Alex Nail is a full-time landscape photographer based in Bristol with a passion for mountains and wilderness areas. He increasingly head to remote or hard to reach locations in search of new images. His photography is largely illustrative, showing magical lighting conditions and spectacular scenery.
If you are reading this article you probably have a camera already – you don’t need to buy a new one. Don’t spend £1000+ to save a kilogram on your back; that’s crazy when you are starting out!
With that out the way let’s look at the factors you should consider when selecting a camera setup for backpacking.
You’d have to be fit to backpack with a large format system, but it can be done!
Resolution, Dynamic Range and High ISO performance
Don’t stress too much about image quality. Yes, it matters, but there is far too much emphasis placed on the output – the image – without considering usage. Any Digital SLR or Compact System Camera (mirrorless camera) is going to be great. Enjoying your photography is far far more important unless you are a professional. Even then it’s highly debatable whether image quality is worth worrying about anymore. I have never had an old image taken on my Canon 20D or Canon 5D (original) rejected by anyone and I still use those images today. Modern cameras are much better across the board.
Reliability and Durability
If you’re backpacking for number of days you need a camera that isn’t going to fail half way through. My Sony A7RII has alarming ‘hiccups’ where the camera crashes or the memory card database has to be rebuilt. It’s no fun in the middle of nowhere. I sent back a Sony RX100IV (high end compact) because the lens protector kept getting stuck.
I often hike with my camera either around my neck or attached to a Peak Design clip. Naturally I’ve fallen a couple of times and my camera has taken the occasional bump on a passing tree. After years of use I’ve never had a problem with my Canon cameras and I suspect the same would be true of Nikon. These cameras are heavy, but they are professional tools built to last. (The same sadly can not be said of lenses, which have required professional realignment on a few occasions now!)
Start up time, shutter lag, menus, customisation options, buttons and ergonomics all play into how effectively you can operate your camera. In my experience SLRs, particularly those from Canon and Nikon, have a lead here. These factors matter more to me than image quality. Content is king – if you miss the shot it doesn’t matter how good your camera is! If you plan to skip the hiking shots and just set up methodically on a tripod then speed may be less of a concern, but some of my best shots have come “off the hip”.
The familiar Canon menu system – plenty of manufacturers still have ground to make up!
It’s tempting to compare the weight of cameras and pick the lightest one; after all you already have plenty to carry. However it is the weight of the camera SYSTEM that really matters. Often lenses for smaller mirrorless full frame cameras can weigh as much or more than their digital SLR equivalents. If your camera and lenses together are going to weigh around 3kg does a 200g weight saving on the camera body really make a difference? That said if you do spend your time looking at system weights across brands then you might find that a Micro 4/3rds system weighs as little has half of a Nikon D850 based set up. That might save you 1.5kg, a noticeable difference, particularly if you are smaller or less active.
Camera equipment isn’t light but switching to mirrorless or micro 4/3rds could save a reasonable amount of weight
Andy’s Olympus Micro 4/3rds setup was tiny and produced beautiful images.
Mirrorless cameras get through batteries much faster than Digital SLRs. The capacity of the battery itself is smaller but perhaps more significantly, if you forget to power the camera off the LCD will stay on until ‘auto power off’. With my A7RII I need to be rigorous about turning the camera off but then if I see a fleeting image I have to wait a couple of seconds for the camera to power on again. This kind of delay won’t matter to most photographers but it bothers me, particularly when taking hiking images. (see the Power section below for my advice on batteries)
If you can face it I would restrict yourself to just two lenses – a wide angle zoom and a telephoto zoom. For most photographers this will offer maximum flexibility for a sensible weight. I’d aim for a 16-35mm and a 70-200mm (or equivalent for a crop sensor). You might also consider stopping the gap with a lightweight 50mm prime which can produce beautiful hiking shots.
Several top manufacturers offer premium f2.8 and f4 versions of their zooms. There can be a massive weight difference so ask yourself whether you really need that extra stop of light! For wide-angle shots of the stars a 16-35 f2.8 is certainly a big advantage (although star stacking can be a great fix), but otherwise there really is no reason to buy the heavier and more expensive lenses. If you really want to go light a 24-70mm or 24-105mm zoom is an excellent single lens option.
For some having just a 16-35 and 70-200 at your disposal might seem like a restriction. If you are used to carrying around an additional 14mm, 24mm Tilt-Shift, 24-70mm and 1.4x converter then it’s a big change. However with these two lenses you can realistically cover 14-300mm with a mixture of panorama stitching and/or cropping (ideally with super-resolution techniques!)
