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.

beautiful, wet forest

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.

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 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