Himalayan adventure - Part 2 - Photography tips
Welcome back to part 2 of Himalayan adventure series. In first installment I discussed the preparation, packing and your first days in Nepal. If you missed it here is the ling to Himalayan adventure - Part 1. In this section I am going to touch on photography related topics.
What to pack in the camera bag?
Similar to clothing, same rules apply when you pack your camera gear. The less you have to carry the better. Remember, the gear you pack may not feel heavy at the sea level but above 4000m it is completely different story. Every gram counts. Minimal gear I would personally take, would be a camera with zoom lens (24-70mm equivalent or something similar, standard kit lenses are ok), battery charger, spare batteries, plenty of memory cards and lens cleaning kit. I would also recommend polarizing filter. It helps cutting down the haze, makes the colors more punchy and darkens the sky. This setup is sufficient for most situations and you will not need more than that unless you want to do some fancy things. If you just want to take some photos here and there along your trip you might get away just with your smartphone or point and shoot. Even for the more serious photographers simple setup has numerous advantages. I realized myself that less gear is actually more liberating and it pushes my creativity out of the box just that much more. Surely you may miss some special shots but you can work around the missing gear and get some amazing shots with gear you have. So I stress this again. Go as light as possible with your gear. Sometimes it is actually good just put the camera down and enjoy. Soak in the environment, the air, the beauty. Some moments are better to be experienced, lived through than photographed.
If your fitness level is good, you may opt for backup camera as well and extra lens or two. It may sound like an overkill and yes it can add up to a pretty hefty kit to carry. I remember during my first trip to Himalayas I took way too much equipment. It was also my first encounter with high altitude. Once I reached my destination I was so tired, and mere changing of lens was too hard, so I photographed everything with lens I had mounted on the camera. These days I personally do carry two cameras and two lenses. I just feel much better if I have a backup (it is smaller mirrorless). But I also exercise a lot so I do not mind to carry it :) Mirrorless owners have an advantage here as the cameras and lenses are much smaller than most of the DSLR kits. And they are very capable and make an excellent choice for this kind of trip. Only time I wished for bigger camera was when I was wearing thick gloves which made operating small camera controls rather hard. During the Chulu West climb I took of my gloves just for a minute or so to take some pictures. I got frostbitten so much that my fingers were numb weeks after I arrived home.
Tripod is not essential unless you want to do night shots as star trails, shoot Milky Way etc. If you want to shoot panoramas, you can do it handheld. I have two articles on the technique of shooting panoramas if you are interested. (Shooting panoramas part 1 - The technique, Shooting panoramas part 2 - stitching )
I have taken tripod couple of times but honestly, most of the time it stayed in the bag. I found that it takes a lot of energy to get it of the bag and set it up. It is better to use something else to rest your camera on. Your backpack is an obvious choice.You may wonder how come it can be so difficult but believe me. Lack of oxygen renders you a much weaker person. Ultimately it is up to you but for most of us I believe tripod is not essential. Just bump up your ISO. So many people are afraid of noisy images. Most cameras these days are quite capable at high ISO. And once you resize image down for web the noise is gone. If you do magazine work or fine art prints, then consider it but for average traveler it is just unnecessary weight.
From photography perspective, any prolonged trips into mountains are also about energy management. (This is certainly valid for your body as well as batteries.) Spare batteries are essential. Quite often you will be able to recharge them at tea houses but it might not be for free and probably you will not be the only one recharging at the time. Lack of power sockets can be a problem. Even the existing ones are usually very flimsy. Lot of the tea houses run on the solar power. In bad weather the recharging abilities may be limited. Recharge your batteries before leaving Kathmandu and do so every time when you have opportunity. Quick note about electricity in Kathmandu. It is available only few hours a day. Better hotels are equipped with generators but even those get eventually turned off. Keep this in mind and when electricity is available recharge, recharge, recharge. Remember, batteries drain much faster in cold environment, even when they are not used. Always keep batteries warm. I carry them in inside pockets so they are warmed by body heat. Similarly, I always take the batteries out of the camera for night and put them inside my sleeping bag. This way I keep them operational for longer period of time.
