A Landscape Photographer on Porcupines, Waterproofing, and the Ultimate Reality Check that Some Conditions Can Make Anyone a Novice

Photo by Ian MacLellan

by Ian MacLellan

posted on 07-11-2018

Ian MacLellan is an adventure and landscape photographer. 99U sat down with MacLellan to hear the behind-the-scenes story of the photograph that made even an experienced climber feel awed, and the lessons he learned from the trip.

Three climbers, who I barely knew, put together this trip to Northern Quebec. They picked the spot by exploring Google Earth, trying to find cliffs that no one had climbed. This cliff–they called it the King Wall–looked epic and untouched: the right kind of target. It was a 15 hour car ride from New Hampshire to a float plane that flew us to the Moisie River. As a photographer, it was exciting to get up in that plane and see the cliffs that we were going to attack. There’s only one bridge that crosses the river all the way until the river meets the ocean. No powerlines, no railroads, roads, or cars. Nobody lives on it.

We couldn’t get dropped off right where we wanted to climb, so we traveled for days by canoe. The Moisie has lots of rapids and dangerous tricky sections. This photo is the first day that we got to the cliffs. It’s a reconnaissance photo taken from a canoe. The guys in the other canoe were pointing, trying to figure out the best way to climb up.

You can zoom in on photos from Google Earth as much as possible, but in person, it looks infinitely more challenging. I had fallen rock climbing and broken a rib or two a few years before this trip. After that fall I was more cognizant of safety and risk. At the point of this photo, I’m feeling trepidation. These guys were better climbers than me. They were older, wiser, and smarter. I’m proficient, but not exceptional. As the younger person in the group—I was 24—I felt out of my element. As a photographer, it’s a challenge. You’re carrying just as much stuff, if not more. Everyone else is the experienced athlete and there’s pressure to keep up.

This was one of the first big expeditions I’d gone on that wasn’t with my friends. The challenge of living up to other people’s climbing abilities is where the fear really lay. I was way more aware of when I might lag behind or when my skills might not live up to the whole team.

I think that nervous energy is what caused me to drop my camera. One day, we were climbing and I was trying to move too quickly. It was like a high school situation: you’re on a sports team and you’re the young freshman trying to keep up with the seniors. I was scared and self-aware. And I dropped one of the cameras.

We had to spend the day searching for the camera because it still had half the pictures from the trip. We found the camera and the SD card was still good, so the photos survived.

I learned: bring backups. It’s always better to have two of everything and just carry that extra weight; extra batteries, SD cards, bags. I had two full frame DSLR cameras. On top of that, porcupines, it turns out, like to eat everything. They ate some of our bags that kept the equipment dry. Then, I broke one of my waterproof camera holders. Luckily, remember, one of my cameras had fallen off a cliff and stopped working, so I didn’t really need it. It was a good reality check. The important fact is: when you’re in high school, the seniors aren’t actually cooler, you just think they are.

Now, in my day to day life, I’m hyper organized about having extra things. I show up to, say a strobe photoshoot with two or three sets of wireless flash triggers, rather than just the one that 99.9 percent of the time works. Adventure photography prepares you: bring extra of everything.

Topics: Photography

Products: Lightroom, Photoshop, Creative Cloud