Mountain Photography tips with Vanguard Photo UK

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Matt Holland is a mild mannered multimedia designer during the week, but who heads outdoors at the weekends, typically the mountains to enjoy some mountaineering, scrambling, photography and time away. He has always had an interest for the outdoors and for the past 20 years I have been involved with Duke of Edinburgh Award, Scouts (including the last 12 years as an Outdoor Leader), and is currently training towards his Mountain Leaders course.  Matt combines this passion working with MyOutdoors as a gear reviewer, and as an ambassador for Snugpak and Vanguard Photo UK. Most recently Matt has been a finalist in the RHS Photographer of the Year and International Garden Photographer of the Year, and this year launched his first solo book which brings together his outdoor photography, expeditions and trips over the years. With this experience, we asked Matt to give us a steer on what to consider for any photography trip to the mountains…

What’s in my bag?

Having the kit that’s right for you is key to getting the most of any trip. My kit isn’t the most expensive or top end kit on the market, but in my eyes it’s some of the most reliable and cost-effective vs weight and deliveries no matter the conditions.  

My camping gear

First of all, you need to consider your comfort and safety. Most of my kit is from Snugpak as an ambassador for the brand, but key items are:

Clothing:  Clothing can be awkward as you often need to pack for every condition – wind, rain and warmth.  I have seen people out in these conditions with a pair of jeans and lightweight jacket on. Any wonder why you’re cold?
Bring a mixture of layered items from fleeces, t-shirts and down jackets as well as a couple of thick walking trousers not to mention waterproof jackets which you can never have enough off.

Boots: A good pair of boots is a must. Not trainers and certainly not flipflops and yes, I have also seen this on the mountains.  You don’t need to spend hundreds on the latest and greatest, I use a £140 pair of hiking boots which are perfect for scrambling, winter conditions and long-distance hiking.

Rucksack:  If you plan on camping out in the mountains a large bag is required and the 40L is the smallest I would recommend. For most a 50-60L is ideal.  I use a Snugpak Endurance 40L which shocks a lot of people how I manage to pack all my gear inside.

Sleeping Bag: You want a good quality bag! Even in Summer you want to look for something which can cope down to 5°C. Just because it’s 34°C in the towns it’s going to be 10°C on the summits, and add in wind chill or rain that temperature quickly drops. In Winter you will need a bag that can cope down to -15°C. At the beginning of October we visited Snowdonia, at ground level it was 10°C but night temperatures on the summits dropped down to as low as -5°C, adding the wind chill it feels much colder than this.

Sleeping Mat: You might question why you need one of these but the reason for them is to keep your core temperature from dropping. You would think a thick sleeping bag is enough but lying on the ground for prolonged periods will dramatically drop your core temperature. You lose some 60% off your body heat this way.

Tents/Tarps/Bivi Bags: There is a lot to choose from. Personally I prefer tents but recently have started using tarps and tipis which are even lighter but not as stable in stormy conditions. On my recent trip to Snowdonia, due to low temperatures and expected gusts, I opted for a tunnel tent which is great as it allows you to cook in the porch which the other guys were very jealous about.

Hydration: I use a bladder pack for ease, but bottles do the job too. You will need at least 2L to get you through a climb, night and morning for cooking. It’s a good idea to bring water filter systems or tablets to purify water if you come across any to keep you going.

Cooking:  A stove and gas. You won’t want anything big and heavy. My 0.8L pot can hold everything inside and has a French-press for coffee. Coffee is a must in the mountains. You can go as far as bringing beans and a coffee grinder if you’re a real connoisseur.

Some extras to pack: Gloves, buff and hats;  Bug spray and sun cream; Torches, lamps, Battery packs; Multi-tools

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My camera kit:

Camera:  Most recently I used a DSLR and used a Nikon D500 with a 16-80mm f/2.8-4 lens, 55-300mm f/4-5.6 and a 35mm f/1.8 and this set up was extremely heavy but tough. It’s been my pride and joy to use for the past 3 years, but I have recently traded this in to save weight and I will still get the same quality from the new camera.  I have returned back to Micro 4/3s and purchased an Olympus OM-D EM-5 mk II with a 12-40mm, 40-150mm f/2.8 lens along with a small 17mm f/1.8.
The weight of my DSLR kit was some 3kg and was bulky and took up the top of my pack in a 40litre bag. The new system is now less than 1.4kg and size, I can fit the body in my jacket pocket. It’s dramatically changed how I can pack my kit and not worry about leaving gear behind.

