Two close friends of mine have recently departed for a trip to the Indian Himalayas for a multi-week trek. Before leaving, we had a long discussion about SLR photography needs based on my prior travels to Nepal and India. This article summarises some of our thoughts on photography for such a region. Many of the ideas apply equally to African safaris and other long treks and hikes in more remote parts of the world. While the list is hardly exhaustive, hopefully it will prompt some thoughts before embarking on travel to this mountain wonderland.
Batteries are a significant challenge in Nepal and India. The cold saps the life of batteries and recharging batteries can be difficult. Take a number of camera batteries and charge them in the teahouses wherever a source of power (typically solar or generator) can be found. Most importantly, keep your batteries warm by wrapping them in a beanie or jacket and keep them in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night. Keep spare batteries warm in your pack during the day. Remove the active battery from your camera before going to bed. Save considerable battery life by limiting the use of the on-board flash and limiting the viewing of images on the LCD display.
By contrast, keep the camera cool. On the day of the main pass of the trek I undertook, the temperature before dawn (when we set off) was -25°C (-13°F). If the camera is taken from the warmth of a sleep bag then it will instantly mist up due to the sharp contrast in temperatures. Leave the camera settle into the ambient temperature before setting out.
Bring lots of memory cards (or an external storage device). The Himalayas are photogenic attracting many more photos can you’ll plan on taking so pack those extra cards. Change cards regularly to avoid risking all your photos to a single card.
Plan out exactly what gear you want to walk with each day. Lens, cameras and accessories weigh a fair amount that may be regretted in the rarefied air of higher altitudes.
Dust is difficult to manage in these regions. Every time that you swap lens, dust sneaks into your camera. Keep your gear as clean as possible (a job for each evening) and keep lens swapping to a minimum. It is disappointing and hugely time-consuming to remove dust spots off thousands of photos at the end of a journey (and they show up badly against blue skies and snow-capped mountains). An ounce of prevention...
As in most locations, the early morning and dusk provide wonderful photos. The mountains are painted in a golden yellow, the morning skies are often at their clearest and the small mountain villages are a buzz of activity.
Panoramas help capture the amphitheatre of towering snow-capped mountains that consistently surrounds your trekking in the Himalayas. Become practised in taking panorama sequences of photos before you leave to capture the stunning mountain vistas that accompany your trek. I strongly recommend Autostitch (see Autostitch guide) for joining the photos together later and start and finish each sequence with a meaningless photo to help easily identify the groupings after download. Overlay each photo generously (I suggest 20 to 30 percent) and keep the camera settings the same for the full sequence.
Keep a notebook detailing the names of the mountains and villages. With a bundle of photos and a fading memory, it is difficult to identify the mountains photographed when sorting through them back in the comfort of your own home. If it is important to you, only noting names as you go avoids confusing your shots of Thamserku from your photos of Gyachung Kang.
Most treks pass several Buddhist monasteries (gompa), a location of spiritual succour to most of the local population. Note that the sherpas and porters treat these locations with reverence. Ask permission before photographing inside the monastery and before photographing any people. Note that the monasteries are dark so consider cranking up the ISO or find a place to rest the camera. In my experience, the porters and sherpas are familiar with travellers’ photography habits and are happy to be photographed while many other local people are very uncomfortable. If you promise to send photos back, then follow your commitment through.
Take lots of photographs and include many incidental events and sights along the path each day. The steep roughly hewn stone stairs, the yaks, the campsite or teahouses, the rickety bridges, the prayer flags, village life and the landscape all add to the overall trekking experience.
Most importantly, spend considerable time without your camera. The Himalayas are a spectacular natural travel wonder of the world that heightens the senses. Stop and enjoy the exceptional vistas of the world’s highest mountains, the freshness of the mountain air, the rage of the mountain streams, the colour and sounds of the monasteries, the buzz of village life and the refines culture of the Buddhist people.