Plant Photography in the Himalaya

Plant photography - a different approach Part 1 - the camera is the LEAST important consideration


I have hesitated to comment much for the whole of the group, knowing that what I shall be saying is likely to come as a surprise, perhaps a shock. It is not easy to find the correct words to challenge conventional wisdoms, conventions or behaviour.

May I repeat my offer to provide INDIVIDUAL advice, communicated in private, with any members wishing to improve their plant photography.  The solutions are there but will not be "quick & easy". I ask a lot of questions and my 'students' (no matter what age or seniority) will need to exhibit effort & dedication, over not just days but months and years. If that has not been a deterrent, you are most welcome to contact me individually, allowing advice IN PRIVATE.

Returning to advice which would apply in almost all cases, I shall begin with what I actually by THE CAMERA BEING THE LEAST IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION.  Yes, one needs a camera of a certain standard but THESE DAYS the quality of lenses in even modest COMPACT cameras are of a REMARKABLE standard.  With application and some skill, EXCELLENT results can be achieved.  One does NOT need a LARGE, expensive, top-of-the-range camera.
Indeed, for many such cameras are MUCH MORE TROUBLE THAN THEY ARE WORTH and I would advise AGAINST purchasing one!

However, what matters MOST is NOT your camera but SAFETY and COMFORT.  One needs appropriate FOOTWEAR and CLOTHING to be able to spend the DAY photographing plants.  This is particularly important for those venturing into the HILLS and MOUNTAINS. Though the principal applies anywhere in the countryside.

See the attached image taken by my eldest son several years ago in the UK (I use a smaller camera now) attired in waterproofs, walking boots, woolly hat and fingerless woolly gloves with my rucksack on my back, glasses on a cord round my neck. I felt warm enough and comfortable.  The waterproofs meant I would not have to RETREAT if there was any heavy rain for part of the day.  I was on a slope on a hill amongst chalk grassland which is rich in flowers.

On my visits to Indian sub-continent, I spend the vast majority of my time wearing WALKING BOOTS!!  This applies not just when I am trekking (camping) in the mountains or days out exploring e.g. from Gulmarg up to Khelanmarg or Aphawat; from Narkanda to Huttoo in H.P., above the Rohtang Pass, also in H.P. or on Phulchoki mountain above Godawari, Nepal.  Also when walking around Srinagar, Manali, Shimla or Kathmandu.

They provide ankle-support whilst the soles grip the surface better.   This reduces slips and ankle twists -either of which have the potential to ruin not just a day out but WEEKS of potential BOTANIZING.

TRAINERS (or similar footwear) do NOT provide good ankle-support and often their soles grip poorly.  How UN-FASHIONABLE I AM but I could not care less!

I also use a walking stick.  I started this in the 1980s (when I was still in my twenties - young, fit and strong) and remember buying one that served me well for years when leading a botanical tour in Pakistan in 1987.  More recently, I have used strong folding walking-sticks (which can be stored in my small day ruck-sack when not required).

In addition to helping me avoid falls on SLIPPERY ground (the rocks and steps at lower levels can be especially slippery), the stick helps me negotiate steeper ground than I otherwise could AND can enable me to reach lower branches of trees/tall shrubs/climbers, enabling me to take close-ups of their flowers or fruits.

This brings me to other clothing.  Having water-proof CAGOULES (jackets) and OVER-TROUSERS is a MUST.  Along with a warm woolly hat and gloves.  Whenever I travel to the mountains of India I take a spare set of these items to be used by my guides or local travelling companions - who seldom have or bring such items. Clearly, there are different conditions in HOT and HUMID conditions.

In both the UK and India, jeans are FASHIONABLE but UNSUITABLE for the mountains!!  Yes, they may be tough and hard-wearing but when wet, cling to the legs, tiring walkers and providing almost zero protection from wind.  IF conditions are COLD, this is a SERIOUS situation, which can lead to HYPOTHERMIA and even death!  Or accidents due to slips/falls/bad decision-making.

