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Travelling Light and Working Faster

Liz talks about how to approach shooting landscapes whilst engaged in a fast paced pursuit

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Lizzie Shepherd

A professional landscape, nature and travel photographer, who enjoys her photography most when she’s out in all kinds of environments, responding to whatever the weather and circumstances throw at her!

lizzieshepherd.com



Travelling lighter? I’m guessing a number of photographers will identify with that - particularly given the ever increasingly popularity of mirror-less CSCs. I think it would be fair to say that not many of us actually enjoy carrying heavy loads up and down hills, or wherever else our photography takes us.

But working faster?! That doesn’t sound like something any self-respecting landscape photographer should aspire to, does it? Surely it’s all about working more slowly - losing ourselves in the landscape and working very deliberately to produce photography as near to perfection as we can get it. In an ideal world yes but, in my view, there has to be room for both ways of working. I love nothing more than spending a few hours in one spot, working with what’s in front of me, with no time constraints. However, time is not always in plentiful supply and I firmly believed in adapting my approach to what’s in front of me, making the most of what time and circumstances allow.

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This may not suit everyone but it’s the only option available to me when my husband and I go cross country skiing. One of the main reasons we both love this kind of skiing (rather than downhill) is that it gives you the ability to access some staggeringly beautiful and unspoilt scenery. And so, last month, we found ourselves visiting Norway’s oldest national park - Rondane - for the second time. I was thrilled to be going back, having fallen in love with its shapely array of mountains on our previous visit, five years earlier. I also hoped it was going to compensate for the lack of a proper winter here in the UK this year.

Last time we had stayed in Hovringen - which gives you quick access to much of the skiing area up on the plateau. This time we opted for the little hamlet of Mysuseter, renting a small hut for the week. From a photographic point of view, this proved to be a superb choice. We were surrounded by a network of magical, snowy forests and, higher up, even better mountain scenery than we’d enjoyed previously.

I’d decided in advance that I’d just ski with my lightweight Fuji cameras, knowing that they were capable of producing great results but expecting to get a little frustrated by some of their shortcomings in terms of usability. So, each day, I went out with an F-Stop Kenti backpack with some spare clothing and provisions, an XE-1 with a 55-200mm lens attached and an XM-1 with an 18-55mm lens attached. This made for a very comfortable carrying weight and meant I had an excellent range of focal lengths available to me without having to change lenses.

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I knew already the challenges of combining cross country skiing with photography. In an ideal world, to ski well you want to build up a good, comfortable rhythm, looking straight ahead to assess the terrain. Constantly looking around you and stopping to assess photographic potential is not entirely compatible with this! Of course I ‘make do’ and try my best to keep my balance and not keep my very patient husband, Rob, waiting too, too long! Being able to assess a potential composition reasonably quickly is vital - and all of this with the camera hand held, balancing on a pair of long, skinny skis!

I’ll talk a little about the practicalities of using the Fuji cameras at the end of this article. But first, I wanted to share a little of what we experienced each day and, I hope, give you a taste of why it can be such an incredibly rewarding experience on many levels. Yes, I had to make a few photographic compromises but the alternative doesn’t bear contemplating. I can’t witness scenes like these and turn my back on photographing them - it’s not within my psyche to do so. It’s also not just about the photography - it’s about the complete experience and about enjoying and capturing it to the best of my ability.

By the time we’d got ourselves sorted on our first day, we only had a few hours of daylight left, so opted for what looked a relatively straight forward 15km circuit, taking in the Glitterdalen (Glitter Valley). I think this might just have been my suggestion, having heard about all the wonderful birch trees that line much of this route! Other than an initial climb up onto the lower part of the plateau, most of our journey was through forest and, with light snow falling, conditions were perfect for photography! Rather lovely for skiing too I should add…

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The scenery was even lovelier than I could have imagined and the soft, falling snow a dream. I stopped several times to enjoy and capture the lichen covered birch trees, dripping with an irresistible combination of snow and moss. We also passed some wonderfully characterful old barns, which just cried out to be photographed..

