"Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain... Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall - it's great when you stop."

Chris Darwin

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La Sorcière Blanche

Credit: Seven Doc,  Shot on 2010-12-28 Photo taken.Licensed under: Public Domain.

Since it has been bitterly cold and the weather shows no sign of warming up any time son, I decided to pass time by checking what new (well, to me) films are out there. Firt of all I stumbled on La sorcière blanche which had previously slipped under my radar.

It's a newer film from the people who brought you Ice Up featuring the first ascent of La Sorcière Blanche (V, WI6+, M8, 7a 400m, FA: Philippe Batoux, François Damilano and Benoît Robert, 2006) in Le Fer à Cheval (France), one of the landmark ice climbs. Few pics from the first ascent of direct variant can be found here.

Not wanting to pay full postage for just one film, I decided to browse further and found Crackoholic. It got such a raving review by Dave McLeod that I just had to add that to my shopping cart as well.


So, after having finally decided on getting short approach skis. I figured it was time to try and find a new camera to replace my old Canon Ixus 850IS.

My decision process was as follows:

As far as image quality, robustness and versatility go, Single Lens Reflexor would be the only right way to go. However, I mainly take photos when going climbing (with the main purpose always being climbing, not photography). To be able to take the shots while climbing without having to sacrifice too much time for it, the camera needs to small and light enough to fit inside my pocket (or to hand it on a harness). So we are talking about preferably well under 200g. Which is to say even the smallest SDLR's are way too heavy and too big for me. So I needed to start looking for small camera that is as close to SLR camera when it comes to image quality as possible.

Credit: Lensmate,  Shot on 2010-12-28 Photo taken.Licensed under: Public Domain.

This is particularly difficult nut to crack as demands for the camera used for climbing photography are quite a handful.

First of all, it is obvious, that any chance to have decent shots requires a good lens. In my book, this means the following characteristics:

  • High quality lens with following features
    • No optical distortions
    • For action shots, wide angle is what's needed. The wider the better. Talking in 35mm terms, 28mm equivalent is pretty much the norm nowadays, 24mm would be better.
    • For landscape, reasonably long tele is required. I am less impressed with very long tele, as even in my limited understanding of photography I know enough to figure out that they don't really work in a very small camera. Way too easy to shake (yes, image stabilizers are a bliss, but even their abilities have limits) and far too little light. That being said, panoramas would benefit for reasonably long tele, so somewhere around 150mm would be great.
    • In order to have any realistic hope for decent pics in low-light situations, the lens needs to be bright as possible (read: low f-values)

Lightning conditions vary quite a bit as well which pushes the envelope when it comes to metering and censor.

  • Lots of snow and ice are tough for white balance calculation. Add to that plenty of reflections and it is easy to see why getting the colors right is not an easy task.
  • When it gets dark it gets worse for compacts. In order to be able to fit a small and light lens to small camera, you can't put a full-size censor to the camera. In fact virtually all compacts have a very tiny censor, only a fraction of physical dimensions of censors used in SLR's. This combined with very high pixel count makes the pixels tiny. Which is a bad thing, as tiny pixels means that little light is captured. Of course, small lens with high f-value doesn't help in this matter at all. To make matters worse the f-value is only half the story anyway, f2.0 in SLR equipped with full size censor (35mm) is a very different thing as f2.0 in a camera equipped with 8mm censor. Therefore all pocketable compacts make huge sacrifices in comparison to SLR's in this regard. Luckily there are few compacts that take some steps to right direction away from the main stream.
Luckily, some issues can be digitally remedied using digital processing, be that either automatically inside the camera of afterwards using photo processing. This is where in-camera HDR and such come into play. However, in a difficult situations, post-processing in image editor is needed. To have good foundation for this, particularly the following features are usefull:
  • ability to shoot raw. Main reason for this being to have as much information available for fixing various issues occurring due to a number of shortcomings caused either by the demanding lightning situations, limits of lens and camera software or lack of photographic skill of the camera operator. All three happening simultaneously is pretty much the norm for me.
  • bracketing. The big idea about bracketing is to take multiple shots at once with different settings thus increasing the likelihood of one of them ending up good. Bracketing is also a good way of getting ingredients to to be combined as a HDR shot later on.
  • in-camera HDR (essentially a combination of bracketing and a process to combine bits and pieces from several photos shot with different settings (almost) simultaneously).
Ability to use optical filters can help as well. Using filters it is possible to adapt the lens to different shooting situations, thus increasing the possibility of getting the colors right.

As the camera is going to be used primarily when climbing (alpine, ice and rock), it should be able to take full-on conditions. This area is particular shortcoming of compacts, as you pretty much can have both weather-proof sturdy design and reasonable image quality, just not in the same camera.

  • impact-proofness
  • water-proofness
  • camera needs to stand up to harsh temperatures, preferably with not too great negative effect on batteries.
My compromise is to use not particularly weather prof camera that I tend to keep in a case and store it in my pocket. Should it be really wet, I can weather proof it by placing the case in a sealing plastic bag. Obviously far from ideal a solution, but weatherproof compacts of the moment just don't seem to be up to task at hand when it comes to image quality.

Ability to shoot high quality video is nice to have. However, as the main purpose for me is shooting stills, shortcoming is video shooting (such as lack of optical zoom or autofocus) are easier to accept than shortcomings in the primary set of requirements.