On the subject of lens hoods, I don’t take them with me. Their main purpose is to stop light hitting the front element when the light source is out of frame. You can use your hand to do the same job on the rare occasion that this is a problem! This saves a small amount of weight and bulk.
My two ‘Go To’ lenses. The 16-35 stays attached to my camera, the 70-200 sees only occasional use on most trips.
A polariser is essential. Personally I would suggest buying one for each of your lenses. They can cut through haze, darken blue skies, remove reflections and enhance rainbows. A 6 or 10-stop neutral density filter can also be nice to ‘smooth’ water or clouds in midday sun – just please don’t overdo it or use it as an excuse for bad composition!
Many photographers are very attached to their graduated neutral density filters, some even choose to backpack with them. My personal recommendation is to leave these at home. Bracket your images and ‘Merge to HDR’ in Lightroom – it’s much easier than messing around with filters in the field and you can save 500g or more. The processing side used to be quite difficult, now it is easy.
A 6-stop usually makes it into my bag. Polarisers are permanently on both my lenses, I only take them off when shooting into the sun or at night.
Bring more memory than you could possibly need. That’s all there is too it!
Shooting time-lapse when backpacking gets through a lot of memory. I have, on occasion, shot 0.5TB in a week!
Tripods and Ballheads
A good carbon fibre tripod makes a lot of difference when you are backpacking. It’s the one bit of kit that you should spend money on early on, even before cameras and lenses. A good tripod will last many years. When I started backpacking Gitzo were the only real option but now there are a whole host of tripod manufacturers offering cheaper carbon fibre models. The ultimate tripod for backpacking is still the Gitzo ‘1 series’ traveller – I have the G1545T. My second choice would be Sirui, their tripods are just as good and only a little heavier, have a look at the T-2204X. Aim at a tripod that is 1 – 1.5kg. Don’t go too light or it will be useless in wind. One issue with Gitzo Tripods is there continued reliance on magnesium alloy castings which corrode easily once the paint coating has gone. I had a tripod leg snap with 5 days left of a Greenland backpacking trip. Sirui, RRS and many other brands use machined aluminium which is far better in this respect and less brittle at only a small weight increase.
I’d recommend a ball head for backpacking and again there are lot of great options now that didn’t exist 10 years ago. I use an RRS BH-40 and I would suggest looking for something of a similar or slightly smaller size and weight. The Sirui ballheads are again very nice and much cheaper!
Gitzo and Sirui tripods side by side. The Gitzo is a little taller and a fraction lighter but the Sirui is half the price!
Camera Pouches and ICUs
(Unbelievably!) The most regular kit question I am asked is: ‘How do you store your camera kit in your backpack when hiking?’ – there are two answers.
One option is to use an Internal Camera Unit (ICU). This is a light padded case that would fit all your camera gear. It can be removed from your backpack ‘as one’ so you have all your gear in one place. You will have to find an ICU that is small enough to fit comfortably in your backpack or you are going to have packing issues! In my experience this method uses too much pack capacity for longer trips but otherwise it works great. I also occasionally hike with an additional lightweight backpack like the Exped Summit Lite 25. The ICU I use fits inside this creating a fantastic system for longer walks from camp, you can even rig it with cord to carry a lightweight tripod.
The second option is to store your lenses and camera in separate padded pouches. This is the method I use most commonly. I’m often taking two camera systems with me so I can shoot time-lapse and stills simultaneously. This puts packing space at a premium and separate pouches allow better packing efficiency it seems. When its raining a lot I slot all my camera gear into a dry bag.
A cheap ICU, a couple of camera pouches, a Canon lens bag and a glorious carpet backdrop.
If you are backpacking for a week or more then it’s tempting to think that you need a few camera batteries and a solar panel/power bank. In my experience it is much better to carry fully charged camera batteries. It’s the more expensive choice but also the lightest and most reliable. Manufacturers original batteries are (in my experience of Sony and Canon) generally better performing but more importantly far more reliable. I would rather have five original canon batteries than ten 3rd party batteries. Its really important to me that I KNOW how much battery power I have left as I come to the end of a trip. With my 5DSR I take one battery per day, with my A7RII I take 2-3 batteries per day depending on whether I am shooting video.
Unless I was hiking in guaranteed sunshine I wouldn’t consider solar powered charging – it’s a massive faff and for the weight of a solar charger you can carry quite a few extra batteries.
