How to master alpine photography with Charles Davis

By Australian Geographic | February 1, 2019

We spoke with Australian alpine photographer Charles Davis for some top tips for taking the best images in snowy conditions. Join him this February to explore the wonders of the Snowy Mountains in summer, from iconic snow gums to majestic wild brumbies.

What’s your favourite alpine image you’ve ever taken and why?

I could say Guthega wombat, which made the Australian Geographic cover, but because I know I could do it again, I couldn’t honestly call it my absolute favourite. It’s the images that I could never take again and took weeks of waiting to capture, like the mother and baby wombat walking through fresh snow under dead snow gums. It can sometimes be very hard for a photographer to leave behind the emotional attachment that some photos have. You may find that capturing a particular photo has put you through hell and back and this is the reason you think it’s great, but it might not be as appealing. It’s definitely the photos that combine the pay off from hard work and wonderful aesthetics that end up being my all-time favourites.

What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to taking photographs in cold conditions?

The hardest part is the distance you have to travel to find the animals. I can easily ski 20km in a day following tracks, and this is when you have to pack light on camera gear and heavy on things that will keep you happy and alive (like more layers and more food). When I go out, I have to pack many different layers for all possible weather conditions, varying from light clothing when the sun’s out, to jackets and gloves that will hold up in blizzards. Keeping warm when you find an animal is also difficult, because sometimes you will have to lie in the snow for two hours waiting for an animal to walk your way, and shivering doesn’t make for steady photos.

How can you combat some of these issues?

I only wear wool and Gortex layers when I go out. I’ve learnt the hard way that cheap gear and cotton make for a very uncomfortable time. Not everyone has the money to buy high-grade Gortex but wool layers are cheaper than ever, and companies like Kathmandu do functional shells these days too. Wool is especially great, because you can sweat into it, get it wet, and it will still keep you warm and it won’t smell. Plus, it dries fast. Gortex breathes and keeps snow and wind out. I find too many people bring heavy, thick insulating layers to the snow, these are great until you need to move then they become very uncomfortable, so you’ll always be better off with a good lightweight shell that breathes, combined with layers underneath.

Certain body parts need more love than others. For example, arms and legs can handle being cold, and so can toes and fingers. But your head and core need all the love. I always pack a balaclava, a wool beanie, goggles and big sunglasses, For my core, I always have a wool shirt, a puffy vest, a thicker wool layer and a good Gortex shell. As long as you have a thin wool layer over your fingers and toes, they should stay attached. The best place to look for functional snow photography clothing is hunting brands, because at the end of the day photography and hunting are very similar, and you can guarantee that the hunting folks have put more thought into functional clothing than anyone else. I use hunting gloves with flip over mittens, as they are perfect for getting your trigger/shutter finger out and back inside quickly.

What kind of gear is necessary for taking the perfect alpine images?

The best gear for taking good alpine images is the lightest gear you can get. I don’t take a tripod out because they slow me down, and I don’t take out my 200–400 f4 because it weighs too much. Instead, I sometimes opt for a 28–300mm lens, and one body. The room I save then goes to clothing and food. There is a common saying in photography that the gear that gets you the photo is the best gear you’ve got at the time; the 28–300 lens isn’t the best lens I have, but it is sharp, light, and covers a massive range very quickly.

Skis are my next most important piece of gear – one push from a ski can equal up to six steps, and you can glide over the snow rather than struggling and sinking into it. Plus, if you have made it to the top of a mountain, you definitely don’t have to worry about walking back down. The more ground you can cover in a day, the more likely you are to find subjects to photograph.

As I said before, the clothing you take makes all the difference, and a few core things are especially crucial. The last thing should be a no-brainer but so many people neglect it: water. Cold air sucks moisture out of your body like the Dementors from Harry Potter suck souls. Always pack a good amount of water and have it accessible.

What do you like most about photographing in Australia’s alpine region?

I grew up in the mountains, and I feel safe, relaxed and free out there. But this isn’t how most people feel, so I take advantage of that fact and have carved out my niche around it. Australia has more snow-covered area than the Swiss Alps, and the little part tourists see around the resorts is just a drop of what’s waiting out there. The further you go the more magic you find. Snow is an amazing thing; it adds beauty to normally mundane things like rocks, trees and creeks. The thing I enjoy most about photographing wildlife in the snow is the simplicity it provides.

What advice do you have for people who would like to get into alpine photography?

My advice is to learn how to ski on touring skis, because until you can escape the confines of the resorts and the roads on skis, you will never truly be able to take full advantage of what’s out there. Invest in some good Gortex and some suitable footwear. However, snowshoes are also fantastic if you can’t ski. Start slowly with your exploring and never go further than you are comfortable with, because safety comes first and the weather can change fast in the mountains. Even the best of us get lost in blizzards and fog.

Learn how to shoot in manual and learn how to expose for white. Your camera will freak out at pure white, and will try to underexpose your images every time, so once you can expose for white, everything else will also be exposed and you will nail your photos every time.

Learn to love walking up hills and get as fit as you can, because trust me you’re going to be grunting up lots of inclines in deep snow, and even the smallest bump covered in snow can feel like Everest.  

Charles will be leading the Australian Summer Alpine Photography Tour 2019, held by Fotoworkshops. You can book tickets here.