Trekking & Photography
Traveling and trekking in the Himalayas has been a dream of mine for many
years. Over the last six I have been lucky enough to make that dream come true
with a number of treks in this most beautiful part of the world. This article is
my way of sharing some of that experience with you, and passing on tips about
trekking and photography
This article has been written especially for The Luminous Landscape. If you want to see more of my photographs please visit www.daveontrek.co.uk
What Do You Need to
Prior to any trek, the first thing to do is think through what equipment you
may need. Planning is all important — go through all the camera gear, film and
accessories you think you need, consider what clothing etc., you are going to
take, then make some hard decisions. That tripod may be useful, but if it means
leaving the goose down jacket behind instead, then forget it. And by the way,
who do you think is going to carry that aluminum photo case for you? Okay, you
may be able to hire a porter just to carry your photographic gear, I have seen
it done, but my suggestion is to travel light.
Trekking is different to day trips and staying in hotels — you could be out
on trek for a month, and once you're out there it may be difficult, even
impossible, to get hold of film and batteries etc. Film may be expensive, but
compared with what you have paid for the flights to get you there it's nothing;
make sure you have enough for the trip.
Tip: Some trails e.g. Everest region, are
populated with 'tea houses', where you can probably buy film. But beware of how
long it has been exposed to heat and sun etc. It may be fine as a last resort
Also remember, that you will be at altitude for some, or if not, most of the
trip. Plus you may have quite a few ups and downs to negotiate during the day.
You won't want to be weighed down by heavy equipment when trekking up to the
best viewpoints at Kalar Patar (5,600metres). But, you also want
to be able to come back with that lifetime shot, so you might need some
reasonable gear with you too. Will that compact be suitable to capture the close
up of the mountain or would a telephoto lens with a 35mm be more suitable.
It's a question of choice and compromise, but whatever decision you make,
never compromise on your personal safety in respect of clothing.
As a guide, this is what camera equipment I usually take.
… 35mm SLR
… 28-105mm zoom lens
… 70-210mm zoom lens
… 35 mm compact with fixed 28mm lens
… Ultrapod (a compact lightweight mini tripod)
… Spare batteries x 1 for each camera
… Film (allow for one every day of the trek)
… Polarizing filter
… Lens cloth
… Blower Brush
… Camera bag for each camera, which has padded protection
… Plastic bags (for dusty conditions)
Summit of Mount Everest, Nepal. Nikon F70 (70- 210 Nikon)
Film choice is a subjective matter. For most of the time I use Fuji
Sensia, 100 ISO (process paid). I occasionally take 200 ISO as
well as it can give an extra stop. Generally I find that this is
sufficient for my needs as the lighting is usually good enough to be able to
hand-hold the camera.
I tried some 400 ISO film but found that the results looked a little grainy.
The other fact is I only use one camera body so I canít change film to suit
the conditions. You could of course take two bodies, one with 100 ISO film the
other with a faster film. Again itís a question of preference.
Although landscape photographers advocate the use of a tripod, I donít take
a proper tripod with me as I found that the one occasion I did it was too much
trouble. However, it is a personal decision, and if you want to be sure of
small apertures and maximum depth of field. Plus those late evening shots —
then you need one. I compromise and use a small mini tripod, which fits
easily into my rucksack and weighs practically nothing. Okay, I may need a
wall or rock to stand it on, but we are back to choices again.
Looking After Number One
The number one priority when trekking is you. If you are not warm and
comfortable then not only is it potentially dangerous (hypothermia is life
threatening) but it is also unlikely that you are going to be able to
concentrate on your photography. Some of the best shots are to be had near
sunrise and sunset, but it's also the coldest time of the day. Once the sun goes
down the temperature can drop swiftly.
When it is below zero outside of the tent, are you going to want to get out
of your sleeping bag and capture the dawn breaking over the Himalayas? Well of
course you are, that's why you are going, isn't it? Make sure you have got warm
clothing and donít forget some thin gloves that you can wear underneath your
main gloves. This I find really useful for when I am taking photos as I can
still feel the controls of the camera, but still retain some warmth in my hand.
Ever tried depressing the shutter with large over-mittens?
Tip: When night temperatures are
freezing, put your camera in the bottom of your sleeping bag so that it's ready
for use in the morning. When you go out, carry spare batteries in a pocket,
which is close to the body to keep them warm. You may also get a signal from
your camera telling you the batteries are finished. Don' throw them away, try
warming them up under your armpit inside your coat. It usually works!
