The Bigger Picture: Mountain running in the Grey Corries

'The Bigger Picture' is an occasional series where I share the story behind some of the images in my portfolio.

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Charlies Lees expressing his joy about being high in the Grey Corries at 4.30am in the West Highlands of Scotland.

The Grey Corries are a group of four Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft) that form a natural rocky ridge running south-west from Spean Bridge in the West Highlands of Scotland to Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak. I’ve trekked over the Grey Corries many times, on day trips as well as backpacking them as part of the Lochaber Traverse and during an attempt on Tranter’s Round. Each time I’ve arrived on the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh, the highest summit in the Grey Corries at 1177m, I’ve made a mental note of the expansive views as the ridge snakes its way south-west towards Ben Nevis. I’ve always resolved to come back for a photo shoot.

The image I had in my head was of a trail runner descending from the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh as the sun set far in the west over Ben Nevis. I’d roped in a friend, Charlie Lees, who is supported by Gorewear, and we’d hiked up the mountain the previous afternoon so we were in a perfect position for the shoot. Unfortunately, as is often the case in Scotland, the weather didn’t play ball. The forecast was good but the light at sunset was muted by low-lying cloud and so we improvised instead, shooting a variety of shots until it got too dark (around 11pm). I wasn’t too concerned as we’d had the foresight to bring sleeping gear with us and we planned to spend the night on the summit so we could shoot again the following day.

In the morning, I woke early, well before sunrise. I was disappointed to find the cloud was still there but a wild mountain hare, stationary not five feet from my head, buoyed my spirits. The hare and I sat in silence for a while, perhaps both of us just admiring the view, before it hopped off down the ridge. I called out to Charlie and we got ready for the shoot.

My intentions were still to shoot facing west, catching Charlie as the sun caught the ridgeline out to Ben Nevis. The view to the east though as the sun rose behind the spine of a subsidiary top, Stob Coire na Ceannain, caught my eye and we headed along the ridge. As Charlie crested the summit, he leapt in the air slightly and I knew I had my shot. After a few repeat takes, including some without the leap, I was happy.

Capturing this image reminded me that the photograph I’m most glad to have captured is not always the one I had planned. It’s best I keep an open mind and consider all my options when planning and executing a shoot. It also reminded me to keep an eye on an athlete’s natural traits and take advantage of them, when it’s appropriate, when I’m producing an image.

Published in: A variation of this image was published in Runner’s World, June 2018


Thanks go to Charlie’s partner, Naomi Freireich, who was with us on this shoot so we could capture separate images of her on her mountain bike. 

Second time out: Sony RX100 V in the Lake District

I shared in my last post some thoughts I had about the suitability for the Sony RX100 V camera for personal outdoor adventures or mountain sports. I bought this admittedly expensive compact camera, with its 1.0 inch sensor, for occasions where I wasn't working but I still wanted to be able to capture images that were good enough quality for me to add the images to my stock image library and use them, at least, for editorial photography submissions.

My second trip out with the Sony RX100 V camera was to the English Lake District, when I visited with a friend who was scouting out locations ahead of a 24-hour mountain running challenge. In regards to the camera itself, I'd stick with my initial thoughts about the controls being difficult to use in big gloves. I was essentially using it as a point and shoot camera in conditions below freezing with strong winds. I also had trouble with the on/off switch, when I was 100% sure on occasions that I'd pressed it - without gloves on - but the camera didn't recognise my input. And, whilst I felt that 24-70mm gives a good choice of focal range, I think I'd prefer 24-105mm on this particular camera (compared to my Nikon DSLR, on which I prefer using prime lenses - a 24mm f1.4, 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8, which I supplement with two zooms, a 17-35mm wide angle and 70-200mm telephoto lens).

Overall, my first impressions of the Sony RX100 V still stand and it appears to be an excellent camera for my intended purpose. I'll add more thoughts as I use it more. In the meantime, I'll share how much I enjoyed the Lake District. It's roughly the same distance from Edinburgh as it is to Glen Coe (approximately 3 hours) and it opens up a whole new range of mountains for me to explore. I've already started some location scouting of my own, as I prepare for a mountain running photo shoot I've scheduled for later in the year. I'm really looking forward to going back.

Donnie & Rachael Campbell: Mountain running in Chamonix

Some sample images and a background to the locations we used for a mountain running photo shoot around Chamonix, France, shooting with Salomon-sponsored athlete Donnie Campbell and his wife Rachael Campbell, assisted by Alexis Basso. More images are available on request.

In August 2017, I had the opportunity to photograph Donnie Campbell and Rachael Campbell in Chamonix, France. Donnie Campbell is one of Britain's top ultra & mountain runners and the owner of a running coach business (www.getactiverunning.com). Donnie is the reigning British Ultra Trail Champion and a GB international team member. He is sponsored by Salomon. Donnie's wife Rachael Campbell is a nurse and a talented mountain runner, placing 10th female in the 2017 Mont Blanc Marathon. 

One of my first tasks was to decide where there would be the best places to take athletes for a running shoot in Chamonix.

