Technique Top Ten

The bible has a lot to answer for, least of all, why all lists always result in top 10’s. Anyway, I had wanted to add an instructional element to the site for some time, so tonight I’m kicking this off with a set of basics for mountain photography and filming. So this is my list of ten things that I believe can really make a difference to your outdoor and mountain photography. It’s not meant to be exhaustive and I’m sure there are many things that could be added, but I wanted to have a simplified set of golden rules ( which I sometimes break ), which are easy to memorise and hopefully, will be helpful to those wanting to get more out of their photography/cinematography when in the mountains.

I’ve included links for those wanting to delve deeper into certain subjects ( and I encourage you to do so ), as I wanted to keep this as simplified as possible. This is not intended for seasoned shooters, but if you are, and feel there is something that I should have included then please drop me a line. I’ve included a few points that are practical rather than artistic, creative or theoretical. If you can’t use your equipment then you won’t be able to shoot and, likewise, if you’re comfortable, safe, well equipped and familiar with your kit, then you are free to concentrate on things such as composition.

1.  You can’t capture everything.

Exposure and dynamic range The human eye is capable of seeing an incredible range of brightness and within this range, still being able to see detail. The amount of stops from light to dark that the human eye can see is usually greater than most digital or film cameras ( though not always ). When shooting in the mountains on any given day, you are likely to encounter a large range, from the dark forest shadows to the sun illuminated snow fields on the summits. This incredibly contrasty scene is what can make mountain shots so spectacular, but it can also confuse people when taking a photo of the scene, which when viewed later looks nothing like the scene you witnessed.

The important part here is what do you want to capture most of all? Is it more important to capture the details in the shade or more important to capture the details in the highlights. While by learning the basic rules of exposure you can go some way to cover both, it’s really important to try and visualise scenes the way a camera will capture them. Learning to look at a scene and understanding the cameras limits in order to reframe or compose the shot, is all part of the learning process.

This shot, whilst not a great shot, is a good example. Where I was standing, in front of the forest with a shaded, snowy field in front of me, the view was incredible. I knew that I couldn’t capture both the foreground and the mountains beyond and still have everything perfectly exposed. So I re-framed, to emphasise the fresh snow and sunlight on the mountains behind, the edge of the forest is near black, but works as a border to frame the scene.

HDR photography does address this issue and has made it possible to capture scenes, where even the human eye is unable to see all. In brief this involves taking several shots at different exposures, which are later composited together in software.

2.  Give up trying to capture everything.

Zooming and panning This applies particularly to filming and is probably the biggest hurdle that most people with a video or movie camera find they have to cross. We have all seen the footage of kids plays or friends holidays, only to feel completely sea sick from the experience. It’s tempting when you can zoom and pan the camera around to capture a big scene. Don’t do it! Okay, unless it’s for a particular artistic reason, just don’t do it.

It’s often better to convey a scene with a wide angle shot supplemented by small details of the scene, which when viewed later convey the message of the experience. A typical example would be a sunny day, with a lot of activity, perhaps at the ski slopes or something. Instead of just waving the camera around to try to cover everything, look for the less obvious, maybe film or shoot the scene, reflected in a pair of goggles. Finding these smaller details often help to tell the story far more effectively than simply moving the camera around, in an attempt to capture everything.


3. Circular Polarisers

These screw on filters will probably be one of the only filters that you actually need when shooting in the mountains. There job is to cut out reflections and they are often used when shooting near glass windows. Because there is usually a large amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, the filters come in to there own when you would like to capture very well defined fluffy clouds, for example.

As you point the camera further away from the sun, the effect of the filter on a clear blue sky becomes more pronounced. Circular Polarisers work in relation to the angle from the light source, for example, if shooting straight into a glass window, they will have little or no effect, but if you moved off to an angle to take the shot, the effect of glare being cut down becomes more obvious. Also remember, that telephoto or long zooms don’t really work well with CP’s, so they are best used for wide and standard focal lengths. Like any piece of kit, try it as soon as you buy it. It doesn’t take too long to see how they work.

4. Tripods/supports

If one thing will improve landscape shots ( both moving and still ), it’s the use of a good tripod or camera support. Get the best you can afford, period. Monopods are great for shooting sports and wildlife stills with longer lenses, but personally I find them almost useless for filming. If weight is really a major concern then sometimes makeshift supports can get the job done, a rolled up down jacket, resting on a rock or a wall, for example. If you own a large camera backpack, these can also double as makeshift supports when shooting from a low level. This only really works with camera bags that are vertically rigid, by simply placing the camera or lens on the top of the bag, it’s possible to get a reasonably stable shot ( I use a Tamrac Expedition 7 to carry a full days kit, but Lowepro and others produce similar bags ).

