Take Better Adventure Photos: Shooting in Low Light in the Mountains

Pictures of two climbers making an ascent just before dawn.
The finished product.

Like many “pros” out there, I’m a self-taught photographer—after all photography itself is not that complicated. Over the years I’ve become a lot more efficient at capturing the outdoors, but my style has never changed. Everyone has his or her own style, and that’s not something that should be force fed. But underneath every personal taste there are always going to be universal “laws” and tricks that photographers use to make great images. Some may seem basic, and others a bit alien, but hopefully there is something in here for everyone. At the end of the day, these are just tips to shoot what I want to shoot. You can adapt them for your vision and your adventure.

Putting It All Together

So you’ve vaguely grasped the ideas of ISO, aperture, and film speed. It takes years to master all three subconsciously and automatically as you shoot, so don’t panic if it all seems a bit overwhelming and confusing. However putting it altogether is what makes the very best photo you can take happen.

So where to start? Well, this is how I would play things out.

• The Alarm Goes Off

It’s 4 a.m. at the bivouac and you’re feeling keen. Very keen as most people just want to eat and it’s colder and it’s grim, so you know it’ll make a great memory. At this stage it’s pitch black, but you’ve got a head torch to play with, use it! I whack up the ISO to something like 1000 so I don’t have to worry too much about a blurred picture—after all, you’re capturing a moment here, not something you’re going to frame on your wall. Aim your head torch at the climber and set the aperture to as low as it will go, make it easy for yourself. Then ask your subject not to move, hold your breath, and keep that trigger finger held down. The first one or two will be blurred, but at some point in the next five seconds you’ll be solid as a rock and that will be enough to get your shot. Remember it’s not just you that’s got to be solid, but your subject as well. So don’t be afraid to take ten shots in one go.

• Pre-Dawn

The stars are out, there’s a full moon in the background, and there’s not a breath of wind. It’s just you and your climbing partner high up on a beautiful alpine ridge; it’s a very special moment, and one you’ll remember forever. But it’s also cold and you don’t want to hang about. How do you get the shot?

For this one you’re going to want to rest your camera on something. Don’t think tripod, just think natural features. As you’re climbing up look for rocks that have a good spot to sit the camera on, or if you’re carrying a big pack you can rest it on that. Remember that you want to get the shot done in just a few minutes here—partners have a very finite amount of patience. I tend to find a rock, get my pack off, and sit the camera on it. Note that your camera will move as it “settles” in to the soft rucksack and its contents. Stick the ISO as high as it will go—you need to frame the shot first (even through a viewfinder you’ll often find it hard to see in such low light).

Get your partner to stop and shine his head torch on the camera from a few meters away (or wherever he is), you can then focus quickly on his head torch (much faster than focusing in the dark). Set your camera to manual focus so it doesn’t try and refocus later on when it takes the shot. Take a shot with the aperture at its lowest value—the photo will be terrible, but remember you’re just framing here. If you need to angle the camera up then bundling up the camera strap and sticking it under the lens will help—you can use gloves or anything for this. Keep shooting until you find the shot you want.

Now comes the trickier part: The easiest way to shoot low light is to choose the lowest aperture setting available and let in the most light. However I find shooting at the lowest setting unacceptably softens the image. Try instead going for an F-stop or two higher than the lowest setting, it will make all the difference.

Play with the ISO and aperture until you’re correctly exposed, but be aware that shooting high ISO will result in a lot of noise in these kind of shots as there are a lot of dark spots in these photos. Again this is down to experience and what camera you are using.

Stick the camera on a ten-second timer delay and get ready to run! (Remember to have selected manual focus not automatic by this point). Leg it back to a suitable location within the frame and stand as still as you both can for 30 seconds (this tends to be the maximum cameras will expose for). Thirty seconds is a long time but it’s perfectly doable, but remember that still means absolutely still!

Picture of a climber walking up the Cerro Torre massif
Another quick shot, taken on the walk in to the Cerro Torre massif, camera sitting on my pack. One shot was all it took- over time you end up getting it right first time every time.

Once the shutter has closed go back and zoom in on the image to make sure you are both sharp in the image, if not then repeat the image. With practice you’ll get it right first time every time and it shouldn’t take more than five minutes to get the shot and be on your way again. Never be afraid to overexpose the image either!

• Sunrise

The alpenglow bathes the surrounding peaks and coats your climbing partner in “InstaLike” colors, only this time it’s not a fake filter and you’re starting to feel like you’re in a Rocky film, but how to capture the immensity of the situation? It would seem at this point that given the light from the sun you can shoot away without having to worry about how you’re shooting. Wrong. Sunrise may look bright to you but actually it’s not. You still need to manage your camera to avoid blurred images. I will still want to shoot at my maximum sharpness here or when shooting in to the sun use a starburst effect—so I’m already disabling myself by forcing a relatively high aperture value on my camera. For me, the simple solution is just to bump the ISO up. I shouldn’t have any black areas in my shot that would develop noise, and it means that my shutter speed will remain relatively fast which is key. Sometimes I’ll have the ISO up to 600 or above for these moments, better to have a slightly grainy image than to come back with lots of slightly blurred images.

Picture of two climbers climbing up a snowy mountain at sunrise
Shooting with a dark background can be a little hard on the ISO (grain) so try and keep it low if you’re shooting something like this.

When shooting with a low-angled sun in frame, try and shoot a higher aperture to create a sunburst affect—you can go as big or small as you want on this one. But be aware if you’re shooting at an aperture of F22 you’ll need to massively over compensate with your ISO setting.

Remember that there are two movements in every photograph: you and your climbing partner. You may be standing still when taking a photograph but ideally you will want to capture your partner “in the act” and that means he’s going to be moving pretty fast for your camera in those low light situations (even if you think he’s moving pretty slow). Don’t be shy—ask him to do the last few steps a couple of times to make sure you’ve got the shot, as well as ask him to walk slower through the motions. This is especially applicable if he is very close to you as movements will be accentuated.

Picture of two climbers walking across a mountain ridge on Aiguille Verte
Using a sunburst effect on the Aiguille Verte.

Finally quantity is key here, keep that finger on the shutter button. No matter how experienced you are, you’ll still come back with a lot of blurred images…that’s just life. After all you’re trying to push the ISO and aperture as close to the shutter speed limit as you can take pictures in, and that will always result in some throwaways.

See Part 1 in this series >>

See Part 2 in this series >>

This is part three in our tutorial with climber/photographer Jonathan Griffith on how to take better photos in the mountains. 

 

 

Comments

  1. Melissa from Hey,Girlfriend.Net
    Seattle
    April 16, 2016, 11:10 pm

    Thanks for the great post! I love your photography and enjoyed your tutorial very much.