A summer day starts early in the high Sierras for photographer Elizabeth Carmel. Arriving at the trailhead in total darkness, she straps on her backpack, and for the next hour, with only a headlamp illuminating the path, she treks up a meandering mountain trail.
As dawn’s shadows fade into daybreak, Carmel turns off her headlamp and continues hiking for another half hour. Once at her destination, she becomes steadfast and focused, intently photographing wildflowers, mountain scenery
and macro subjects. With the summer sun reaching its zenith, she packs her gear and heads back to the trailhead.
Carmel is no ordinary backpacking photographer. She’s one of only a handful of professional female landscape photographers who uses medium format, and digital medium format at that. Recipient of a 2006 Hasselblad Master Photographer Award, her images now grace an exhibit at the Hasselblad corporate collection in Sweden.
Her photographs are on display at galleries in California and Washington and at the Nevada Museum of Art. Robert Redford writes of Carmel’s images in his foreword of her first book, Brilliant Waters, "So what would you do if you came upon a sight seen before only to see it as if for the first time? This was the effect Carmel’s work had on me; capturing the power of what exists while elevating the experience through the poetic use of photography."
From Sea Level To High Elevation
Carmel got to the mountains the long way—from the mountainless South. "I had a pretty typical childhood in a nice neighborhood in a university town in Alabama," reflects Carmel. "But I found this environment stifling in my teenage years, and I applied to a university in California."
At the University of California in Berkeley, Carmel studied sustainable development practices, especially as to how they affect small mountain towns. "This led me to jobs in some wonderful areas in the Sierra foothills," says Carmel.
Those wonderful areas in the Sierra foothills also meant a new love affair for Carmel—the Sierra Mountains. A long way from the flat, piney woodlands of her southern upbringing, the high Sierras became her source of inspiration, further serving as a spark igniting her passion for photography. "Once I saw the majestic peaks of the Sierras, I became smitten," she explains. "The mountains, with their varied and dramatic landscapes, became my favorite photographic subject."
Home these days for Carmel, her husband, Olof, and their seven-year-old daughter, Abbey, is the mountain community of Truckee near Lake Tahoe. The jagged peaks surrounding her home beckon her to step outside the ordinary comfort of shooting from the highways winding through the area.
Carmel relishes the challenge of the mountains, much preferring to photograph far from the road system. "For me, roadside photography is very limiting, since it’s difficult to find an image that hasn’t already been taken," she explains.
"My best images are from areas miles from any highway."
To plan for treks into the Sierras, Carmel spends more time preparing physically for the experience than doing anything special equipment-wise. "While I do make sure my gear is in good working condition, it’s critical for me to have myself 'mountain-ready,' she says. "I stay fit by running, cross-country skiing and mountain biking. I use these modes of transportation to get into the backcountry. I also use horses to carry my gear for extended trips into the mountains. With horses, I can carry much more gear."
For equipment preparation, Carmel has a tip: "The main issue for mountain photography is the weather, particularly with cold temperatures. I’ve discovered that non-rechargeable lithium batteries work best in cold temperatures."
As far as special techniques for mountain photography, she has some suggestions to consider, as well: "I do multiple exposures both for aperture and shutter speed. This way, I can combine exposures for maximum depth of field and dynamic range. I also use a split ND filter most of the time since that helps tone down highlights. I always use a tripod—it makes no sense to carry around a 22-megapixel digital back Hasselblad and handhold it."
Unlike most landscape photographers, Carmel often forgoes the ultra-wide-angle perspective. "While I like sweeping-vista compositions, I especially like to use my 300mm to isolate on compositions. I also like images that are slightly abstract but with features that are still recognizable" (300mm for 21/4 medium format is equivalent to about 200mm for 35mm).
Carmel prefers the image size coming out of medium-format digital cameras compared to 35mm size (full frame or small format), but she still has her ties to the 35mm format. "I prefer a rectangular format," she explains, "probably since I developed my eye looking through a 35mm viewfinder. However, I was looking for a mobile camera system that could produce big, clear prints. Medium format does just that."
