Monday, November 29, 2010

Photography in the Himalayas (Nepal / India)

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.


Sherry Ott said...

Great info! As you would guess - this post is near and dear to my heart! I spent 23 days lugging camera gear through Nepal villages and up through passes - it definitely challenging photography. One thing that I find really hard is the fact that since you are also hiking and presumably trying to get 'somewhere' you can't stop and wait for the right light. You have to get good at shooting in all conditions. Thanks for sharing these very useful tips for people!

Mark H said...

@sherry: I can imagine. You got some fabulous photos so I'm sure you felt it worthwhile. The light thing is frustrating as each day requires a certian distance to be travelled and hence you are often shooting in the middle of the day. A polarising filter certianly helped a little bit to brighten the skies and whiten the mountains and improve the contrast.

Barbara Weibel said...

Hi Mark: Like Sherry, this is near and dear to my heart as well, since I've been traveling around the Himalaya regions of Nepal for the last two months. She is so right when she points out that you just cannot wait for the right light when you're trekking, so that makes photography a challenge to begin with. But I have also fund that the light is much different in the mountains. I usually shoot high contrast, richly saturated photos, but at first I just couldn't get my normal effects in the Himalayas. The colors seemed a bit washed out, even with a polarizer. But I discovered a trick. I use a 17-55mm lens, so I zoom in as close as I can get and focus on the far mountains, which are usually a bit hazy, then without letting my finger off the focus button, zoom back out, frame the shot, and click. Makes a world of difference!

Mark H said...

@barbara: That sounds great advice. I'm going to give that a try next time I'm in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney where colour also tends to wash out somewhat. On the light, while obviously trekking rules out some opportunities, there are still great chances at the start and end of the day to get some photos under better lighting conditions.

Harry Hilders said...

Great post. Thanks.

Mark H said...

@harry: Thank you

Delhi Hotels said...

Chill on Hills..

Priyank said...

Hi Mark,
How are you? Loved reading this post and your pictures of the prayer wheels and bookshelf made me miss the Himalayas a lot. I haven't been to India in over two years now but in the meanwhile I can do the next best thing to do - read posts like this!

Mark h said...

@priyank: Thank you - a remarkable country.

Anil said...

I can imagine how important but perhaps underrated the power situation can be. It would be a shame to put in the effort and make it to some beautiful views - only to pull out your camera and see a battery dead symbol :/

trekking in india said...

the Himalayas, home of the snow, is the most impressive system of mountains on the earth, and for centuries the setting for epic feats of exploration.

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