High Altitude

Photography Extremes – High Altitude

This may be the start of a mini-series of blogs as it is a huge topic to discuss. There are many extreme conditions in which photography can take place – High altitude. High temperature, Low temperature, Underwater, Wilderness, desert etc. In this iteration, we will be discussing high altitude. There are a few locations where you may encounter high-altitude conditions: The most common of which is the mountains.

Atmosphere and altitude

First some quick facts about our atmosphere.

Earth’s atmosphere can be divided into four categories. (It goes without saying that atmospheres are far more complicated than these four sections but four is a number our little human brains can at least comprehend). They are:

The Troposphere

The lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere. Nearly all weather conditions take place here and it accounts for 75% of Earth’s mass. This layer of the atmosphere extends upwards to 10kilometers above sea level.
NB: layers of the atmosphere actually differ in height depending on where you are on the planet, but for simplicities sake in this photography blog (yes I am aware this is supposed to be about photography) we will say 10km.

For some perspective, Mount Everest is roughly 8.9km. You may remember that heat rises, so why is the top of Everest so cold? That’s thanks to this guy –

The Stratosphere

The second layer to Earth’s atmosphere. This ranges from 10kilometeres to 50kilometeres. Commercial planes can fly up to 13km so it is safe to say, as a photographer, the MAX altitude you will have to deal with is the very bottom end of the Stratosphere. When people talk about climate change, this is the culprit. Inside the Stratosphere, around the 20km-30km mark, is the Polar Stratosphere (A.K.A Ozone Layer).

These two are the only two you have to be conscious of when it comes to high altitude photography.

Though if you’re interested the other two are the Mesosphere (50km-85km) and the Thermosphere (85km-690km).

BONUS FACT: Above the Thermosphere is the Exosphere (690km-10,000km). ‘Exo’ meaning outside.
BONUS BONUS FACT: The moon is roughly 400,000km away.

Hopefully, you found that as interesting as I did. But if you didn’t and you’re wondering “why on Earth did he say all that?”, my response would be: Firstly, nice pun. Secondly, it is the longwinded and pompous way of saying “the higher you get, the thinner the air is and the colder it gets”.

If you are not an experienced climber or mountain hiker, these factors are important to keep in mind at all times. In addition, mountains are a breeding ground for tough terrain so it would be worthwhile taking someone experienced with you.

Altitude training (training at high altitude), is a practice undertaken by some of the greatest athletes on the planet; including marathon runners, cyclists and Olympians. As mentioned above, a staggering 75% of the world’s mass is within the troposphere. Most of this mass is at sea level which means the higher you go the less dense the air becomes, which in turn makes it more difficult to breathe. As a result, you take in less oxygen with each breath, and consequently, each step requires that much more effort. The lesson to be learned here: You’ll need to be fit!

A quick piece of practical advice would be to put your camera strap on diagonally. This not only protects your camera if you fall, which is very possible given the terrain, but it also means your camera is ready at any moment for a picture. I would also highly recommend capturing BTS (behind the scenes), as it has many benefits which I will talk about in another post.


Altitude will affect your equipment as well as your body. For this reason, you should pack light and pack simple. Batteries wear out faster in the cold so make sure you have enough of them to last the experience. Other than that, a simple set-up: One camera, one to two lenses and a polarizer.

Granted, if you’re using batteries then you’ll be using a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera.
This accompanied by the use of manual settings will be sure to bring out the best from your surroundings. Your lens(es) are likely to fog up so bring a camera wipe just in case. Let’s talk equipment.


I’d recommend the Canon EOS 5d mark iv with the following specifications

Sensor Resolution 30.4 Megapixels
Optical Sensor Type / Size CMOS / Approx. 36.0 X 24.0 mm
Field of view crop factor 1.0
Sensor dust reduction Yes
Sensor Features EOS Integrated Cleaning System
Image Processor DIGIC 6+
Image Recording Format JPEG, RAW, RAW+JPEG

and the following environmental parameters:

Min Operating Temperature 32°F/0°C
Max Operating Temperature 104°F/40°C
Humidity Range Operating 0-85%
Protection Dust-resistant, Waterproof


A good multipurpose lens is the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. A wide-angle lens is always ideal when capturing the landscape. However, contrary to popular belief, I think a zoom lens will offer something unique to your photographs. Capturing the finer details on the mountain’s peak.

In addition to your lens, a polarizer will make a HUGE difference to your photos.

I would recommend the AntiGlare CPL filter from Moment.


The most important element in this environment is the depth of field. Your photo’s subject is likely to be the mountains themselves. You want aperture sitting at around f/9. Your shutter speed and ISO will vary depending on the style you’re after.

Shutter speed dictates the motion your camera captures in the image; the higher the shutter speed the less motion-captured and vice versa. Long exposure photography is exactly that, a slow shutter speed that captures a lot of movement.

ISO (International Organization of Standardization) is your sensor’s sensitivity to light. The term originated in the film when it was known as ‘film speed’ and ‘ASA’. The higher your ISO the higher your sensor’s sensitivity to light (the brighter your photo) and with that comes grain. On average you want to keep ISO under 1200. If your working on a DSLR you want your recording format to be RAW. This holds more information than JPEG and enables more freedom when editing.

There you are, high altitude photograph in a nutshell. This is the first of many posts on this website. The blogs will likely revolve around advice for photographers or those seeking photographers, stories and information all regarding photography. Please get in touch if you have any requests or ideas for future blog posts. I hope you found this useful and I look forward to hearing from you.


CK Morrison