Be mindful of battery chargers. Some branded batteries are recommended to be charged only with charger that came with camera. 3rd party chargers may either damage the battery, decrease the lifespan or just not charge to the full capacity. Read the manual. Personally, I never had this problem but I have come across few articles that pointed out this issue. Different cameras and gear all require different battery chargers, you will need power socket adapters too. This all comes back full circle when you need to carefully consider how much gear you are willing to pack and carry. Chargers for camera, cell phone, ipad or laptop all together add up to considerable weight and space. Remember, less is more. Be nimble.
Himalayas are the ultimate destination for some of us. Weather you are into landscapes, people, travel and documentary you always find tons of subjects and opportunities to photograph. You can start your photographic journey already in Kathmandu in Thamel district. It is incredibly photogenic place. Visit Durbar Square, Boudhanat and Monkey temple. All great locations for photography. It is a street photographer's heaven. Don’t be afraid to leave the touristy streets. If you wander little further in Thamel you may find hidden narrow and quiet or bigger bustling streets full of street vendors, shoppers etc. You will notice that traffic can be quite horrendous even in narrow Thamel where it seems close to impossible for two cars pass each other. Taxi, motorbikes, rickshaws are all over the place. Early morning is obviously the best time to go out and photograph. Light is very harsh during the day and golden hour is very short. With buildings all around it feels like the sun drops down in an instant. So even before the sun disappears it is still quite strong. If you are lucky the afterglow can give you pretty soft lighting or you can use the always present dust to your advantage and be little creative with it. (Kathmandu, the dusty capital)
You probably already know that the best time to take pictures are early in the morning or during golden hour. Depending on your location in the mountains these might be pretty short especially if you are somewhere deep in the valley. Remember, that you are surrounded by high mountains. By the time the sun appears above them, it is already too strong and harsh. Your best chance of great light is just before sunrise when the sun is still behind the mountains but first rays are already hitting the snow peaks rendering them in nice orange color. In same fashion, the golden hour is short. Sun can be still harsh just moments before it drops behind mountains and then in an instant you loose all good light.
Often skies are clear and cloudless. This might be a problem as the dynamic range is very high for sensor to capture. Cloudy and slightly overcast sky is actually little better as it can diffuse lot of that strong directional light yielding much better results. If that is not possible try to either avoid shooting during that time of the day, find subjects in shady areas or focus on whats important and expose for that. You can get nice skies and silhouetted subjects or blown out skies with nicely exposed subjects. You should never blow out highlights but rules are to be broken and particular styles might call for blown out sky. Some faces types actually look quite good in harsher light.
You need to be mindful of your exposure. Check the histogram and make sure you are not clipping the highlights and retain some details in shadow. As mentioned above this might not always be possible and then you need to make a choice what is most important in your image. My personal preference is keeping the highlight detail and sacrificing shadow detail. Technique is called "shooting to the right". There are plenty of articles on Internet about what it exactly means (This article by Martin Bailey is pretty good Why to expose to the right?). Ultimately the "right" exposure will greatly depend on your subject, your vision and message you want to convey.
Sometimes with rapidly changing light conditions you might be forced to change ISO often. While I was climbing Mera Peak I had to use ISO 3200 setting before sunrise to let enough light into the lens. Later as the sun rose up I was not careful enough and I didn't change the ISO back to lower values. I shot quite lot of photographs in strong sun at ISO 3200 and I got lot of noisy images. My mistake of course but I wanted to mention it so you are more careful about it. It is a good idea to reset your camera to a good general setting before you go to bed. By general settings I mean something that may not be perfect but can be usable in most situations. ISO 3200 is not one of those settings.
When it comes to photographing try to be creative. You can do the obvious shots from popular locations but then try something else. Walk around, look for different angles. Work the scene. Check for critical sharpness on the back screen (zoomed into the critical spot). Don't get caught later when you review the shot on the computer and realize it is blurry or out of focus. When composing your images remember, that sometimes things that you exclude from the frame are as important as things you include in your composition. It is easy to get overwhelmed by all those landscapes. Sometimes less is more. One more piece of good advice I can give you is always look what is happening behind you when taking pictures. Quite often there is something going on, or the subject is far more interesting, in better light etc.
