This article will appear in a shortened version in the December, 2007, edition of Expedition News. If you're not a subscriber, subscribe now and keep up with all that is happening in the expedition world!
It’s happened to all of us. You go on the trip of a lifetime – Mount Rainier, Peru, the Himalaya – and take loads of images. You get home, look at those images, and the mystery, the magic of the place, is missing.
What went wrong? Where did all those great vistas, enthralling clouds, and stunning sunsets go?
Hard to say for sure, but here’s some tips that will help you take better expedition images next time!
The Rule of Thirds
When composing an image, we often are inclined to put the main subject – be it a peak, a person, or a prayer flag – smack dab in the middle of the frame. While this can work sometimes – as evidenced by Steve McCurry’s iconic portraits – it often leaves the image dull. A quick and simple remedy to this which will spice up your images and your composition is to use The Rule of Thirds. The technique is simple: Divide your fame into thirds, and place your main subject in the left or right, top or bottom, third of the image rather than in the middle. This simple technique – a minor shift of position – creates energy and movement in the image and a dynamic and engaging composition.
Let’s face it – butt shots just don’t work. Sure, they’re easy to create – you see your friend climbing up above you, whip out the camera, and make an image. What comes out, though, is more often than not devoid of emotion since the climber’s face – the part that shows their emotion and tells the most about the scene – is hidden. So, from now on remember that childhood game of leapfrog. As an expedition photographer – be it on Everest’s summit ridge or on Mount Rainier – I am constantly playing leapfrog with my subjects. I start the day ahead of them, get to a good position with a dramatic setting to take an image, set up, shoot as they pass me, pack up, pass them, and set up another shot higher up on the mountain. It’s not easy, but it makes a difference. If you are roped together, don’t worry: Wait until it’s safe (at a break or when someone is tied off securely) and take images that way. Just avoid the infamous butt shots please!
More Isn’t Always Better
Our eyes, working in tandem with our brains, are amazing devices. In a heartbeat, we can pan around a scene, pick out the interesting parts, and zoom in on them in our brains while still seeing the entire view. With still images, however, we often need to help our viewer to not get distracted and hone in on the best part of a scene. And, often does nothing for our image but detract from it…and we’re better off make more out of less. To do this, use a zoom lens to pull an interesting subject more fully into the frame…or, use that old tried and true tool – your legs. Yup, that’s right, if your lens doesn’t get you close enough to the subject to make the frame visually appealing, move closer, compose and shoot. It’s all in the perspective!
P A N O R A M A
Everest’s Northeast Ridge from Camp VI on the North Face. It’s an iconic view of an iconic place, but one whose magnitude and imposing nature is impossible to capture on one frame of film (or one sensor).The solution? Shoot multiple frames and stitch them together using panorama software. Shoot multiple frames of your soon-to-be-panorama, overlapping the edges of each image by at least 25%. Later on, you can use one of the many panorama stitching programs available through a Google search, or, if you have Adobe Photoshop, use their built-in Photomerge program to put the images together – works like a charm! Here are a couple of tips to make your panoramas even better:
1. Watch for distortion: Many wide angle lenses display some distortion at the edges of the frame; this is easily seen when a straight line is placed on the sides of the frame and is bent or bowed. Make sure the lens you are using either doesn’t have any distortion (not a fisheye for a fixed focal length lens) or is zoomed in enough to eliminate any distortion on a telephoto lens.
2. Use a tripod: Shooting a panorama – and stitching it together effectively afterward – requires precision that is hard to get without a tripod, especially if we’re standing on wobbly rocks and breathing hard. So, use a tripod (or a hard, immovable surface like a rock) to make sure that the panorama’s plane remains constant through all frames.
3. Lock your exposure: As you move from shot to shot on your panorama, the lighting of the scene will inevitably change. If you leave your camera on program mode, it will find the best exposure for each frame, resulting in sometimes drastic changes in lighting from the first to last frames…and making it impossible to stitch together afterward. The solution is to first pan back and forth across the panorama, making note of the recommended exposures from your camera’s meter. Then, find a happy medium between the range of f/stops and apertures. Lock this exposure setting in using manual mode and fire away!
4. Lock your white balance: Just like exposure above, your white balance will adjust as you pan your camera across the shot, sometimes with troublesome results. Make sure you lock your white balance in to the appropriate setting: sunlight, cloud, custom, etc.
