The challenges posed by photography in Ladakh are layered, just like the winter gear one must don to ward off the seriously sub-zero temperatures on the Changthang plateau. Here’s a lowdown on what you can expect during high-altitude landscape photography, and how to make the most of it.
Surviving a month or more at an altitude of 14,000 feet above sea level, without support or backup, requires some serious and heavy-duty planning. This includes ensuring adequate rations of food, fuel, clothing and medication, a good quality tent and sleeping bag, and of course, wisely choosing what lenses to carry. Not only do all the lenses have to fit into the rucksack, but the shoulders need to be able to bear the weight.
Secondly, it is important to have a full grasp of the kinds of ice you will encounter at high-altitude lakes. Thankfully, I had the best teachers – the local Zanskaris themselves, when I walked the Chadar trek between the years 2003-05. Subsequent solo undertakings on this arduous trek only served to increase my knowledge and capacity further.
Thirdly, one needs to have a basic understanding of places to pitch a tent. While pitching a tent on Changthang might seem to be a no-brainer, it actually needs a great deal of thought. You have to avoid the manic winds of the night, make sure that there is a water source nearby or enough snow to melt and provide water, and stay close to the hills to be safe from nightlong snowfall, but not too close to be in the way of falling rocks.
After getting the odds of survival in your favor the focus shifts to doing the same for your cameras. Batteries which, quite like the next meal and bottle of water, are snuggled against my skin to keep them warm. The camera bodies stay in the deep pockets of my down jacket.
Coming to photography
I have been told numerous times that given Ladakh’s beauty, all one has to do is point and shoot. In reality, nothing could be further than the truth, unless you want to return with images that others have already taken countless times.
This holds true for Changthang in winter, as well. The first time I was there, in 2006, I was completely confounded. My head was full of questions I had no answers for. How do you capture the raging wind in a miss these essential elements. It is very important to revise your definition of ‘landscape’ to something that goes beyond the whole scene spread out in front of you. Finally, how you capture the ice in this landscape is very important. It is almost like a live art installation, worked on every day by the sun, wind, and water in this frozen wonderland. Capturing the soul of such intricate, nature crafted stories is what will make your image stand out from the rest treeless and grassless landscape? How do you show the intensity of the cold when there is almost no snow? How does one shoot inspiring scenes in this unique landscape, which avoid getting stereotyped as regular landscape images?
It took me a while to get my thinking and technique sorted out, but today I feel I have got it right. I shoot in manual mode and dare to go as much as three stops under sometimes, as the brightness of the light, both direct and the one reflected off the snow, confuses the camera. I walk slowly and for long, and enjoy the landscape. I begin to shoot only after my initial awe of the beauty of the landscape has somewhat quietened down. Only then does one begin to see the smaller elements, which when added to the entire frame, makes it come alive. If you rush to shoot, you might probably miss these essential elements.
It is very important to revise your definition of ‘landscape’ to something that goes beyond the whole scene spread out in front of you. Finally, how you capture the ice in this landscape is very important. It is almost like a live art installation, worked on every day by the sun, wind, and water in this frozen wonderland. Capturing the soul of such intricate, nature-crafted stories is what will make your image stand out from the rest.
This article was first published in the March 2015 edition of Saevus magazine