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Mountaineering, rock climbing, and backountry skiing offer myriad opportunities for photography: remote locations, unique vantage points, and spectacular conditions. Furthermore, including photography as a distinct objective on a mountaineering trip can do a great deal to soften the blow of a goal unattained or an attempt stymied by unpredictable weather. Indeed, it's exactly this kind of unpredictable weather that so often makes for great nature photographs! On the other hand, the additional equipment and diversion of focus (no pun intended) might detract from your climbing efforts, so decide for yourself whether it's worth it!
Tips and Tricks
- Make sure your camera is easily accessible. A camera in your pack is of little use if you can't afford the time to stop and use it. If taking a 'big' camera which inevitably takes more time to get out, consider also taking a pocketsized one for quick shots along the way. You can reserve the more sophisticated device for longer stops, camp sites, side scrambles, etc.
- Look into buying a small lumbar pack where there is space to keep a filter and spare battery along with an SLR.
- Take an extra battery! This is especially important in very cold temperatures when batteries can drain quickly.
- Keep your batteries warm. Keep them in your sleeping bag with you (as with all other batteries) at night. Consider keeping your extra batteries in the pocket of a down jacket or other layer you're sure to use once the temperature drops, and which you'll bring into your sleeping bag with you.
- Take a lot of photos, edit later.
- Be alert for interesting shots.
- Include people in your shots for scale. Rock tends to be quite self-similar/fractal/multiscale, so take a cue from geologists and include something in the shot to provide a size reference. Also, people can make your shot more interesting.
- Be respectful of your teammates - if always scurrying off to take photos, make sure you're not slowing your party down. For roped glacier travel, this can be near impossible, so it is very important that your camera is handy and doesn't long to take it out. It helps to set clear expectations with your partners: is this a climbing trip on which you will take photos, or is this a photography trip that requires a bit of climbing?
Types of cameras
All cameras described here are digital cameras, which are by far the most popular choice these days. The main disadvantage of digital cameras for climbing is that they are more dependent on batteries, but usually the advantages outweigh this drawback.
Point and shoot
Most outdoor enthusiasts use a point-and-shoot camera because of their small size. These cameras range from cheap (less than $100) to expensive (over $500), and their quality ranges similarly.
- Small size
- Can be cheap
- Can have very good digital processing, and automatic shooting settings
- Can have very high pixel count
- Can have reasonable sensor sensitivity (i.e. good quality at high ISO)
- Due to small sensor, the lenses are small, and it is practical to have large zoom lenses
- Small sensor leads to worse sensor sensitivity than most larger sensors
- Small sensor leads to less control over depth-of-field
- Lens quality is fixed
- Often have fewer manual controls
A bridge camera is basically a point-and-shoot camera with a bigger lens. It usually has the same size sensor as a point-and-shoot. The body looks like a DSLR, and it may have many similar features, but without the interchangeable lenses.
Advantages over a regular point-and-shoot:
- Big zoom lens, maybe of high quality. These lenses are reasonably sized because the sensor is still small.
- Usually has high-end digital components, and perhaps many manual settings
Disadvantage over a regular point-and-shoot:
- Bigger, heavier, more expensive
A DSLR is the gold-standard for modern cameras, and there's no upper limit for price. There are three main features of a DSLR: (1) a mirror system so that it is possible to preview the exact image the sensor will see, (2) interchangeable lenses, which allows for lenses of extremely high quality if you can afford them, and (3) typically much larger sensors than in point-and-shoots.
- Best quality optics (if you can afford them)
- Usually have high quality digital components
- Large sensor is sensitive (good at high ISO)
- Large sensor gives more control over shots, such as control over depth-of-field
- Usually greater control over camera settings, and more options for using external gear like remotes, mics, flashes, etc.
- Heavy (although they are getting better at this)
- Lenses are large because of the mirror (forces lenses to be farther from sensor) and large size of sensor.
Mirrorless interchangeable lens camera
A mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, aka electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens (EVIL) camera, is similar to a DSLR except without the mirror system (which is a relic of non-digital cameras). Because of this, the camera body and lenses are smaller than for a DSLR, and some camera bodies are as small as a point-and-shoot. The sensor size is typically as large as in a DSLR (or slightly smaller for the micro 4/3 cameras, but still much larger than for a point-and-shoot).
These are relatively recent on the market (coming out in 2008), and look very promising.
- Similar quality to DSLR (but slightly smaller sensor). Large sensor, good control over depth-of-field.
- Can be cheaper than DSLR
- Camera body is much smaller than DSLR or bridge camera
- Camera lenses are smaller than for DSLR (also, lighter, and cheaper)
- Zoom lenses are still heavier than those for a bridge camera or point-and-shoot, due to larger sensor
- More expensive than point-and-shoot
These look like a good compromise for outdoor enthusiasts who are serious photographers. Read this Wired Magazine article about EVIL cameras for more information.
- Photography Competition 2011
- Alexandre Buisse has a book (to be published, spring 2011) on climbing photography, and has an article on Digital Mountain Climbing Photography.
- Some great photos for inspiration are those taken by the Bishop based climber/photographer Galen Rowen , he also had a lot of tips for composition
- There are some simple tips at this alpine exposures article.