Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how your favorite photographers capture the images they take? Digital Photo Pro’s monthly column “On Assignment” is where Canon Explorers of Light, past and present, share a backstage look at one of their favorite assignments and how they delivered the goods. This month we go On Assignment with Erin Babnik, a photographic artist, educator, writer, and speaker.
The typical challenges of landscape photography involve a wide range of practical and creative concerns regardless of the location, but high alpine environments present special difficulties. From navigation to timing and composition, all of the usual complications that photographers face become especially challenging in areas where physical demands and outdoor hazards are part of the equation.
In preparation for a book project that requires some variety, I’ve been expanding my coverage of the French Alps. Trips that I’ve made to the region in recent years have all been for workshops, which has restrained my own output somewhat.
When I’m teaching, I tend not to do much of my own photography, and my workshop itineraries feature areas that are relatively accessible. Therefore, I decided that this summer I would take advantage of pandemic-related scheduling changes and schedule time to create photographs for my book, focusing on areas that are more challenging to reach. My primary goal for this particular image was to feature one of the many magnificent peaks in the French Alps that relatively few people ever see.
Plotting and Planning
In my view, exploration is extremely valuable to the creative process, and it can start even before the boots hit the ground. My first step in exploring for this assignment was to spend hours poring over topographical maps, alpinism forums, and other online resources to identify prominent peaks that looked inspiring. Invariably, researching any area leads to finding others that look interesting and causes a chain reaction of discovery.
Working through the momentum of curiosity, I ultimately identified some areas that are quite obscure as photography destinations but that seemed to hold untapped potential for getting creative with a camera. Photographers have much to gain from engaging in this kind of research, so I will omit specific location and mountain names from this article in the spirit of encouragement.
After creating a shortlist of subjects, I focused my attention on a particularly majestic mountain. One of the highest peaks in its massif, the mountain rises to nearly 13,000 feet, with a prominence of more than 1,500 feet over its craggy neighbors. The pyramidal shape of its most sheer face is utterly enchanting, a beautifully sculptural form that exudes a great sense of balance and magnitude.
Some virtual exploring with Google Earth helped me to locate a promising vantage point that aligned nicely with the shoulders of the massif. Within that general area, I would have a prime view of the peaks and acres of terrain to explore in choosing a composition.
I arrived in France during one of my favorite periods to visit the French Alps, early in summer when snow is mostly gone at lower elevations and runoff gushes generously from higher up. Although this period usually brings a lot of storms, the weather forecast predicted completely blank skies for the first day that I could pursue my project.
Cloudless skies tend to be unkind to mountain scenes because harsh light will wash out colors and complicate the landscape with contrasty patchworks of hard shadows and glaring highlights. A little light diffusion from clouds goes a long way in mountain photography, but clear skies can be preferable for the process of exploration.
When there are no clouds to block the sun’s reach, it is possible to observe exactly which features of a mountain and its surroundings receive light during a particular time of year. Therefore, I decided to spend the cloudless day doing some substantial exploring.
The First Ascent: Exploration
The area that I had targeted was not exceptionally remote, but it was deep enough in the wilderness to be off the radar for most photographers, and the trail that reaches it is no easy stroll. A round-trip requires hiking seven miles with 2,700 feet of elevation gain and the same amount in descent.
Carrying a backpack full of camera gear and other essentials will make any trek more strenuous, but the rough surfaces of this route cause it to seem especially onerous. As the trail zigs and zags steeply up exposed cliffs, tall steps hewn out of the rock alternate with long sections of rubble, culminating in a series of chutes near the top that are fitted with fixed cables for greater security.
At no point does one have the luxury of walking casually, since the wildly irregular surfaces require constant attention in order to maintain good footing. The views are magnificent at every step but proceeding with eyes raised off of the ground is perilous along almost every part of the trail.
When I finally reached my destination, I was treated to a sprawling tapestry of streams, cascades, and reflecting pools within a grand cirque that still has a formidable glacier perched above it. For several hours, I wandered, waded, and watched the light, leisurely indulging every compositional impulse with inquisitive experimentation.
Most of this time I spent with the Canon EOS R5 pressed to my eye or hovering in my outstretched arms, working all ideas as they came. I hoped to find a composition that conveyed the stately character of the pyramidal mountain, putting it in “dialogue,” so to speak, with some element of its environment that could tell a story about the place.
As the light began to wane, I made a last-minute decision to climb another several hundred feet in elevation to check an alignment with a large cascade visible in the distance. I packed my camera, grabbed my trekking poles, and crossed a stream of rushing meltwater, at which point a remarkable grouping of small wildflowers came into view.
Three yellow clusters of them lay in a stepped formation within protective ramparts of rocks, popping out of the glacial till like tiny beacons. Determined to reach the cascade while there was still light, I quickly lowered my phone to the flowers for a hasty series of “sketch” shots and then continued on my way.
Soon after, I began the descent back down the long, punishingly rocky trail by headlamp, and those sketch shots began to haunt me. Of the many features that had caught my eye, the clusters of flowers were the only ones that I had not photographed with a real camera.
My regrets grew with each passing hour, especially since a storm front moving in was forecast to bring a deluge of rain and lightning for days on end. Alas, by the time that it would be safe to return to the flowers, the blooms would be gone.
Reviewing the Sample Shots
The next morning, I awoke with painful reminders of the previous day’s adventure. The rocky trail had taken a toll on my knees, probably made worse by a year when lockdowns and travel restrictions had kept me from doing my usual programs of hiking in the alps.
I wasn’t entirely sorry that the weather would keep me indoors for a while, as a day of rest would do me some good, and I could spend more time reviewing shots and planning future outings. Looking over the images, I found several that charmed me, but the quick snaps of those flowers seemed extra special.
