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Mt Mc Kinley: Photography

trip report | Pictures of the expedition | Tuan's mountaineering page

See also my general tips about climbing photography.


I took 14 rolls of Velvia. I have found that 50ASA is largely fast enough for all normal lighting conditions, that is from 4am to 11pm. During the night, exposure times were never more than 1s. During the day it allowed me to stop all lenses down a f8/f11 while conserving a sufficient safety margin in shutter speeds. I would not recommend to use a sensibilily superior to 64 (80) on the mountain. During the night, up high it is pretty cold, and one is more likely to be in his sleeping bag than elsewhere, so night photography is a marginal activity. Exposure times superior to 1s are not recommended with Velvia, because failure to reciprocity with this film will induce a greenish tone which is not pleasant at all. With Kodachrome, the color shift is toward magenta, which would be nice.


My main camera was Nikon FM2. I choice it because of reliabilily, possibility to operate without battery, and lightweight (N90 weights almost two times more). The camera itself was quite insensitive to cold. I did not even put it in my sleeping bag during the night, and always carried it in my pack, except on the summit day, where it was under my shell jacket. When I was climbing solo, I could stop whenever I wanted, and during the day it was not very cold, so this way to proceed did not cause any problem. The absence of AF is not a lack at all, since I almost always had a very large depth of field. The match needle (semi-auto) exposure system makes exposure compensation very natural and easy, which is fine on glaciers.

I had a second camera, which was a Yashica T4, which I carried constantly in the front pocket of my shell bibs. I intended to use this cameras for snapshots, and in situations where I would not want to stop and take the FM2 out of the pack (mainly when I was roped, or on steep slopes where it was difficult to take the pack off). As I had the FM2, extreme image quality was not as important as in the Alps, where I carry only one Minox, thus, I chose a P&S type camera, which proved very convenient. The small size of this camera allows it to be carried in a pocket, thus it doesn't freeze and is always handy. Also, the exposure modes are fine, and enabled me to handle all the photographic situations, including night photography.

I was globally very satisfied with this combination.


I carried two lenses, both Nikkor AF. My main lens was the 24-50/3.3-4.5 My favorite focal in mountain photography is 24mm, and I used to rely on the 24/2.8. The zoom I chose to use this time gave almost the same optical performance at its short end. I lost only 1/2 of stop max aperture and the optimum is at f8 instead of being at f5.6, which was not important since there were plenty of light. The number of lenses and optical groups also are the same for 24-50 and 24, and the difference in weight is not very big. On the positive side was the additional focals which were very useful, and allowed me to avoid changing lenses too many time. This lens, when stopped down sufficienty, gives images comparable to prime lenses from 24 to 35mm. The main drawbacks of this zoom is reduced sharpness at 50 (usual), and the big real aperture variation. I have carried only this lens from 14300 to summit, and I have found that the focals coverage is quite good for me. The only other combination that I considered was 24/2.8 + 50/1.8, but I rejected it because of the need for lens changes. I only used a B&W standard filter and the Nikon hood with it.

The second lens I carried was the 85/1.8. I left it at 14300 to save weight, The fast aperture makes for a very bright viewfinder image and focusing is extremely easy. The focal is good for me, as a complement to the other lens. I always used the Nikon hood with it. It provides a protection which is sufficient to dispense to use a filter. However, in retrospect I would have instead taken the 75-150/3.5E or one of the modern light telezooms, as the speed was not essential.


I had a polarizing filter, but I found that the blue of the sky was intense enough, so I did never use it. As a substitute for a tripod, I used an Ultrapod (TM), which weights only a few onces. I used it only for night photography. When put on a standing backpack, it is sufficient if one sits in the snow to compose. Another use is to attach it to an ice axe, which I found to work quite well. I also carried a Sekonic selenium meter (works without batteries), but never had to use it because the built in meter of FM2 almost always worked properly. As the max exposure time that I used was 1s, I did not use the cable release, but rather the self-timer. On FM2, it performs a pre-MLU.


FM2 worked fine until summit day. On the summit, I tried to change the film (I had always managed to do this operation in my tent before), but when attempting to rewind the film, it broke. Not entirely realizing what was happening (hypoxia causes the brain misfunction), I opened the back, resulting in the fogging of my summit pictures. As I did not want to loose the rest of the film which was in the camera, I quit using the FM2 during the descent, relying on T4 only. The only way for me to fix the camera was to open it in the dark, extract the remaining film, then put it into a lightproof box. Unfortunately, there is no night in Alaska at this time, and I had no lightproof box (the Fuji boxes are clear, opposite to the Kodak box which are dark. The moral is to always bring one of these boxes). Also this day, I had extreme problem even to load T4, since the film leader would broke extremely easily. The conclusion is that film can be more sensitive to cold than cameras themselves. The film reel of the FM2 is quite thin, compared to those of the modern Nikons, which is an aggravating factor. Also, I have been tolad that Velvia is particularly prone to cracking in cold.


The only minor problems were some flare with the 24-50 when the sun was in the frame (24 did slightly better) and some exposure problems with the T4 (sharpness was acceptable, although a close examination shows clearly that the contrast of nikkor lenses is definitively superior) : some pictures came overexposed. Also, It seems that T4 systematically overexposes at about 1/3 to 1/2 EV, as many P&S cameras (this is good for negatives). As Velvia can be used at 40AS (I prefere 50ASA), the pictures where still OK, but a bit on the light side for my taste. With the T4, I also notice that there is more vignetting than with my nikkor lenses.

Almost all images were usable. Globally, I still underestimated the effect of having a lot of snow, and as a result, some of the images came slightly underexposed. The interesting thing is that I was so used to this phenomenon than when I bracketed exposures, I always ended up chosing the darkest slide. It is only after fiddling a little with Photoshop that I realized that my exposures were not always optimal.

trip report | Pictures of the expedition | Tuan's mountaineering page

Reader's comments

enjoyed briefly viewing your Denali photos(will have to return when I have more time, came across your page doing search for Sekonic) I summited Denali in May 1982 and used a camera system much like you Olympus OM2 with Olympus XA in coat pocket always ready for snapshots, had good results with both cameras. I used Kodachrome 64(80) and was pleased with results, time to look at my own slide show again.
Contributed by james groh (jimgroh@sprintmail.com) on October 17, 1997.
Its nice to find some useful feedback finally! Im buying an FM 2 tomorrow and have been finding it hard to get some real info on it. Im also a climber, but coming from Australia, our trips into the alps are quite a bit apart. But, I have climbed in the coast range of B.C, whilst stuck in Whistler Resort for two years, also New Zealand and the Himalaya. I took a nickon 28mm p.s into the NZ alps with me last time I was there and found that this was publishing quality, although it has an iso range starting at 100(I think). I was going to get the T4, after reading about compacts in American ''Climbing'' but found it hard to get my hands on down here. Anywase, Im glad to read that your happy with this camera, and will spend, spend, spend with joy and confidence!!! Hey, come climbing in the Blue Mountains... must be something in the water I think... Greg Child, Greg Mortimer, Kim Carrigan, Garth Miller...
Contributed by Daniel Johnston (n9703152@nepean.scholar.edu.au) on January 28, 1998.

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