Pyrenees Mountain Photography (2) Wednesday September 23, 2009

One of the first things to be said about the Pyrenees is they are big: not the biggest in the world, smaller than the Alps, Andes and Himalayas, but about three times the size of British hills. This means the highest peaks, of mostly about 3000 feet in the UK, are in the Pyrenees over 3000 metres. If you were walking from valley to peak and back down again, common practise in the UK, this would be very demanding. But multi day walks across the Pyrenees, especially the High Level Route, don’t climb and descend so dramatically. I followed the High Level Route as described in Ton Joosten’s excellent book of the same name, published by Cicerone. It takes months to complete all of it but I chose what is arguably the most interesting and scenic section, Lescun to Gavarnie, and while I was certainly tired in the summer heat it was not because I was walking valley to summit every day.

Because of the size of the Pyrenees, your photography has to differ from how you pursue it in British hills. The scale of the area is vast, and your composition and photographic awareness has to expand. I found myself dismissing potential images I knew would satisfy me in the Lake District or Wales, paying more attention to smaller detail. The moment when the scale of the Pyrenees first hit me was at a junction called the Col Des Moines, when quite literally you turn a corner and this area opens up in front of you:

This was at only day three; the first half of my trip was probably the best of it with most photographic potential. Indeed the mountain seen above, Pic Du Midi D’Osseau, is probably the most iconic peak of the Pyrenees and one of the most photographically rewarding.

If you camp by the huts, or even if you use their dormitories, you have to carry sufficient spare batteries. For two or three nights I sat and ate with a party of Italians, one of whom spoke English (I have some basic French but no Italian skills). One night, one of them suddenly exploded in anger, smashing the table with his hand and shouting at another of his party for five minutes. I didn’t understand a word of this crazy guy but when he started mock-whining in impersonation of the other man, I knew he was complaining about something apparently having a negative effect on the group: it transpired, he was unhappy at not being able to charge his batteries. I considered taking a charger with me but decided it was too unpredictable, and unlikely, that you can rely on remote mountain huts to provide electricity. They use solar cells and generators and probably barely have enough; as one of the Italians said, they are not hotels.

If you are serious about photography in the Pyrenees, you have to provide your own electricity in however many spare batteries it takes and the weight and bulk this entails. The same applies to camera and lenses: this is one area you cannot compromise for the benefit of weight saving; better quality equipment is invariably bigger and heavier. I used my Canon 5D and L Series 17-40 zoom lens, which are beasts to walk with but give me the quality I want. Consider, that the famous and iconic mountain photography of Ansel Adams was achieved with a large wood, brass and plate glass camera allowing for a limited number of frames: one of his famous images was taken on the last plate he had, when the light was perfect, after days of trekking. On this last point about frames, you also need plenty of memory cards for a photography trip in the Pyrenees: taking weight into consideration with all your other gear, it is counterproductive compromising your photography equipment.

I don’t bother with filters because any effect I want I can achieve in Photoshop, like polarised blue skies and the effect of a red filter on a black and white shot. The one exception to this point I would make is the use of neutral graduated filters, which in some circumstances are the only solution to bright skies contrasting with significantly darker land. However, I find this situation quite rare in the UK and never encountered it in the Pyrenees. I recommend photographers understand this point, though I didn’t have any such filters with me and didn’t actually need them.

Traditionally, tripods have been essential for landscape/mountain photography and seen as one hallmark of a serious practitioner. They allow for low ISO, slow shutter speeds and maximum depth of field with small apertures, which is usually what you need. The best tripods are the lightest but this also means the most expensive, made from carbon fibre. Landscape photographers often recommend people to use tripods, but I find this traditional advice is somewhat outdated for one reason: digital technology. If you use digital equipment (which is slightly different to film but the best cameras are not inferior to film, and in some respects are superior), this issue has changed. Very high quality images can be achieved using fast ISO settings, which means relatively fast shutter speeds avoiding the problem of camera shake. With traditional film photography, ISO stock of 400 or even 200 ASA compromised the quality you needed, which could only be achieved using slow film of sub 100 ASA. The latest DSLRs from Canon and Nikon achieve extraordinary quality in relation to ISO performance. Consider this in relation to the weight factor of multi day walking, the further point about the size of a tripod and how you carry it on a rucksack, and there are now good reasons to reconsider tripods. Additionally, they encourage a rather slow photo-artistic process that is not always consistent with mountain walking when you are constantly on the move. The Pyrenees are an expansive and large scale area and your photographic perception, at walking pace, is slow enough to easily appreciate it. If you do find a micro area you want to explore in more depth you can still do that, and generally find in the bright summer light a tripod is not really necessary.

Expanding on the point above, I suggest there’s a rhythm to a photographic tour of the Pyrenees it’s useful to recognise. On a multi day trip you move relatively slowly through the landscape, and get used to this in terms of your photographic perception and may not recognise micro areas with some potential. Walking generates a momentum and there are times when there’s not much obvious photographic potential so you carry on walking, knowing you’ll find something interesting very shortly.

Note then, your photographic perception has to expand compared to the experience of British hills; that smaller details used as the basis for UK mountain composition tend to be less important and interesting in a vast Pyrenean landscape. When you have 3000 metre peaks receding into an unfathomable distance, that’s more photographically attractive than framing a shot around a tree ten feet away from you. However, while your photographic perception does have to expand, it’s still useful to pay attention to mid range detail – ie not to forget it. Here’s an example: shots of Pic Du Midi D’Osseau typically depict its scale and impressive sculpted qualities. It dominates a large area as a distinct and very fine peak, and in decent light it’s quite easy to get impressive images because it has obvious photogenic qualities. I took several shots from different viewpoints when I first saw it, but went further than this in two respects. Firstly, I noticed an area that provided interesting foreground detail. With a mountain like Pic Du Midi D’Osseau, you don’t need this: a straight shot is beautiful enough, as you see here with Lac Gentau in front:

However, it’s an interesting exercise to look for a different kind of composition with more mid range detail, and here’s what I found:

Secondly, I expanded on my Pic Du Midi D’Osseau photography by deciding it was a mountain I liked very much, that was worth an extended study. Mountains tend to have best viewpoints and you have to recognise what they are. In the case of this one I wanted to document it further as I approached it from a distance, found its best viewpoints, saw it differently as a threatening storm approached, walked round the back of it and then got up close:

To conclude this short article, I’ll speak briefly about another micro area viewpoint a few days later, when I walked up a mountain called Le Taillon which is on the border between France and Spain. Its quite an easy walk if you start from the Breche De Roland Refuge which I think most people probably do; it would be a long and strenuous trek if you started from down in Gavarnie up to its 3144 m height. I did the former, as were maybe 50 or so other people over the course of a few hours, and I didn’t see anyone else notice this viewpoint and stop to photograph it. It’s one of my favourite images from my 14 days of walking, to some extent because of the big panoramic view but more importantly because of the light and detail. Notice the bottom left corner and its shadows and textures, and consider how this adds to the overall effect:

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book