So this is a bit random, posting about clothes in a photography blog?
I’m writing here about clothes for mountain photography because I plan to do a lot of that in 2023 and I realise that so far as equipment goes I am grotesquely under prepared!
So this article is informed more than most of my writing by my ongoing research! Normally I’ll have pretty comprehensive experience of a subject, but in this case I’m new to the field. A few items I already own and can recommend from good experience. I may add items as I go. I’d welcome advice from anyone who has done this already!
Table of Contents
Clothes for Mountain Photography
The mountains in Granada where I live are proper mountains. Mulcahen is the highest peak in Spain at 3482 metres. Compare to Ben Nevis at 1345 metres, or Snowden at 1085 metres. Snow is a constant from early December this year to around March and the temperature up there is way colder than it is on the Costa Tropical (today, La Herradura is 20°, Conchar where I live is 10° and Mulcahen a terrifying -6°).
So a t-shirt and jeans won’t cut it, at any time of year. Cotton is probably the worst fabric to wear as it soaks up sweat and takes a long time to dry.
Photography has different requirements to hiking in that typically a photographer will climb the mountain, or hike miles to a location, expending lots of energy and generating lots of heat, but will then stand around waiting for the light to become optimal for an hour or more. Your core temperature plummets, helped on its way by a sweat-soaked T-shirt and wet feet and jeans! Joking aside, this is dangerous and in extreme conditions can bring on hypothermia.
So without. further ado, let’s do a head-to-toe inventory of what’s needed.
Now some people suit a hat and others don’t. I’ve always been in the latter camp so hats are a necessary evil for me! That being said, the function of the hat in snowy weather is to stop heat escaping from the top of your head. So whether you buy one from Marks and Spencer or a snazzily branded titfer at three times the price, what you need to look out for is a second layer inside the hat made of fleece like material. A simple woolen hat won’t do.
In summer a baseball cap will keep the sun off your head and provide shade for the eyes.
It used to be the case that a balaclava would do this job in winter, but at the cost of looking like a terrorist! These days the preferred option is a tubular neck warmer or snood generally made from polyester or merino wool that can simply sit around your neck keeping it warm, or be pulled up over the nose if the weather turns bad. I use a merino wool snood from Buff.
The only way to keep warm and dry, deal with fluctuating temperatures and have the flexibility to discard clothes when it’s warm and add them when it’s dry is to adopt a layered approach that does not trap moisture (sweat) in the inner layers.
Key to this approach is the weight of individual items. In winter I pack an extra layer in my bag for the ‘standing around taking pictures’ phase. In summer, for any serious hike I’m leaning towards technical wear made of polyester because it doesn’t hold the sweat like cotton.
Summer or Winter, The base layer should wick moisture away from the body towards the outer layers where it can safely evaporate. I favour black merino wool thermals for winter and polyester t-shirts for summer. Avoid cotton at all costs, it traps the moisture. With thermals, you can get a fashion brand or marks and spencer for a quarter of the price. It doesn’t make a difference as this layer will be invisible to the general public!
The mid layer provides insulation, keeping the body heat inside the clothing! It can be a fleece or in winter, a down or artificial insulation filled jacket. Down carries two disadvantages. The way it is gathered makes me feel uncomfortable about using it and it tends to clump if it gets wet. An artificial sunstitute like Primaloft is environmentally sound and just as effective. The advantage of artifiially insulated jackets is they fold up small and light so can be very easily carried if you get too hot. In summer, the mountains can be cool, so a fleece is the preferred option.
The top layer gives protection against rain, snow and wind. Preferably Goretex but in the summer, in Spain that’s probably unnecessary.
A soft shell is basically a breathable jacket that offers water and wind resistance. This type of jacket is sometimes used as a mid layer in mild conditions. I have a Rab Superflux Hoodie that works as a top layer. in summer when it cools down in the evening.
The hard shell is actually waterproof. Non breathable, this type of outer layer is simply designed to keep the weather out and relies on the mid layer to keep the warmth in. I use a Men’s Downpour Eco Waterproof Jacket from Rab in the summer and a Goretex jacket in the winter.
