dark. The west face still awaits an ascent and even a ski descent…hint hint.

Personally, Mount Russell is one of those mountains that is best appreciated either by climbing it or by the air, where you can truly admire its shapely demeanor.

Into The Wild West

The Angel, Revelation Mountains. Taken in 2006.

The Angel, Revelation Mountains. Taken in 2006.

I am now in the planning stage for next year’s expeditions. My main focus is the west end of the Alaska Range. Remote, isolated and difficult to access, few have explored its secrets.

The dominate mountains in the west/south-west end of the Alaska Range are the Revelation Mountains. The Revelation Mountains are becoming more popular in the climbing community because of the exploits of my friend Clint Helander. For the past few years, the Revelation Mountains have been his obsession. He has made numerous first ascents in this land of wicked steep peaks, inspiring others to follow in his crampon points. With that said, the Revelations only see an average of three expeditions a year, all of them aimed at climbing new, difficult routes. There is plenty left to discover in the Revelations and I look forward to returning to them.

In between the Revelation Mountains and the mighty Tordrillo Mountains is a land of  unknowns. During the early explorations of the Tordrillo Mountains, the hardy mountaineers would look west from the frozen summits and see a large cluster of jagged peaks, tucked behind the Todrillos and in front of the Revelations, they called them the “Hidden Mountains”, they have continued to stay that way, hidden.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska Range.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska Range.

On the north/northeast ends of the western Alaska Range are two small pockets of peaks, the Terra Cotta Mountains and the Teocalli Mountains. The fame Iditarod Trail runs through these hills. At the far south are the Neacola Mountains, which create the southern anchor of the Alaska Range as its crashes into the Aleutian Mountains.

Only a couple of the mountains have names on the USGS maps. The most obvious one in the Hidden Mountains is Snowcap, which is actually on the wrong peak (that is also a problem in the Revelations Mountains, certain maps have names on the wrong peaks.) The true Snowcap Mountain (ca 8,350′) was visited in 2010 by legendary climber Fred Beckey along with Alaskan Legend Richard Baranow and Zach Shlosar. Beckey did not make the summit but Richard and Zach did.

Less than a handful of climbers have tried to push into the Hidden Mountains from the closet access point, Merrell Pass near Gold Pan peak. Outside of that, there has been little activity in the area, especially by an explorer or photographer. In fact, the only photographs I can come by (outside of the Revelation Mountains) are photographs taken by large, mineral extraction companies, looking for alternatives to the Pebble Mine.

The western Alaska Range is one of the toughest terrains I have travelled through. Access is limited, the glaciers are moraine strewn and busted up, so ski planes have few options. There are no large lakes to land a float plane on. That leaves access to far off strips on the fringes of the area or by expensive helicopter.

There is nothing but bogs and forest beyond the western Alaska Range, all the way to the Bering Sea.

There is nothing but bogs and forest beyond the western Alaska Range, all the way to the Bering Sea.

Needless to say, this will be the most demanding season of expeditions. It is also the last season, so it is extremely important that I reach these areas. This will also be the most expensive season.

If you would like to support the project please consider buying a print, this a great way to get some great mountain art for your house or office and at the same time support the project. Here is the link to my holiday print sale.

If have back-country skills and would be interested in joining an expedition, feel free to contact me (read this post first).

Cheers,

Carl

 

Mountain Profile: Denali

I am starting a new little series on the blog, short mountain profiles from the Alaska Range. From the famous to the nameless, unclimbed to overrun, I will try to cover a variety. Some mountains I have many images, others only one. First up, the most famous mountain of them all, Denali.

Denali reflection, taken from the south.

Denali reflection, taken from the south.

Denali needs little introduction. The tallest mountain in North American, it is the most sought after peak in North America, by climbers and tourist alike. Its official name is “Mount McKinley”. The quickest way to show someone you’re not from Alaska is to call it Mount McKinley instead of Denali. The word Denali is Athabaskan and roughly translates to “The High One” or “The Great One”.

Not only is Denali the tallest mountain in North America it is also one of the largest on Earth with a vertical gain that rivals most mountains in the world, surpassing Everest by over 4,000 feet.

This image is taken from the north and highlights Denali's massive size and the wicked Wickersham Wall.

This image is taken from the north and highlights Denali’s massive size and the wicked Wickersham Wall.

The first ascent of Denali was in 1910 when two Alaskan prospectors—Peter Anderson and Billy Taylor—from a party of four reached the summit on summit on April 3. They climbed 8,000 feet from their 11,000-foot camp to the summit and returned to camp in 18 hours. The Sourdough Expedition team were climbing novices who spent 3 months climbing to win a bet with a bar owner who said it would never be climbed. They wore homemade gear made mostly from caribou fur. On summit day, they carried doughnuts, caribou meat, 3 flasks of hot drinks, and a 14-foot-long spruce pole and an American flag. unfortunately, they climbed the North Summit, not realizing that the South Summit was taller. Many of the old-time climbers that I know still give them credit for the first ascent.

