Matthew-Saville-Mt-Whitney-Switchbacks-Milky-Way-1Blast-Off at Midnight
Mt Whitney’s 97 switchbacks, illuminated by backpacker extraordinaire Wade Meade
Click HERE for a larger version!


Some photography projects are just a little bit more involved than others.  This one, planned and orchestrated mainly by photographer Sean Goebel of “Mauna Kea Heavens” fame, was a new personal record- it involved five fully-laden backpackers, eight DSLR cameras, and four nights of high elevation hiking, camping, and photography.  Oh, plus a surprise snow & lightning storm…in July!


Such are the high Sierras, especially in July/August. To be specific, I journeyed to the “Whitney Zone,” an area around Mt Whitney that is very popular among backpackers both locally and internationally.

One of the most famous sections of trail is the 97 switchbacks (sometimes called the 99 switchbacks) that climb approximately 1,600 feet in 2.2 miles. Not the most arduous or dangerous trail ever, it is still described as a brutal death march by anyone who attempts it under-prepared or even remotely out of shape.

Three years ago, after extensive preparation, photographer Kurt Lawson was able to photograph these switchbacks at night using a medium format film camera and a single, 4-hour long exposure. (Read more about this adventure here!)  This breathtaking image inspired the following collaborative project, involving five hikers (including Kurt) and eight DSLR cameras.

The New Adventure Report Series

This will mark the beginning of a new series for SLR Lounge, the Adventure Report Series.  We will share our adventure and travel photography experiences, stories, and of course photos.  We’ll describe how we created the imagery, and give advice for anyone else who is considering a similar adventure!  We have many more reports lined up from the past year, however I felt that I just had to start with what I think was one of the most exciting trips of my life.  Enjoy!

Travel Plans / Objectives

The original image, with its rich film tones and colors, remains a work of art that I don’t think we ever intended to replicate exactly.  It’s beautiful, and team member Sean Goebel still has the poster on his wall.  However, with the latest DSLR cameras’ low-light capabilities, we felt compelled to simply get up there again, and have some fun!

We wanted to photograph Mt. Whitney’s 97 switchbacks at night, while they were being ascended & descended by a hiker with extra-bright headlamps.  The most direct view of the hillside / rock face where the 97 switchbacks lie is from a rock fixture known as Wotan’s Throne. (Where Kurt Lawson created his 2011 image)  However, another great view of the area, including Mt. Whitney’s peak and beyond, can be had from Mt. Irvine which is an adjacent peak.

Before even picking a date, we spent quite a few hours scouting using Google Earth, estimating the lens focal lengths needed for certain angles, etc. etc.

Then, last month after numerous online chats with various team members strewn around the country, two hikers (Sean Goebel & Cory Kobel) set off from the Whitney Portal area with four cameras to climb Mt. Irvine while three more hikers (Kurt Lawson, Wade Meade, & myself) set off with another four cameras to climb Wotan’s Throne.  Using simple hand-held radios to (hopefully) communicate, we gave ourselves a two-night window of opportunity to attempt the concept.

The Equipment We Used

mt-whitney-switchbacks-at-night-milky-way-star-trails-lenses“What to bring, and what NOT to bring?  That is the question!”
(Yes, we left the Canon 100-400mm L at base camp lol)

In no particular order, here’s what went up the mountain:

Nikon D800e, with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G
Nikon D5300, with a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8
Canon 5D mk3, with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G via Novoflex Adapter
Canon 5D mk3, with a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
Canon 6D, with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
Canon 5D mk2, with a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art
Canon 6D, with a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8
Canon 6D, with a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 mk2, used at 24mm

We chose each of these lenses because they are the sharpest available lenses at each of their respective focal lengths and apertures.  All of the f/2.8 zooms were shot wide open at f/2.8, and all of the f/1.4 primes were shot at f/2 for the best balance of sharpness and low-light performance.

Of course, conversations in camp and on the trail inevitably focused on the subject of wishing that Canon would get around to making their own 14-24mm lens, since in our opinion both the 16-35mm f/2.8 L mk2 and 14mm f/2.8 L are un-acceptable for this type of photography due to their corner sharpness (or lack thereof) and vignetting / coma.  We also collectively lusted after the currently rumored Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art, of course.