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The forecast suggested days two and three would be our only days with good visibility and so we decided to head for the mountains on both of these. The forecast also correctly predicted strong winds for day two and the 9km climb up to the Peer Gynt hut, into a strong headwind, was brutal. Again though, conditions were wonderful for photography: swirling spindrift, occasional bursts of fast-moving low cloud, mountain peaks coming and going and the odd tough little tree somehow finding a way to survive in this inhospitable climate. It was bitterly cold at times and, even with my thick dachstein mitts, my fingers were suffering - all a bit challenging for photography. Of course you find a way to make things work and it was an incredibly exhilarating, if exhausting, day.

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Day three dawned as the forecasters promised and so off we went again, with another long climb up into the mountains. Thankfully the wind had died down and conditions were really very pleasant for skiing. We had been told the route up to the tourist hut at Rondvassbu was well worth the trek and proved excellent advice. The views were quite breathtaking and just the tonic I needed to help me forget my badly blistered heels and generally weary body. We spent a little while taking in the beauty of this idyllic location, even spotting a little dipper exploring the crystal clear blue water in the partially frozen stream.

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However, the best was yet to come and I’m happy to say that, without my constant stopping for photography, we’d have missed one of our most exciting wildlife sightings to date. Whilst I was concentrating on capturing yet another ethereal mountain/cloudscape, Rob noticed a group of small specks on a distant hillside. A look through the binoculars confirmed these were reindeer. We knew that Rondane is home to the odd herd of wild reindeer and so were absolutely thrilled to see these magnificent animals in their natural environment.

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We spent a good twenty minutes watching them as they came down the hillside, eventually spotting us and then speeding across our path some 100 metres away, before making a beeline for the spectacular mountain scenery the other side. What a backdrop in which to see and photograph your first herd of wild reindeer! The XE-1 is no action camera but, in the circumstances, I was pretty pleased with some of the results. By the time we reached Mysuseter, sunset was approaching and I caught some beautifully soft, low light on the elegant distant peaks, before we returned to our hut. An amazing day and one we both felt very privileged to enjoy.

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Day four and the forecasted snow duly arrived - perfect for another ski through the woods. Thick, fresh snow can be hard work on the legs but there’s a beautifully eerie sense of still and calm when skiing through woodland in falling snow - just magical! As we neared the tiny hamlet of Raphamn, the clouds started to lift and the delicate shadows cast by the slim birch trunks enforced a stop half way up a steep hill. A good opportunity for a rest but a rather precarious position in which to get out the camera!

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The second half of our route saw us climbing high amongst some bizarrely shaped hills with the visibility now very good. Just as well, given the fact that many of the small sticks that mark the route were semi-submerged in the deep, fresh snow. We felt very fortunate to be enjoying another exhausting but spectacular day, with yet more incredible views across towards the mountains we’d skied through the previous two days. The late afternoon light was wonderful and I was again able to make the most of some stunning woodland scenes with snow laden, anthropomorphic trees casting soft shadows on the virgin snow underneath.

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So much snow had fallen that day, that the trees still had a good covering on our last full day of skiing so once again, we again explored some of the forest paths. At one point I could have sworn I was skiing through Nania - childhood memories conjured up by the weird and wonderful patterns of the moss draped trees. Lunch was rather a treat and we shared our sandwiches with a number of very friendly and extremely cheeky willow tits. The afternoon was a bit of a challenge with temperatures increasing to just above freezing. If you use wax based skis, as we do, trying to achieve a good combination of grip and glide at this temperature is a nightmare and one we have yet to master!

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There was only time for a quick morning ski on our last day. It was perhaps just as well that conditions were not nearly as good for photography, with largely cloudless skies. In fact my camera came out just once! And so the week ended - no serious injuries and both of us incredibly happy with the way things had turned out. Also, despite the inevitable compromises, I was really pleased with some of the images I’d captured.

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So how did the Fuji gear fare? I’d say about how I expected. I love the results these little cameras can produce - the sensor seems to produce photographs with a lovely feel to them and the optics of the lenses are really very good. The dynamic range of the sensor is also very good - not quite up there with my Nikon but more than good enough for most situations. Overall they are very enjoyable to use.

The only downsides were really the ones I had anticipated. The XE-1’s electronic viewfinder is very good in unchallenging light but, as a glasses wearer, I’d like it to be a little larger. I also find it has enough lag to be annoying on those occasions where you need to react quickly. I believe the XT-1 would almost certainly eradicate both of these frustrations - but it’s not an upgrade I can afford or justify at this time.

