Adventure cameraman Keith Partridge has travelled to the ends of the earth in a career spanning a quarter of a century. But behind the amazing imagery there is a story of in-depth technical expertise.
Anyone who has ever tried to take still or moving pictures in an inhospitable environment will know just how difficult it is.
It's not just a question of protecting yourself against the elements or even working out how to get to places that public transport doesn't serve. It's not even a case of fitness, self-motivation or bravery. For one of today's great exponents of the art of adventure filmmaking, the real challenges are logistics and equipment, safety and technical know-how.
Keith Partridge may not be a household name, but his work will be familiar to all of us. The Bafta-winning cinema film 'Touching the Void' and the BBC television series 'Human Planet' are both his work. Partridge has been at it now for a quarter of a century and, with every year that passes, his experience and expertise increase. Now at the top of his game, he has written a book,'The Adventure Game', that lifts the lid on the trials and tribulations that go with making movies in the mountains.
The adjective 'extreme' is one that plenty of photographers and filmmakers use to describe their work. But Partridge is cautious in applying the word to what he does. "The term is sometimes a fair impression of what I do, but it's not always that extreme. It's one of those words that gets a bit overused. To give perspective about the term, sometimes what might appear to be extreme simply isn't." Although, by his own admission, "filming on the summit of Mount Everest is pretty extreme. Filming inside an Alaskan glacier that is moving a metre per day with raging water running through it is extreme too. But the danger of what you're doing is controlled by good safety management."
For the field photographer in any environment, but especially in some of the more far-flung or inhospitable regions of the world, one of the seemingly great injustices is that you tend to end up carrying more equipment with you than the actual explorers whose adventures you are recording. What this means for Partridge is that "you have to be quite realistic about what you take with you because the camera kit can be quite heavy." He says that over the years the miniaturisation of technology, such as flashcards replacing rolls of film or the decreasing size and increased power of rechargeable batteries, has helped hugely with the issue of weight. But, oddly enough, this has come at a cost.
For Partridge there is a significant downside to photographic equipment becoming smaller and lighter. "The problem is that it is now simply more fiddly to use. There's no longer a massive red button to power up the system," while the reduction in size of the hardware means that functions which were once available at the touch of a button are buried in menu systems that are not only over-designed the point where they can be impenetrable, but also difficult to operate when wearing fogged-up goggles and cumbersome gloves.
Choosing the right tools
"Part of my job, even before we get out into the field, is to get a handle on what we're hoping to achieve. We need to look at what are the best camera and audio tools available to us to get the best results," he explains. There is no point taking the biggest and best cameras that are capable of producing amazing results, "if you can't carry them because you are working at high altitude or have no Sherpa support. We need to look at the best technical solutions and put together the best equipment package."
Now in his late forties, Partridge clearly remembers the pre-digital days of dragging around masses of analogue kit and film cameras. It wasn't just that the equipment was huge and heavy back then: you were also put through a nerve-wracking hiatus while the film was processed in the lab. "Analogue as a medium had a great advantage in that it gave us beautiful images. But of course, you had to wait for ages to get your hands on them. I think one of the real benefits of digital technology is that it gives us instant access to those pictures." On-board verification on camera screens means "we can now be sure we have the images we think we have while we are on location."
But that's not always the advantage it might appear to be on the surface. As Partridge says, if you've missed a shot for whatever reason it's not always possible to restage the event. "But I do think that having a background in film," he comments, referring to his early days as a technical operator of the BBC, "gives you an instinctive nature that lets you know whether you have captured the moment." Also, working on old-fashioned 16mm film cameras not only limited the amount of footage you could shoot in terms of time; it was also expensive.
Today, limitless digital memory, miniaturisation and battery power efficiency, along with a whole arsenal of technological advances from the world of engineering means that Partridge's job should be easier than ever. But one of the key features of being an adventure photographer, he says, is that capturing the image is surprisingly only a small part of it. He goes on to say that what takes up a significant proportion of his time is planning and logistics, which will allow him to be "hopefully one step ahead of the action. If you haven't got all that in position, you won't get the shot anyway," making it immaterial what media you are using. "You have to have the thought process. You can't just go scatter-gunning with the camera, because it doesn't work that way and it doesn't help you to tell your story."
Partridge's story, superbly illustrated both in words and pictures, is one that might not have seen the light of day, at least not at this point in his career, had it not been for a slice of luck. On crutches and recovering from an operation on his right ankle, he boarded a train one day to find that he was sitting opposite a book publisher who simply could not believe that this story had not been told. "I never had a plan to write a book about the world of adventure filmmaking. But you've got to take these opportunities when you can, haven't you?"
'The Adventure Game' by Keith Partridge is published by the Sandstone Press, £24.99