The three clusters of blossoms were staggered and spaced beautifully, allowing the eye to jump along them toward the mountain in a nicely immersive composition. Pangs of regret welled up again as I questioned my decision to privilege the cascades over the flowers, but I remained grateful for the great day of exploring that I had.
At that point, the storm that was supposed to engulf the area for days was already in full force, with frequent claps of thunder serving as reminders of the dangers that mountain weather can bring. To my great surprise, a check of the latest forecast showed that the storm would not last long after all.
New reports predicted that the rain and lightning would stop in the afternoon and that the dense cloud cover might even start to break up before sunset. I knew immediately what I had to do: head back to the flowers right away!
The Second Ascent: Seizing the Day
After an hour of driving, I reached the trailhead, apologized in advance to my knees, and started out up those 2,700 feet of unforgivingly rocky cliffs once again. It was the second day in a row that I was doing this fairly strenuous hike, but it was easier on the second outing.
I felt stronger, and the miles passed in less time than they had the day before. Along the way, a few moments of dappled light fueled my ascent, giving me high hopes that the clouds might part long enough to let the sun shine through as it swung around to the mountain’s north side. A great sense of excitement kept my pace steady and my mind focused.
Heading directly to the area where the flowers had caught my eye the day before, I found them again easily and went right to work. I refined the composition while handholding my camera and then set up the tripod accordingly, with the camera positioned low enough to give the flowers great presence in the frame. Because the nearest part of the scene was very close to the lens, depth of field was shallow at 20mm and f/11, making a focus stack necessary in order to achieve front-to-back sharpness.
While I was waiting and hoping for an opening in the clouds, I repeatedly went through a sequence of exposures to create the focus stack for the foreground. Wind from the clearing storm pushed the flowers around enough to cause problems with motion blur, so I waited for lulls, raised my ISO, and repeated the sequence over and over again to increase my chances of getting everything sharp.
The first forty-five minutes passed without any sunlight breaking through the clouds, and I began to resign myself to the distinct possibility that no light would ever strike the mountain that day. I knew that as the sun descended, it would inevitably drop into the thick middle-height cloud shelf and get swallowed up there.
Fortunately, some magic happened. At first, I glimpsed a hint of brightness on the snowfield directly beneath the summit, a promising indicator that the sun had found an opening. I lowered my ISO back down to 100, exposed for the background, and focused on the mountain just as a glorious ray of warm light raked across the pyramidal face of the peak. A wonderful parade of dappled light ensued, lasting about five minutes before dwindling down and disappearing soon after.
Confident that all necessary exposures for the flower image were in the bag, I decided to make a break for the distant cascade that I had scouted the day before. I packed up my gear and sprinted as fast as my rubbery legs would take me, arriving at the cascade just in time to catch a quick second splash of light on the mountain. It lasted long enough for me to grab a single exposure from that position, which I considered a cherry on top of an already successful outing.
A total of 14 exposures at 20mm and f/11 went into the final image. Twelve of those files were necessary for the focus stack of the flowers, and I blended together two additional exposures for the background that combined the strongest moment of direct light with one from a few minutes earlier when the sky had great structure in the forms of the clouds.
It turned out that one of the sets of focus points that I had timed during a lull in the wind miraculously came out sharp all the way through the foreground at ISO 200 and 1/50s. The sets that I shot at higher ISO values amounted to a good insurance policy, but I didn’t end up needing them.
After completing essential RAW file processing in Adobe Lightroom, I brought everything into Adobe Photoshop for the focus stack and preliminary blending to combine into a single, flat layer for further editing. Then I rolled up my sleeves for the fun part: localized tonal work and color grading.
As always, I worked carefully in a series of layers to optimize the overall tonality of the image and to harmonize its color palette. This final process involves countless subtle shifts of tones and hues using a variety of adjustments and precise masking to target certain areas of the image while protecting others. My goal is always to adjust for the pictorial potential of an image, doing my best to emphasize the composition while also conveying the story and mood that I perceive in the scene.
In my mind, the final image suggests the nature story of how larger elements of an environment can support and protect smaller ones. There is a certain sense of reverence in the way that the flowers seem to gesture out from within their rings of rock toward the giant mountain, which is instrumental in catching weather and thereby helping to ensure life-giving moisture for the rugged environment. Ultimately, it’s the enjoyment of such stories that keeps me exploring, photographing, and dreaming in places where only my feet and a little imagination can take me.
About Erin Babnik
Erin Babnik is known internationally as a leading photographic artist, educator, writer, and speaker. Her ambitious and expressive style of landscape photography brings together an unusual integration of adventurous exploration, progressive techniques, and formal education in the arts. In her writing and public speaking, Erin explores topics with a unique blend of art historical, philosophical, and instructional ideas, an approach that has made her one of the most notable voices among the current generation of landscape photographers.
Erin’s dedication to the medium of photography evolved out of her years working as an art historian, photographing at archaeological sites and in museums for the purposes of teaching and research. Previously, she had experimented with photography creatively in art school, working with both film and early digital cameras to explore the potential for photography to communicate ideas in graphic design projects. Full immersion in the art of photography would come some years later, however. After transferring to UC Berkeley’s Ph.D. program in Art History, she began to produce photographs for her dissertation and for lecturing as an instructor of undergraduate courses. It was at this point that her interest in photography became an obsession. Her goal of producing a high-quality archive of photographs for educational purposes ultimately led to the pursuit of compelling images as ends in themselves.
Erin spent the last six years of her academic career moonlighting as an assignment photographer and slowly transitioning to her current focus on wilderness photography, ultimately developing that passion into a full-time profession. Erin now travels worldwide to teach photography workshops and to give talks about her work and about the genre of landscape photography. Erin is honored to be a Canon Explorer of Light and is also a member of the illustrious nature photography team Photo Cascadia.