Mountain Portraits

Balancing ambient light and flash in the mountains

Towards the end of the summer, I had the pleasure of supporting and photographing a group Teachers from Bristol, attempting the Three Peaks Challenge. This involves climbing our three highest mountains, Snowdon, Scafell, and Ben Nevis all in under 24 hours. The images supporting this blog were mostly from the dawn assault on Ben Nevis, for us, the final Mountain on the challenge.

Photographically the challenges were great, we were starting before dawn, and heading up into what was likely to be intense mountain sunshine. The team was tight on time, having around 5 hours left in their 24-hour window, to have made it to the summit, and returned to the Nevis Inn carpark. In my supporting role, I had just shared the night drive from the Lake District and hadn’t slept. For me this meant keeping up with the team, and having the ability to race ahead at times to capture great images, and then repeat as we climbed the highest mountain in the UK. So, this for me was both a physical and technical challenge of endurance, not dissimilar to the challenges of wedding photography.

The first image was taken before the sun had risen. The scene from behind the group looked superb, with a tiny crescent moon visible in the night sky. The team had headtorches, and the light of these danced on the rocks of the path as they strode off strongly up the mountain. To create a leading line of light, I gave my head torch to Al, the final group member, and asked him to illuminate the path between him and the rest of the group. I set my trusty Nikon D750 to ISO2500, and shooting on manual, set a shutter speed of 1/160th and an aperture of f1.6. As I was hand holding the camera, the challenge was to get enough light onto my sensor, keeping noise reasonable, and gaining a sharp image. I was keen to ensure the Moon was visible in the top right of the frame, and with the light illuminating the path, we ended up with a great composition. My lens of choice for the day was the fantastic Sigma 35mm f1.4, a superb lens for my weddings, and a perfect focal length for the mountain portraits. Baring in mind we were walking rapidly in the dark, I was very pleased with the outcome.

The second image has the group were about half way up Ben Nevis, I’d run ahead to capture them coming into view with the gorgeous mountains of Northwest Scotland in the background. For this shot I had managed to reduce the ISO to 800, with the shutter speed 1/250 and aperture f2.8. This exposure was just under the cameras meter by about a stop and a half. This conscious slight under exposure really enhanced the lovely colors in both the sky, and the distant mountains.

The third image was from slightly further up the mountain, for this one I wanted to capture the glorious colors of the background, whilst putting a little light into the faces of the team members as they approached. So here I left the ISO at 800, reduced the aperture to f4 in order to increase the depth of field and stand a better chance of capturing all the team in focus. At 1/250s the background looked great. All that was left to do was to switch on my Profoto A1, and reduce the flash intensity by 1.5 stops, and then catch the image as the team strode past. My adjustment of the flash intensity was based on experience, there was no time to take a test image and adjust, as the team were not stopping. I have found the Profoto A1 a dependable workhorse, reliably providing me with beautiful light wherever I should need it.

At the top of Ben Nevis, we were now in bright sunlight, and gathered around the triangulation point, we had just a few moments together before the team started their rapid descent. Here I once again had the sun behind the group, and used my Profoto A1 to fill in. My exposure here was ISO200 1/160s at f8, and once again the TTL exposure on the A1 was reduced by about 1.5 stops.

Just before he led the team back down the mountain, I managed to grab Jack for a portrait,
My exposure here was ISO200 1/640s at f8, and once again the TTL exposure on the A1 reduced by about 1.5 stops. Having the subject backlit by the sun, and then have the flash fill in the light onto the subject, you get great separation, with the subject really standing out. The process was as simple as… Meter for the ambient light to ensure we have the glorious colors of the distant mountains, and then add the flash to expose correctly for the person. I love the pride on Jack’s face, and the almost empty whisky flash in his hands.

And to conclude, a lovely natural group shot of the magnificent team. This was captured in the Lake District, approaching half way through their challenge.
Here with no worries about the light, I could take the exposure down to ISO100, 1/200s at f3.2. By having the sun behind the group, they were nicely backlit, with flattering reflected light in their faces.

My thanks to the team, and I’m glad to have been there to capture this tremendous effort.
Whilst I spend lots of my professional life shooting weddings, I do love the variety that comes from taking portraits in the most amazing of places. Get in contact if you have a shoot opportunity in mind, I’m always up for the next challenge!

Rob Helliwell