My solar charger was great in Greenland when the sun was out, but it was a faff I wouldn’t repeat.
Bring a Allen Key (Hex Key) for your camera brackets. Gitzo tripods also need Torx Keys to tighten the legs. Lens cloths and lens wipes keep your lenses in check. Particularly obsessive photographers might want to hike with a sensor cleaning kit or rocket blower, but I think that’s overkill!
My simple maintenance kit. Zeiss lens wipes are particularly good for backpacking because you can guarantee they are clean out of the packet!
For clarity here is my preferred backpacking setup and a weight breakdown.
Canon 5DSR with mounted 16-35 F4L IS, battery and RRS L-bracket – no lens hood – 1697g
Canon 70-200 F4L IS, Canon bag – no lens hood – 843g
This is a full SLR setup so it should be entirely possible to get the weight below 5kg for and mirrorless or 4/3rds setup. Nikon D850 based setups are usually a little heavier because the equivalent lenses are heavier across the board.
When I am shooting time-lapse I carry a lot more batteries, an additional A7RII and a custom designed time-lapse slider and associated electronics. This approximately doubles the total weight.
Wild camping is a fundamental part of my approach to photographing mountain and wilderness areas. I have camped in a wide variety of landscapes from the snow covered Scottish Highlands, to the high Drakensberg Escarpment. Without exception these trips have been hugely rewarding both in terms of imagery and experiences. Here are some reasons why you should consider backpacking with your camera.
On location at sunrise/sunset and overnight
Reaching a location for sunrise or sunset is no problem if it’s easily accessible. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) many fantastic locations are several hours hike from the nearest road. In the summer season in particular, when nights are short, a hike after sunset and again before sunrise leaves little time to sleep. Backpacking allows access to even the most remote locations. You can be there when the light is at its best and stay through the night. If you want to try mountain top astrophotography then camping is often your only option.
Camped on the summit of Suilven from where you have 360 degree views
Access new locations
Going backpacking opens doors. If you are looking to capture more original imagery then a good first step might be to visit a location that is little photographed. You can even go completely off trail (in areas where this is legal!) to find something totally new. This has the increased benefit of seeing a location for the first time ‘in the flesh’ something that can be difficult with the increased social media exposure of iconic locations.
A ‘new’ location I explored in Iceland. Getting here for sunset without backpacking is essentially impossible. See the tents on the left!
Photos of Experiences
Many of my best and worst experiences have been backpacking trips. A few years ago I was caught out on the summit of An Teallach in Scotland in gale force winds. We were forced to make a treacherous descent down an icy mountain side only to find the tent destroyed by the wind and buried in snow. On a much more enjoyable occasion I was camping in the Greenland wilderness cooking freshly caught an Arctic Charr on the campfire – it’s a memory that still brings a smile to my face. All these experiences are captured on camera – they come back to me with a new freshness when I view the photos. Whilst to the casual viewer a photo might be beautiful, interesting or thought provoking, to me they capture a depth of experiences. Whether good or bad these are memories I treasure and constantly remind myself of.
A memory to cherish – cooking Arctic Charr in Greenland
Connect with nature
Modern lives are somewhat different to what they once would have been. We travel to work in cars, stay in warm dry buildings and largely avoid any run ins with the natural world. Backpacking, particularly on longer trips, is an immersive experience where nature becomes your world once more. Your sleep patterns fall back in line with daylight hours, you start to notice changes in the weather. Wildlife catches your attention, you see the shrubs changing, the seasons changing, clouds building, the variations in the rock beneath your feet. All these aspects go largely unnoticed in the developed world – noticing them again is a wonderful experience in itself.
Swimming in the Drakensberg – one of my all time favourite days.
I rarely backpack alone – it’s never been easier to find people to backpack with. Many of my photography workshops are backpacking based so in many cases I have just a week to get to know people. But when you’re hiking all you can do is walk and talk – you get to know people quickly. Some of my best friendships are built on the back (pun) of backpacking trips. You see each other at your best and worst, through elation and hardship, failure and success. Needless to say if you are lucky enough to find a partner who is like minded you can create some fantastic memories together.
My first backpacking trip with Emily in the Icelandic Highlands. Awwwwwwww
Improve your understanding of light and weather
I’ve seen thunderclouds form, lenticulars grow over mountains, skies light red at sunset and sunrays cut through mountain ridges. I can now predict a lot of those events. I am there when the conditions are at their best. Clients sometimes think that I have special insight, but I don’t. I’ve just spent more time outside.