Tip: If you are prone to cold hands, try
using one of those chemical hand warmer packs. You shake them and the chemical
reaction acts as a hand warmer for up to eight hours. Place one in your pocket
and use it for getting the feeling back in your hand between shots. When
itís finished put it back in your pack and bring it home.
Another key point is that if you are on an organized trek there will be
porters to carry your main kit bag. But, you wont be able to get access to it
during the day, so make sure you take with you whatever you will need for the
day, photo gear and clothing. Remember that weather conditions can change
and you need to make sure you are dry, warm and comfortable. When you stop to
take photos it can suddenly seem a lot cooler than what you thought it was.
Talking of being cold, I reached the top of Poon Hill in the Annapurnas before dawn. It was about minus seven degrees Celsius. Unfortunately as the dawn came up so did the clouds. Many people (it's a busy spot) gave up, having got cold, and left. I had wrapped up well, having taken extra clothes with me in my rucksack, and waited. Sure enough a break came in the clouds and I was rewarded for my patience.
Annapurna Range from Poon Hill. Nikon F70 (70-210 Nikon)
It pays a lot to do some preparation before you go on trek. Once you are out
on trek and in a tent, things can sometimes be harder to find, the cold and
tiredness can fuddle your thinking.
Before I go away, I label all my film containers with coloured dots so that I
can distinguish what type of film is in the canister. I always carry film in the
containers (prevents dust getting into the film), these I put in a wash bag with
a drawer cord fastening which makes it easy to pack with my gear whilst on the
trek. I use two bags, one for the exposed film and one for fresh. That way I
easily can see how many films I have used, etc.
Tip: Make sure you can easily identify
your film stock. I colour code the films for film speed and type (slide/
ordinary), using coloured stick on dots.
Tip: In good time before the trek, make
sure the camera gear is working properly, put fresh batteries in for the trip,
and if necessary, run a roll of film through the camera if it hasn't been used
for a while to make sure things are operating okay.
You may be on the trek for weeks, and what seems like a small inconvenience
of a camera around your neck for a few hours, can seem like a millstone when you
have been trekking for six to eight hours. On a recent trip I had two cameras
slung around my body and looked like a Wild West cowboy, I also found it was
irritating. I envied the wider camera strap one of my fellow travelers had, as
my thin strap was cutting into my neck after a few hours.
Tip: Make sure the camera straps are
comfortable when worn for a few hours — try it out on a long walk at home
before you go. Carry with you the same gear you are going trek with and get used
to it beforehand.
Look through the camera manual again before you go on your trip (if it's
small put it in your rucksack). Familiarize yourself with the problem solving
page, so that if you get a problem when your on trek you know what to do. Also
it helps to reinforce the use of those controls or functions you sometimes don't
use. This is something I didn't do on one trip and missed a great night shot
because I had forgotten how to use the camera self-timer.
Tip: Consider having a back up camera should one camera fail or get damaged. Another body (compatible with the lens), a compact, even a Kodak disposable are all alternatives.
Evening at Lhonak (Kangchenjunga Region). Nikon F70
(Nikon 70-210 zoom)
I managed to prop myself against a low wall to get the low exposure needed
for this shot.
Photography On Trek
It is easy to get carried away by the scenery that you will encounter. There
is such variety and variation, from agricultural scenes to mountains, and of
course the people who live there. The trick is to pace yourself with your film;
you may not be able to get spare film if you run out. If possible plan ahead and
allocate yourself a daily amount of film for use.
After a while, because you are immersed in the scenery, and its there every day it's easy to be become blasÈ; opportunities can be missed. Be prepared; carry a camera with you at all times. I came out of the mess tent at camp to see this spectacular view, which had formed within minutes.
Sunset at camp above the clouds. Nikon F70 (Nikon
Capturing the Feel For
On trek, I try to capture the beauty of the landscape, and if possible, also
something that portrays that you are in the Himalayas, and not in Europe or
America. Look around you, there may be something that can help in the
composition of the shot; it may be the porters, a chorten, a Mani wall, yaks
Here, I have tried to use natural props to capture a number of elements. I
think that the prayer flags, which had been put at the top of this hill, provide
both perspective of scale, lead the eye into the photo, and help to distinguish
the local culture.
