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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A View From The Top

Think about the sun to plan your time in the mountains, and you’ll get your most inspiring shots from the summits

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I ultimately settled on Windom Peak, a Fourteener in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, which is surrounded by the soaring granite peaks of the Needle Mountains. I had done a 4x5 shoot from the summit of Windom in 2006, so I knew the route—a big advantage when navigating by headlamp.

I took the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from Durango to Needleton, then backpacked six miles in to the Chicago Basin and camped. The next morning at 1:00 a.m., I began climbing the peak. It was fortunate that I had brought an ice axe and crampons because, at 4:00 a.m., the snowfields at 13,000 feet were rock-hard, and there was no way to kick a step. Properly equipped, however, the climb was easy.

I had timed my shoot to coincide with the full moon, of course. On my first try, the moon was just barely above the horizon at sunrise, and its pale white disc was almost lost against the bright white sky near the horizon. I tried again the next day, when the moon was higher in the sky at sunrise and therefore stood out prominently against blue sky. That effort produced "Windom Peak Panorama," which has become my most successful "Sunrise from the Summit" image.

Keep Innovating
Even images shot at sunrise from 14,000 feet can become repetitive unless you strive constantly to innovate and improve. In January 2010, I shot sunrise from Quandary Peak, the first Fourteener I had done in winter. I followed it with a sunset/moonrise shoot on Mount Elbert later that month. In March, I shot the full moon setting over Wetterhorn Peak from the summit of Uncompahgre, a peak so remote in winter that I didn't see a soul for three days.

In the summer of 2010, I carried the idea of an ultrawide panorama still further and shot a 360º panorama of moonrise at sunset from the summit of Mount Eolus, a spectacular knife blade of a peak near Windom. Two days later, I shot a 360º panorama of moonset at sunrise from the summit of Sunlight Peak, whose summit is so small and so exposed that I refused to actually stand up on it.

Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm ƒ/1.4 G ED
Packing Light For A Summit Shoot
Glenn Randall has made the elite collection of 14,000-foot peaks his stomping ground, but you don't have to aim for the highest mountains to employ his tips and techniques for making dramatic photographs from a summit. Even modest mountains can offer spectacular photo opportunities.

Getting to the top of any mountain isn't a trivial task. You need to be in good shape, and you should take care to wear boots that offer good support and fit properly. The descent is often harder on your joints than getting up the mountain, so extra items like trekking poles or hiking staffs, particularly a hiking staff that doubles as a monopod, are options for helping to take the strain off your knees.

Keep your photo gear to a minimum. Be realistic about lenses and accessories. A single DSLR, one or two lenses, a polarizer and a graduated ND filter make for a good lightweight kit that will have you ready for just about anything. For the lenses, consider an all-in-one zoom or a wide-angle zoom and a telezoom. If you want to be a real minimalist, consider bringing a DSLR, a 24mm prime lens and a polarizer and an ND filter. Limiting yourself to a single focal length can help concentrate your creative process, and you may get your best images ever.

It's important to keep your gear light for several reasons. For safety, you'll also be hiking with water and some food, a GPS, a small first-aid kit and a jacket in case of unexpected inclement weather. These items take up weight and space. When you add in your photo gear, you end up with a significant amount of weight for an uphill climb. If you overweight yourself, you can be so worn out when you get to the summit that your creativity will suffer. The more photo gear you bring, the less likely you are to take the kind of inspiring photograph that led you to the mountain in the first place.

Although I hope to complete all 54 peaks someday, the goal was never simply to tick them off. Rather, the goal is to come back with outstanding images, and that means carefully considering elements like composition, sunrise and sunset angles and best time of year. Often, it means returning to the same peak for a second or third try. Regardless of how many peaks I eventually do, I cherish each opportunity I can create to climb another Fourteener in the dark and experience the joy of witnessing sunrise from the summit.

You can see more of Glenn Randall's photography, sign up for his monthly newsletter and learn about upcoming workshops by visiting his website at www.glennrandall.com.

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