For general walk-around photography, we also brought along a couple Canon 24-105mm f/4 L’s, a Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 mk1 for the Nikon D5300, a Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS for the Canon shooters, …and a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G for general close-up astro-landscape photography.  Also you’ll notice in the picture above one more teeny-tiny lens: we brought along one of the smallest, lightest 200mm lens ever made, the Olympus Zuiko 200mm f/5.  (380g / ~13 oz!!!)

Of course, every camera also needed an intervalometer, and we probably had in our possession every brand under the sun.  Our advice?  Find one that is on sale…then buy THREE of ’em!  :-P (We break intervalometers left and right)

For camera support, we brought along eight tripods to support those eight cameras.  Again in no particular order, we used a whole slew of different brands:

Oben Carbon Fiber Tripod (1x)
Fotopro C5C (1x)
Slik Sprint series (3x)
Gitzo Mountaineer series (1x)
Giottos Tripods (2x)


matthew-saville-mt-whitney-landscape-nd-pano-mirror-lakeNikon D5300, FotoPro C5C Tripod, B+W 10-stop ND filter
3-image panorama, 30 sec. each @ f/13 & ISO 100
Post-Processing in Lightroom & Photoshop CC, using SLR Lounge Presets V6

For general photography (and goofing around), we also brought, of course, an abundance of circular polarizers plus a couple 10-stop ND filters.  Mostly B+W filters, for their great optical quality as well as their thick, rugged overall design.

Last, but certainly not least, the key to almost every camera’s “survival” during a 4+ hour timelapse sequence:  Sean adapted special Lithium Polymer batteries to work with our cameras’ ordinary “dummy battery” port, which is usually used for plugging into constant (wall socket) power.  With one of these batteries, you can power a current generation full-frame DSLR for at least an entire night of back-to-back long exposures!  We’ll have to save this for a separate, in-depth article later though, because it’s a pretty complicated (and risky) concept.

Oh, and headlamps.  LOTS of headlamps.


Day 0 (Base Camp) Photo by Sean Goebel

The Images

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-1Day 1: Entering The Whitney Zone – Better have your wag bag handy!
Nikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, 11mm B+W circula
r polarizer
1/640 sec. @ f/11 & ISO 100
Post-Processing in Lightroom CC, using SLR Lounge Presets V6

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-2Wade Meade crossing a stream
Nikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, B+W slim circular polarizer

1/50 sec @ f/11 & ISO 100

matthew-saville-mt-whitney-mirror-lake-self-portraitMirror Lake self portrait
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C tripod

Single exposure processed using HDR techniques
in Lightroom CC, using SLR Lounge Presets V6

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-3Above the timberline, almost to Consultation Lake / Trail camp
Nikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm, Fotopro C5C tripod
Two exposures – 1/5 sec & 1/30 sec, f/11, ISO 100

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-4Sunset At Consultation Lake, Night 1
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm @ 14mm
3-image vertical panorama, 1/6 sec. @ f/13 & ISO 100

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-6 Night 1 Test Exposures over Consultation Lake
Nikon D800e, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @ 13mm, 1.2x crop mode
45 sec. @ f/3.5 & ISO 6400

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-5Moonrise & approaching clouds, Night 1 Test Exposures
Nikon D800e, Tokina 11-16mm @ 14mm & 1.2x crop, Giottos Tripod
300 sec (4 mins) @ f/2.8 & ISO 800

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-7Stormy Sunrise over Consultation Lake, Day 2
Nikon D800e, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, FX mode
Hand-held (steadied on a rock) 1/5 sec @ f/16 & ISO 100


Alpine Shooting Star Flowers, Consultation Lake
Nikon D800e, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C tripod
1/50 sec @ f/4 & ISO 100

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-21Approaching Storm, Alpine Shooting Star Flowers, Consultation Lake
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, Fotopro C5C tripod
1/125 sec. @ f/14 & ISO 100

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-9 Storm at Consultation Lake, Day 2
Nikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm
1/100 sec @ f/5.0 & ISO 400

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-10Summer Storm, Whitney Needles, Day 2
Nikon D5300, Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G
1/4000 sec @ f/16 & ISO 100

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-11Summer Storm, Whitney Needles, Day 2
Nikon D5300, Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 
1/4000 sec @ f/10 & ISO 100
Single exposure processed using HDR techniques
in Lightroom CC, using SLR Lounge Presets V6

