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Sunday, 1 July 2012

Studio on the mountain

Well, it's been a while since I added a new RLA post but I've been a bit busy this month - honest! Some pretty unusual and interesting assignments have kept me out on location and I will reveal all in the near future. Meanwhile, let's start with this one, from early in May.

TGO Magazine is a regular client. TGO is one of the UK's best known walking/outdoor titles and I always enjoy the challenge of shooting editorial for them.  The assignments generally involve a big mountain day of some sort, often on very short notice. That's big days out rather than big mountains, if you see what I mean. We don't really have big mountains here in the UK do we? I'm never really sure about the short notice - I guess it's down to weather; "Hey it's not raining, quick, call Willis and see if he's free tomorrow and we'll do a photo-shoot in the Lakes..."! Naturally I'm always happy for an excuse to get on the hill for the day - beats staring at a computer screen.

On this occasion the location would be Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain, at a touch over 3000 feet (or 900 meters in new money). Doesn't sound like much but I can tell you that weather conditions at this latitude are never very predictable. During the day we experienced warm sun, followed by gathering clouds, rain, hail, strong winds and then back to blue sky and warm sun. So a typical May day in the Lake District on the high fells. This would be my studio for the day and to add a little extra pressure, I had to be off the hill and back to my Landrover by 4pm latest to drive the 70 odd miles back to Kendal to teach my regular evening photography class at 6pm. Nice.

The brief then, would be to meet the boys from the mag in the car park at nine, leg it up the hill to shoot some walking, scrambling, navigation, scenic, wild camping photos for the feature they were putting together and do some kit testing photos while we were about it.

In the bag...
So let's take a look at what goes up the hill with me on a job like this.
I'll be shooting with a Nikon D700, stripped of it's normal battery grip to save weight and pack size. On the front will be the Nikkor 28-300 VRll - what a great piece of kit for this sort of thing. Also in the bag is the 18-35 wide angle, because that super-zoom just doesn't quite cut it at the wide end. Pity. If I could get my kit down to one lens, I would.

Also in the bag, I take some Lee NDGrad filters for the scenics (in case the sun comes out! Otherwise I do the skies in Lightroom back home), I take a chamoix leather - nothing else gets rain off the lens - and I take a spares box of batteries and cards and stuff. I also pack a spare camera body - a Nikon D5100. Small, light, great quality files, very versatile, I find it works well for me as a backup body that I can pack into a corner of my rucksack without really noticing it's there.

Next up, it's the lighting.
These days, I light everything, with my trusty Pocket Wizard TT1 Mini/TT5 Flex combo and three flash guns; Nikon SB800, SB600 and SB28. The SB800 and SB600 generally fire in TTL mode and the SB28 in manual because it's not compatible with TTL mode from my D700. Which also means I tend to just use it as the extra fill light or kicker when it's required but otherwise it just goes along for the ride.

For light shaping/modifiers I use a small shoot-through umbrella, a home-made snoot and a Lastolite-style folding softbox. Sometimes I take a 5-in-1 pop-up reflector, but not this time - too bulky.

Now I need some stands or supports for the flash guns. I use a super-compact "Nano" style flash stands for the small pack size, low weight and flat-folding legs that can be held down by piling rocks on them - a great advantage when using light stands on a mountain, in a strong wind! I also pack either a Manfrotto Justin clamp or a ground spike, or some other mini-stand that can put a flash on the ground as a kicker.

What, no tripod? Nope. Not this time. Sometimes I do but when it's a big day out and I don't want the weight/bulk, I cheat. I take a mini ball&socket which I often use to mount a flash, and stick it on the Nano stand, weight the thing with rocks and use that instead. It's not exactly rock-solid but I get away with it when I need to.

This sounds like a lot of kit to be hauling up a mountain but actually all of this stuff has been selected over years of experince and experiments to be fairly compact and managable. Nothing goes in the rucksack unless it's going to be useful and useable. And I still have room to put my personal gear in - although that really does get whittled down. Just food, waterproofs and safety gear if I need it. No drink - I drink water out of the beck - and I make sure the others have got 1st aid, navigation kit and spare clothing!

Is it worth it?
So, is it worth lugging this lot up there? Well, let's look at some shots from the day, with and without lighting. In my opinion (and TGO's, which is more important), yes, it's definately worth the time, trouble, weight, agrivation and all round pain in the arse to get this stuff up there and use it. I think of the mountain as a studio environment. The landscape and sky provide the backdrop and the ambient and my flash provide the lighting. If I was a landscape photographer, I would wait until the ambient light was as good as it was going to get. But with editorial photography I have to work with whatever light is there and it's generally not very good! So lighting, for me is essential.

In this navigation shot, photographed not far from the Mickledore mountain rescue stretcher box on Scafell Pike, I used an SB600 with a diffuser cone and a 1/4 grade CTO gel for warmth. The flash was placed off to camera right. The first shot was part of a sequence where the flash didn't fire - not yet recycled - and you can see the difference in light quality and colour.

In the wider "landscape" shot below, you can see the flash positioned on a stand to the camera right. Later on I put another speedlight behind the guys, to add a bit of seperation from the background. You can see that shot at the top of this page.

This is what happens when you over-cook it! I tested the flash to see what kind of output i was getting against the ambient exposure and as you can see it was well over-powered, creating an obvious flash-blasted look, which I dislike. With the Pocket Wizard system that I use, it was easy enough to turn the flash output down via the AC3 controller mounted on the camera. By trying out different flash output levels, I soon got a result that I liked better...

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