The first ascent of the higher South Summit was on June 7, 1913 by Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum from an expedition led by Hudson Stuck. They climbed the Muldrow Glacier route.

Wild weather on Denali. The mountain is notorious for terrible weather.

Wild weather on Denali. The mountain is notorious for terrible weather.

Is Denali shrinking? It was originally surveyed at  20,320 feet (6,194 meters) above sea level, which was established in 1952. However, a survey conducted in 2010 using modern technology pegged Denali’s elevation as 20,237 feet (6,168 meters), shrinking it by 83 feet (26 meters). Many people reject this new height.

Denali is a tough mountain to photograph. While it can be seen from many vantage points from around south-central Alaska, it is hard to find something unique. If you get too close to the monster, it becomes a shapeless mass, it is better to capture it from a distance, which helps highlight its massive size.

Denali is often capped with a cloud. Denali creates its own weather and tourist have about a 30% chance of a clear enough day to see the mountain's summit.

Denali is often capped with a cloud. Denali creates its own weather and tourist have about a 30% chance of a clear enough day to see the mountain’s summit.

Into the Sacrificial Lands

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Polychrome Pass area.

When most non-climbing individuals think of Denali National Park, they imagine a 90 mile dirt road on the north end of the park. Denali National Park and Preserve has over six-million acres of land and yet over 95% of the visitors to the park visit that one, 90-mile dirt road, in the seat of an old school bus.

I have always considered that section of the park, the sacrificial lands, a place that absorbs the hordes of tourist so the rest of Denali National Park and much of Alaska, could be left alone, open to those with a true sense of adventure and a love for real wild places.

I have made seven trips into Denali National Park and Preserve, all have been in remote sections of the park, I have never been to Wonder Lake or Kantishna. I have been to the park’s entrance a few times on family trips and when I work as a guide. The farthest I have been up the dirt road is Polychrome, I have rarely gone their with the intention of creating serious images. Only once have I even attempted to create meaningful work (one of them is above and below).

The idea of buses and crowds, permits and rules, has never appealed to me, so I have avoided the park road as much as possible, until now.

Why Do People Go There?

That is what I wonder sometimes, but I do know why, it is beautiful and outside of a few “Wildlife Hotspots” across the state, it’s the best place to see a wide variety of Alaska’s wild creatures.

And that is why I am going. That 90 mile stretch of road and the land around it is part of the Alaska Range, a undeniably, wonderful part. Sure, it lacks much of the wilderness feel that the majority of the Alaska Range has. But it gives me an opportunity to focus on the wildlife and macro world of the Alaska Range.

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Dall sheep, Polychrome Pass area. Taken during the annual road lottery, the only time I have tried to focus on serious image making along the park road.

When I am in remote places I can’t bring dedicated wildlife gear, or macro equipment. I have a few good wildlife shots for the book but in order to create world-class wildlife images you need to focus on the animals, you need to look, hunt, stalk and be patient!

I will also spend time in the macro world of the Alaska Range. I want this book to be a real portrait of the Alaska Range and it is important that I tell the whole story, from tundra to summit, forest to glacier.

Of course, If a landscape image offers itself, I will gladly accept.

What I am bringing this time (the Kitchen Sink!). Being car based makes it easy to bring all the gear, which is a total contrast to my minimal approach to wilderness photography!

Nikon 500mm f4 lens

Nikon 70-200 f4 lens

Nikon 100mm macro lens

Nikon 18-35mm lens

Nikon D800e

Nikon D7100

Two tripods, one with a gimball head for the 500mm.

Filter, reflectors, flashes, its all coming!

 

 

 

Working With The Light You’ve Got: Rain

Part two of my little series on working with what you got.

Fall leaves and bear tracks, Chugach State Park, Alaska. The perfect subject for a rainy day.

Fall leaves and bear tracks, Chugach State Park, Alaska. The perfect subject for a rainy day.

To be a successful mountain – wilderness photographer, you need to learn to work in most situations, this is especially true if your on a paid assignment. The editors don’t really care how bad the weather was, they just want images.

In Alaska, your pretty lucky to get trough an entire trip without getting rained on at least once. Usually, your lucky if you get a day or two of nice weather, during a week of rain. When I look back at last summer’s trips, rainy days were the norm, over sixty percent of the days in the field it rained.

The first thing to do is get outside! Don’t sit around in your tent feeling sorry for yourself, there will be plenty of time for that at night! You spent all that money on those fancy Gore-Tex items, so put them to use.

At the Headwaters of the South Fork of Eagle river near the Flute Glacier. Another rainy Chugach scene.

At the Headwaters of the South Fork of Eagle river near the Flute Glacier. Another rainy Chugach scene.

You will quickly realize that hiking in the rain can be very pleasant. If it’s really windy or raining hard, head for the forest. Wet foliage is beautiful and the dampness can really accentuate the colors. Again, its time to focus on the details. Intimate macros and mid distance forest studies are best on  cloudy, rainy day.

