Magazine article Geographical

Essential Gear: Photography: When Chosing the Type of Photographic Equipment to Take into the Field, First Ask Yourself What You Are Hoping to Achieve

Magazine article Geographical

Essential Gear: Photography: When Chosing the Type of Photographic Equipment to Take into the Field, First Ask Yourself What You Are Hoping to Achieve

Article excerpt

Pre-summit day on Mount Everest, May 2004. While sorting out my kit in the tent on the South Col, I loaded two Olympus Mju II cameras with fresh rolls of Fuji Provia film. I then stowed them--together with a disposable camera--inside my one-piece down suit. In 1995, I'd learnt from bitter experience at 8,000 metres on the same mountain that if the cameras were placed in the easily accessible outer pockets of my down suit they would freeze solid.

We left the col at 10pm. Climbing through the night, we emerged onto the Southeast Ridge just before sunrise. The dawn on 24 May is a sight I will never forget. Just as well, as I never took a photograph of it.

With an oxygen mask glued to my face, and Darth Vaderstyle mitts on my hands, it was too much effort at an altitude of 8,500 metres to spend valuable time removing a mitt (and risking frostbite) in order to unzip the suit and fish out a camera. I did fire off a couple of frames on the sun kissed South Summit a few hours later, and remembered to take a handful of pictures on the main summit at 9am. But from a total of 99 potential images, I came back to the UK with a measly 13 exposed frames, all taken with the same camera. The whole point of carrying three cameras had been to guarantee that I returned with some images, even if one or two of the cameras misfired (above 8,000 metres most things--including people--begin to falter). As it turned out, Lady Luck was on my side that morning, and I have a single, sharp image of myself on the summit.

This experience started me thinking that, in many respects, expedition photography is quite different from the type of travel photography that I take while on assignment tar magazines. Perfectly composed, elegant pictures are all well and good, but as the images of the terrible events on the London Underground in July taken by commuters on grainy camera phones have shown, any photograph is better than no picture at all.

Consequently, this article is all about practical ways to help you maximise the chance of returning from the field with a photographic record of your endeavours. To do this, I've enlisted the help of one of Britain's most experienced expedition photographers, Martin Hartley. Hartley's list of recent expedition-photography credits includes the 2003 Omega Foundation North Pole Solo, the 2003 American Express Franklin Memorial Expedition, the 2004 Tetley South Pole Mission and the 2004 Cerco Trans-Arctic Expedition. His photographs have appeared on the front covers and inside pages of newspapers such as The Times and the New York Times, as well as a stack of renowned magazines, including Geographical. Although Hartley has won several prestigious awards for his images, capturing a beautiful panorama is a secondary consideration when compared to taking an adequate picture in testing environments. "I shoot as many scenes as possible early on in an expedition so that I know I have some acceptable results in the bag." he says. "That takes the pressure off, allowing me to be more creative later on."

The case for durability

One of the first questions that the prospective expedition photographer needs to ask is, "Why am I photographing this expedition?" If the purpose is to present team members with a visual record of the project and to drop a handful of images into the expedition report, then the photographer might be able to get away with an inexpensive compact camera.

But if the purpose is to document the subject of the expedition, to fulfil obligations to journals, or to illustrate a lecture, then a camera capable of producing a higher quality image will be required.

Photographic equipment needs to be solidly constructed if it's to survive in a harsh environment. A super-light plastic single lens reflex (SLR) body might weigh half as much as a camera sheathed in metal, but will it cope in the field? In 1999, two friends bought the same model of lightweight SLR for a six week expedition to Central Asia. …

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