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Thursday, 11 April 2013

Don't push me, 'cos I'm close to the edge...

...Striding Edge to be exact. You maybe spotted that already.

Yesterday I took fate by the short and curlies and headed up Helvellyn with my good pal and long-suffering, yet curiously ever-willing "model" Paddy Cave, in spite of an iffy forecast that could go either way.

The intention was for a mixed bag of winter walking and "summer" style cover shots, if the sun came out. I supposed that I would get some snow on the northerly aspects, which might make for decent winter shots, but then I would get a summer look on the south slopes.

Frankly, even I didn't really believe we would be that lucky but hey, ho, nothing ventured, and my experience is that if you make the effort you always come back with something worthwhile - often something unexpected. And so it would turn out.

I packed specificaly for photography rather than winter walking. The D700 was stripped down to body only, no battery grip; I opted for the 18-35 AFS and the 50mm f1.4 AFD as a back-up portrait lens. Light and small. Striding Edge needs a wide lens so I took the chance, decided I wouldn't use a telephoto and left the 28-300mm in the Peli box at home. Lighting would be two flash guns - the SB800 and the trusty SB28, triggered with PW Flex's. I threw in a shoot-thru umbrella, a Lastolite tri-head umbrella swivel, a Justin clamp and 5-way reflector with some mini studio clamps.

Now the hard choice - what to take, in terms of a lightstand. I've got a couple of nano stands which are lightweight and compact and if this was an urben shoot they would have been my choice. But on the mountain they just don't work on sloping ground. I've come to rely instead on my old Manfrotto 190 series tripod legs (small, light, compact and very tough) coupled with a boom arm. So that's what I threw in the bag.

The flash gun/PW combos go into some clip-top food containers which make ready-made waterproof, mud proof protectors that can be put on the ground or strapped to whatever even in the worst conditions. OK - that's about it for photo gear (spare batteries, obviously), now for walking gear for a day out on one of Britains highest and most exposed ridge traverses in winter. Hmmm. Flask of coffee of course. Sandwich. Paddy will have essentials like nav and 1st aid, so I won't bother. An old RAB down pullover for warmth, pair of gloves. Axe and crampons of course. That should do it. My pack weighed 174 tons.

Walking into Red Tarn it very soon became aparent that there was more snow up here than I had anticipated. It's very hard to know from the valley just what has survived from the recent snow falls but it seems that the extremely cold nights have solidified all the drifts and the high fells are plastered. I wasn't expecting this. Any thoughts of summer covers are quickly abandoned as I start planning a range of shots that I hope will translate into stock sales for next year. You have to remember that magazines work 2 to 3 months ahead so whilst it might still be April and early spring here in the real world, in editorial-land they're planning the June/July edition right now and by the time November comes around again I'm going to get asked for January/Feb cover shots with lots of snow. So gotta shoot them a year ahead.

Our iffy day was rapidly turning into one of the most incredible, alpine-like, snow-plastered winter fests I've ever seen in the Lakes! Blue sky, sunshine, dazzling white drifts of wind-blon ridges and sastrugi! Amazing. And luckily we had done a bit of planning. Paddy was packing at least three jackets for clothing changes to make the most of conditions and get a good variety of shots from the day. We put a lot of effort into this - lugging a lot of camera gear and clothing and getting ourselves up the hill. This wasn't a quick photo-shoot 10 minutes from the car. So we intended to come back with a decent haul.

There's a lot of photos get published from walkers and climbers who take a camera out on their play-day and look for opportunities and sometimes they get lucky and grab a great shot. Good luck to them. A lot of these images find their way into print or on-line. But professional's don't work like that. We don't leave stuff to chance. We plan, organise, arrange and then put a lot of hard effort into getting shots that we know will work. They better had work because we've invested a lot into them. When we go on the hill to do this, it's not a nice day out walking - well it might be, but it's also a well orchestrated, rehearsed range of set pieces that are repeated and repeated until they are done to the photographers satisfaction. They are carefully  thought out, properly lit and creatively composed with a lot of attention to detail. Just so you know.

Each and every one of these images shown here was set up with a full lighting rig. The backgrounds were carefully chosen as was the camera position and angle. The flash rig was set up and tested for good exposure and creative look. Paddy was dressed (sort of) and we did about 10 to 15 "takes" of each shot - to the bemusement of passing walkers!

Despite all this "setting up", I still don't use professional models. I use outdoor professionals. People like Paddy, who make their living as guides and instructors, and who know exactly how to handle themselves in any outdoor situation. They are super-confident, super-fit individuals with incredible, technical outdoor skills. Many of them are top performing athletes in their own right. Which means that I can just let them get on with being themselves, doing what they do best in the environment. I don't direct much. I tend to just give vague instructions; "go over there and walk over that boulder..." that kind of thing. I hope my pictures look natural and spontaneous because of that. I try not to get them looking too "forced" or too perfect. That's just me.

So - finally we arrived on Striding Edge itself. This was the main event of the day and we got down to work, finding some good scrambly bits and looking for the background that would really set the scene. And this is where you find out if your model is any good. There's nothing quite so frustrating to an outdoor photographer (like me) than spending this much time and effort only to find that your model is nervous of steep drops and can't run around doing the stuff you want them to. It's happened to me before. No problems today - Paddy doesn't understand the meaning of the word "fear". Actually he frightens me with his nonchalance around steep, slippery, sheer drops!

However, everything does not go entirely to plan. You might remember that I mentioned the shoot-thru umbrella I packed. Every photographer knows that there's nothing quite like umbrella-light at 10 feet. Works every time. It's the go-to lighting solution of choice 9 times out of 10. Except when you're on a narrow ridge in a gusting wind in the snow! Umbrella's unfortunately have very similar charactoristics to sails. Things can get pretty unruly when you're flying a 42" umbrella on a stand in a 35mph breeze. It didn't actually take off. I'm way too careful to let that happen - I had an ice axe pounded into the turf as an anchor for one thing. But even though the manfrotto/boom combo keeps things reasonably steady, the rig still blew over.

The SB28 flash (out of it's food container protector box) with attached PW flex hit the rocks and my heart stopped. "Damage control, report, over...." "Looks stuffed, c'apn..."

Fortunately not totally stuffed. The plastic hot shoes on both flash and PW had a piece broken off. Looks repairable with care and the right glue. Damn. But that, folks, is why Nikon now do all metal hot shoe brackets on their modern guns - thank you Nikon. It was my own stupid fault really - should have taken down that umbrella as soon as the breeze got up. Notch another one up to experience.  Can't complain anyway - came away with a great haul of winter covers and stock and had a a properly good day out in the snow. Just need some spring weather now for those summer cover shots...