Picture Perfect: 10 Tips to Take Better Expedition Photos
This article will appear in a shortened version in the December, 2007, edition of Expedition News. If you’re not a subscriber, subscribe now and keep up with all that is happening in the expedition world!
It’s happened to all of us. You go on the trip of a
lifetime – Mount Rainier, Peru, the Himalaya – and take loads of images. You
get home, look at those images, and the mystery, the magic of the place, is
What went wrong? Where did all those great vistas,
enthralling clouds, and stunning sunsets go?
Hard to say for sure, but here’s some tips that will help
you take better expedition images next time!
The Rule of Thirds
When composing an image, we often are inclined to put the
main subject – be it a peak, a person, or a prayer flag – smack dab in the
middle of the frame. While this can work sometimes – as evidenced by Steve
McCurry’s iconic portraits – it often leaves the image dull. A quick and simple
remedy to this which will spice up your images and your composition is to use
The Rule of Thirds. The technique is
simple: Divide your fame into thirds, and
place your main subject in the left or right, top or bottom, third of the image
rather than in the middle. This simple technique – a minor shift of position –
creates energy and movement in the image and a dynamic and engaging
Let’s face it – butt shots just don’t work. Sure, they’re
easy to create – you see your friend climbing up above you, whip out the
camera, and make an image. What comes out, though, is more often than not
devoid of emotion since the climber’s face – the part that shows their emotion
and tells the most about the scene – is hidden. So, from now on remember that
childhood game of leapfrog. As an expedition photographer – be it on Everest’s
summit ridge or on Mount Rainier – I am constantly playing leapfrog with my
subjects. I start the day ahead of them, get to a good position with a dramatic
setting to take an image, set up, shoot as they pass me, pack up, pass them,
and set up another shot higher up on the mountain. It’s not easy, but it makes
a difference. If you are roped together, don’t worry: Wait until it’s safe (at
a break or when someone is tied off securely) and take images that way. Just
avoid the infamous butt shots please!
More Isn’t Always Better
Our eyes, working in tandem with our brains, are amazing
devices. In a heartbeat, we can pan around a
scene, pick out the interesting
parts, and zoom in on them in our brains while still seeing the entire view.
With still images, however, we often need to help our viewer to not get
distracted and hone in on the best part of a scene. And, often does nothing for
our image but detract from it…and we’re better off make more out of less. To do
this, use a zoom lens to pull an interesting subject more fully into the
frame…or, use that old tried and true tool – your legs. Yup, that’s right, if
your lens doesn’t get you close enough to the subject to make the frame
visually appealing, move closer, compose and shoot. It’s all in the
P A N O R A M A
Everest’s Northeast Ridge from Camp VI on the North Face.
It’s an iconic view of an iconic place, but one whose magnitude and imposing
nature is impossible to capture on one frame of film (or one sensor).The
solution? Shoot multiple frames and stitch them together using panorama
software. Shoot multiple frames of your soon-to-be-panorama, overlapping the
edges of each image by at least 25%. Later on, you can use one of the many
panorama stitching programs available through a Google search, or, if you have
Adobe Photoshop, use their built-in Photomerge program to put the images
together – works like a charm! Here are a couple of tips to make your panoramas
1. Watch for distortion: Many wide angle lenses display
some distortion at the edges of the frame; this is easily seen when a straight
line is placed on the sides of the frame and is bent or bowed. Make sure the
lens you are using either doesn’t have any distortion (not a fisheye for a
fixed focal length lens) or is zoomed in enough to eliminate any distortion on
a telephoto lens.
2. Use a tripod: Shooting a panorama – and stitching it
together effectively afterward – requires precision that is hard to get without
a tripod, especially if we’re standing on wobbly rocks and breathing hard. So,
use a tripod (or a hard, immovable surface like a rock) to make sure that the
panorama’s plane remains constant through all frames.
3. Lock your exposure: As you move from shot to shot on
your panorama, the lighting of the scene will inevitably change. If you leave
your camera on program mode, it will find the best exposure for each frame,
resulting in sometimes drastic changes in lighting from the first to last
frames…and making it impossible to stitch together afterward. The solution is
to first pan back and forth across the panorama, making note of the recommended
exposures from your camera’s meter. Then, find a happy medium between the range
of f/stops and apertures. Lock this exposure setting in using manual mode and
4. Lock your white balance: Just like exposure above,
your white balance will adjust as you pan your camera across the shot,
sometimes with troublesome results. Make sure you lock your white balance in to
the appropriate setting: sunlight, cloud, custom, etc.
