Daniel Alexander Harris
Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal
Time / Date:
05:00 / 21st July Day, 2014
Camera Body: Nikon D800
Lenses: Nikon 35mm 1.8 (Yes, it works on FX)
Shutter Speed: 1/4000
Focal Length: 35mm
In the Himalayas, I could not have been further from my usual environment of a venue photo pit. Imagine a commission where it took you every ounce of strength and a month round-trip just to reach your subject. In that sense, Annapurna I was the toughest client I’d had to date.
Over the past 4 years as a music documentary photographer, I have covered everything from touring with bands to backstage shoots to live shows to festivals. I initially started photographing music club-nights and live shows in London and Edinburgh before starting to shoot for larger publications, festival teams and finally moving into shooting directly for bands and labels in 2013. In my personal work, I have slowly been moving away from shooting lives and am focusing more, when I can, on documentary style shooting. I really enjoy the candid nature and timelessness of documentary photography and it’s role in providing the whole picture from the camaraderie to the adrenaline of the show to exhaustion of travelling through the night to do it all again the next day. For me, there is as much beauty in the highs as the lows as without the other the story is left incomplete.
In July 2014, I climbed to the foot of Annapurna 1, Nepal. I had been planning this trip for over two years and something that had started as a small obsession with Everest and the world’s highest mountains (most of which are found in Nepal) had resulted with me standing face to face with this monolith on 21st July 2014.
To get to base camp, I had spent seven days climbing through the monsoon, traversing fresh landslides, climbing a total of 6000 vertical metres up and down the Annapurna Sanctuary valleys whilst battling with altitude sickness. As I got higher, I was aware that my Crohn’s disease was being heavily aggravated. My appetite went on day 3 and I was left climbing between 9-15 km a day on less than 300 calories of tomato soup. I was motivated to realise my dream of reaching Annapurna but, at times, was absolutely lost in finding the energy for my next step.
No matter who you are, high altitude trekking and climbing will teach you something about yourself. When you are stripped to your basics of putting one foot in front of another, breathing, eating, sleeping and doing it all again the next day, you realise your mental strength or lack thereof. I had lost three stone in 14 days between burning several thousand calories and eating minimal food. Having not seen a single mountain in the week’s climb due to the dense monsoon clouds, morale was low at times. Our Sherpa Tashi had a saying of ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’ At 5am on the 21st July, Annapurna graced us with a short weather window where the summit appeared from behind the monsoon clouds. The views were breathtaking.
I had brought my cheapest prime (50mm 1.8G) with me to Nepal as this was the lens I would have been least upset to sacrifice to the monsoon conditions. It eventually fogged up so badly that I had to borrow our climb leader Tashi’s 35mm 1.8 DX. Despite being a DX lens, the 35mm was the best equipment available to me and, with the Nikon D800’s awesome resolution, I was able to crop out the vignetting which I reduced by shooting at a faster aperture. In an ideal world, I would have taken this shot on an ultra-wide like the Nikon 14-24mm 2.8 that would have been more suited for shooting the landscape but there was no way that I would have been prepared to carry any additional weight up the mountain.
Outside of a Himalayan environment, I have always had three things in mind when it comes to choosing my equipment: Portability, durability and usability in low-light. If equipment is being left at home regularly, it is very likely that i’ll trade it against something that will serve me better. I recently transitioned from a D800 to a D4 which I find more suitable for my day to day music shooting but I do miss the incredible detail of the D800 particularly when shooting landscapes. The D4’s extra 7 FPS, better ISO performance and smaller file sizes have been a dream for my shooting and post-production workflow since making the switch.
Making the Shot:
I had dreamed of photographing Annapurna I and the imposing, deadly south face for some time. I had read books and watched numerous documentaries about the mountain and, between the stories and its unique looks, I found the mountain compelling as a subject. I was obviously also keen to document the milestone of reaching base camp. However, It was not that simple. First things first, I had to wait for a weather window. It was crazy that we had been climbing for over a week by that point and had only seen the mountain once through the dense, monsoon-bearing clouds. I felt very lucky that, early on the morning we were at base camp, the clouds retracted revealing Annapurna I. As a music photographer, I am used to shooting with available light but not normally this much of it. I was at ISO 320 (probably the lowest I had been all year), 1/4000th and was very aware of the vignetting of the backup 35mm DX lens at apertures above F/4. I shot at F/2.8 which was a trade-off point between the visual elements being in focus and minimising the vignetting from the DX lens. The weather window lasted about 8 minutes before the clouds hid the mountain once more.
Editing & Processing:
The unnecessary weight of a laptop and the minimal electricity available in the Annapurna Sanctuary meant that I was unable to offload any of my cards till I arrived back in the U.K. This meant I spent more time over each shot as my shots were more limited and it was almost as if I was shooting on film.
When it comes to an edit, I treat all my photography work in the same way. I first flag my edits in Lightroom before and make initial exposure and curve tweaks before taking images into Photoshop. I like to treat my photography files much like how I would treat a film and colour grade. I tend to shoot with a more cinematic crop composing with that in mind. In Photoshop, I first edit the details in the frame before creating a colour grade that I like that feels true to the environment and my style. Following that, I apply a minimal texturing grain that marries down the visual.
I edited this image almost a month after I arrived back in the U.K. I had got back on August 1st in the height of festival season and barely had time to offload the cards onto my laptop before heading off to Green Man Festival.
Looking back, I needed that time to get a degree of closure on the trip, to reflect on how I wanted to treat the images but also to adjust to the culture shock of being back home having been in the mountains for the best part of a month. This photograph became more and more symbolic of the two years planning, the mentally and physically exhausting challenge of the climb and the eventual pay-off of being at Annapurna base camp on a rare, beautifully clear day.
1) There’s always more than one answer to a creative question.
2) Print your photos. Photography was never meant to exist solely in the digital realm. There is something wonderful and exciting about seeing your work in physical form.
Great work. I love seeing incredible photography portfolios that really shake me up and force me to evaluate how I might up my game. I think the first time I got really nervous about my future as a photographer was when I saw the work of The Wade Brothers. Their book is just fantastic.
Healthy competition will always be a big player in what drives me as a photographer. Obviously seeing the work of the greats is inspirational but it’s as inspirational seeing photographers in similar fields at similar ages to me doing fantastic work. It’s also really cool to see other photographers work with bands that i’ve done shoots for and seeing how they approached the shoots differently. There’s always more than one answer to the same question.
For me, working with bands and music festivals is incredibly exciting and something I look forward to doing more. It can feel like a dream when a band you love wants to take you on the road or a festival wants you to lead their creative and visual identity for that year. I am just starting to head on the road more as well as lead festival teams and am enjoying bringing my background as an Advertising Art Director increasingly into what I offer as a photographer. I am able to offer clients moving image, design, film-editing, photography and long idea creative campaigns that improve marketing strategies and social engagement. I aim to continue narrowing the gap between my Art Direction and Photography work in the future. ide that world and capture just a piece of that experience. I want to show it the way I’ve been lucky enough to see it—to get an image that no one else can get.
About the Photographer
Daniel Alexander Harris is an Art Director at M&C Saatchi and a Photographer based in London. He is presently In-House Photographer at Communion Music, O2 Academy Brixton and O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire and shoots regularly as an editorial photographer for NME Magazine and The Line of Best Fit.
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