High Altitude viewing

There are a number of difficulties that complicate high altitude photography. In no particular order they include:

  • Working in a hostile environment: cold, tired and at altitude when one’s mental faculties may be dulled.
  • Very bright light that may make it difficult to view the back screen to check your image; and those using a compact may find it hard to see or frame an image on the back screen (note for those who ski or are interested in photography at altitude: buy a compact with a viewfinder).
  • Managing extreme contrast.
  • Wind, dust, snow singly or in combination are not camera or sensor friendly.
  • Manipulating a camera while wearing gloves is tricky. Best option is a thin liner glove and an outer that can be removed.
  • Striking the right balance between having an accessible camera, but also keeping it safe can be an impossible task
  • Judging exposure and getting colour temperature right considering all the above is difficult.

Finally if you are in a group, or with a guide, with an objective to reach you will not be popular if you insist on stopping every few minutes and slowly and methodically lining up a shot. You will not be tolerated for long!

The problem I struggle with most is colour temperature, or perhaps I should rephrase that and refer specifically to the blue (almost pale mauve) toning of dark shadows within snow scenes. Correcting that without affecting the sky can be tricky. There are of course ways around this that I employ using layers, masks and selections, and those techniques will be familiar to most of you reading this, but sometimes the image still does not look quite right or natural. The easy option is to desaturate. I’m happy to do that because Black and White is a medium that copes well with high contrast, which I love, and is often highly appropriate for Mountain-Scapes. The image in B&W often has a timeless quality to it.

So here today is an image from the summit of the Dom, a Swiss mountain that has featured in three previous posts: click here to see the first of the three and navigate from there if interested. Above is the colour version that I am not entirely happy with, and below the B&W version.

Please click on the image to see a higher quality enlargement.

This is the view down onto the glacier above the village of Saas Fee where there is year-round skiing. As is so often typical of mornings in the Valais Alps close to the Italian border, fluffy cumulus clouds were starting to appear in the distance over Italy and they always add interest to the sky.

This is the ultimate bird’s eye view at about 9am on a perfect morning. The mountain mid-ground on the right side is the Allalinhorn. Click here to see images from an ascent of that mountain in July this year.

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About LensScaper

Hi - I'm a UK-based photographer who started out 45+ years ago as a lover of landscapes, inspired by my love of outdoor pursuits: skiing, walking and climbing. Now retired, I seldom leave home without a camera and I find images in unexpected places and from different genres. I work on the premise that Photography is Art and that creativity is dependent on the cultivation of 'A Seeing Eye'. I'm not averse to manipulating images to produce derivatives that may sometimes be far removed from the original.
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29 Responses to High Altitude viewing

  1. Mark says:

    Yes I can see your point about hash conditions, great shot, B&W stunning but the colour is just as good. Great write up, thanks Andy.

  2. eugeniachui says:

    Awesome picture! The clouds are really beautiful (:

  3. andreashesse says:

    Thanks for the great post! I hear you loud and clear! Especially difficult is to get along a group of tourists and take your time to shoot. There will always be someone who also has a DSLR and explains that he (or she) can take similar pictures without stopping and adjusting the gear, or the guide is impatient as he is not paid by the time but only for the trip overall …
    May I ask how you deal with the bright light and the lcd screen to check the images?
    Cheers,
    Andreas

    • LensScaper says:

      Thank you for your comment. I usually set the metering to Matrix and routinely under expose by 0.5 of a stop. On one climb I did an experiment and for every image I took I took three brackets at -1.0, -0.5 and 0.0 of the correct exposure and I found that in almost every case the -0.5 gave the best results. So I am reasonably confident that my images will be OK. I try not to ‘blow’ the highlights and I don’t worry if I lose detail in the dark shadows. If the screen is really impossible to view then I have to trust that I have managed to get the shots I wanted. Finding shade can be very difficult on a high mountain. One other point I did not mention is that if I am using a compact and it is stored in a pocket, then it is very easy for one of the dials to get rotated as the camera is got out of or put back into the pocket. I have to remember to check all the settings before I shoot.

  4. Great image Andy. I think I prefer the colour version, but perhaps that’s because I’m employing a filter in my head, and seeing the view as you did at the time – or perhaps not :-)

    Your advice on photography in the mountains is spot on – in my opinion, having a viewfinder in snow conditions is essential.

  5. Len says:

    Excellent advice for shooting at high altitudes Andy. Color temperature can be real tricky sometimes. I love the B&W version of that fantastic scene.

  6. Jimmy Denham says:

    Wow, what a view! Snow is a problem for sure and black and white does take care of it – good example of that! Excellent image!

  7. ken bello says:

    This is a spectacular shot that really is improved by the B&W treatment. and thanks for the tips, although i hope never to be able to use them.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks Ken. You can get up pretty high in the Alps with the various uplifts available – so there’s still a chance you could catch a spectacular high view if you came this way.

  8. Excellent post Andy. You really bring up some terrific points about high altitude photography. I really like the B&W image, it came out beautifully but even with the slight blue cast I really like the color as well. I find with the color version the blue cast is mainly in the background with the clouds and is separated from the foreground. It works for me.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks Edith. The problem sometimes with the colour versions is that the blue cast also affects the other shadow areas, and not just the snow areas, which means there is more adjustment needed. Its a situation where HDR might well help, but this is certainly not the environment for carrying a tripod and managing HDR brackets (hand-held) might be just a little too much for the oxygen deprived brain to cope with! Maybe one day I should give it a try.

  9. seekraz says:

    Wow…gorgeous, Andy!

  10. Beautiful shot here Andy. I think the B&W version is perfect for this high-contrast scene.

  11. Fascinating discussion and great shots. Here is a tip I have been using to good effect in the Scottish mountains when I only have a few seconds to grab a shot. I have the camera on exposure lock and exposure compensation at +1.5 or +2.0: then meter the scene with at least two thirds sky and holding the exposure recompose. In my experience it mostly keeps the sky from burning out and gets enough detail in the foreground. The main thing I aim for is correct sky exposure and this helps with setting the white balance in post.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks for your comment and the suggestion. I will certainly try that out as an option. But often it is the foreground and middle ground that are the brightest areas of the image being snow, so in those particular situations I think it would be unlikely to work.

  12. How absolutely wonderful, Andy, GREAT shot here! I, too, prefer the b&w version with all the drama and inherent interest that it brings. I didn’t really think before about all the challenges in performing this sort of work, so I found your post to not only contain great images to enjoy, but also some anecdotal thoughts I hadn’t considered before! A beautiful picture and a lesson in photography. :)

    • LensScaper says:

      Many thanks Toad. Always good to have your comment. Black and White was what I started with 45years ago and I’ve never lost that passion for a punchy black and white image. Mountain photography suits that medium so well.

  13. ChrisdMRF says:

    I’m torn between the two Andy. On the balance I may stand up for the colour version, I think a slight blue cast in snow scenes is not a bad thing

  14. Adam Allegro says:

    Dude, these shots are great! Wonderful tips! I just finished a solo camping trip in Sequoia with temps in the low teens at 10,000 feet. it was pretty rough and I had a bunch of lessons learned (most of which i have screwed up before) for the next trip. I would love to meet up eventually and photograph somewhere in the Alps!

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