Have Camera…Will Get Shot
Sounds simple, but you’d be amazed by how often people
either leave their camera behind – and of course miss images – or have it
tucked so far out of reach that it is too tough (or too dangerous) to get it
out when that perfect moment arises. For example, take May 1, 1999: I walked
across the North Face of Everest to where Conrad Anker was standing over the
remains of George Mallory. The scene I walked into was perfect – I whipped out
my camera, snapped off a few frames, and within seconds Conrad was looking in a
different direction and the moment was gone. Had my camera not been handy, the
would have been missed…forever. My solution is to always keep my camera
in a fanny pack (I use a MountainSmith Aurora II) spun around to the front. In
that pack is my camera, spare lenses, batteries, and cards, plus a couple of
activated handwarmers to keep everything running well when I want to shoot.
Stop It Down!
As good as modern digital cameras are they are still
lacking in some areas, especially in the realm of expedition and outdoor
photography. A common problem occurs when shooting in snowy conditions – lots
of bright whites contrasting sharply against vivid blue skies and dark rocks.
Basically tricks most sensors and, if left to their own devices, cameras will
create images with blown out highlights; that is, the snow will be blaring
white with little or no detail. The solution is to manually set your exposure
compensation to under-expose the image by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop (-0.3 to -0.7 on
most cameras). Lock in this setting on your camera and shoot in any shooting
mode and your photos will come out with details in the highlights (snow) while
still being good in the darker areas.
Fill ‘Er Up!
Another common issue faced while shooting on expeditions
is a climber against a snowy background or bright sky. Take a picture without
compensating for the backlighting and you’ll more likely than not end up with a
properly exposed background and a dark, under-exposed primary subject. To fix
this, use a little bit of fill-flash. But, don’t just pop the flash on and
shoot away…Flashes are calibrated to balance a subject to daylight conditions,
and doing this will splash too much light on your subject yielding an unnatural
look. Go into your flash settings and, as with the exposure compensation above,
manually stop down the flash’s output. I generally keep my flash stopped down
to -0.7 to -1.0 (2/3 to a full stop), and sometimes go even lower depending on
the situation. Play around with it, and remember that adage film is cheap –
this truism becomes even truer with digital!
One of my favorite techniques when shooting on
expeditions is to shoot straight into the sun, but getting the desired results
can be frustrating. However, if done right, the result is a dramatic image with
the sun (or any bright, point-source of light) turned into a dazzling star. To
make it work, you have to be able to set your
aperture manually (not possible
on many point-and-shoot cameras). Set your aperture to f-16 or above –
generally speaking, the higher the aperture (the smaller the light-inlet hole)
the better for this output. Then, with your camera in manual mode, compose your
image and bring the exposure ½ to 1½ stops under-exposed by adjusting your
shutter speed accordingly. Shoot a frame and make sure the sun is starred as
you want it to be and that the rest of your image has proper exposure as well.
Zoom in or Pull back
As I mentioned earlier, perspective is everything. It can
turn a humdrum image into a stellar one…or turn what could be a great shot into
just another snap. So, try different perspective both by using your legs to
move around and by using different lenses to change the view. Sometimes a shot
calls for a wide angle of view to show the whole grand vista, while others
might need to be really tight to emphasize the details. In my expedition kit, I
am always looking for a balance between versatility and weight – not always an
easy balance, but with modern equipment and a few bucks, it’s doable. Being a
Nikon shooter, I always go with Nikon
lenses. My standard kit includes my Nikon
10.5mm DX Fisheye for
wide angle shots and the 18-200mm DX VR Telephoto for a
wide range of focal lengths. In my pack sits my big gun – a Nikon 80-400mm VR
Telephoto…heavy, but quite useful. With that combination of 3 lenses, I can get
from ultra-wide fisheye perspective to incredibly close with the 400mm (which,
on a Nikon DSLR sensor equates to 600mm on a 35mm camera – powerful enough to
bring the summit of Everest up close and personal from basecamp!).
Additionally, we can create unique images by simply moving our cameras and our
bodies. Lie down on the ground and shoot skyward, or climb up a bit higher and
shoot a bird’s eye view.
Try some of everything
Although equipment today is amazing, the best photographs
require a combination of equipment and personal vision. Rarely does a simple
point-and-shoot image make the cover of National Geographic. So, try a little
bit of everything on your next outing or expedition. Have fun, play around.
Figure out what the story is you want to tell, and then decide what images will
best tell that story. The best shot is often the one you decided not to take!
This article first appeared in a shortened version in the December, 2007, edition of Expedition News.
Click on any of the images in the article to be taken to a larger version of the same in my online store, or go to my store directly to browse, view and purchase high quality prints, autographed Everest books, posters…and download FREE screensavers of my images. Enjoy! Don’t see the image in the store you want? Try searching and browsing my online stock database – any image in there is available for purchase…just contact me!
– Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.