Dr. Arun Nayak, who did the Chadar trek in January 2013, shares a few tips on photography. Although his tips are related to the Chadar trek, they can be applied to most treks effectively! So go on, read and click away!
The Chadar trek occupies a unique position among all treks in India. The trek essentially is a flat walk on the frozen Zanskar river (60 km from Leh) and happens in a narrow window of mid Jan to mid Feb. The sheet of ice that covers the river is called as Chadar (Blanket of ice). The constant sub zero temperatures (daytime -10 to nights -25) poses challenges that test one’s fitness and the very ability of clicking a picture. Photographers often return with an awe-inspiring collection of pictures that tell unbelievable stories. I just returned from this trek and have compiled some suggestions.
Equipment selection and Exposure
- Cameras do function well at those temperatures but carry enough spare batteries –Most DSLRs and compact zooms function just fine. Preserve battery life by keeping them in a fleece jacket pocket on you through day and night from the very moment you reach Leh (or the base camp of your trek). Night photography sucks in lot of battery so do carry enough batteries. I had a 5 yr old Nikon D80 and carried 4 batteries for a 7 day trip. There are no charging points once the trek starts beyond Leh. This is true of any other trek once you leave the basecamp.
It’s better to carry individual batteries than battery packs that make the camera heavy.
- If you plan to capture wildlife, take a telephoto lens. However, there is not much of wildlife that would require a telephoto lens on the Chadar trek. So you may choose to leave it behind. A wide angle lens with a decent zoom (18-135mm, 18-200 mm) would be adequate for virtually all your shots. A wider lens would be even better. A full frame camera is useful but can become very heavy to carry around
- Filters are not really needed – The walk has long patches in shaded valleys making filters redundant. If you have to use ND filters, carry the ones that can be held in front of the camera rather than screwing them on. Changing and operating filters with double gloved hands is difficult at best.
- Carry an Extreme card, remote control – Especially for night photography, for faster writing speeds use an Extreme card. Typically night exposures last more than half a minute in ‘bulb’ range. Even in moonlight the exposures may range upto 3 minutes on average. A regular card takes 3 minutes to write a 10 MP RAW file of a 3 minute exposure. Longer writing time equals to more battery usage and more exposure of the camera and yourself to biting cold. The battery typically shows lesser charge at night in the open. Warming the battery next to a fire actually increase its life. Typical exposure settings for a night shot in moonlight are ISO 800, f/6.3, shutter speed 180 sec+.
- Learn to use the remote control well before you begin the trek and plan your composition and exposure settings well before you click. There is absolutely no scope to fumble with long exposures at -25 degrees.
- Use gloved fingers – Remember that the camera becomes extremely cold to direct touch. Try to click with gloved fingers all the time as far as possible.
- Prefocus your lens to infinity before night sets in and switch your camera and/or lens to manual focus mode – If your lens does not have the infinity marker for manual focusing, prefocus your camera to infinity in the evening. Autofocusing is virtually impossible and frustrating at night. TIP You could use a bright head torch to shine on a far off object to try autofocusing if necessary.
- Use +1 eV compensation with evaluative (matrix) metering for the pictures clicked in the shaded valleys with the sunny sky above.
- Use shade White balance in the shaded valleys to get the right saturation of the mountains. Using Auto white balance could render “cold” blue images.
- Wrap your camera in a warm muffler or two or if possible keep it inside your sleeping bag at night.
- The camera has virtually no condensation on its glass as the temperatures at ALL time are virtually below 0. Camera care would involve using a lens cap and a dust blower at best.
- Keep your poncho/raincoat handy only for heavy snowfall or rain. Mild snowfall that can be brushed off with your hands does not damage the camera.
- Do not venture too close to the edge of the Chadar. It may give away landing you and your equipment into the water.
- The porters often light a campfire to warm themselves. The fire throws interesting warm hues onto the mountains and trees.
- Colourful tents with torchlight inside also makes wonderful foreground.
- Star trails can be recorded with exposures above 180 seconds.
- Porters often travel in a single line pulling their sledges makes for interesting patterns.
- Look out for trekkers or porters wearing red jackets. They offer striking contrast to the scene.
- Ice crystals on the Chadar make interesting patterns.
- Look out for snow leopard, fox, bear pugmarks.
- Try to capture the life of the porters and villagers in tents, caves, villages, traveling on the way to Chadar etc.
- Ladakhi summer portraits may be cliche but portraits in winter with cold burnt faces against snowed out backgrounds are certainly not.
Planning your trip
- Plan your trip around full moon – The Chadar in moonlight is visual poetry. The moonlight also provides excellent light to give you fascinating pictures. In absence of moonlight, it is very difficult to obtain any worthwhile frame an hour after sunset.
- For your flight landing into Leh, try to grab a window seat in the left row for a better view of the mountains as the right side gets the bright rising sun that can make the mountains look hazy.
- Trekking upto Naerak and climbing to the village above takes 6 nights/7 days of trekking and gives zillion photo opportunities.
- Do not get over excited at Leh – Leh is at an altitude of approx 11,500 ft. It takes atleast 2 day to acclimatise and avoid AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), which can potentially end your trip even before it starts. The beauty of Leh, Ladakh can cause you to get excited and make you run around sightseeing and clicking almost everything that you see. This exertion can lead to AMS. Discuss thoroughly with your tour leader ways to avoid AMS.
- Observe the moon rise and moon set times each day to plan your pictures. When you reach the campsite, observe for potential composition ideas with respect to the direction of moonrise
- Hire a porter to carry your equipment, tripod etc if that’s possible. The porter costs typically Rs. 250 per day. The tripod metal becomes freezing cold and it is literally painful to operate with frozen fingers. So plan the entire shot well before you open out your tripod.
- Do not wander off the trail in your zest to click pictures.
While these tips are based on Dr.Arun Nayak’s experiences at Chadar, these are self on any trek, especially on snow treks.
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