5. ND Filters

For many types of shooting, lack of light is often a problem. In the mountains during the daytime, especially in the snow, the opposite is true. If you need to control depth of field, then using an ND filter is normally my first choice. If I want to shoot with the lens wide open, to separate the foreground from the background say, but want to shoot at a given shutter speed, the only way to really do this is with an ND filter. These can be bought as simple screw types or you can use a system like the Cokin P drop in square filters. The Cokin system is pretty good, as you can add more filters for different lenses and cameras, without buying separate filters for each system. All you need to replace is the thread adapter for your lens or camera.  Graduated ND filters are also great additions to this set up and help in situations where there is a very bright scene in the top of the frame, yet the foreground, in the lower part of the frame is significantly darker. A set of graduated ND filters is a great investment, when shooting in the mountains and doesn’t cost a fortune.

6. Manual exposure and pure white

Snow is easy to photograph, if you don’t try and over complicate it. Some people approach this aspect, as some sort of dark art and while in certain conditions it can be a little tricky, as a rule, it couldn’t be more straight forward. I will expand on this in another post, but for now I will link to this tutorial. Simply, snow is roughly 1-2 stops brighter than a medium tone. So in other words, say you were to point your camera or light meter at the snow, in order to take a reading and subsequently take the shot, you will probably end up with a shot that is under exposed. The reason for this is, the camera doesn’t know that the snow is pure white ( well actually it has a blue tone ) and it tries to expose the shot as if the snow was a medium tone. The answer is often to then manually open up 1-1.5 stops from what the camera is telling you to do, you should now be in the right ball park exposure wise. Taking the reading from the back of your hand ( if you have light toned skin like me ) and then locking exposure should in most daytime situations, give you a fairly good exposure. This is a quick fix, but does often work.

7. Temperature.

Letting the gear acclimatise Cold can kill batteries. Damp and cold can and frequently does play havoc with cameras and lenses. This is okay, it can be dealt with, how were those penguin sequences filmed otherwise? ( not the dancing ones ) If possible keep spare batteries stored on or close to your body, this should keep them warm enough to keep their charge until needed. I usually stuff batteries on my inside pockets or hip pockets ( I don’t know how healthy that is for your testicles! )

When taking your camera from a warm room out into the cold, or vice versa, it will probably need time to adjust to the change in temperature and humidity. I usually unpack a camera from the bag and then leave it set up on the tripod, while I scope out what I’m shooting and prepare any other gear. This usually gives the camera enough time to adjust to the cold/damp. Lenses will steam up with very quick humidity changes, so make sure you have plenty of lens cleaners, just in case.  When it is extremely cold, going down past -15c, then problems can arise. Keeping the camera wrapped in a warm jacket or small blanket can help. I have had serious problems with certain DV cameras in the past ( but only on a few occasions ), where the tape mechanisms became so iced up that the cam became unusable. Had I, wrapped these cams at the time, I might of avoided these problems. When bringing video cameras in particular in from the cold, leave plenty of time before operating or playing back

8. Carrying equipment.

Less is more This is more of a personal preference than an absolute. Following on from what I said about temperature, what you are wearing and how you are equipped to deal with the elements, is as important, if not more so, than what camera equipment you are carrying. There’s no point in attempting to get a shot, at the risk of not returning home. This might be an extreme example, but I don’t think that this is overly dramatic. On another level, what if you are so cold or uncomfortable, that you cannot concentrate on the photography, or hold the camera steady for that matter. Personally, I would rather leave a very heavy lens at home, even if it gave me a stop or two of extra light, than freeze and dehydrate, because I didn’t have room for extra clothing and drink.

9. Batteries/film/tape/memory cards

Carry loads of them and make sure that you’ve tested all of your equipment together before packing for a shoot. Maybe this should be number 1 on the list! Enough said.

10. Study your subject, learn mountain crafts, study your subject.

Last, but by no means least, is the importance of understanding and being able to work with your subject. Whether you are filming friends riding at the snow park, photo’s of flowers on Alpine meadows or shooting landscape time-lapses, it will be so much easier, and more fun, if you have a good understanding of where and what you are shooting.

Study maps, go to photo exhibitions and look at other peoples work, take note of weather patterns and speak to local people as much as possible about weather past and present, if shooting in the backcountry during winter, you really should study snow and avalanche safety. You may be working alone, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t come across a situation where you will need this knowledge. Carry a beeper, shovel and compass and learn how to use them. Above all, perhaps the most important aspect of mountain photography is learning as much as you can about the environment itself.

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