ESSENTIAL SKILLS

Hiking Photography 101: How to Take Breathtaking Pictures While You’re on the Hike

Hiking photographer
Sean Nelson
Written by Sean Nelson

Hiking photography 101 has always been a major concern for many hikers. If you’ve ever gone hiking you will surely understand how difficult it can become to stay balanced and not to fall sometimes, or to have to carry your own things while you can barely carry yourself, so taking good photographs while doing so can get complicated. To make things even more complex, nature is so totally unpredictable that you have to be quick to be able to capture what you want before it is lost forever.

But if you’ve ever been hiking, you must also know how much we can crave to be able to express through a photograph what our eyes are capturing, to share the beauty of the place for those who cannot be there, to narrate with an image what it feels to reach the peak, to see the beauty of nature, to feel connected to earth. Or just to take a cool picture of some trees to show your skills.

Photographing the nature

Either way, hiking photography and landscapes photographs in general can be one of the hardest types to achieve, and one of the most demanding. As we know this, we want to help you with some hiking photography 101 to get you to improve those photos. We’ll share with you some tips for improving the quality of your photos as well as some things to consider when embarking on this road. We hope you consider this as a help, and put it in practice with great results.

First things first, you have to be prepared.

Things to consider before embarking on this journey

Location

This oxymoron is not that obvious, as sometimes our sense of adventure and free spirit can make us underplan our trip (you know: “It is nature, it’s unpredictable anyway”). One of the most important things you must know about the location is what type of place it is. If it is a protected area, you might need a special permission to get in. You should investigate what time it opens and closes, in case of national parks, and if you can camp there, so you can take some awesome night-time pictures.

Protected area in the Philippines

Investigate what remarkable things are there to see and photograph. Maybe there are some famous landmarks, some interesting animals or a unique landscape that you will regret not capturing.

Also, investigate about the weather. You might not be able to predict it 100%, but by getting the average temperature, and how often it rains you can estimate how the weather going to be like, and it can help you take the necessary tools and equipment with you.

Lastly, if you can, investigate about the hours of sunrise and sunset. This is so you can plan your shooting schedule around those hours, since they are usually the time when “magic” happens.

Don’t be afraid to use the technology on your favor

When planning ahead, the technology resources are on your side. Sometimes you will hike in a place you’ve never been before, or sometimes it is a place that you will probably just visit once, like a foreign country, so getting reviews from other people that have done it can help you discern if it’s the kind of place you want for your shoot. You can find reviews in pages like alltrails and tripadvisor, and don’t forget to help others out by leaving your own review.

Also, use Google Maps! You can use this tool to get a better sense of the place you’ll be going to.

Tripadvisor

If you are taking your craft seriously, you can also invest in some helpful planning tools, like Photographers Ephemeris which allow you to check how the light and the moon is going to be like so you can work around it, and Photographer’s transit, which is great if you are using an interchangeable lenses camera, since it also tells you the best lenses for the kind of lightning there’ll be.

These are tools that can facilitate your shooting experience, and can even help you save money by giving you guidelines on what to expect, so you don’t lose your time and resources because of situations you could have been prepared to.

Pick the right camera for the place you will go

Let’s say you have invested in some different types of cameras and have options to choose from. In this case, you should investigate and choose considering things like the type of weather there will be, if it can get dusty or rainy, how the lightning is going to be, and so on.

You should always choose a camera that is fit for outdoors, one that can endure the elements of nature and will not get ruined easily. Also that will be easy to carry around and to manage, since you probably will not have time to plan the shoots ahead of time and will have to be ready at all times.

Outdoors cam

That’s to say that if your camera is interchangeable lenses or a DSLR you will probably have to carry some extra weight. Think about how possible is this and consider the pros and cons. If you want a little more help with choosing the right outdoor camera, you can check our review on the best outdoor cameras for the kind of activity.

In case you don’t have much of a choice with the type of camera you can use, consider investing on the cases and bags to keep it protected from the elements.

