"Little people, big mountains." That's how alpine adventure photographer Kamil Tamiola sums up his aesthetic. "I always explain it's little people, big mountains and clouds. You can really break it down to these very simple things. But there is a very powerful message these photos convey. You can build massive, dramatic, epic stories out of this. Or you can put the guy in the ice cave and just illuminate him and use the ice as a reflector. You don't have to do more. It's a very simple visual language. Using scale, using weather conditions… All these tiny factors tell a story. People going on an epic journey in the big mountains. The clouds emphasize the drama and show the scale of the mountains and the challenge the climbers had.
"I believe photos are made of visual elements," Tamiola says, "visual features. It's a visual language that's used to communicate things. For example, the expressiveness of the faces of the people, or using angles to communicate the story, like an establishing wide-angle scene, or a tight telephoto to bring in some action. It is all a visual language, and that's why I call it visual storytelling."
Unlike an editorial photographer who might accompany a climbing team as it surmounts a new obstacle, Tamiola puts his visual storytelling approach to work on commercial assignments. So he strives to eliminate chance and ensure the success of a shoot by bringing together the ideal subject in the perfect location at just the right time. It's all about preparation.
"I really spend a lot of time thinking about the location," Tamiola says. "Ninety percent of the actual work is on preparation. I spend a lot of time looking for information, talking to mountain guides, telling them I'm looking for a place where I have a massive mountain, or a wall of granite, or a place where the glacier is very blue with lots of features and open space. And then we spend lots of time going over pictures and sometimes hiking to locations, because I'm 20 minutes from Mont Blanc. I tell people this is what I've found on Google images, this is where we are going to go, I believe that if the clouds will kick in we'll have lots of drama, lots of interesting things happening."
Tamiola takes a rigorous, almost scientific approach to preparation, and for good reason: he holds a Ph.D. in applied physics. The day we spoke he had just been granted a provisional patent for an algorithm he developed to accurately calculate nighttime long exposures. When Tamiola speaks of his experiences testing cameras or lenses, or how the inverse square law factors into capturing nighttime imagery, or how a particular bit of software has been better engineered than another, he's bringing to bear a Cambridge education in a field of study that applies directly to photography. When Kamil Tamiola talks, photographers should listen.
Tamiola is so diligent in preparing for his climbs because he's a big believer in taking control of a photo shoot, not only for the sake of the dramatic images he's set out to create but also so that he and every other member of his team makes it back safely.
"The beauty of working in any mountain environment," he says, "is that getting up the mountain is 50% of the success. And the other 50% is getting safely down. This applies not just to photography but to any activity which involves mountains. Statistically, 80% of the accidents in the high mountains happen on the descent. You're tired, euphoria kicks in, you're happy, 'Alright, we wrapped it up, the weather was good!' These accidents aren't spectacular or dramatic. Armageddon style things don't happen usually in the mountains. Mountains rarely fall apart. What happens is people do stupid things, like not clipping carabiners or not tying the ends of the rope and they rappel off the rope. Or unclipping on the glacier to go faster, and then they just enter a crevasse. Silly, ridiculous things. This is the other side of outdoor photography in the mountains."
Weather is also a major risk factor. Storms arise in mere minutes and can trap climbers on a treacherous descent or pin them to a glacier as lightning cascades all around. Being caught off guard by an impending storm is bush league, a definite no-no. It's rigorous preparation that gives Tamiola the absolute confidence in the success of a shoot and the safety of his team.
For the uninitiated, here is how Tamiola says mountaineering photographs are usually made. As part of a team of a handful of climbers, the photographer is roped to his colleagues for safety—just as they would be for any other climb. Because of their proximity, wide angle lenses are the order of the day; subjects are literally tethered within a few meters of the camera. On occasion he may reach an area where he can anchor himself to the mountain and ask advanced climbers to repeat a section of the climb for the sake of a photograph. This is when the expertise and professionalism of his team is especially important.
"This is what I explain to marketing people," Tamiola says. "I will be working with mountain professionals, people who are basically paid to do their job. And their job is to get my ass safely on and off the mountain, not to have casualties there. Because this is serious. People die doing this. And the second thing is, when I ask them for something, they just do it. They won't be like, oh, I don't feel like doing that."
The more technical a climb, the more safety equipment is needed, which limits the amount of photographic equipment Tamiola can carry. At more easily accessible locations he has used Phase One medium format digital cameras along with Elinchrom and Profoto strobes. Most of the time, though, he prefers a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with natural light—or, on rare occasions, a Speedlite.