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I’d be interested to find out to what extent the bigger and brighter EVFs of the latest cameras would help in terms of trying to compose whilst wearing prescription sunglasses. I found I had to take them off when composing through the viewfinder - not an ideal solution because whilst I can then see what’s in the viewfinder I can’t see the wider view with my bare eyes. I’m not sure what the answer is - perhaps a dual mode option where you can press a button to brighten the EVF temporarily?

The XM-1 has no viewfinder - only an LCD. Being a newer camera, it suffers less from lag than the XE-1 and is generally more responsive. In overcast light, I found composing with the LCD screen worked well, even with sunglasses. In brighter light I had to take off my prescription sunglasses and peer at the screen. I wouldn’t be happy using this camera handheld with a longer lens, finding it too hard to compose accurately and to keep it stable. With the 18-55 it worked very well though, my only real gripe being the lack of an inbuilt spirit level.

Some of the XM-1 controls are less accessible than on the XE-1 but it does have one major advantage in that the exposure compensation dial seems content to say where you leave it. Every time I took the XE-1 out of my bag, the dial had gone to +2 EV. I also found the tilting screen of the XM-1 came in useful at times - on one occasion allowing me to hold the camera above eye level to get a clean composition of a moss-draped birch.

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So, despite what you may read on twitter, these little Fuji cameras are not perfect! However, they are very accomplished performers in most respects and, a few gripes aside, are a pleasure to use. Most of the controls you will want to access regularly are accessed with buttons and dials, rather than having to delve through a menu. I particularly like being able to set both EVF and LCD to show a square crop - it’s my default option, and quick and easy to change if you assign the function button to file size/crop. I’m certainly not ready to ditch my DSLR but there’s very few situations in which I would not be comfortable using these camera and, equally important, I know they can produce some cracking prints!



  • Dave Moorhouse

    Enjoyed reading your experiences with the Fuji Lizzie, it sounds like a good solution for activities where the DSLR gear would be too much of a burden. Did you find the batteries held up in the cold weather?
    It has certainly produced some beautiful & memorable images from your trip, especially the encounter with the reindeer, very enjoyable, thanks.

    • Thanks very much Dave – very glad you enjoyed it. Also very glad you asked about the batteries as it was one of the many things I forgot to mention – perhaps just as well as the article might have gone on for ever ;0)

      I was actually very pleasantly surprised by the battery life – perhaps this is because I was using the cameras somewhat sparingly and of course not taking as long setting up etc as I normally would – also they got tucked back in the bag again pretty much every time. I took 4 batteries in total and I’m not sure I ever needed to replace one during the day.

  • Ria Smith

    A very interesting read, Lizzie. It’s good to know (that with practice) it’s possible to combine two such fun pursuits without compromise. The photos really capture the spirit of the place.

    • Thank you very much Ria. I fear there is inevitably a bit of compromise – but I hope not too much! If nothing else, I had to turn my back on the odd composition because I just couldn’t manoeuvre my near as 2 metre skis into position to get trees lined up properly. In particular going backwards is tricky! ;0)

  • chris swan

    Great article Lizzie and (as aways!) some wonderful images. I’ve been thinking about changing to a lighter kit for some time now and my recent trip to Harris pretty much confirmed that I will do so. I was interested in your thoughts about working fast – this really appeals to me. I tend to find that my best images are made when I am walking through the landscape, with my camera round my neck where i can quickly take advantage of changes in light or interesting elements. With a 5dmk2 dragging my head down a walk can quickly become a chore! I think the X-T1 could be the camera for me.

    • Hi there Chris – thank you very much for the kind words :) I know you’ve been wondering about a lighter weight system for a while and, given all you say, then I suspect you’d really enjoy the X-T1 and a few of the super Fuji lenses. I’ve only had a brief play with one at the NEC – but I got the impression it would address most of the things I find a hindrance with the XE-1. The main downside, as I see it, would be the rather small and indented 4 way controller – with gloves I suspect it might be somewhat fiddly. Invariably there is some compromise with any camera though.