You should make sure you have the right tools

Lastly, but certainly no less important, you have to double check the gear and things you will need. We’re not only talking about the right camera, but about the clothing as well. You will be hiking, and with an expensive camera, so using the adequate gear can prevent falling, getting hurt or wasting time. The right boots, pants, jackets and so on, can make a huge difference in your experience, so don’t underestimate it.

Outdoor photographer

Also, the camera by itself can be fit for outdoors, but it can still get damaged by the elements, so bring the right case or camera bag. If you have planned already, you should know what to expect from the place, so choose your lenses and complements accordingly. And don’t forget to carry your tripod with you!

What to do to improve your images

We will give some tools and things to consider when shooting on the outside, which can help you create some wonderful photographs.

Use the lighting in your favor

The lighting in an outdoor place will almost always be uncontrollable, but that doesn’t have to scare you. Natural light can offer endless possibilities to play with your camera’s options and to capture things on a very different way.

You can use the hours with more day light to capture details and landscapes, but the “magic hours” are usually the sunset and sunrise. In those cases, the sun’s light offers wonderful colors, shadows and texture that can turn a dull photograph of some trees into a magical, mystery place, straight out of a fairytale.

Magical landscape photography

Shooting nighttime can also bring up some wonderful images. In that case remember that your light will be minimal, so play with your aperture and your ISO to get the best result. If you need to, you can invest in polarized filters to use when the lightning is too much or you want to shoot long exposure in the daylight.

The options are endless with how to use the light, and if you use the tools we mentioned before, you can even plan ahead the shoots.

You can try shooting RAW

If you are familiar with photography, you will know that there’s an option in DSLR and even with some compacts where you can shoot in RAW format instead of the predetermined .jpg.

The cameras nowadays can pretty much figure out the correct lightning, white balance, color balance and so on by themselves and turn out great. But sometimes the camera, and even the photographer when shooting won’t notice the imperfections on these until they’ve already shot. In this case, shooting in RAW can certainly benefit you, since these format keeps all the information of the image, so you can edit it better.

RAW image

The downside is that this type of format is heavier than the other ones, so it takes up more space in the memory card, and if you are planning on taking many more photographs, can certainly become an inconvenient.

Keep your ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed in mind

Again this might seem an understatement, but sometimes we rely a lot in the automatic mode and don’t play around with the options. The outdoors are very changeable, one moment it might be dark and the next one the sun comes out of nowhere, it can start raining in any second, or there might be animals unexpectedly coming your way, and the way to capture everything with the same magic is to play around with the options.

Keeping the ISO low for example, can be a great way to preserve the quality of the image and reduce the noise, but in some cases, a higher ISO is necessary to be able to capture with low light, or to get some greater detail.

High ISO photography

Same with aperture and shutter speed, play around with them and get some cool and unique photographs. The aperture might help you get some depth of field as well. By smaller the aperture, the bigger the detail it can be captured, but also more light is necessary.

As the opposite happens with the shutter speed, in which the longer the duration of the shutter speed, the less light might be necessary, in order to maximize the image quality. Play with the option of bulb mode to get some shutter speed of up to minutes (of course, you will have to use a tripod), and try some different and unique shots.

Use the foreground

Sometimes when you shoot at nature, is hard not to be lost by its immensity, that’s why using the foreground can help giving depth to the photos. Placing things in front of the shoot can give your picture that sense of balance and help viewers comprehend the background as well.

Small people, big places

You can play around with your shot using different things, moving to certain angles and heights and even placing your own things to contrast. A mountain, for example, will look much more majestic and big if it is contrasted with something way smaller, like a bug or a flower.

That being said, use the small things

While the big things can capture your eyes and make you feel small, photographing from a small thing’s perspective can turn into amazing photos. Think of a bug, a small tree, a mushroom. Shooting from the perspective of a small object can make some unique shots and different points of views.

Nature photography - mushrooms

It can also help you give some perspective and depth to the photos, as we mentioned. If you have some other photos of the place, and would like to give the viewers a sense of the magnitude of it, using this technique might help you do that.

