Elevated Photography: Kick(turn) Your Backcountry Photo Skills to New Heights

Okay, I’m done with the puns… for now.

Because as an alpine photographer you don’t have time for puns, in fact, you feel like you don’t have time for anything. Your subject is yelling down to you that there’s no time for photos, you’re trying to remember if you brought a static or dynamic line, you’ve just dropped a battery in the snow, wiped chalk on your lens and can’t remember if you formatted that card last niii—…  Damn. Nope, you didn’t, and now you’re searching the chest pockets of all five layers you’re wearing, hoping you tucked away a spare…

Which brings us to Rule #1: Breathe.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not on assignment for National Geographic and Patagonia isn’t waiting for you to get back to them with the cover of their new catalogue. You’re a climber or skier, a hiker or runner, maybe you just generally enjoy being up in the mountains, and one day you started taking photos up there and thought, “Hey, this is neat. I’m going to try to take more.” Maybe you bought a new point-and-shoot or a DSLR or the iPhone XYZ (we’ll touch on this again in Rule #3) and now when you go into the backcountry, photos aren’t just an afterthought; in fact, they’re a priority. So when everything is going haywire (as it typically does in the mountains), what do you do?

Breathe.

The mountains are full of chaos — it’s not your job to vanquish it; “controlled chaos” is the cliché, but managed may be the better word for the job. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control the snowpack or the rock quality or your partner’s crux “Elvis leg” or the mosquitoes that make every image look like you’ve got some serious sensor dust issues, which, now that you’ve been reminded, you do and forgot to clean before this trip. You can’t control any of these factors. And stressing over them is only going to stress out your partner and then no one is going to want to take photos. So you take a deep breath and fall back on what you can manage.

Rule #2: Prepare for everything.

A lot of this is common sense and the kind of thing that’s not specific to photography: Study the snowpack. Research the route beta. Bring layers for all kinds of weather. Pack extra socks. Being comfortable out there is going to make you want to stay out longer and you’ll have a better shot at coming back with the photos you hoped for. But there are some tricks of the trade that will help you mitigate those pesky photography dilemmas:

  • Store extra batteries in your innermost chest pocket when shooting in cold environments. (Batteries drain many times faster in frigid temperatures — keep them as close to your body heat as possible.)
  • Always have a couple microfiber cloths in your pocket. (Snow and dirt and rain will get on your lens — this isn’t studio photography, you’re in the wild!)
  • Always clean your camera (sensor dust) / lens (smudges, dust) before going out to shoot. As the previous bullet suggests, you’re never going to have as clean of an environment outdoors.
  • Back up your files at home and format your cards before your trip. (There’s no buzzkill like telling your buddy to wait atop a sweet line while you individually delete a dozen photos from your card to open up storage.)
  • Carry a plastic bag and a few rubber bands if you expect precipitation. There are all kinds of fancy housings you can buy, but this will keep the mud/rain/sleet/snow off the electronics of the camera. You can even shoot through a clear one if you want action shots of snow/rain/mud splattering and don’t want to soak your lens.
  • Trust your equipment’s weatherproofing. If you’re worried about a little powder getting on the casing, put the camera away and save it for indoor photography while you enjoy skiing pow.
  • Create a system to safely / comfortably wear your camera or pack it somewhere easily accessible. I’ve seen jerry-rigged straps to camera-specific devices and bags from the likes of F-Stop and Peak Design. Just find what you’re comfortable with that let’s you access your camera any time — the best moments don’t always come when you’re prepared and nobody wants to wait for you to dig through your bag while they’re on the sharp end or after they’ve hiked 20 miles.

Rule #3: It’s a Tool Not a Jewel.

You didn’t get into photography because thousands of dollars of equipment hanging around your neck was some kind of backcountry fashion statement — so stop treating your gear like it is! Nuts and cams are expensive and you grind them against rough granite all day. Your backcountry ski set-up probably cost the same as your high school car, but every one of us has lost a chunk on the accidental hidden rock. But we’re okay with putting our gear through the wringer because it’s what it’s designed to do. Your camera is your key to capturing the action; if you’re serious about elevating your photography, you’re going to have to stick it in the action.

Let someone spray your lens on deep a powder turn. Get up close to those feet stomping through the puddle. Keep that time-lapse clicking away in the drizzling rain.

*Please, please, please have insurance on your gear in case anything catastrophic happens*… but then go after it and know that the more “in it” you are, the more intimate your photos will be.

Rule #4: Break all the (other) rules.

Photography is a personal artistic expression. It’s unique to the photographer and to the viewer. Or, at least, it should be. With the advent of social media, it’s common to feel like we’ve seen the same shot again and again and again… so try something new! Put your camera on the ground, up against the rock, in the trees; dangle upside down, try a motion blur; capture the action but also the in-between shenanigans — play with all the angles and perspectives and depths that seem ridiculous because you might just come up with something new. Then maybe you will land that sweet catalogue cover and all your climbing and skiing partners will be begging you to take your camera next time.

Matt Tufts is a Vermonter exploring the West from his truck with a true passion for being outdoors, living simply and sharing good stories.