An hour before sunset I told some Americans to hang around on the summit (left). I soon regretted it with howls of “Hell Yeah That’s Beautiful” breaking the silence!
When you head out for a backpacking trip you are committing in every sense of the word both physically and mentally. You’re also committed to being outside whatever the weather. Whilst that undoubtedly has its drawbacks (no one really enjoys walking in the rain!) it can also provide immense reward because it puts you in places you wouldn’t normally be in weather conditions you might usually avoid. Some of my best images have come during hazy days, or low cloud or even after a day of heavy rain. These are moments I routinely miss when I’m staying in accommodation. In short – if you’re outside all the time you don’t miss anything!
A moment from nothing, but if you’re outdoors a lot you massively improve your odds!
The best backpacking gear isn’t cheap, but you don’t need the best gear. My first setup (tent, sleeping bag, matt, backpack, cook kit) cost a little over £300, less than a professional camera lens. You’d only have to camp for 10 nights to have recovered your cost. Even with quite expensive equipment it doesn’t take too long to make your money back and for most people this gear would last a lifetime. Once you own the kit photography trips suddenly become very affordable. I can go camping anywhere for a bit more than the cost of flights.
My first setup was cheap second hand gear but ultimately withstood very severe weather.
Streamline your camera kit
Do you really need all those filters? Do you need a 14mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-300mm? Do you need a shutter release or that fancy panorama head? Your answers start to change when you realise you have to carry it all up a mountain. There is little that can’t be achieved with a camera, a wide-angle zoom, a telephoto zoom, a polariser and a tripod. Reducing your gear limits faff and could help you enjoy your photography more. Personally I have found restricting my kit to be a creative freedom, I dont agonise between switching lenses or struggle to find what I need at that crucial moment. Of course you can cut down your kit anyway, but backpacking forces your hand! Maybe the money you save can be used to pay for backpacking kit…
Get fit and strong
Although I’m a professional photographer with a love of backpacking, my day to day life, is, I suspect, pretty similar to many other people. I spend most of my days sat at my desk working and only occasionally exercise either by walking the dog or going for a run.
The benefits of exercise are well understood and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that backpacking for 3-6 hours day on day might be good for you, but nevertheless it’s by far the best exercise I get. Many people also underestimate their ability to backpack. I get plenty of worried emails from potential workshop clients scared that they won’t be able to do a particular hike, but its more of a mental challenge than a physical one (for sensible distances!) – you just have to keep walking.
For those of you looking to lose a little weight it’s possibly worth mentioning that hiking puts your heart at the perfect rate for fat burning. I lose weight on every trip….and then eat far too poorly afterwards….
Tired? Nothing worth having is easy.
Earn your images
The satisfaction from capturing a hard earned image is hard to match. Personally it’s an addiction. I actively seek out images that are hard to achieve almost regardless of their ultimate value, I just enjoy the successes too much. Of course that has the drawback of making the failures gut wrenching in equal measure, but that, strangely, is just as addictive, it makes the wins even better!
An image that was incredibly hard to achieve but with all the satisfaction that comes with it!
Leave the digital world behind
I won’t talk to much on this subject but I have an unhealthy attachment to my phone, social media and online distractions. Unplugging even for a week gives a welcome reminder of the things that matter! Now go outside….
Apparently this is my year! I just came overall runner-up in the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year 2017. Whilst many awards can be won by one ‘killer’ image this is a portfolio award and that does mean something to me personally even if I missed out on the top prize (just!)
Paul Webster, owner of the excellent Walk Highlands website (which I use frequently) was the overall winner with three beautiful images, but I’ll take second any day!
Thanks to Stuart Low, the competition organiser, for ploughing all his time into what is largely a passion project for him rather than a money maker!
Sgurr Eilde Mor in the Mamores. One of my all-time favourite images.
Quinag in Assynt – my first time shooting this spectacular mountain, but I was lucky with the light!
The iconic mountain of Suilven. I think this might be a ‘new’ location that I stumbled upon, although people have been taking photos in Scotland for a rather long time…so maybe not!
On the back of winning the mountain category at the International Landscape Photographer of the Year 2017, I was contacted by ITN to see if I would be interested in doing an interview for the evening news. It was obviously an offer I couldn’t say no to, but I had to fly to South Africa that evening! An interview in London was hastily arranged whilst I frantically packed camera kit and camping kit which up to that point I had been doing methodically (in SA I realised I’d left my lens hoods and repair kits but fortunately nothing that important!).