Eliminating cameras according to above mentioned criteria, I came up with two or three options, namely:

  • Canon Powershot S95CanonPowershot S95.
  • Panasonic Lumix CMC-LX5PanasonicLumix CMC-LX5.
  • Leica D-Lux 5LeicaD-Lux 5. Essentially the same camera as Panasonic LX5 but with some tweaks in software, Leica brand and different software bundle.
  • Leica, Panasonic and Sigma also make compacts (albeit bigger than those listed above) with APS-sized sensor. However, they are so much bigger, that they can't comfortably fit in a pocket. IMO, pocketability is the deciding factor when it comes to size. Too big to dump in a pocket and any reason not to bring SLR is pretty much lost. Leica model also has some other serious limitations not to mention astronomical price tag.

After researching some reviews (eg. this one)I decided on Canon Powershot S95. Mainly because it is significantly smaller than the other two and according to reviews, overall image quality is supposedly pretty similar (and better than most other compacts). There are some differences but I figured they pretty much evened out when taking into account various aspects of image quality. Downsides of Canon were usually mentioned to be:

  • Mediocre handling, partly because of a missing grip.
  • Poor battery life. Clearly far from ideal, but reserve batteries are small and pretty cheap, so not a non-started either.
  • Video is reported to lack autofocus and optical zoom while shooting video. Fortunately, CHDK is coming to rescue in this area. Furthermore, I'd prefer AVCHD (as opposed to Mov) and 1080p50 (as opposed to 720p24). However, the main application being photography, I believe I can live with these restrictions.

Luckily, some of these of S95 can be partially remedied with aftermarket bits and/or CHDK software.

Pimping Canon Powershot S95

Credit: Lensmate,  Shot on 2010-12-28 Photo taken.Licensed under: Public Domain.

Some of the issues with Powershot S95 can be partially fixed with tuning the camera with aftermarket bits and pieces and hacker firmware.

The camera doesn't have any form of a grip which saves some weight and bulk but makes handling it less secure. This is not helped at all by the relatively slick surface. There are two possible ways to improve this:

  • attach aftermarket grip
  • DIY solution for those not willing to spend money on a grip or wishing to save weight and bulk is to apply adhesive tape to improve grip.

Canon does not supply attachment for optical filters. I reckon this might be to differentiate S95 with larger and more expensive G-series. However, Lensmate makes a adapter solution with which it is possible to attach 37mm filters, such as polarizer, to S95.

Stock firmware does allow neither optical zoom nor autofocus while shooting video. Luckily, extra features can often be introduced to Canon point-and-shoot camera by utilizing CHDK firmware solution. S95 is currently not supported by S95 but there is a beta in works which is supposed to allow both, zooming and autofocus when shooting video. Obviously it can't repair the mechanics though, namely noise caused by zooming and AF. This might be the reason why Canon disabled these features in the first place; microphones are located very close to the lens, therefore the noise caused by zooming or refocusing is readily picked up by the microphones.

Raw files shot with S95 are reportedly not supported by the current versions of Adobe Camera Raw (used by both Photoshop and Lightroom).

I kind of like geotagging my images, therefore GPS unit built in to a camera would be a very welcome solution. Unfortunately S95 doesn't have one. Alternative would be to geotag the images manually in batches. Lightroom excels in tagging in batches but unfortunately, it does not have a means to geotag. Well, natively anyway. There is a usefull plugin that makes this possible. Unfortunately the process is somewhat cumbersome if you want to store GPS data back to original images (pretty much the whole point in my book, as software-lock-in is something to be avoided at all costs) due to limitations of Pluging architecture of Lightroom. However, until anything more straight forward comes along, it is still a very workable solution.

Polarization with no polarizer

It is somewhat surprising that it is widely considered to be most useful filter, yet there is no pre-made filter in Photoshop, or Lightroom for that matter, to apply the said filter post-shoot digitally.

Granted, it is not as good as shooting with polarizer as if the highlights or reflections are burned there's just not enough data to dig out the lost detail. However, part of the damage can be remedied digitally afterwards. And the fact that there's no ready made filter does not mean that the same effect couldn't be achieved with the aforementioned applications, it just a bit harder.

These same techniques are very much usable also when you don't want to use polarizing filter. For example you don't want to use it when shooting multiple pictures to be combined into a panorama.

It's all downhill from here

Credit: STC,  Shot on 2010-12-28 Photo taken.Licensed under: Public Domain.

After a very long search for very lightweight (and short) approach skis that can be used with climbing shoes I finally found STC SnowVentureSTCSnowVenture. They appear to be the same as discontinued Rossignol FreeTrek. I did receive my pair but am yet to try them out. I had my eye on Hagan Nanook earlier, but didn't order them back then and now they are discontinued.

My reasoning for getting them is that some form of flotation aid is unavoidable in order to get to the climb if there's loads of snow. Usually full-on touring skis would be ideal up until you reach the climb, but they have few serious cons:

  • weight
  • if you can't leave them behind below the climb, their bulk can be awkward when climbing
  • you need to have skiing boot to use them. Granted, you could climb with them, but they are heavy and way too stiff unless climbing is technically straight forward

Downhill, real skis paired with proper skiing boots would kick ass, particularly if you can maneuver them. Short skis paired with light weight and far less sturdy climbing boots are way worse for downhill, but not being much of a skier myself, I figure short skis and climbing boots are better solution for my needs. It remains to be seen whether this reasoning is valid.