Avoid jeans on anything other than the most casual expedition, being cotton based they’ll soak up water and they are unfeasibly expensive. I use Craghoppers which are water and insect repellant. You can get a pair of waterproof over trousers to protect against serious rain – mine lasted about ten minutes in a downpour.
In sub-zero temperatures you need to keep your hands warm if you plan to change lenses or make any adjustments to the settings of your camera. I have ridiculed the concept of photography gloves in the past but a Christmas gift of a pair of Vallaret Markhof Pro V3 gloves changed my mind!
These gloves are toasty warm with merino wool inners and feature a non-slip grip and fingertips that fold back allowing you to expose the minimum amount of skin to the elements. If that’s not enough, there is a small pocket on the back of each glove, large enough to stash a memory card or a tripod key while you work.
Merino wool hiking socks were an absolute eye opener for me. They come in three grades, for different conditions, light, medium and heavy. My medium pair have two layers which helps prevent blisters developing and keeps my feet warm and dry. I also have a pair of waterproof, merino wool based socks from Sealskinz that I use in properly inclement weather.
Nothing ruins a trip more than wet feet, be it summer or winter, avoid at all costs.
If your feet get wet in sub zero temperatures, your enjoyment of the trip will be significantly impaired! I’ve been a big fan of Salomon boots and shoes since my skiing days and I recently acquired a pair of Salomon Quest Element Gore-Tex Boots with a massive pre Christmas discount bringing them in at less than €100.
I’ve always been sceptical of walking poles, possibly because I grew up on a farm and was used to walking for miles without poles, but no more. When carrying a heavy camera bag on my back, walking poles reduce stress on my feet, legs, knees and back by improving my walking position and as a result, sharing the load more evenly across the whole body.
I joined a group of seasoned mountaineers on a recreational walk recently and found myself the only one without poles. They help with your balance and with exercising your arms as well as your legs. They are not designed to be used as crutches! Since I started going on longer walks I’ve found them invaluable. I bought a pair of Leki Khumbu Trekking Poles and they definitely make a difference.
The thing about camera bags is that generally they allow no room for anything else apart from photography kit. As you might imagine, a shoot on Mulcahen requires at minimum, spare clothes, extra layers to add when you get to the photography part of the trip, food, map, compass, GPS, and so on.
The only brand I’ve found that is convincing in addressing this requirement is F-Stop. I own three of their bags, different sizes for different type of trip, check out my review F-Stop Mountain Photography Bags.
GPS & Compass
GPS is one of the great innovations of the 21st Century. I can get an app for my iPhone that will direct me turn by turn to a pre-planned destination. But iPhone batteries have a horribly short charge time, especially in the cold. Hiking in the Sierra Nevada, you can lose your bearings calmingly easily.
In fact one of the many serious fires that break out from time to. time in the autumn was caused by two British hikers who managed to get lost on the mountains in the summer. They sorted a small fire hoping someone would see the smoke, the fire spread and they were lucky not to be burned alive, a similar fire last year destroyed 3000 hectares of mountainside around the Lecrin Valley.
To combat the iPhone problem, I have GPS available on my Garmin watch, which gives me nearly three weeks of electricity.
Experienced mountain people take a map and a compass just in case of battery failure.
This section wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of the many websites and apps that feature downloadable trips made by other people. Outdoor Active, Wikiloc and AllTrails are all very user friendly and save a lot of time in the research stages of a trip.
Clothes for Mountain Photography was inspired by the experience of getting absolutely drenched in a winter rainstorm in the Poqueira valley, My camera bag soaked up water, my trousers proved to be water resistant, not waterproof and my cycling jacket, although waterproof was too small to fit happily over the rest of my layers. It also has no pockets!
It does represent quite a sizeable investment, but mountains are cold, beaches are warm and if you want to photograph mountains, be prepared for quite a radical change of temperature the higher you go.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like an earlier post, Cycling and Photography which talks about my adventures purchasing a mountain bike with the idea it would give me added reach for shorter expeditions.
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