For the image of a climber swinging an ice axe as she ascends a sheer ice wall, Tamiola filled the backlit shadows with a Canon 580EX II. For a shot of an ice climber at night, the cave was illuminated with Elinchrom Quadra strobes—enabled, of course, by a fair amount of preparation.
"I went the day before to see how it looked," Tamiola explains. "I knew the climb, I knew it was stable, they're professional ice climbers, they told me they could climb it 200 times, so I looked at this hole from many angles. And then of course we go in the middle of the night, we bring all this junk, we try to keep it warm, because at -20C˚ batteries discharge immediately. And it's a completely different type of shoot, where I already know what I'm aiming for, and of course I can't see how it looks, but I know what I'm looking for, I know what the safety margin is, I know should the weather fail—and the weather failed, because it started snowing on this shoot quite heavily—I know what to do. That's exactly the difference between doing it on the professional level and going on a hippy happy adventure where maybe we'll do it or not. No no no. If I can't do it, I have a plan B. If the weather is bad here, plan B is to go there. If there's no plan B, there must be plan C."
Prepared as he may be, Tamiola refers again and again to his love for experimentation. It's how he discovers new techniques and new locations and how just a few years ago he discovered a love for nighttime photography. Shortly thereafter he made an image that would go viral, bring him a modicum of internet fame and accelerate his photography career. It's an image of a man outside his tent, in the middle of the night, preparing for a climb.
"The photo is pretty cool actually," he says, "because it's a blend of adventure and long exposure photography. There are lots of things happening. Lots of people accuse me that this photo has been Photoshopped completely, because they could not believe that you could combine long exposure photography of celestial objects, the starry skies, and having a person with a head torch and things happening. It has been taken in the very heart of the Mont Blanc basin. In the background you have one of the summits of Mont Blanc, and on it you have climbers with headlamps. The photo is taken exactly at three in the morning. Why? Because this is the moment that people start their climb to the summit. At that moment, you have to wake up, drag your ass from the tent, set up… and that's what this guy is doing. This photo is for me the essence of what I like about mountaineering. It's about understanding where you are, understanding how we need to do things, committing to it, dragging your ass out at night, when it's very cold—really it's annoyingly cold—and you look at the sky and the stars and it's surreal. It's just surreal."
Tamiola edited this image as he does all of his photographs, relying on what he calls the absolute best RAW processing algorithm on the market.
"The whole processing happens in Capture One," he says. "It's absolutely the best when it comes to debayering and really squeezing the last bit of color out of the files. And I say this as a scientist. This is why when Phase One approached me it wasn't about money or getting a Phase One camera to work with, or a self-marketing thing. I said, 'I've used your software and it's awesome, and if I could be associated with it, yes please.' It's not the best software, it's actually quite slow, but [technically speaking] it gets you far more. It's really advanced."
The scientist turned photographer is confident in his findings because of his testing, which again brings him back to that love of experimentation. He may focus his efforts on preparation and safety, but this is all in service of an idea—so that when he's on location in the Alps, up before the sun, shivering cold and monitoring a changing weather pattern, he's set himself up for success. By constructing a framework he is free to improvise, to experiment with all of the variables of weather, lens, lighting and composition. If it weren't for experimenting, he may not be a mountain photographer at all. He might still be in a lab in the Netherlands, doing whatever it is applied physicists do, working with a photospectrometer instead of a DSLR. If not for the love of experimentation that ultimately led to a career change, the world of Alpine adventure visual storytelling would be missing a strong, clear voice.
"For me," he says, "photography is about experimenting. And this applies the same to outdoor photography of any sort. I always explain it's not just about a powerful visual that tells a story, but it's about experimenting—not just with the settings of the camera, but with the weather, with the landscape, or with the scenarios, or with lights. This is what excites me. I love being in the mountains. That's why we live in the Alps. But at the end of the day, you know it's always very exciting when you're in a new place and you can really experiment. With bad weather kicking in, you've planned a nice photo shoot and you just have to say okay, with this weather, what can we do?"
Kamil Tamiola's Gear
- Canon EOS 5D Mark III
- Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II
- Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS
- Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II
- Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS
- Profoto B1s
- Elinchrom Quadra RX
- Canon EOS C100 for motion work
- DitoGear OmniHead (6-axis motion-controlled head system) attached to Cinevate heavy-duty sliders for time-lapse work
- G-Technology G|DRIVE ev ATC waterproof external hard drive
- Mamiya 645DF+ with Phase One IQ250 or IQ280 backs
- 28mm, 40-80mm and 80mm Schneider-Kreuznach lenses
- Phase One Capture One 8 Pro software
To see more of Kamil Tamiola's photography, visit his website at www.alpine-photography.com.