Photo trekking in the Himalayas
The Himalayas are a magnet for photographers. What could be more exciting than to take off into some of the most dramatic scenery on earth to photograph not just the mountains, but the trekking parties around you, interesting local faces, amazing night skies and perhaps even something really special like a snow leopard. It’s a photographers paradise but it’s not a walk in the park. There’s plenty of things which can easily trip you up and it’s better to be well prepared. Here are a few of the things I’ve learnt along the way to give you a head start.
Working with your surroundings
The weather can change quickly in the mountains: blue sky can be replaced by cloud and rain in minutes. This doesn’t always mean you need to hide indoors though. Cloud formations and falling snow can make for interesting frames and textures. Mountains often look more dramatic peaking through a gap in the clouds or with spindrift blowing from the top. It’s also worth making the effort to crawl out of your sleeping bag first thing in the morning as mountains come alive when they’re bathed in early morning or late afternoon light. It’s impossible to over-emphasise how exhausting it is to climb at altitude, and the higher you go, the harder it gets. At 5,000m, there’s 30% less oxygen in the air. The only way to cope with that is to go slowly and acclimatise. It also helps not to have too much weight in your pack. For a photographer like me that prefers to have my whole box of tricks with me everywhere I go, that presents a bit of a problem.
There are two schools of thought here. Some photographers adopt a one-lens-does-it all approach. For many keen amateurs, this is probably the way to go though you’ll want to spend the money to have that one lens be as good as possible. More experienced photographers that like having the benefit of a variety of equipment should consider hiring an extra porter. This might sound over the top but besides taking a load off, you are giving work to an extra body which helps the local economy and, if you find a porter with reasonable English, you’ll have a translator to help with photographing people as well.
One of the real highlights for a photographer in the Himalayas is all the wonderful smiley and interesting faces. Nepalis are generally friendly people and are happy to let you take their picture. But with virtually everyone trekking in the mountains carrying a camera, even if it’s just on their phone, there can be a negative impact on the way locals feel about having their picture taken.
A few simple rules of etiquette that will ensure both you and your subject enjoy the experience. Always ask permission when you take somebody’s portrait. It helps no end to learn a few words in Nepali. Then find some common ground, it’s easier than you think. Do they have children? Are they married? What work do they do? Once you’ve got chatting, it’s much more likely they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. The interaction is all part of the fun, and the more effort you make, the more they’ll trust you and the better your pictures will be.
Keep the chat going while you’re taking pictures too, it will give you more time to think about the shot and get the composition you really want rather than firing off something quick that looks more like a bunny in the headlights than a natural portrait. It will also give you opportunity to draw different expressions or emotions from your subject that you can incorporate into your shots. You could even get them involved in the picture too: ask their opinion, “What do you think would make a good background here?” Most of all keep smiling and have fun.
Quite often you will be asked to send a copy of the photo afterwards – if you agree to this it is very important to make sure you follow through on your promise.
Bringing landscapes to life
The scenery in the Himalayas is breathtaking and when you’re faced with the jaw-dropping scenery the immediate impulse is to whip out the camera and start snapping. There’s nothing wrong with crafting beautiful straightforward landscapes but personally I look to include people in my pictures wherever I can. If you’re working commercially, landscapes which include people are generally more successful.
The natural world in the Himalayas tends to fall into a palette of blues, greys, white, browns and greens. If you want your subjects to really stand out, it helps if they’re wearing accent colours: reds, pinks, purple. I usually stuff a couple of bright tops into the bottom of my camera bag, and if you’re trekking with friends, get them to bring their colourful kit and leave the camo gear at home!
When the sun goes down
The mountains can be equally interesting for photographers at night but it takes a little forethought to make the most of it.
For start you need to consider the lunar calendar. The smaller the moon, the more stars you’ll see but the bigger the moon, the more light you will have. During a full moon night, skies at high altitude can almost look like they were shot during the day, which spoils the effect you are after. I find just under half a moon gives the best results.
A tripod is essential for night photography. Anything more than about a 30 second exposure will start to turn the stars into trails. High ISO will give you shorter exposures but the noise generated from high ISOs is far more visible in night photography. It’s better to use faster apertures and keep the ISO down to 200 or 400 at the most.
Temperatures in the Himalayas plummet to well below freezing at night and you need to be well prepared. I use a thin pair of gloves that I can keep on while I’m operating the camera and a thick down jacket with deep pockets to keep my hands warm while I’m waiting for long exposures. Other essentials are a head torch, cable extension for the shutter release and a flask of hot drink.
Get the big picture
On my way back down from Everest base camp one glorious sunny afternoon, Ama Dablam – surely one of the most beautiful mountains on earth – was bathed in a wonderful soft light. The view lent itself perfectly to create one big panoramic image. We’ve all wanted to do this at some point in the mountains: but what’s the best way to go about it?
There’s all kinds of software available now to help with this but it’s always better to start by getting as much right as possible in the camera to begin with. Camera settings: It is likely that each part of the scene will need a different exposure. You don’t want this so set the camera to manual to keep the exposure constant. It doesn’t matter if parts of the panorama are over- or underexposed, as long as the main subject of the image (Ama Dablam in this example) has the right exposure. Focusing and white balance should also be set to manual. The easier it is for the software to stitch the images together, the better the results will be. Ideally use a fixed focal length lens which produces images with less vignetting at the edges (darkened corners).
Framing: A tripod isn’t absolutely necessary but it will make it much easier –especially if your tripod has a head that shows how many degrees you’re panning through so you can overlap the images evenly. About 30% overlap is good. More is better than less. Pan your camera around a few times by hand before setting up a tripod to get the framing right.
Shooting: Shoot all the frames from the same viewpoint. If you want to keep a lens flare, it needs to be only on one frame as they don’t stitch well. If you’re shooting anything wider than 50mm, shoot frames as portraits to leave less pin-cushioning for the software to correct and more resolution in the final image. You need to give yourself a little extra space at the top and bottom for the final crop to straighten the edges too, so always shoot a little wider than the image will be.
- Extra fully charged batteries: Electricity is in short supply and you may have to pay high prices just for an hour of charging. Bring as many spares as you can. Back-ups: Laptops and drives with spinning disks will often pack up at high altitude so it’s worth taking an SSD (solid state drive) storage device.
- Air-blower: If you’re changing lenses frequently you’re likely to start getting a few dust spots on your pictures. Find the cleanest room you can (tents are perfect) and with all the doors closed use an air blower to remove as much dust as possible from your sensor.
- Notebook: Mountains can start to look quite similar after a while and it’s easy to get them mixed up. Keep notes to remind you of names of villages and mountains, as well as the addresses and emails for people who want you to send them pictures.
- Model release form: If you plan on selling your images for commercial use and not just editorially, get a signed model release for your portraits. All stock photography libraries require this. There’s plenty of templates available online.
- Shower caps: No, not for your hair! Don’t expect them to fully waterproof your camera but they work wonders in light rain to keep most of the moisture out.