I met Sejal Karia at a photographers studio in Angel (incidentally my first time in a photo studio ever!). I have to say it was really nice chatting with her, she continued chatting and asking questions both before and after the recorded sections which made it incredibly easy going, so thanks Sejal!
The interview was on the 10 o’clock news shown nationally, but by the time it aired I was also um…aired. Somewhere over Spain in fact. I watched the interview in the passport queue of Johannesburg airport and mentally congratulated myself on not messing the whole thing up. They even used some of my Drakensberg time-lapse footage – whooop!
I’m excited to announce that I won the ‘Mountainous’ category in the International Landscape Photographer of the Year awards. After several years of falling in and out of love with competitions it’s great to get a bit of recognition. As flattering as it is I also realise the good fortune I had to come across such a sensational combination of location and lighting (neither of which I can claim responsibility for!), It’s also worth remembering that there were an host of other spectacular images that went unawarded, such is the nature of competitions. Nevertheless it seems this year is my year, so I’m going to enjoy it whilst it lasts!
The image shows the mountain Uxatindar in Iceland being enveloped by cloud on a day hiking in the Highlands. This was on an adventure workshop I ran to the nearby lake Langisjor, which is similarly spectacular. The clients were all with me shooting this but fortunately none of them entered their shots into the same competition!
The winner of the ‘Mountainous Award’ and the International Landscape Photographer of the Year.
Below I’ve compiled a graphic (for both Windows and Mac) showing my most commonly used shortcuts. I come from a landscape photography background but these shortcuts should be useful to those working in other genres as well.
Learning these shortcuts will save a lot of time. Whilst it might seem tedious at first it will soon repay the investment. The masking shortcuts in particular will allow you to paint or modify layer masks relatively efficiently.
Photoshop Shortcuts for Windows (Click to open full res image)
Photoshop Shortcuts for Mac (Click to open full res image)
Here are the shortcuts I have proposed laid out in text form should you wish to simply print the text versions. This are the Windows shortcuts, but to change them to Mac just replace Ctrl with Cmd.
Ctrl + X : Cut
Ctrl + C : Copy
Ctrl + V : Paste
Ctrl + S : Save
Ctrl + Z : Undo
Ctrl + Alt + Z : Step Backwards in History (repeatedly undo)
Ctrl + + : Zoom in
Ctrl + – : Zoom out
Space : Hold and mouse click to move with hand tool.
Topping up the fuel of my hire car in Bergville I was keen to get inside and buy a cool drink. I checked the temperature gauge – 37 Celsius. Inside in the air conditioned building I picked up a guava juice, paid the attendant and checked the weather forecast on my phone – heavy snow. I stepped outside into the heat.
The intense heat of the previous days made snow seem rather unlikely.
That evening I met Hougaard at Witsieshoek, a mountain retreat high up in the Berg. After sharing a few Anglo-Saffa witticisms we launched into hopes for the upcoming days. Hougaard was after snow whilst I was anticipating heavy rain – at least that would get Tugela Falls going.
Hougaard arranged the trip a year previously for members of a Facebook group associated with his landscape photography gear business. The aim was to camp on the Amphitheatre for a few nights and see what came of it. Hearing of his plans earlier in the week I was asked if I wanted to join. I would stay for the first two nights before returning to Joburg to pick up a group of my workshop clients.
I was gradually introduced to a ramshackle bunch of guys mostly from the Cape. It was clear that for some of them this was to be an entirely new experience. The Drakensberg is no joke at any time of year, but with heavy rain, snow and strong winds forecast some of our group seemed hopelessly underprepared. Trainers, jeans and cotton clothing have no place on a mountain, particularly not in the snow. Add in a complete lack of experience and you have a potential recipe for disaster!
That night I had a much needed sleep in a bed (I had been camping up to that point) and woke up raring to go. We met up at breakfast and, a couple of bacon sandwiches later, promptly watched the heavens open. Several millimetres of rain fell in a matter of minutes – a reminder of what might yet happen.
Our group. A mixture of experience and equipment!
We caught a transfer up to the Sentinel car park and started our hike in cloudy but dry conditions. Every time the skies grew dark I worried about the rain, not wanting any of us to get caught out. Mercifully it never came.
The chain ladders, the only real difficulty on route, were navigated without any issues by the group and before long we were setting up our tents on the south side of the Tugela River. So began *The Waiting Game*.