This is about the only time I use a polarizer, it helps remove the glare and reflection off wet items. This is also a good time to call to duty that len’s shade you keep dragging around but never use.

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Beautiful, wet forest. Chugach State Park, Alaska

I sometimes bring along the secret tool of backcountry guides in Alaska, an umbrella. Yep, sounds silly at first but an umbrella is a great way to boost your wet, soggy clients morale. Umbrellas are also great for keeping rain off your gear when photographing. They can also help prevent camera shake from wind and on sunny days they can create shade for close-ups and block glare from the sun! Pretty useful.

In the woods or when photographing plants, I try to use a fast shutter speed to stop any motion caused by the rain hitting the subjects. When photographing water or clouds, I will sometimes use a slow shutter speed, to emphasize movement.

Beautiful mixed light, my favorite light for landscape photography. Hayes Glacier, eastern Alaska Range.

Beautiful mixed light, my favorite light for landscape photography. Hayes Glacier, eastern Alaska Range.

Mixed light reflection, unnamed tarn, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Mixed light reflection, unnamed tarn, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Dark, gloomy days can also make for interesting landscapes. In Alaska, you frequently get “sucker holes” that let light in for a fleeting moment. The mixed light created by these holes in the clouds, are my favorite and if there is any chance of light coming through I am happy hang out in the rain.

Photographing on rainy days isn’t that hard, its more of a state of mind. When I look back at many of my favorite images over the years, many are the ones taken on  rainy days.

Sunset from Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park, Alaska. After nearly forty days of rain in  the Chugach, this sunset was a welcome surprise.

Sunset from Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park, Alaska. After nearly forty days of rain in the Chugach, this sunset was a welcome surprise.

Tangle Lakes

Pond near Lower Tangle lake, Amphitheater Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Pond near Lower Tangle lake, Amphitheater Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Not all of the Alaska Range is remote and rugged. One of the more popular areas in the Alaska Range is the Amphitheater Mountains off the Denali Highway. The Amphitheater Mountains are a small sub-range of the eastern Alaska Range. They are a mixture of rolling tundra, craggy peaks and beautiful alpine lakes, the most accessible ones being a series of lakes known as Tangle Lakes.

My first trip into the Amphitheater Mountains was in 2005, when my usual partner in crime, Sy, and I did a circumnavigation of the mountains. We went in early June and ran into deep snow on the north side of the range. We encountered many caribou and my first and only encounter with a wolverine. Weather was mediocre and I created few good images.

Last week I went up to the Tangle Lakes area with my wife and son along with a whole bunch of family friends. We canoed, hiked and picked berries, all in the rain. Okay, we did have one nice morning that didn’t turn ugly until the late afternoon.

my son picks blue berries. Lots of records were set in 2013, the most months with snow on the ground, the warmest summer on record and possibly the best blue berry season ever.

My son Walker picking blue berries. Rain or shine, berry picking is always fun.

This was my first trip since the ill-fated Neacola trip and I wondered how I was going to feel around so much cold water, but I felt fine, even when the wind, rain and waves picked up during one of our canoe trips. Unfortunately, just like my last trip, photography was mostly a bust.

The Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River. This image was taken in 2006

The Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River. This image was taken in 2006

The Tangle Lakes are the headwaters of the Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River, that splits the eastern Alaska Range into two sections. The Amphitheater Mountains (and the neighbouring Delta and Clearwater Mountains) are the home of the of Nelchina caribou herd. The Nelchina herd’s primary winter grounds are the Amphitheater Mountains.

A large bull caribou of the Nelchina herd. This image was taken in 2006, in the Delta Mountains.

A large bull caribou of the Nelchina herd. This image was taken in 2006, in the Delta Mountains.

The Tangle Lakes biggest claim to fame are the human artifacts that have been discovered. There are more than 600 historic and prehistoric sites within the Amphitheater Mountains that help to tell the story of human occupation and hunting for the past 10,000 years. The Tangle Lakes Archaeological District was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Even with it’s natural beauty, bountiful wildlife and long history, the Tangle Lakes area is constantly being surveyed and probed for possible large-scale mines. Almost every hour a helicopter passes through the area to the many drills sites north of the Amphitheater Mountains. In the adjacent Delta Mountains, one of the area’s finest hiking trails was bull dozed in order to get drilling rigs to remote sites.

Proposed Tangle Lakes Wildlife Refuge

Proposed Tangle Lakes Wildlife Refuge

Because none of Amphitheater Mountains are under state or federal protection, a dedicated group of locals have begun the process of creating the Tangle Lakes State Wildlife Refuge. Creating any type of protected land in Alaska these days borders on impossible. So, If you have spent time in the area and would like to see it stay as wild and beautiful as it is, please consider helping out.

For more info on the Amphitheater Mountains and the creation of the Tangle Lakes State Wildlife Refuge visit:

The Northern Environmental Center and Save Tangle Lakes

Cotton Grass and Round Tangle Lake.

Cotton Grass and Round Tangle Lake.

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.

Cheers,

Carl

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