Like many landscape photographers I live to explore and photograph remote new locations. For years Patagonia has hovered near the top of my list of photography destinations. Last October my five-month pregnant wife Stacey and I set out with three amazing friends to explore southern Chile and Argentina in rented vans with makeshift beds – yes, Stacey is an incredible woman. Our month-long journey was one of my favorite photo adventures of all time and Patagonia is now without doubt one of my favorite locations to photograph.
Be prepared for wind and weather
The weather changes quickly in Patagonia. The Earth’s southern oceans have little land to disrupt the wind and storms that build over them. These systems crash with force into the narrow strip of land and mountains known as Patagonia. Be sure to bring adequate protection for yourself and your camera gear to avoid becoming a victim of a sudden downpour or windstorm. Waterproof clothing, footwear and weather resistant camera bags are a must.
Spend as much time as you can at each location
There is no way to explore all of Patagonia’s more than one million square kilometers in a single trip. Research the parts that seem the most interesting to you and spend as much time as you can at each location. I highly recommend Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park as well as Argentina’s El Chalten at the base of Mount Fitz Roy. If you only have 10 days, I’d say choose just one of those two to avoid the feeling that you have only scratched the location’s surface.
It is easy for photographers to fall into the trap of snapping their shutters and checking photo locations off their lists. Patagonia rewards the patient landscape photographer. It’s subtle moods shift and change with the weather and time of day. For example: Stacey and I backpacked up from El Chalten to Lago Torre and camped for a night. Despite spending only 14 hours there, the stills and time-lapse I created of Cerro Torre reflecting in the lake look as if they were taken over the course of many days as the light, the clouds, the stars and the wind shifted.
Taking a tour designed for non-photographers will be very frustrating for landscape photographers who want to spend adequate time on location during the best possible light. The rest of your group will likely prefer to sleep through dawn and eat dinner during sunset. You will find yourself at the iconic locations in the middle of the day during the most harsh light. If you want an organized tour, I’d suggest either joining a photo workshop or working with a tour-operation that caters to photographers and understands your needs.
Patagonia is a very easy region to rent a car and drive in. Many roads are gravel, but they are well maintained. The locals are friendly and helpful. Hostels, grocery stores and restaurants are abundant. With your own car you can set your own agenda according to the weather you encounter.
During a big storm, hang out in fun towns like Puerto Natales, Chile and El Chalten and then head back out for sunsets, stars, and dawns as the weather breaks.
Keep your camera handy at all times, even while hiking or driving. You never know when some of Patagonia’s iconic wildlife from wild horses to guanaco and condors will pop up and strike a fleeting pose for you.
In those rare moments when the wind dies, look for water features to reflect the incredible scenery. I remember stopping the van alongside a small windless lake the first night as we drove into Torres del Paine. Despite being exhausted I took the time to create a focus-stacked, low-light capture of the lake reflecting the mountains above. I had been tempted to continue on to our campground and return another night, but in our nearly two weeks in the park I did not see another windless lake reflection.
Keep your eyes on the sky
Are you sensing a theme that Patagonia has dynamic, ever changing weather? It certainly does and that’s part of what is so special about this place. The rapidly moving storms that constantly crash against Patagonia’s mountains create the kind of clouds that landscape photographers dream of.
As you frame your images, don’t forget to keep looking up at what is happening in the sky above you. Sometimes it may pay creative dividends to put an ultra-wide angle lens on and compose that iconic landscape as a small foreground element to set off an even more spectacular cloudscape. Sometimes I found the clouds themselves were so magnificent that I filled my compositions with them alone. These clouds change constantly. When you see something special in the sky, act quickly before it’s gone forever.
Bring everything you need
You will be hard pressed to find photographic equipment in Patagonia. Outdoor gear and good food are everywhere. High quality camera gear? Not so much. I recommend bringing at least a spare lens cap for every size you use. In addition, a high quality UV filter will protect your glass against the raging winds as well as a lost lens cap. I kept http://www.kenkotokinausa.com/hoya filters on my lenses throughout this trip. I think of them as armour and I can’t spot any image degradation using them.
On the topic of filters, I highly recommend taking a quality neutral density filter kit along. I used my Hoya Pro ND filters often in Patagonia to slow my shutter speed without stopping down aperture to the point of diffraction. This enabled me to blur the flow of sunlit waterfalls, smooth reflections on lightly rippled lake surfaces and film a video tutorial series for the On1 Plus community in brightly lit scenes.
Other things that I recommend. In addition to your standard kit, bring a long lens for wildlife as well as an ultra-wide angle for cloudscapes and stars; a spare body just in case, lens and sensor cleaning gear, a means to backup your images, gaffer tape for repairs, a high quality headlamp and spare batteries for everything. As always, when flying, check your clothes and carry on your camera gear. You can always find new clothes.
I hope you get a chance to photograph this spectacular region. Patagonia is one of those rare locations with the potential to fuel my photographic creativity over and over again. In fact, I have already spent time planning my next trip back and designing future workshops to teach down there.