Cloud was with us throughout on that first day. The landscape was snowless, uninspiring and devoid of views. Since everyone was now safe inside the tents I began to hope for apocalyptic rain, but only occasional showers came. Most of the time in the tent was spent playing ‘Countdown’ on my phone whilst Hougaard read a biography of Elon Musk. We went to sleep hoping for change in the morning. Overnight the gentle patter of rain gradually grew silent as the temperature dropped.
We woke to snow covered tents
The alarm went off a while before sunrise and we emerged to a covering of snow and biting cold air. The South Africans, in some sort of snow delirium, set about vastly over estimating the snow depth at anything up to a foot. It was a little less than two inches, but it was beautiful. Pristine, white and velvety it was the kind of snow we all hope for but rarely find; if only that cloud would lift.
Tugela Falls in somewhat unfamiliar conditions
Hougaard led an optimistic charge to a viewpoint for sunrise. I stayed much closer to the tents at the edge near the falls expecting the poor visibility to continue. A while later everyone returned to the tents – much like me they had little reward that morning.
Waiting inside a tent is always a risky game, particularly with the doors zipped shut to keep out the cold. The best images often come as the weather changes, so if you notice your tent suddenly lit up by direct sun the chances are you’ve missed your moment. Fortunately our excited group was on constant watch; every glimmer of an opportunity was capitalised upon.
So it was that I found myself running through the snow towards the edge of the Escarpment as a shaft of light broke through in the distance. The rays moved and reformed next to the Eastern Buttress catching the low cloud below. Above were the vast snow covered ramparts of the Amphitheatre, their structure and scale revealed by the snow. It was a scene of overwhelming grandeur. I composed the frame, pressed the shutter, checked the image and held my hands up in celebration.
I would have done the whole trip for this image alone; a rare moment.
For the next 20 minutes the sky occasionally broke up with the clouds below the Escarpment adding an amazing sense of depth. I tried a number of different compositions, responding to the changes in the cloud. Before long the snow returned.
Sentinel Peak from the plateau and an alternative view of the Eastern Buttress
The Tugela River and our camp when the snow had set in once more.
Later, once the snow had eased, I made my way up towards Sentinel Peak to the viewpoint Hougaard and co. had tried at sunrise. On the way a view down a gully provided a brief opportunity but for the most part I struggled with the flat conditions.
The view down the main gully on route was a welcome surprise. The Tugela can be seen at the bottom after its colossal plunge.
My hopes to capture a shot of the Escarpment with the hills of Lesotho beyond ultimately ended in disappointment despite waiting in worsening conditions for nearly two hours.
A view I wish I had had the conditions for! You can make out our tents on the right had side.
The cloud eventually filled in the Amphitheatre but the wind on top kept it pegged back just below the rim.
I started to become aware of the thin cloud and my vision started to go, so bright was the snow. I pulled my buff up over my face and descended the mountain looking through a mesh of red fabric. All the while I cursed myself for leaving my sunglasses in the tent!
The rest of the afternoon was spent back At camp, but after the burst of fantastic light that morning the wait had a very different feel. This time I was paying my due!
The following morning brought with it clear skies and a significant temperature drop from the previous night. Our boots and water were frozen in the porch overnight and as I stepped out of the tent the cold felt like an entirely different animal. I had planned to return to the viewpoint for my image, but I hesitated, walking to the edge first to check for an inversion. After more hesitation I decided I didn’t have enough time left for the hike and settled on more modest ambitions, a decision I still slightly regret!
I spent 20 minutes before sunrise looking for interesting snow formations to use as a foreground eventually settling upon some windblown snow slightly above the main plateau. The shot itself was a little awkward technically – shooting at 30mm didn’t allow sufficient depth of field for a single frame so I focus bracketed. I also exposure bracketed for the tonal range. Getting 2 sets of shots with strong spindrift was a real gamble but luck was on my side that morning.
Exposure bracketed and focus bracketed. A tricky shot to pull off given the dynamism of the scene.
One crystal clear mornings in the Drakensberg it isn’t long before the light becomes too harsh to work with and I managed just one more image before it was time for me to pack up, walk off the mountain and head back to Joburg. I think ultimately this image sums up best the experience of being up there: winter in summer.
An apt final image. Winter on top of the Berg, summer in the valleys of Royal Natal below.
It’s noon on Day 3 of a packrafting route in Senja, Norway, and I’m tent-bound with Harsharn. Wind and rain have been battering the tent for the last 20 hours. Pools have formed around us and a small stream is running under the groundsheet. All we can do is wait it out and be glad that at least we managed to catch up on some sleep!