      In terms of working fast – it’s something I do when I need to rather than by choice I guess – but I think it’s important to be able to. At this time, I’d probably find my Nikon dSLR faster to use than my XE-1. However, there’s no doubt that, after a long tough day, one feels far fresher if one is carrying less weight and so surely more able to react quickly.

      If you get a chance to have a bit of a play with some of the gear in a shop (maybe take a pair of gloves?) then I think you’ll have a good idea if this is the right switch for you. Good luck anyway!

  • Tim Layton

    A well written article and I respect your views. From my perspective, some things in life don’t need improvement, or they may already be perfect, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Carrying my backpack loaded with my 4×5 field camera, sheet film, and all the other tools is perfection for me. I am the guy that still chooses to create my prints (b/w and color) by hand in the darkroom up to 1.8 meters.

    I don’t aspire to change anything. I invest my time and energy in evolving my ability to communicate what I experience while in nature. Once again, good article and beautiful images. I am a huge fan of the site.

    Tim

    • Hi Tim and thanks very much for commenting – I’m glad you liked the article and the images. I’ve never owned a 5×4 I have to say – used one a few times many, many years ago – but I can only imagine how wonderful such prints would were you to use one in scenery like this! Funnily enough, it was something I touched on with Tim Parkin the other day – who you probably knows uses a 5×4 (amongst other cams). I think it would be quite a challenge to combine with cross country skiing – you’d need to take snow shoes for both yourself and your tripod for starters – but where there’s a will, there’s a way! ;) And I have no doubt the results would be fantastic. Thanks again…

  • paul tomlins

    Great article! I gave been thinking about buying into the fuji xe system, but have read about issues with software and raw files not being able to reproduce the appearance of the out if camera jpegs. May I ask you how you process your raws or do you use one of the film simulation modes and jpegs?
    Paul

    • Thank you so much, Paul. I think initially there were some problems with getting the best out of the RAW files – certainly with ACR – but this has been improving all the time. In addition, the latest update to LR / ACR (released today) incorporates profiles to simulate all the film settings in the Fuji cams. I’ve not tried these yet but there may be others here who have. I have created my own Velvia preset which I feel mimics the in camera jpeg pretty well – and many others out there have produced similar.

      I shoot RAW & Jpeg simultaneously as this is the only way I can see the various crop options on screen/in the EVF – if you shoot just RAW, then this function is disabled for some strange reason. I don’t keep many of the jpegs but they are undoubtedly very high quality.

      In terms of detail – then I think there is a suspicion that Adobe are not yet getting the very best out of the RAW files – perhaps Capture One does better here? However, I should stress that it seems really only to be evident at pixel peeping level. We’ve all got a bit used to zooming in 100% on screen and being overly analytical about what we see – but the reality is, you can produce really excellent large prints from the files with a superb amount of detail, and also with a lovely depth and colour to them.

      Hope that helps! Lizzie

  • valdab

    Great article Lizzie. As mentioned by Tim above I, too, have no desire to change my kit as long as I am able to drag it around with me but I did relate to your remarks about being able to adapt sufficiently to work quickly when the situation dictates.

    Some of my favourite shots from my recent trip to Namibia were taken through the car window with my 70-300mm balanced precariously on my knee. And although we weren’t travelling that quickly, as you well know, the roads out there are bumpy enough to jolt even the fastest shutter speed.

    Of course ideally, it would have been great to have stopped and walked around, sat and thought a bit, walked around some more and then had another ponder before pressing the shutter but sometimes we have to take what we’re given and quick spontaneity can often yield its own rewards.

    • Thanks very much Valda :) I have to say that on the day we saw the reindeer I did half wish I had the Nikon with me for its faster operation and focussing – but it was a tiring enough day as it was, so I wonder what that extra weight on my back might have done to me ;) not to mention my poor feet… ;)

      And I know exactly what you mean re Namibia – you can’t always stop and out the window can be very effective :) I had great fun getting photos of overloaded trucks and the like in India some years ago – in exactly the same manner.

      Spontaneity can be very powerful I think – there are times when I have taken a quick, first, marker shot if you like – then spent ages setting up more carefully, hoping for perfection. On more than one occasion I have found my first take to be the favourite – I think it’s possible to think/try too hard as well as not hard enough.