Filters: I have recently stopped using square filters and returned to circular screw in filters. My day job has influenced this a lot, having to use a variable density filter for video, but I love the convenience of the filters and have yet to forget these filters. Yes, I have driven four hours to a location only to have forgotten the lens adapter for the filter holder. After doing this two or three times you quickly learn to make do with what kit you have to achieve the results you want and this I believe has made me a better photographer, be it a forgetful one too.

Tripods: Vanguard ALTA PRO 2+ 263CT or a VEO 2 265CB. Both are super and offer durability, lightweight design with unlimited creative options for all situations. The VEO 2 tripod is my go to for the outdoors, it might not be the tallest tripod but it’s light at 1.3kg and small so you have no excuse not to carry one and the low angle adapter means I can swap from landscape to macro in a blink of an eye and in the three years I’ve used the VEO range I’ve not experienced any issues or drama.  Last year on a week-long trip to Snowdonia I got my hands on the new VEO 2 235AB to review and we were here in winter during Storm Brian. Heavy wind and rain made the trip interesting, but didn’t stop us from venturing out. We visited a location called Penmon Point on one of the mornings and this happened to be the worst day of the storm, but the VEO 2 remained sturdy on the coast line and I managed to get a 30-second-long exposure of the lighthouse in the storm. The VEO 2 outperformed everything and was the only tripod not to experience any problems with leg locking in the wet.

Bags/Wraps & Inserts: Again, a lot of choice on the market for all varied costs. I don’t use photographic rucksacks. They are heavy and not large enough for taking out for camping. So, I typically opt to use camera inserts. I use a Bag-in-Bag and camera wrap from Vanguard, so I can take the kit of quickly and pack in to any situation required. Lightweight and protects my expensive camera and glass inside. 

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My Top Tips:

  1. Don’t be disheartened by bad weather or the fact you didn’t get that one shot you wanted. The conditions are forever changing, the outdoors is very unpredictable even the best laid plans can be ruined, but the important thing to remember is you can always re-visit another time.  On our most recent trip to North Wales the weather was looking perfect and clear for the whole weekend, but Saturday night/Sunday morning changed within a few hours of the initial weather report going out. Thick fog and rain were now forecasted. Our ideas and what we wanted to photograph had gone out the window, did it stop us? Of course not! It was still an enjoyable evening and morning running around the top of the mountain trying to photography Tryfan’s reflection in the lakes nearby. Now we know this area a little better we will certainly be returning very soon for attempt two and we will continue until we get that shot we want.

  2. Don’t be influenced by that “Instagram” shot. I get regularly get asked where the best locations are, but I will steer you away from that cliché shot. For example, the Lone Tree at Llyn Padarn, Llanberis. In my opinion, it’s not actually that grand a view, and having seen the tree some thousand times on Instagram it’s boring now. So, think out of the box and be different, don’t go for the same tripod holes as others.

  3. It’s not a race and likes don’t always mean you are the best.  I’ve been on several photography meet and greets now, and led a few expeditions in my time, and there is always one who is racing ahead to upload the first shot to social media to get the “Likes”.  If it is a good photo you’ll get the likes regardless, stop living for the online persona and enjoy the moment for a change. This is one benefit to being in the mountains. There is little to no signal/network in the regions, so you are stuck until you get home.

  4. It’s not all about kit and cost doesn’t always mean quality. The most expensive camera in the world is still useless unless the person holding it knows what they are doing. If you don’t understand the basics, then how can you expect to take a good photograph. I have spoken to members of the public who own £5,000+ bodies and stick in ‘P’ or auto, over expose and have all sorts of problems and they don’t understand why. Rather than wasting your money like this, spend £1,000 on the body and lens and spend another £1,000 if needs be on educating yourself how to use the camera or the rules of photography.

One thing you wished you knew when you were starting up?

The one thing I wish I knew (or was told more) was that having the latest gear doesn’t matter. We live in a world where new equipment is out every few months/years and it can become very overwhelming and costly to keep changing systems or upgrading but at the end of the day the gear doesn’t make you a better creative. If you don’t know how to use the kit you will struggle to produce the right content.  In our modern society there isn’t such a thing as a bad camera so starting out now I can really feel for someone new to the photography world and in all honesty, I’d struggle to advise what would be the best camera. Recently I saw someone’s comment to a similar question which has stuck in my head:

“The best camera is the one you’ll have on you all the time”.

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Transparency Notice: Please note that I (Matthew Holland) receive free products for review from brands and manufacturers, but I only accept products for review on condition of total independence and no guarantee of endorsement. I am a Vanguard Photo UK and Snugpak brand ambassador and receive the products for free to review from both brands. The review is no guarantee of endorsement. I receive no monetary gain from Vanguard Photo UK or Snugpak from the reviews or discount codes. Any Vanguard kit I own has been bought by myself. Any Snugpak equipment is gifted to me for the purpose of the review.