How to create outstanding landscapes under harsh conditions
Professional landscape photographer Colin Prior is used to extremes. He has travelled to some of the most remote and hostile places on the planet and lived alone for extended periods of time in the wild just to understand his subject. In his first masterclass, he explains how to create outstanding landscapes under harsh conditions.
“I am driven by wild places and my work manifests itself from this deep-rooted passion for the natural world and the association of the elements within it – rocks and the sea or plants within a forest. I am particularly drawn to cold environments. The great thing about them is the air tends to be very clear because the temperature is low, so you have fantastic visibility. When covered in snow, mountains – which, for the most part, are dark rock depending on their geology – give you elevated tonal values. The light can give you these fantastic yellows and pinks, colours that really make great landscape photography stand out.”
Most extreme experience?
“I have a deep empathy for the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan. For me, they are a vertical gallery of spires, pyramids and cathedrals, shrouded in mystery, that continue to inspire me. That said, I am not a technical climber, and the ascent of the Gondoro La in Pakistan was as close to climbing as I’ve been. The combination of altitude and a near-vertical ascent in darkness was a big physical undertaking, and not made any easier by the fact the pass had been avalanched out, and the fixed ropes had either been ripped out or were covered in ice. We had to put our own ropes in, which slowed down our progress tremendously. We had planned to be at the top in six hours, but it took us nine. I remember clearly the sun rising and creating a perfect shot, but because I was hanging off the side of a mountain, I was unable to take the image. The thought of that lost opportunity haunts me to this day.”
Most dangerous moment?
“Aside from a fear of avalanches, I have never really felt in danger at the top of a mountain. Avalanches are a hidden danger, but I have never found myself in any truly life-threatening situations. I’ve been on a few hairy boat rides when I have been so glad to arrive on dry land, and I once had an accident in China on the way back from a shoot. I suffered a serious head injury when the driver of the taxi I was in fell asleep at the wheel. We had been driving for 10 hours from a place called Dali.”
What should we look for when taking photographs?
“I try to capture ephemeral transient moments when there is amazing light on the landscape. So once you have established which are the best months for this, it’s a question of watching the weather and then getting into the location to stand the best possible chance of being successful. I want to be in the mountains when they are
at their very best, so I look for periods of high pressure because that means clear visibility. High pressure creates
a certain period of stability in the weather, which hopefully will give you the light you need. I want to know I can head to a particular location at certain times of the year and get the shot I want. If I miss the opportunity, then I will
wait out the year before I try again. It’s a bit like a military strike; you try to gather as much intelligence as you can and everything is always ready to go. My camera bag and rucksack are always packed. If I lifted my rucksack right now, I know I could climb to the top of a mountain and survive.”
- It’s all about shutter speeds again. If your shutter’s too slow, you’re not going to shoot sharp images, so do whatever it takes to increase your ISO settings to achieve faster shutter speeds.
- The mistake most photographers make when they’re confronted with a huge subject like this is to try to get it all in. The key is to recognise the unique aspects of the drama and concentrate on them – capture the essence of what’s going on. If like me, you’re at sea in a storm, make sure you have a chamois cloth or something dry to clean the lens with. You need to do this repeatedly, otherwise what you shoot will be useless.
- Protect your camera with a shower-proof rain hood or evena plastic bag.
- In the big-wind scenario, dispense with your tripod. Your shutter speeds will be such that it will be redundant and it’s a lot easier to react to the conditions without having to hold a tripod to the ground.
- Despite bad weather, it’s still possible to previsualise an image. Understand what time of the year and day would be best, what the desired direction of a gale-force wind should be, and what part the tide will play in the image. An image of a lighthouse, for example, would best be approached in this way.
- Never underestimate the importance of keeping warm and dry. Dress properly to ensure you create meaningful images.
- Being in high altitude is always physically demanding. It cannot be overstated just how important it is to ascend at a slow pace. When suffering from altitude sickness, which includes nausea, headaches and loss of appetite, you won’t want to take photographs.
- Be careful with exposures, particularly in areas of high luminance such as glaciers or snowfields. Altitude and ultra-violet rays can adversely affect exposures, particularly when measuring incident light with a hand-held device. Bracket more widely than normal.
- A sturdy carbon-fibre tripod is essential.
- Pack a head-torch, not only to help find your way home, but also to see what your camera settings are.
- Graduated filters are essential for holding back the elevated luminance values of skies.
- You will be camping so, with no means of recharging, it’s essential to have a stock of freshly charged batteries.
Colin’s Kit Bag
“When on trips in extreme locations, having too much kit can often be as much of a problem as having too little.
Try to simplify the way you work. Connect with your subject and don’t make the mistake of becoming a slave
to technology. If your mind is fixated with pixels and filters, then you’re not likely to be absorbing what’s important – the landscape. Absorb it, feel it – if you don’t feel anything for the environment you’re in, neither will anyone else when they look at your images.”
- Fuji GX617, 90 and 180mm lenses
- Canon 1Ds Mk II
- Lenses, 24 and 90 TSE, 24-70mm f2.8L, 70-200mm f2.8L
- Lowepro bags
- Gitzo carbon fibre tripod
- Ball head
- Cable release
- Berghaus Paclite waterproofs
- Rab down jacket
- Rucksack with liner
- Sleeping mat
- Therm-a-Rest mattress
- Lightweight stove, gas, pans, kettle, fork, knife, lighter
- Sigg water bottle and mug
- Insulated hat and gloves, fleece
If you’re afloat, make sure your shutter speed is high enough. I use TV Mode, so I’m always in control. Watch for digital burn out. In bright sunlight highlight values will often exceed the dynamic range of the sensor. A graduated filter will help, but there is little you can do. It’s better to let the sun ‘cool off’ and to try a different aspect or composition. Sub-zero temperatures can have a significant effect on the performance of batteries. Always keep at least one spare close to your body. Beware of bringing a camera out of an air-conditioned room or vehicle into sub-zero temperatures. Condensation will form on the internal surfaces of lens elements and render equipment useless for 20 or 30 minutes. The reverse can happen when you go from cold to hot. Seal lenses in watertight bags to prevent moisture getting in. Try to find a secure place to store kit at the ambient temperature. Try to avoid thinking: ‘There isn’t a bear within miles of here!’
Colin’s Words of Wisdom
Great photography grows from passion. It’s essential you have empathy with your subject and that you live and breathe it. Think about a subject you are passionate about and concentrate on that one thing, so that when you get up in the morning you are driven to create great images. Photograph your subject in the most creative way you can. Your images must be original and need to inspire. If they don’t, what’s the point?”
Biography: Colin Prior
Born in Scotland in 1958, Colin Prior is a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. He has published several books including, The World’s Wild Places, Wilderness Walks with BBC Books, and Scotland – The Wild Places. In addition to his photography, Colin also manages the Colin Prior Photography School, which offers trips to Scotland, Bhutan, Namibia, Pakistan and Greenland. He lives in Glasgow with his wife Geraldine and their two children, Alexandra and Laurence. He works in wide format.
This feature is from the January 2010 issue.
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