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Is it worth it? Photographers at extreme heights get the perfect shot

Photographers are climbing to new and extreme heights to get the perfect shot. And we’re here for it.

We’re well into Fall and the days are getting shorter and darker. In a city, the lights from street lamps and security lights and shops give everything a diffused glow, an atmosphere with its own appeal and warmth. It can be welcoming.

We’re not here to knock that. But in all that glow, the sunset is all the less bright, and the stars themselves disappear.

Jack Brauer, a wilderness photographer, is used to traveling in the dark, as he says in the October blog post covering the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

Even in the confines of a car, on a well-paved road, the dark is near-complete and it is only through the photographer’s headlights that he sees a mountain lion running along the side of the road. He pulls aside, driving alongside the animal while recording with his phone.

He has recently taken the picture above, as he wrote in his post. But now, he sees something he wasn’t expecting.

Mountain Lion on Red Mountain Pass, Colorado from Jack Brauer on Vimeo.

Photographers like Brauer are artists. They understand the techniques of photography, what gear to bring, how to approach each shot. But half the game is getting there and getting there is, sometimes, an extreme sport.

Photo technology and the climb

Technology like small, clothing-mounted cameras have allowed people to turn even physically extreme activities and sports into compelling video with relative ease. Drone videography gives us floating cityscapes and beautiful flight videos.

But long before this technology was conceived, photographers were already going the extra mile to get the perfect shot. All without the benefit of their cameras being small enough to attach to a person’s head.

Ansel Adams, one of the people in the Getty Museum’s video above, photographed the western side of Half Dome in Yosemite, California in 1927. The video above shows him climbing up to take the photograph, while the final product is below.

photographers extreme heights
Photo by Ansel Adams

It is a beautiful photo and, importantly, it is one that couldn’t have been captured without climbing.

Photography, after all, is an art that captures a small, framed slice of the world. The best photography is a product of the artist getting into the right place at the right time.

That means that photography is not only an art but also, in a way, an active sport.

Photographers at extreme heights require fine-tuned technique

And for some photographs, getting into the right place, at an extreme height, is far easier said than done.

It is easy to forget when looking at a photograph of some remote vista that some parts of this world are simply difficult to get to. Those are also, often, the locations that make for the most compelling photography.

It is possible, of course, to follow hiking trails and reach high places. There’s nothing wrong with mountain photography from the comparative comfort of a trail. But there is something special about peaks, about what they represent to people.

For photographers, when it comes to extreme heights, the rules of capturing a quality photograph combine with the rules of mountain climbing.

It’s a rule of thumb that when you want to contrast a small foreground object with a larger background object, you need to get low to the ground.

In some places, that isn’t much of a problem. Flat ground next to a river is easy. But try lying down while mountain climbing, and you’ll find that it usually is not the best idea – unless you can find the right spot of course.

The fact is, photography is active – and trying to get the perfect shot at an extreme height means you have to be ready to work out.

Spoiler alert: Mountain climbing is dangerous

As landscape photographer Daniel Laan writes for the site Expert Photography, as well, greater altitude results in pictures of summits that are more distinct, with details invisible from the valleys.

That’s why there’s such a difference between this photo:

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Sunrise this morning

A post shared by Tim Banfield (@timbanfield) on

and this one:

That means getting to extreme heights improves the range of photos photographers can capture.

And that means more intense hikes and climbs.

It isn’t all about the gear, of course, but what you bring on any difficult trek matters. A few extra pounds of stuff you don’t need is bad news when you’re climbing a mountain. Alex Buisse, in his guide to mountain photography, focuses heavily on the weight of his equipment.

You are going to carry all of this stuff up for probably several thousands of meters so will be grateful for each gram that you can save, even at the cost of some convenience or even, yes, image quality.

Guide to Mountain Photography

The right tools for photographers at extreme heights

He recommends the lightest camera that has all the features he needs, along with one wide zoom and one long zoom lens, UV filters, a bag, cleaning cloths, hard drives for backup (but not to be taken to the summit), SD cards, and batteries.

That’s it. No tripod, no flash head, no filters, or unusual lenses. It’s stripped-down photography compared to what you can do on the ground with advanced equipment.

But the vistas are absolutely worth it.

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Ever since they came out with a nifty little device called the Capture, I have been a proud ambassador of @peakdesign . Since then, they have created awesome camera attachment systems, bags and tripods. I use their products every single day, both in my daily life and for my adventure photography. Their latest project, announced just today, is one I am extremely excited about: the Mobile system, built around a phone case and multiple attachment devices. I have been using a pre-production prototype for a couple of weeks and absolutely love what it allows me to do – just yesterday, I was taking pictures with my iPhone from 30m inside a crevasse! One of the things I love about Peak Design is their business model, relying on kickstarter campaigns to fund production rather than taking in external money (the traditional Silicon Valley way), which has allowed them to stay true to their environmental values, excellent customer service and constant innovation. It is therefore no surprise that the Mobile would launch on kickstarter first. Special note to us climbers and paragliding pilots: though it isn’t quite ready yet, I was assured that the final production model would feature a way to thread an anchor link to the case, which means we should be able to have a good leash system to avoid dropping our phones while climbing or flying. Link in bio for 24h or here:

A post shared by Alex Buisse (@alexbuisse) on

Another problem Buisse touches on that won’t be an issue for Brauer right now, in dry, hot Colorado, is the cold. On the snowy mountain summits Buisse photographs, batteries lose their capacity. They prefer warmth.

Buisse’s answer to this: keep two batteries on you, swap them out regularly, and put one close to your body. Protect it from the cold with your own body heat, and its capacity won’t drain so fast.

Just remember the next time you see one of your favorite photographers post one of these incredible landscape photos from an extreme height: What went into setting it up is about as exhilarating as the picture itself.

Make sure to check out our photography series and learn more about what it takes to become a true visionary