Let me give an example.  Some years ago, I was accompanied by the young, fit and strong son (in his late twenties I think) of the local man who had been the Sirdar for two botanical treks I led in the Miyah Nullah, Lahaul, H.P. in the 1980s.
He had acted as guide for many treks in the NW Himalaya.  I hired him for the day to accompany me above the Rohtang Pass (4000m+) in H.P.  I requested he come properly equipped for a FULL day.  A 4WD vehicle was used to reach the top of the Rohtang and then we set-off in reasonable weather.  He, unfortunately, was attired in trainers, jeans, a jacket plus VERY large, strong umbrella (these are used by golfers) - no hat or gloves.  I was NOT impressed, having ASSUMED he would be PROPERLY dressed.....

After a couple of hours the wind got up and it started raining.  This presented NO problem for me but his umbrella did not function well under such conditions, he had no waterproof over-trousers, his jeans a SERIOUS problem - as was his damp foot-wear.
I was left with no option but to abandon the day EARLY - despite him being younger and MUCH stronger, coping with the altitude
better than I. He was starting to get VERY COLD and when COLD & WET, it is easy to SLIP on rocks & boulders, doing oneself SERIOUS harm. I was entitled to be UNHAPPY at the wasted opportunity of exploring at even higher altitude.  IN THE INTERESTS OF SAFETY WE HEADED DOWN.

Had he been a photographer, he would RAPIDLY have not CARED LESS about taking photos and even if he had, they were likely to have been of poor quality.

UNLESS ONE IS SUITABLY DRESSED TO KEEP WARM & DRY, MOTIVATION AND DEDICATION ARE SOON LOST, WITH NOT ONLY GREAT  PHOTOGRAPHIC OPPORTUNITIES MISSED BUT RISKS OF HARMING ONESELF IN MOUNTAIN ENVIRONMENTS INCREASED.

AMONGST LOWER HILLS, THE RISKS ARE NOT AS GREAT, BUT GETTING SOAKING WET, SELDOM HELPS AND ONE CAN SLIP EVEN WHEN WALKING AT MODEST ELEVATIONS!

TO "NOTICE" PLANTS AND PHOTOGRAPHIC OPPORTUNITIES - NO MATTER WHAT THE CONDITIONS, ONE NEEDS TO FEEL COMFORTABLE.  RELIABLY AND CONSISTENTLY TAKING QUALITY PHOTOS ALL DAY IS DEMANDING, INDEED OFTEN EXHAUSTING MENTALLY.  IT IS SUCH A PITY TO WASTE OPPORTUNITIES WITH UNSUITABLE FOOT-WEAR OR CLOTHING.

I am aware that WALKING BOOTS are NOT the norm in India and NOT readily available.  BUT BOTANISTS (AMATEUR OR PROFESSIONAL) MUST PUT ASIDE CONSIDERATIONS OF FASHION.

During my last visit to Kashmir I hired a Kashmiri recommended to me (he lived near Tangmarg) for a couple of days walking on Khelanmarg & Aphawat.  I brought with me, waterproofs and warm gloves & a hat.  He was willing to use the water-proof jacket but DESPITE a MONUMENTAL torrential down-pour, REFUSED to put on the water-proof trousers - IN CASE HE WAS SEEN WEARING THEM BY SOMEONE WHO KNEW HIM......

I remember during my 1983 Expedition in the mountains of Kashmir, walking through the streets of Srinagar in my water-proof clothing during a down-pour - this caused quite a stir and much amusement amongst the local residents, who either got wet, used an umbrella (with limited success) or sheltered from the rain.   THIS REMINDED ME OF THE SONG WITH THE VERSE, "MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMAN GO OUT IN THE NOON-DAY SUN"...

I do NOT wear walking boots around Delhi in temperatures of 40C plus.....

I intend to cover other aspects of plant photography in further postings but this is already sufficient to digest.....
Nice advisory to the researchers working in subalpine and alpine zones. It is often said that weather is not bad, the clothing makes it bad or good in mountains.
While going through this I remembered one of my friend who because of his bad protection gear nearly escaped snow blindness. Work in high altitude is only possible when one is ready for all situations of weather. AND field works in high altitudes are often less and restricted to summers only; one has to utilize each and every opportunity which may be denied in lack of proper clothing.

Fair enough about 'alpine' and 'high altitude' but MUCH of what I have to say applies at lower elevations as well. 
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