Taking care of the gear
As you can imagine the environment is going to have some sort of impact on the gear. First of all it is dust. There is lot of it on the trail. If your gear is not weather and dust resistant you will need to be just little bit more careful. That doesn't mean you need expensive weather sealed camera and lens. Just be more mindful, cover your camera with scarf or if you have small bag put it in when you don't use it.. Perhaps it is good idea to clean your gear every now and then. Just give it a quick glance before you go to sleep and clean it if necessary. Check the lens if it has dust on it. It may render your photographs soft and with lack of contrast. I always take a lens cleaning kit with me. It usually contains blower, brush, cleaning liquid with few pieces of cleaning microfiber cloth. I do not advise to clean the sensor on the road. The environment is just not clean enough for that. Pick the least dusty environment you can, most probably it will be your room. If you need to do it on the go, use the blower first, then brush and if necessary follow with cleaning liquid and cloth. Removing the big dist particles with blower and brush is essential. If you fail to do this you might scratch your lens' front or back element. Cleaning and checking the gear before you leave for your trip goes without saying. Clean your sensor. Make sure you turn on automatic sensor cleaning on your camera if it supports this function. I made a mistake not cleaning my sensor before trip once and lot of my photos were useless because the sheer number of sensor dust spots. Do not make the same mistake. That brings me to the topic of changing lenses on the go. Do it quickly and put lens caps on as fast as you can. Dearly turn the camera off while you do that. If camera sensor is under electrical charge it will attract more dust. Before attaching lens to the camera quickly check the rear glass element for dust. If dirty, do not attach it to the camera. The dust will probably end up on your sensor.
Sometimes you might encounter rain or snow, so you need to make sure you have a way to keep your gear dry. Makeshift plastic cover will do. It doesn't need to be expensive as long as it does the job. Beware of changing temperatures. If you trek outside in a cold weather and you reach the tea house eager to warm up, it is general bad idea to take your camera with you close to the fireplace. Moist in the air will condensate on your gear likely to cause damages of various kinds. Rapidly changing temperature causes materials to stretch and squeeze. Always allow the camera adjust to temperature gradually. If I enter a warm room coming from a freezing cold environment I put the camera into plastic bag so the moist in the air condensates on the bag while camera is nice and dry.
Image backup strategies
How important are the images to you? Answer this question and then you can think of backup strategies or just forget this part. Some of you will take a laptop. Great, if you are willing to carry it. You can take a portable image bank or wireless HDD with SD card slot. I used all of above. I have to say I was most confident when I could backup my images to laptop but taking it is not always an option. Memory cards are cheap these days so take plenty of them. After filling them up with images, back them up to a laptop or portable hard drive but do not format them. This way you going to have your images at least at two places. For most of you it should be sufficient enough. Those with cameras that support two memory card slots can be set up to automatically backup all the images to the second card. And if you have plenty of them you can eliminate a laptop from your gear list. That should be quite significant weight saving. Size of the memory card doesn't really matter. Personally I would not go above 16-32 GB. I better have images spread across larger number of cards so in case they break or I loose them I still have most of the images with me. If you loose your sole 128 GB card with your entire holiday trip on it, then you are done. Don't put all your eggs in the same basket.
As most of the tea houses on popular routes have wifi connection, so laptop or iPad can be actually useful. Again, weigh pros and cons and make a decision weather to take it or leave it. Personally I take either the laptop only, or iPad with wireless HDD (with SD card slot). I would only go with memory cards only if I had plenty of them. You also need to be confident you will be able to recharge batteries on your laptop/ipad.
Editing on the go
Some people do edit images on the go, some people prefer to do it after trip. Generally, you should avoid deleting images from your card based just on camera's rear screen review. Especially when you shoot RAW that image is not representative enough. Well, you might delete the image if it is dead bad but I prefer to do it afterwards. If I have laptop with me I load then into Lightroom into separate catalog. I might skim through them in the evening and delete or at least mark the obvious rejects. I do more editing only when I want to push something out to social media. Heavy lifting is done at home.
This concludes the second part of Himalayan Adventure series. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach out to me. And stay tuned to the last part. Staying healthy on the trip is important. When it comes to high altitude it adds few more variables to the equation. I'll be discussing that in the third part.