A few months ago, staring at a gap in my calendar, I picked up the phone to Harsharn and suggested packrafting trip in Senja. It was two years since our epic adventure in Greenland and we were overdue another outing on the boats. A Google Earth scout of Norway’s mountains and fjords soon had me interested in the island of Senja. I picked a few potential routes for the boats, eventually settling on a 6 day route combining paddling fjords and lakes with hiking mountains and passes.
We allowed ourselves 16 days to properly explore the area and provide flexibility to go packrafting during a good weather spell – the boats are pretty susceptible to strong winds. After flying in to Tromso we spend our first night camped at a lake in the Lyngen Alps before moving on to Senja where we initially hiked the peaks of Kongen, Segla and Barden largely in nice weather interspersed with wet and windy spells.
Unfortunately after a while it looked like we were never quite going to get the run of weather we would have liked to make the most of the packrafting so we dialled back our ambitions somewhat to make sure we hit good conditions on the most remote portion of the trip.
Harsharn tackles the first short but steep climb up to the lake
Day 1 started on the trail up to Svartholvatnet a short but steep route through the trees with the odd bit of boulder hopping. The additional weight of the packrafts brought back unwelcome reminders of our difficulties in Greenland, but we were excited to get on the water once more.
Looking back on Segla. The early afternoon brought dramatic light
Svartholvatnet was calm as we inflated the boats and began paddling. The heavy clouds that had hung around for the start of our hike began to melt away. We soon found our paddling rhythm.
Looking back at Harsharn and Segla – he was soon out in front
Approaching the opposite shore
6km later on the opposite shore we began hiking up the river that formed the outflow of Nedre Hestvatnet. We stashed our boats at the end of the lake and set about trudging upward, hoping to find a route that would lead us up Istindan.
The outflow of Nedre Hestvatnet
The scramble we chose quickly became a little overcommitting. The ground was wet and loose underfoot and the gradient was too steep to be comfortable. Nevertheless we persevered, in part because going down the same way would have been hellish!
The ascent was often wet and loose – we would have to find a different way down.
At the top of the climb we started looking for a camp spot but it quickly became apparent that camping on the mountain would be almost impossible due to relentless rock outcrops. We ended up pitching on an old snow patch with lovely views out over Nedre Hestvatnet and on to Stormoa.
Camp for the night. I had a winter mat with me so sleeping on snow wasnt an issue.
A view to Breidtinden from near our camp. We climbed this peak 5 days later.
After dinner and with sunset approaching we hiked up towards Istindan, the most remote peak of our trip.
Hiking towards Istindan – there was plenty of foreground interest which made it tempting to stop early!
The view from close to the summit was staggering and we were treated to a surprisingly colourful sunset.
Sunrise the following day was clear – a non-event, and we went back to sleep confident that we wouldn’t be missing anything. After a breakfast of porridge we packed up and found a different route down following a nearby stream. Once again this proved a little harder than we initially hoped but it was a marked improvement on our ascent route.
Still a steep descent but much easier than our chosen route up.
We had an early lunch at the shore of the lake before inflating the boats once more. The water was tranquil as we set out but the cirrus overhead indicated a change in the weather. By the time we had reached the end of the lake the water had become agitated and the blue sky had all but disappeared.
A perfect Norwegian scene awaited us at the shore.
Paddling on a calm lake in nice weather is a sheer joy – I must do it more often.
Packing up at the end of the lake.
Another unknown was the pass between Nedre Hestvatnet and Store Hestvatnet. It did at least look possible on the map, but you never know until you are at the base of a climb just what ‘possible’ really means. Fortunately on this occasion we found the route to be easy enough, climbing through scree and secure vegetation.
Lunch on top of the pass. It would have been nice to hang around here, but the weather now seemed like it might turn against us.
The second lake of the day was rather disappointing. An old waterline scarred the shoreline suggesting it had been dammed, though we never quite figured out exactly what had happened. Needless to say it lacked the natural lush appearance of the area we had just paddled through and with grey skies overhead it felt a little unwelcoming.
Our second lake of the day was, by comparison, somewhat drab.
Our final paddle was a short one on Lille Hestvatnet, which we reached after carry the boats up a short ascent between the lakes. It’s actually the first time I have carried my boat more than about 10m when fully inflated. I found it surprisingly easy, so perhaps it’s something to consider for the future.
Harsharn carrying his boat – I’m particularly fond of this shot, although I’m not sure why!
