Photography on the Trail

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Five tips for making the most of your photo opportunities while hiking

One of my favorite ways to explore for new subject matter is to go on a hike. Sometimes, it may just be a day hike on a local trail near home, and other times it may be a days-long backpacking journey into the wilderness. Either way, packing the right photography gear and planning appropriately is critical to success. In this post, I highlight five tips for making the most of your time on the trail with your camera.

Sunrise at Inspiration Point in Bryce Canyon National Park. Several of the tips contained in this post were put to use capturing this shot.

Decide on a photography goal ahead of time

One of the challenges I often have with photography on the go—and particularly on a nature trail—is finding focus. “But what if I see cool wildlife and I’m all set up for wide angle? What if I see the perfect macro setup but don’t have my macro lens with me? What if, what if, what if…” I personally hate missed opportunities, and feel like I need to prepare for all cases.

The truth is, my best results come when I focus before I ever set out. If I go out with a main goal in mind, I can plan around that goal, and my results improve dramatically. This concept is particularly important on the trail, because your gear is limited to what you can carry in and carry out. So decide early if you’ll primarily be going for landscapes, wildlife, macro, sunset, sunrise, astrophotography, etc. You can even take it a step further and try to visualize your results before ever setting out.

Do some research

There are several important pieces of information you can glean before ever heading out on your hike that might help inform your decision about what to shoot. 

Natural lighting on the trail tends to be ideal right around sunset and sunrise, so if you’re in a position to do so, plan to shoot as much as possible during these times. Powerful apps like PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) for those more technologically inclined, or Magic Hour (iOS) or PhotoTime (Android) for those who prefer super simple, can be of great use.

Google Earth can also be a helpful tool for planning your photo adventure. And don’t underestimate the power of a good old fashioned topographic map and a compass. Few tools, if any, are more practical in the field while exploring new vantage points.

Upper Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park. Knowing I’d only have a limited time to explore for compositions before the sun began to set, I researched ahead of time to give myself a head start.

Weather patterns can also impact lighting situations, draw out wildlife, and provide more drama to a scene that otherwise might look ordinary. Don’t be afraid of a little overcast weather, and even some rain. Just make sure you have the appropriate gear to keep yourself and your equipment safe and dry.

Can you find photos online which were taken along your route or at your destination? What do they look like? Do they offer you any clues for what’s there that you might want to explore? Though I always try to seek out original compositions, when I have an idea of how a particular scene or subject has been approached in the past, it gives me a framework for thinking about what my approach will be.

Pack the right gear

Be selective in the gear-packing process, but make sure you bring everything you’ll need. Ensure you don’t forget something critical by planning your goals ahead of time; cut useless weight by not bringing things you won’t use. Here’s a rough idea of the photography gear I usually bring with me on the trail:

  • Camera body with fully charged battery, and spare
  • Memory card with plenty of space, and spare
  • Photography backpack, or Internal Camera Unit (ICU) for my hiking backpack
  • One or two lenses, based on my subject matter (for me, usually a 17-35mm f/2.8-4 Tamron wide angle, 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikon, or 16-80mm f/2.8-4 Nikon DX lens)
  • Tripod (see our recent blog post on why this is a must-have)
  • Variable neutral density filter and polarizing filter for the lens(es) I’m carrying
  • Lens cloth and blower
  • Remote shutter release
  • Peak Design Capture Clip (great for keeping my camera in-reach while hiking)
  • Fully-charged iPhone X (don’t underestimate the utility of having a handy point-and-shoot with video capabilities!)
  • Plenty of snacks and water for the whole trip
  • For certain trips: head lamp, off-camera flash with remote control, reflectors and diffusers, topographic map and compass

Plan your timing

Typically, I try to time my hiking so that I’m switching to photography mode well before the sunrise or sunset. The most important factor here is giving yourself ample time to explore and find your favorite compositions. If you’re up for hiking by the light of a head lamp, you can make the most of these opportunities by either arriving or departing when it’s dark. 

On the other hand, if you prefer to avoid hiking in the dark, you can try finding short spur trails to hike during twilight hours, which will still allow you to shoot sunrise or sunset and be back to the car before dark. Or alternatively you can hike during the day and plan your hike in advance to give yourself ample time at your destination to explore and find good compositions.

Work the scene! Give yourself time to see if the weather changes. Wait to see if clouds roll through, which can give you some nice diffuse light, cast interesting shadows on the landscape, or draw out curious or hungry wildlife. If you brought your second lens along, break it out and use it!

If crowds might be an issue, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time before you need to start shooting to find your position, set up, and dial in.

Stay flexible, and always look behind you!

Finally, stay flexible, and don’t get discouraged if your original plans don’t work out as planned. We often have to deal with conditions that perhaps we couldn’t anticipate. Other times, the shot we thought we’d love turns out to be just so-so and we have to explore more and try new ideas. When in doubt, try to focus your attention where the light is best.

Sometimes it’s just as simple as remembering to look behind you. I know that I tend to get hyperfocused once my tripod is set up and I’m locked in, particularly if it’s a composition I planned out ahead of time. But if I don’t remember to pause every once in a while and look around, I know I’ll miss some great opportunities.

Atop Half Dome as the sun began to rise over Yosemite National Park. Since my tripod was set up to shoot the valley floor on the opposite side, I only saw this when I stopped what I was doing for a moment and looked around, and I’m glad I did!

Carrying a second lens can also help tackle certain conditions you may not have anticipated. For example if the weather just isn’t cooperating for a wide-angle landscape shot, maybe you can get some interesting textures and patterns, or a nice abstract with the zoom lens instead.

Once in a while, you might walk away disappointed even given your best effort to adjust to the situation. But other times, you’ll walk away with something even better than you’d imagined. One thing is for sure, though. Any day you’ve spent shooting on the trail is better than one that you didn’t, so relax and make sure to have plenty of fun along the way.

Happy Trails!