Prayer flags at Dzongri, Sikkim. Nikon F70 (Sigma
It's not always the large panoramic view that provides the best images. Sometimes it's the small things that help to recapture the feeling for the trek. It could be a building, or part of it, a sign or notice (sometimes they are quite unintentionally humorous) or, an object you come across. It's always worth taking shots of these things as they can add to your collection and can break up a slide show to provide more interest.
Bell at a shrine. Langtang Region. Nikon F70 (Nikon
One of the things to try and remember is that perspective and scale can be
lost when looking at scenes that are so vast. The height of a mountain can be
difficult to portray.
An occasion when this was difficult to capture was at the Goecha La (4,900
Metres) in Sikkim. We had set off at three in the morning in total
darkness to trek up to and catch the dawn rays of the sun on Kangchenjunga
(third highest mountain in the world). As we neared the pass I could see
the dawn beginning to break, looking behind me the clouds too were beginning to
swirl up the valley. It was a race for time, could I get there before the clouds
obscured the view. Looking ahead I saw the silhouette of two of my fellow
trekkers who had reached the pass ahead of me. They looked tiny, silhouetted
against the huge massif of the mountain, which towered above them (the mountain
is two kilometres higher than the pass). Using a telephoto lens to compress the
view, I hoped that the diminutive figures would add that sense of scale (they
are quite tiny in this photo, but when projected, the slide shows them
Kangchenjunga dawn. Nikon F70 (Nikon 70-210mm zoom)
Capturing the Light
Lighting conditions can be difficult in the mountains. The light is so much
brighter at altitude, there is less air pollution, and so the lighting can be
intense. My advice here is to bracket the exposure. Crossing the Cho La,
(5,400metres) a snow covered pass between the Gokyo and Khumbu
valleys near Everest, was one such occasion for me. The sun was very
bright and there was a lot of snow on the ground. I compensated for the meter
reading by opening up the exposure by two stops, which worked quite well.
Crossing the Cho La (5,400Metres) Nikon F70 (Sigma
Don't Forget the People
Finally, don't forget the people who inhabit the areas you will be visiting.
They are generally very warm and welcoming people. They may be bemused by all
your photographic gear, and in some cases will actively avoid you. The busiest
trekking routes are usually where people will be reluctant to be photographed
— they see trekkers almost every day. But, in the main I have found people to
be willing to pose.
Tip: Always try and ask the person if you want to take a portrait. Some people can be offended if you don't and take the shot irrespectively. I often find that trying to learn the a few phrases of the local language, and asking the person for permission in their native tongue helps to break the ice.
Boys. Langtang Region. Nikon F70 (Nikon 70-210 zoom)
Consider getting the individual, or someone else on their behalf, to write down the address (useful where there are language difficulties and/or they use a different form of text e.g. Sanskrit), you can always photocopy this and paste it onto the envelope when you get home.
Caution: One thing you may encounter is
begging. Children and some adults will ask for money in exchange for you taking
their photograph. This is something I actively avoid, particularly in rural
areas as children can make more money than their parents who are working in the
fields. This leads to the children being sent out to beg rather than getting
educated at school. This advice is echoed by many of the conservation
projects in the Himalayas.
There are many places, particularly in Kathmandu where you can
get your slides and photos processed. I know people who have done this and had
very good results. Believe it or not there are quite good process labs tucked
away in those little shops. This may be a good option if you have any concerns
about X-rays at the airport.
The last job, is remembering where all those shots were taken. If you have
taken a diary or a notebook with you than the job is made so much easier.
Tip: Buy a local map and mark on it where
you have trekked each day. Use this with a diary or a notebook to record the
events of the day and you will find that sorting out the shots when you get home
is made much easier. I find this particularly useful to identify place names
such as villages I have trekked through.
I hope that I have been able to give you some pointers, which you will find
useful. If you want to see more of my images then please visit my web site at www.daveontrek.co.uk
Happy trekking and good luck!
© 2001 Dave Thompson
Photography has been an interest of mine for the past twenty five years. I am based in the UK (Lincolnshire) but in recent times, I have had the opportunity to travel more, developing an interest in travel photography and writing. Having sold off my darkroom equipment, I now use the computer as a photographic aid, having integrated my photography and computer skills to branch out into web design. It's exciting, and something I want to do more of.
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