  • Phil Mann

    Interesting article. I also have an XE-1 and have also suffered from the tendancy of the exposure compensation dial to move. I now have a Lensmate thumb grip on the camera and this prevents that from happening as well as improving the handling of the camera. These little accessories seem expensive for what they are but I’ve never regretted spending that money.

    • Thanks Phil! I do remember reading about them but had forgotten all about it. Ouch, they are expensive as you say – but certainly an accessory worth knowing about. It is an annoying design fault, though certainly not unique to this camera.

  • Andrew Page

    Hi Lizzie – just got around to reading your article – wanted to do so with no distractions and a large cuppa (Yorkshire Tea of course!).

    What a great experience you had – especially with the wild reindeer.
    I had no idea you were such an accomplished skier.

    As landscape photographers we often bang on about taking our time and looking/waiting for that decisive moment (I enjoy it too) but this is all very well in an ideal world when we can devote that time. Often, on holidays with partners or family in particular, we are forced into compromise in time, but you have shown how it is possible to adapt by a little planning (which gear to take) and adjusting your expectations. This doesn’t have to mean a compromise in quality of the pix as your own illustrate to good effect. In fact some of my best received pix were taken whilst on holiday with my partner whilst she was present!

    We like to take our time and watch the light but it’s not always possible and I think adaptability is a key skill of a photographer – how often do we hear excuses like, “the light wasn’t right” or “it was raining”. A good photographer in my opinion makes an image with what they have before them and sometimes because of the less than ideal conditions.

    You have demonstrated your ability to adapt to circumstances compromised by time, bitterly cold conditions and speed of movement/distance.

    The pictures are great by the way!

    Andy

    • Hi Andy – thank you very much indeed for such kind words and for your perspective on things. A lot of sense in what you say! Though I fear I have to correct you about the ‘accomplished skier’ bit ;0) My cross country skiing is a bit like my down hill skiing – can get from A to B no problem but don’t expect me to look stylish! It’s a great way of exploring places that one could otherwise not get to and that’s the main reason we love it. Thanks again, Lizzie

  • Great article Lizzie, and lovely photos, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts! And quite timely as I’m thinking of investing in some Fuji CSC gear. Was looking at the XE-2 as I believe the autofocus is improved slightly over the XE-1, and as good as the XT-1 seems to be, I can’t help notice these CSCs seem to be getting bigger and heavier which surely defeats the object!
    Cheers,
    Rob

    • Thanks very much Rob – glad you enjoyed it and also found it useful :) My understanding is the XE-1 has improved in terms of AF yes. More important, I believe both the EVF and LCD have been improved which I’m sure would help both with composing photographs and also the lag issue. Your timing may be good as well – something came up on my twitter stream earlier about some new deals.

  • Most enjoyable article and inspiring images. I am awaiting delivery of XE2. Married to a non photographer, he will no longer need to go white when we go walking and I turn up with all the kit. Afraid the tripod will still come but have invested in a Gitzo Ocean Traveller – very light.
    Look forward to seeing more of your work.
    Sue

    • Hi Sue – thanks very much for such kind words – really glad you enjoyed them :) We were so lucky to have those conditions! I had a little play with a friend’s XE2 the other day and the improvements over the XE1 were very noticeable – I think you’ll enjoy it!

      I do have a lightweight tripod for walking as well and it makes all the difference for a long day out on the hills. I’ve also recently swapped my big heavy RRS ballhead for an Arca Swiss P0 which I can use on either tripod and is light as a feather – really pleased with it! Not really practical to use the tripod when out skiing though – I’d have needed to get it some snow shoes as well ;)

      Look forward to hearing how you get on with the new cam. Thanks again, Lizzie

  • I use an old Fuji compact camera to supplement my DSLR and it give good results. I would like to upgrade it to a newer model. It is therefore interesting to read your excellent blog and view some wonderful images using the latest equipment.

  • Thanks very much David and very pleased you enjoyed the piece! :) Although the XE-1 can give some super results, I’d definitely recommend one of the latest Fuji compacts bodies if you can stretch to it – even the XE-2 is, I believe, a significant improvement and, as it’s been out a good year or so itself now, can be bought for a pretty good price I think.

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