On the shore of our third and final lake I think we were both aware of the relative pointlessness of paddling just 2km, but we had the boats so it made sense to use them! In no time we had made the crossing and we packed up our boats just as the first rain began to fall.
Setting the tent up in the rain
It took some time to find a camp spot. Although the ground was mostly level it was tussocky or rock-strewn to the extent that at one point I wondered if we would find anywhere at all. As the intensity of the rain increased I came across a small area of sodden ground – just enough for one tent. We didn’t leave the tent until the middle of the following afternoon!
Escape from the tent – time to do some peaks!
With the rain gone we had some catching up to do if we were to tackle Litle Hesten, Burstind and Roalden. The first peak, Litle Hesten was only a short distance from our tent. The ascent was steep but on generally excellent ground.
Nearing the top of Litle Hesten – Burstind in the background.
A composition I was considering for the following morning, but perhaps this one will do!
We had a late lunch back at the tent and then continued on to Burstind. The route to the mountain around a small lake was surprisingly awkward but once we were climbing we found it fairly straightforward.
On our way to Burstind.
The clouds barely lifted through the afternoon but at least it was dry.
The summit view from Burstind with a glipse of sunlight.
We hung around on the summit of Burstind for some time deciding whether there was any point in heading up Roalden – it was completely enveloped in cloud. Ultimately we decided that photographically there was relatively little to be gained from hanging around, so we headed down to to pick up the path to Roalden.
A little bit of hope – the cloud would occasionally break up revealing the landscape below.
The route up Roalden was the first path we found on the entire loop (except the first ascent on day 1). In some guides it is marked as a black (difficult) route, but really its pretty trivial with minimal exposure. The path is really just a series of painted rocks indicating the best route, but it is clearly marked and easily followed. As we climbed higher the cloud that had shrouded the peak broke up until eventually we had a completely clear view.
I’m proud to be part of the Scotland ‘The Big Picture’ team – a group of photographers and film makers promoting the case for a wilder Scotland.
Through my travels I have been privileged to experience a range of landscapes from untouched wilderness to lands which have been heavily affected man over the course of centuries. The more I am away from the UK the more I find an affinity for its landscapes and none more so than Scotland.
Sadly the Highlands have been radically changed by man from their natural state. The often barren beauty belies the fact that once upon a time trees covered the landscape. Hazel, rowan and alder. Oak, pine and birch. Aspen, juniper and willow the all made their home amongst these beautiful hills. The flora supported a whole range of species from humble ants to apex predators like the lynx, bear and wolf. Whilst the full restoration of habits and species remains a lofty end goal, the process of rewilding is well underway. Areas of Scotland are now seeing the planting of native trees and the restoration of ecosystems. All the while awareness is increasing with important conversations taking place between governments, communities and land owners. Challenges still remain, including overgrazing from sheep and deer, the game and fishing industry, wind farms and public perception (particularly with regard to apex predators). However, with a concerted effort, natural systems can be restored.
Whilst recognising potential for the rewilding of Scotland it is also important to celebrate the landscape that we have today. The Highlands are a remarkable landscape enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year. Through public engagement and enthusiasm for the region the case for a wilder Scotland can be furthered.
My small piece in this complex jigsaw is showing the wild beauty of the Highlands through the medium of time-lapse. Hopefully this film can in a small way enthuse people to come and enjoy the mountains.
Thanks to all the contributing photographers including Guy Richardson, Mark Hamblin, Peter Cairns and James Shooter.
I’ve just updated my free resize for web photoshop action. The update adds a few sizes (particularly for Instagram and 4K screens) and removes some lesser used sizes.
There are many resize actions and scripts out there that do similar things but my action is preferred by many professionals because of its simplicity. Simply select the output size and press play. You can change the amount of sharpening by altering the layer opacity or modifying the mask. The result should be a far better sharpening result than the photoshop tools provide on their own – fine details are particularly well rendered.
Here is the new Resize for Web sharpening action:
Photographs are increasingly viewed and purchased for online use. With print media continuing to decline it is increasingly important that your images look great on the web. Unfortunately in displaying your images on the internet they often lose their impact and lack the fine details of the original photograph. This action outputs razor sharp images in sRGB perfect for web display.
Create your own sizes
If you would like to create your own sizes there is an action explaining how this is achieved (just press play to see the dialogue). It’s a quick and easy process thanks to the intermediary steps I have already created.
If you want to apply a change to all the actions then just record into the ‘Optional Customisation’ action. You may wish to use this to add a watermark to your images or even to ‘Save for Web’ to a file on your hard drive.