Sometimes, taking great pictures is simple; the location is so amazing that dropping the camera on the floor while ensuring it will shoot on impact is enough to provide breathtaking images. In other occasions, you remember tips on how to take good pictures: you wait until the soft sunset light and do not face the sun while shooting the camera. You begin feeling like a pro when you reach a high altitude destination with awesome views. You remember and apply all the photography tips you ever heard of, but nothing helps. Great views, horrific pictures.
Over time, I visited two high altitude destinations: the Himalayas and the Andes. By high altitude I mean being over 4000 meters above the sea level, where all humans need an acclimatization period. There, I learned the hard way that most photography rules are bent by high altitude radiation. Here are some tips.
You walk through downtown La Paz in a breezy afternoon. Out of the blue, Mount Illimani appears in its full glory. Excited, you take out the camera, make a fast - but attractive - composition, shoot the picture and move to viewer mode. Everything is vivid and nice, but Mount Illimani is nowhere to be seen. You enlarge the picture and after a while find out a vague whitish shape. The Illimani became an outline. Is the camera bad? Nearby, Bolivians dance in one of their crazed carnivals. You try photographing them. Most of their dresses colors and details disappear. You see glory, the camera captures garbage.
The problem is called glare, namely reflections of light by nearby objects. At sea level is a small problem. However, La Paz is oriented towards the southeast, facing Mount Illimani. The snow of the mountain reflects the sun radiation, especially during sunrise and sunset. Most pictures during those times would come out bad if facing the sun, Mount Illimani, or anything reflecting their light. Understanding that solves part of the problem – you’ll take the pictures about half an hour after sunrise or before sunset - but it still would leave you without good pictures of Mount Illimani. Learning to take advantage of the clouds is important; at high altitude, heavy, dark clouds occulting the sun are the photographer’s best friends. That works fine in the wet Himalayas, yet, the Andes are next to the planet’s driest desert; clouds are an oddity even in La Paz, almost completely across the range from the desert.
Yet, solutions can be found even without pro equipment. If you look at my picture in my IgoUgo profile page, you can see me next to the Everest, wearing Ray Ban sunglasses #1 (the opacity number, #3 is the darkest). They were perfect there, but rather useless in La Paz due to the wild glare in the last. In La Paz, I used #3, polarized sunglasses. Even then, looking at the direction of the sun during sunrise is difficult, that’s how intense the glare is due to snow reflections. Yet, polarized glasses are important since they diminish the strength of the glare. Thus, while taking a picture of the mountain, just take off the sunglasses and place them in front of the camera lenses. It may distort the view a bit, but almost always it would solve the glare issue without using expensive filters.
Then, you walk around and see a pretty street framed by an awesome forest and hill. You take a picture and then realize the street is in almost complete darkness, while the bald hill top glares as a miniature sun. You can either see the street clearly or the hill clearly, but no both at the same time. There is no magic solution for this one, but it is useful to realize many digital cameras allow you to define the contrast of a picture. In such a case, diminish the contrast as much as possible, sometimes, that would result in decent pictures under these heavy constraints.
Is that all? Not exactly, but these tips solve the main problems of high altitude photographing with simple and accessible methods. As always, the main point is awareness to the glare and contrast issues, then, solutions to other secondary effects can be devised on the spot.