Location 1 - Désert de Platé

On the day Donnie and Rachael welcomed us to the Argentière campsite they'd been calling home for the Summer, my assistant Alex remarked how we appeared to have brought the Scottish weather with us (a temperature of 3 degrees C was reported for the following day). Although the Chamonix valley was socked in with low cloud and drizzle, we had done our research and the weather was looking better a few days ahead so we headed north in the rain to Plaine Joux and followed the route of Le Dérochoir (a fun, if initially sketchy-looking 'via ferrata' that follows a weak point up the dramatic cliffs of Rochers des Fiz and leads to Col de la Portette). Our plan was to stay overnight at Refuge de Platé and shoot sunrise shots of Donnie and Rachael playing on the amazing limestone rock landscape of Désert de Platé, with Mont Blanc in the background.

Désert de Platé was an area that had immediately sprung out when I did some location scouting online. I definitely did want to shoot running images in the Chamonix valley but, when I googled possible locations, the south side of Chamonix (the Lac Blanc side) was clearly the running photographer's location of choice. For good reason. The views are awesome. But I also wanted to find a location that no-one else had. So my plan for our 4-day shoot was to shoot on the balcony paths of Chamonix but also find another location that I hadn't seen any running shots of. Désert de Platé, as it transpired, wasn't an entirely unique location for running (whilst we were in Chamonix, Kilian Jornet posted a video of Seb Montaz and himself playing around between the rock crevasses) but I think we made a good choice. The cracked limestone rock offers huge potential for foreground interest in a photo shoot and the views of Mont Blanc are immense. We only had  the time and the weather for one shoot before we headed back to Chamonix but I'd love to return and explore more.

File reference: chenderson_chamonix_trail_running_0817-782.jpg

Location 2 - Lac Blanc

When the sun became too bright for photographs at Désert de Platé, we descended via Le Dérochoir and returned to Chamonix for lunch. Two hours later, Alex and I were on our way to 2,352m high Lac Blanc, taking advantage of the chairlifts from Les Praz to Flégère to L'Index to help alleviate some of the weight of our camera and lighting gear. Donnie and Rachael chose to run up from Argentière. The location of Lac Blanc (the 'White Lake’) is, arguably, home to the most famous views in the Alps, with thousands of photos on the internet of the scenic lake and its mountain refuge, nestled beneath the Aiguilles Rouge, with its expansive views over the Chamonix valley to famous peaks such as Aiguille du Tour, Aiguille du Chardonnet, Aiguille Verte, Aiguille du Dru, Grandes Jorasses, the Chamonix Aiguilles and Mont Blanc.

Donnie and Rachael met us at Refuge Lac Blanc. By the time they'd arrived, I’d already decided that a Saturday night in August wasn’t the best time for a photo shoot at this busy location. There was an awful lot of people around the lake. It was too crowded for the shots I had in mind so we descended to lower Lac Blanc and prepared to shoot there. There were already photographers set up (it's a popular lake for reflections) so I took the time to check they didn’t mind if we took some running shots and received a positive response (though in the morning I learnt there was a photographer I had missed and we had spoiled their time lapse. If this was you, I do apologise). As we wrapped up our shoot, I chatted to Salomon's social media manager, Jeremy. Donnie and Rachael returned to Argentière and Alex and I bivvied out so we could shoot some mountain landscape images at dawn. We arranged to meet up with Donnie and Rachael later that day.

File reference: chenderson_chamonix_trail_running_0817-1060.jpg

Location 3 - Le Brévent

Donnie and Rachael’s base in the Alps was their campervan at Camping du Glacier d’Argentière (www.campingchamonix.com). After Alex and I had descended from Lac Blanc (pleasingly, the trail popped out at a bakery in Argentière), it was nice to sit in the mid-day sun at the campsite with fresh bread and a chilled drink as we prepared for our last shoot of the trip. We had two locations in mind. A visit to Tête de Balme or Aiguillette des Posettes for a sunset view down the whole Chamonix valley or to head south-west to Brévent for a closer view of the Chamonix Aiguilles and the summit of Mont Blanc. The latter won, not least because I love looking at the Chamonix Aiguilles (and Les Drus - oh, Les Drus - along with Cerro Torre and Torre Egger in Patagonia, two peaks I could photograph simply every day).

Le Brévent is a popular destination in the Alps for Chamonix’s aerial specialists. Paragliders take off very close to the Plan Praz mid-station, taking advantage of thermals above the town, and BASE jumpers plunge from a pedestal not far from Le Brévent’s 2,525m high summit. We didn't see any BASE jumpers but we did see plenty of paragliders as we left the summit of Le Brévent and headed into a magnificent rocky playground that stretches out like one great, big, broken ridge into the distance towards the Aiguilles Rouges. I'm confident there's huge potential for capturing adventure sports images beneath the peaks that rise above the Grand Balcon Sud, including running, hiking and scrambling photos, all with stunning views across to the big alpine peaks. I made a note to discuss it with clients on my return.

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All that was left was for us was to descend the 1,500m to Chamonix, first on an easy trail and then down the initially scrambly but fun Chamonix VK route steeply downhill to arrive in town well after dark. I knew my quads would burn from the 3,000m descent I’d had that day but it was a good feeling and I was sad to be leaving. Three days shooting running in Chamonix simply isn't enough. I'll look forward to going back.