Auto Focus is usually your friend

When you are shooting at nature as we said, prepare for the unexpected. Birds suddenly flying, butterflies, trees blowing in the wind, a curious animal reaching your way. The nature won’t usually allow you be ready, zoom in, focus and shoot. That’s why using AF in continuous mode can make the difference between barely catching the image and shooting at the perfect time.

Landing Puffin

AF continuous permits you to keep something on focus while it moves by keeping the shutter button pressed. It varies depending on each camera, so make sure to read your camera’s manual and some reviews online if it might help you

Use the colors and lines

The colors and the lines can help you framing your image, or highlighting a certain aspect of the photo. By using the lines as your guide, you can also make sure the viewer get the sense of depth and understand what he/she is watching.

Autumn leaf

The main line you can use on your favor is the horizon, and it can help you place other things, by giving you the half of the photo (if you use the rule of thirds, this can be helpful). Also, colors help you transmit emotions. Placing something colorful like a flower, in front of a dull image might help the photo stand out for example.

Move around, make things happen

As you’ll guess, the more you move around the more probable it is to find something that can make up for a great photograph. Wake up early, move around the places, change positions, those are the key to getting that great, once in a lifetime photo. Waking up early will not only allow you to shoot at the sunrise, but to shoot at the animals before they get scared away by humans, and also staying up late can help you capture those shy animals that won’t come out until it is dark outside.

White stoat

There are much more possibilities if you move than if you stay in just one place, but one thing you should keep in mind is that you are the visitor.

Respect the nature

This one might seem a bit out of context as we talk about camera using or proper lightning, but the truth is that respecting the nature might grant you some gorgeous photographs, while keeping you safe.

Hiker photographer

Don’t be loud, or start taking too much space out of nature. Remember that you are the one that’s being invited into the landscape, and by taking as little space as you can, you will be able to capture it as it shows itself. Also, animals usually will run away from loud noises and movement, so you could be missing on some great wildlife photographs by being too loud.

Be creative!

Rules are not always meant to be followed, especially with photography. You might have heard that landscape photos should look a certain way, use certain colors or white balance, also that you should follow the rule of thirds or the triangles, but the best pictures are the ones that stand out of the rest.

Jellyfish in Palau

So don’t be afraid to play a little bit with your camera, its options, the lighting or angles. You will learn what works out and what doesn’t much quickly than by sticking to a method.

Use the landscape to your advantage and be creative while you shoot. That is the best way to achieve that perfect photo.

Have fun with your shoots!

We have shared with you some tips when it comes to taking photographs while going hiking, but the main thing you should know is to be prepared for the unexpected. Preparing ahead of time, taking with you the right resources and equipment, playing with your camera beforehand, those are all things that can help you get ready to shoot.

Photographer in the snow

Having your camera with you at all times is also a helpful thing, and much more so if you have a point-and-shoot type of camera. Using the great outdoors on your favor, as well as respecting the place you are in are some of the advices we can give you about nature photography.

So do you enjoy photography while hiking as well? Do you have some well-kept tips that you can add? Feel free to share your thoughts in our comments section!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sean Nelson
Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.

  • Steve Roman

    Great hiking photography requires a lot of skill … but it also requires a good camera. I’m in the market for one right now, so if anyone has any ideas on what I should pick up, I’m all ears. Had been looking at the Canon EOS Rebel T6 because reviews say the picture quality is great and it’s lightweight (great for taking along on a hiking trip.)

  • Sean Nelson

    HI Steve! Canon is such an excellent brand – no doubt the choice of thousands out there. With a great gear, you must be adept in the techniques of what will make a great photo. Well, practice makes perfect so make it worthwhile. 🙂

  • Charlie Biers

    Hey there! I agree with what was said about using Photographer’s Ephemeris. I have found it to be a very useful tool. I’m not the most tech savvy person in the world, but it is very straightforward and easy to use. I’ve gotten some great pictures having used it!

  • Sean Nelson

    Hi there Charlie and glad you find the Photographer’s Ephemeris very useful. More than talent and skill in photography, we should have the right gear and all the help we can get, don’t you think?
    I do my post editing, too using my favorite software.

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