Have Camera…Will Get Shot
Sounds simple, but you’d be amazed by how often people either leave their camera behind – and of course miss images – or have it tucked so far out of reach that it is too tough (or too dangerous) to get it out when that perfect moment arises. For example, take May 1, 1999: I walked across the North Face of Everest to where Conrad Anker was standing over the remains of George Mallory. The scene I walked into was perfect – I whipped out my camera, snapped off a few frames, and within seconds Conrad was looking in a different direction and the moment was gone. Had my camera not been handy, the moment would have been missed…forever. My solution is to always keep my camera in a fanny pack (I use a MountainSmith Aurora II) spun around to the front. In that pack is my camera, spare lenses, batteries, and cards, plus a couple of activated handwarmers to keep everything running well when I want to shoot.
Stop It Down!
As good as modern digital cameras are they are still lacking in some areas, especially in the realm of expedition and outdoor photography. A common problem occurs when shooting in snowy conditions – lots of bright whites contrasting sharply against vivid blue skies and dark rocks. Basically tricks most sensors and, if left to their own devices, cameras will create images with blown out highlights; that is, the snow will be blaring white with little or no detail. The solution is to manually set your exposure compensation to under-expose the image by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop (-0.3 to -0.7 on most cameras). Lock in this setting on your camera and shoot in any shooting mode and your photos will come out with details in the highlights (snow) while still being good in the darker areas.
Fill ‘Er Up!
Another common issue faced while shooting on expeditions is a climber against a snowy background or bright sky. Take a picture without compensating for the backlighting and you’ll more likely than not end up with a properly exposed background and a dark, under-exposed primary subject. To fix this, use a little bit of fill-flash. But, don’t just pop the flash on and shoot away…Flashes are calibrated to balance a subject to daylight conditions, and doing this will splash too much light on your subject yielding an unnatural look. Go into your flash settings and, as with the exposure compensation above, manually stop down the flash’s output. I generally keep my flash stopped down to -0.7 to -1.0 (2/3 to a full stop), and sometimes go even lower depending on the situation. Play around with it, and remember that adage film is cheap – this truism becomes even truer with digital!
One of my favorite techniques when shooting on expeditions is to shoot straight into the sun, but getting the desired results can be frustrating. However, if done right, the result is a dramatic image with the sun (or any bright, point-source of light) turned into a dazzling star. To make it work, you have to be able to set your aperture manually (not possible on many point-and-shoot cameras). Set your aperture to f-16 or above – generally speaking, the higher the aperture (the smaller the light-inlet hole) the better for this output. Then, with your camera in manual mode, compose your image and bring the exposure ½ to 1½ stops under-exposed by adjusting your shutter speed accordingly. Shoot a frame and make sure the sun is starred as you want it to be and that the rest of your image has proper exposure as well.
Zoom in or Pull back
As I mentioned earlier, perspective is everything. It can turn a humdrum image into a stellar one…or turn what could be a great shot into just another snap. So, try different perspective both by using your legs to move around and by using different lenses to change the view. Sometimes a shot calls for a wide angle of view to show the whole grand vista, while others might need to be really tight to emphasize the details. In my expedition kit, I am always looking for a balance between versatility and weight – not always an easy balance, but with modern equipment and a few bucks, it’s doable. Being a Nikon shooter, I always go with Nikon lenses. My standard kit includes my Nikon 10.5mm DX Fisheye for wide angle shots and the 18-200mm DX VR Telephoto for a wide range of focal lengths. In my pack sits my big gun – a Nikon 80-400mm VR Telephoto…heavy, but quite useful. With that combination of 3 lenses, I can get from ultra-wide fisheye perspective to incredibly close with the 400mm (which, on a Nikon DSLR sensor equates to 600mm on a 35mm camera – powerful enough to bring the summit of Everest up close and personal from basecamp!). Additionally, we can create unique images by simply moving our cameras and our bodies. Lie down on the ground and shoot skyward, or climb up a bit higher and shoot a bird’s eye view.
Try some of everything
Although equipment today is amazing, the best photographs require a combination of equipment and personal vision. Rarely does a simple point-and-shoot image make the cover of National Geographic. So, try a little bit of everything on your next outing or expedition. Have fun, play around. Figure out what the story is you want to tell, and then decide what images will best tell that story. The best shot is often the one you decided not to take!
This article first appeared in a shortened version in the December, 2007, edition of Expedition News.
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- Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.