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-12 Kurt Lawson, Sunrise, Day 3
Nikon D5300, Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 @ 90mm,
1/200 sec. @ f/5 & ISO 400


mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-20 Glacier Scrape Marks, Consultation Lake, Day 3
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm /2.8 G, 4:5 in-camera aspect ratio
1/200 sec @ f/16 & ISO 100
Single exposure processed using HDR techniques
in Lightroom CC, using SLR Lounge Presets V6

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-18 Departing Consultation Lake, Day 3
Nikon D800e, Nikno 14-24mm f/2.8
1/125 sec. @ f/16 & ISO 100


mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-13Myself atop Wotan’s Throne, Photo by Kurt Lawson
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
1/250 sec. @ f/11 & ISO 100
Single exposure processed using HDR techniques
in Lightroom CC, using SLR Lounge Presets V6

mt-whitney-switchbacks-astro-landscape-14Cameras seen on Mt Irvine, ~1 mile away, Night 3
Nikon D5300, Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G, Giottos Tripod
30 sec. @ f/1.8 & ISO 100

Mission Accomplished!

Matthew-Saville-Mt-Whitney-Switchbacks-Star-Trails-1Mt Whitney Trail camp, 97 switchbacks, Trail Crest, & Mt Muir
Click HERE to view larger!
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G @ 14mm
7 image composite, each image at 480 sec, (8 mins) f/4 & ISO 100

Matthew-Saville-Mt-Whitney-Switchbacks-Milky-Way-1 Mt Whitney Trail camp, 97 switchbacks, Trail Crest, & Mt Muir
Click HERE to view larger!
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G @ 14mm

7 image composite for foreground, 57 sec. @ f/2.8 & ISO 3200 for the sky



Nikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, Giottos Tripod
Sky: 30 sec. @ f/2.8 & ISO 6400
Foreground: 8 images, 8-min exposures @ f/4 & ISO 1600

mt-irvine-mt-whitney-astro-landscape-switchbacks-1Mt Whitney, Trail Crest, 97 Switchbacks, Trail Camp & Wotan’s Throne
Canon 6D, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art, Slik Sprint series Tripod

Click HERE to view a larger version!
~100 images @ 60 sec, f/2 & ISO 1600

mt-irvine-mt-whitney-astro-landscape-switchbacks-2Canon 6D, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Oben Tripod
Click HERE to view a larger version!
~100 images @ 60 sec, f/2.8 & IS0 3200

matthew-saville-mt-whitney-star-trails-astro-landscapeSelf Portrait after staying up all night to monitor cameras
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G, FotoPro C5C Tripod
8 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 1600


Mt Whitney & Whitney Needles, Sunrise, Day 4
Nikon D800e, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, in-camera 4:5 aspect
FotoPro C5C Tripod, B+W 10-stop ND filter
180 sec (3 min) @ f/11 & ISO 100
Single exposure processed using HDR techniques
in Lightroom CC, using SLR Lounge Presets V6

Prints & Licensing

The photographers involved have collaborated to offer prints and image / timelapse footage licensing for both private display and commercial use.  Your support is greatly appreciated, and helps us to bring you more adventures!

Sean Goebel
Kurt Lawson
Matthew Saville
(Additional Hikers: Cory Kobel & Wade Meade)

Travel Advice

So, you’re thinking of climbing Mt. Whitney?  Well, you’d better get in shape, bring lots of water, and be ready for ANY weather!

The Whitney zone is extremely difficult to acquire permits for, and to be quite honest even with such a strict system, the trail is still packed with hikers.  There is so much “traffic” in fact, that hikers must pack out their, um, poop.  Yeah.  But if you’re determined to go, get ready to apply for permits again and again.  Also, as we discovered, the best place to camp while you’re on the trail is at the more secluded Consultation lake, not at Trail Camp, where most hikers stop within ~20 feet of the trail and the commotion at 4-6 AM is sure to wake you, in case you’re hoping to “sleep in” until 7 or 8 AM.  ;-)

Getting to the top of Mt Irvine, or Wotan’s Throne, by the way, involves some extensive, serious off-trail scrambling.  I really don’t recommend doing this if you’re not an experienced hiker & rock climber / mountaineer, let alone with a heavy ~50 lb backpack filled with camera gear!

Or maybe, are you simply curious about astro-landscape photography in general?  Well stay tuned for many more articles on this subject, and potential workshops etc. in the future!

Take care and happy trails,