Friday, 15 January 2010

Hiking with a Camera

house_20090926_D_048637

The following is only if you’re interested in cameras and photography and want to know some of the technical details about taking photographs whilst on the trail.

I took two cameras on this trip. A Mamiya 7 II and a Nikon D700. With the Mamiya I take the 50mm lens (which is 24mm in 35mm terms) and with the Nikon I take a 24mm and two macros; a 60mm and a 105mm (mine not the AF-S one though). I use the 60mm as a portrait lens when necessary. These lenses are all Nikon.

When I’m I’m hiking I usually have the D700 with an elastic strap over my shoulder with a tripod attached and hooked into the waist-belt of my rucksack. The stretchiness of the strap means it doesn’t bounce around so much and hooking into my belt takes the weight off my neck and keeps it steady beside me. The tripod is a Gitzo Basalt G1098 (which I think has been discontinued) with a Manfrotto 484RC2 small ball head. The quick-release plates on this head means I can release the camera for a hand-held shot and leave the tripod hooked in my belt.

If the camera has the 24mm attached then the 105mm is in a side pocket of my rucksack for easy access. In the side pocket on the other side is my lens cleaning kit, a polarising filter and the water-proof bags for the camera and lenses. Spare batteries and memory cards are in the pack as is the 60mm lens and the Mamiya.

house_20090927_D_048717b

Usually I use the Mamiya in the mornings and evenings (when not hiking) and use the D700 in the day. If I want to use the Mamiya in the day then I have to unload it from the pack, I know this is slow but then again slowing down to use a film camera is kind of the point. If I think the shot warrants it then I’m stopping and looking anyway so taking the pack off and retrieving the camera is not a problem.

On the trail I’m using a regular rucksack. I have a camera backpack with me, a small Lowepro Mini-Trekker, but this is inside my main bag during the day and being carried by a porter or a mule. Inside are all the things I don’t need during the day. Extra space batteries, chargers, sensor cleaning stuff, space lens caps and body caps and an Epson P5000 drive for backing up my shots. All my camera gear can fit in this bag and this is what I carry, on my back, as hand-luggage when travelling. When hiking my pack is also carrying my rain gear, my warm gear, my lunch and water and guide book and map (when required). I;m also carrying a first-aid kit and emergency stuff like a blanket and fire starting materials. Where necessary stuff is packed into water proof bags. The pack itself has a rain-cover.

house_20090928_D_048830

Invariably the highlight of my photographic day is the early morning. For me this is the best time. The air is clear and the light is warm and the wind is usually still. the evening can be a good time too but in the mountains the clouds often roll in during the afternoon and the evening light is a disappointment.

Getting up first thing is not really a chore when you are camping out. The fact is you probably went to bed early anyway. Who wants to lie on the hard ground for more than eight hours anyway. It may be cold and dark outside but at least you are right there and don’t have to travel anywhere to get the shot. It is tempting sometimes to just tuck yourself back down into the sleeping bag. But I usually don’t. When we are staying over in a small village and sleeping in a Rest House or Hostel then I can enjoy the comfort of a sleep-in. After the shoot I very rarely go back to bed. On this trip I did it twice. On both occasions it was absolutely freezing outside and I couldn’t stand t stay out for more than a few minutes before retiring. Usually however by the time I’ve finished with cameras I’ve been awake an hour or so and the sun has risen over the mountain and perhaps reached the campsite. I’m already warm and still invigorated by the sights that the morning has brought.

house_20090926_D_048670

During the day  I’m obviously on the look-out for the huge landscape shots but if we are at a low enough level and the weather is fine then I’m taking macro shots too. Butterflies and Dragonflies (and damsels) attract me the most but I also shoot other insects and even flowers when the mood takes me and I see something unusual.

house_20090928_D_048836

from time to time we see other things too. Like monkeys but I don’t carry a tele lens to get that close to them.n The same applies to birds. I do spend some time bird-watching, particularly if I’m walking with James or Keith, but I just concentrate on enjoying what I’m looking at and borrowing the binoculars. I don’t have a large tele, like a 400mm, at home anyway and I’ve never liked the kind of shots you get with a cheaper zoom that gets out that far. I think photographing birds requires a different type of mindset and doesn’t really suit the kind of hiking we do. You’d need to sit down and wait a lot more. that’s a little bit of the case when shooting butterflies and dragonflies anyway. Many the time I’ve abandoned trying to get a shot like this because I think I’d better get on. It’s easier when I’m hiking alone and not with a group as on these treks. When walking in France I can afford to while away the best part of an afternoon without worrying where I need to be by sundown.

house_20090925_D_048601

These kinds of frustrations can be annoying but you just have to skip on and hope something else will turn up just around the corner. It usually does.

Further frustrations can be had by reaching sublime places at the wrong time. I’ve often thought in the middle of the day that I’d like to stay here until the evening and be here in the morning. It’s just not possible. At other times you reach these spectacular vistas and it;s raining, or overcast or the cloud has rolled in and obscured the peaks. What can you do? Nothing. You realise that this is the only time you will be here. The cliched ‘once in a lifetime’. You just have to shrug it off. I might take a shot anyway. Just another dull shot to clog up my hard-drive.

house_20090928_D_048769

Even more frustrating is the marvellous location you find about five or ten minutes after starting the hike in the morning. If only you knew, you think, I could have walked here before breakfast. But the light and the opportunity have long since passed. Put it down to experience and promise yourself to look harder in the evenings even when you’re dog tired from the day’s hike.

But don’t get the idea that it’s all doom and gloom missed chances. Far from it. I have no trouble maintaining my enthusiasm for finding and taking shots whilst on the trail. It;s a joy to out there and seeing and feeling these sights. Who wants to remember the bad bits anyway? What bad bits?

Even so, whilst I’m here, I may as well confess to not taking enough shots of people. I don’t know why but I’ve always been shy of sticking a camera in someones face. Even my friends. Even my brother! Every time I return home it’s something I’m acutely aware of. Where are the shots of the people I was travelling with never my the characters I met on the road? I need to be constantly reminded of this.

At one time I used to be adamant that my landscapes had to be people free but recently I’ve discovered (or rather had it pointed out to me) that the figure in the landscape can be important and meaningful in several ways. It can give an idea of scale and an idea of intimacy with nature and perhaps an idea of action. It’s something I’m going to pay more attention too in future. Jim will be pleased as I’ve often moaned when he’s stepped into my frame and he’s often moaned back as I’m taking too long mucking about with the tripod and such.