Why not just go for large format? "I don’t have the patience and personality for the large-format film systems," says Carmel. "I move around much more and take more images than a typical large-format photographer. The image quality with the 22-megapixel digiback for the Hasselblad is amazing—I can create prints that are 60 inches wide." Carmel credits excellence in her equipment as well: "An important part of getting that kind of quality is using good glass—that’s why I like the Hasselblad system."
Developing A Creative Eye
Carmel credits her ability to extract powerful compositions to her constant studying of images by other photographers. She’s also critical of her own work. "When I see something, I usually know if it’s a real winner when I’m taking the shot."
Her ultimate goal is to capture something magical that can’t be expressed in words. "I work hard to find unique views," Carmel says. "I’ve trained my eyes to find visual cues that expose a new angle, a new perspective."
The drive to find a new angle resulted in the theme of Brilliant Waters. "I was looking for a common thread among the images and found a body of my work that focused on water," says Carmel. "I thought this would be a unique angle for the book."
Carmel uses every available second of the day to photograph. "I’ll take hundreds of images on a typical shoot, but only keep three to five images at most. I strive to simplify a scene as much as possible. Shooting at the edges of the day, early morning and late afternoon, is key to getting the right dramatic lighting and color for my compositions. This is especially true for photographing in the Sierras."
For Carmel, there’s more than just capturing images and selling them as prints. An important part of her life and career as a photographer is to use her photography to bring awareness to others about the environment. Both she and her husband donate their photography to promote local and regional conservation efforts. "When I had a book-signing party to launch the release of my book, I donated half the proceeds to the Truckee Donner Land Trust," explains Carmel. "We raised $6,000 for the Trust in two hours." She has also donated photography to other organizations, such as the Trust for Public Lands in San Francisco.
Following The Dream
Conservationist and writer Mardi Murie once said that the only acceptable way women could enter the wilderness was with a man. Many years later, nature writer Ann Zwinger responded by saying the concept of a woman hiking alone in the wilderness is no longer so unsettling. Carmel’s perspective on this issue falls in line with Zwinger’s. "I agree that it’s becoming more acceptable. It isn’t unusual at all to see a woman hiking alone in the Sierras."
For Carmel, she senses more change is occurring for the better. "I’ve encountered very few problems in this career solely because of my gender," says Carmel. "At least in the United States, I think society has moved beyond a lot of sexist stereotypes with my generation, and I think it’s looking even better for my daughter’s generation in that regard."
Acknowledges Carmel, "While photography ignites my passion, I’m blessed to have a very loving family. This alone is the basis for all I’ve accomplished as a photographer." She especially credits her daughter, Abbey. "My daughter is a little muse who showed up one day and changed my outlook forever."
Carmel is also ever mindful of playing a role in motivating others to follow their dreams. But with the field so crowded these days, how can one break in to it? Carmel offers up a piece of advice: "I’d tell anyone interested in a photography career to first establish a niche in their local area. Spend time developing a unique style to your photography."
For Carmel, landscape photography transcends just capturing a photograph. "This career is more a lifestyle than a job. A large part of the experience is witnessing the beauty of the natural world. The more people immerse themselves in that experience and appreciate the importance of wild places, the better this world will be." Not a bad piece of advice from a true mountain woman.
Outdoor photographers need to be able to shoot in the most extreme temperatures. Energizer’s e2 series of lithium batteries are engineered to maintain performance from minus-40 to 140 degrees F. They cost about two and a half times as much as a regular battery, but you actually save money, because they can last from five to seven times longer than normal alkalines. That’s good news for today’s power-hungry cameras and flashes. They’re lighter, they come in most popular sizes (including the mandatory AA battery), and if you don’t use them right away, they have a 15-year shelf life. Contact: Energizer, (800) 383-7323, www.energizer.com.
To see more of Elizabeth Carmel's work, visit www.ElizabethCarmel.com, where her book Brilliant Waters can be purchased. See a portfolio from the book on the Gallery page of the OP website at www.outdoorphotographer.com.