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Five Steps To Better Adventure Photography

February 1, 2010

My interest in landscape photography evolved as a natural extension of my love for the outdoors.  I hike and backpack to gain access to high alpine lakes surrounded by jagged mountain peaks and deep desert canyons carved by raging rivers.  Why not use the time in between sunrise and sunset to expand your photographic horizons by shooting adventure images?

The words “adventure photography” conjure up images of daring climbers clinging precariously to granite cliffs and river rafters navigating huge rapids.  But such high adrenaline pursuits aren’t the only outdoor sports that make for dynamic adventure photos.  Day hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and even car camping can offer opportunities for interesting photography all day long.  With a little practice and a little knowledge you’ll soon be making photos on par with those in Backpacker, Outside and the now deceased Adventure magazine (RIP).  Here are some tips to get you started:

Spouses Make Great Models

Spouses work for free, they’re usually with us while out exploring, they don’t complain a whole lot and they won’t give you flak about signing a model release.  Just remember: even if you’re married to a professional model your better half will need a little direction during the shoot.  Be patient with them and explain exactly what you need them to do for you, i.e. turn left 1/4 turn and gaze lovingly at that big mountain.  Okay, maybe just gaze at that big mountain.

Adventure Couture

Since we’re on the topic of models, let’s talk about what they should wear.  A photo of a hiker wearing jeans and a cotton flannel shirt isn’t going to make it into Backpacker magazine no matter how dramatic the scenery.  Your model should wear clothing and gear appropriate for the activity and environment.  Additionally, your model should know how to properly use any gear in the photo.  I once received an image request from an outdoor magazine for a “hiker fording a waist deep creek using trekking poles and wearing a pack with the hipbelt and sternum strap unfastened.”  Why?  Because it’s the proper technique when fording a creek.

Here’s the part your model spouse will really like – they’ll probably get some new outdoor clothing out of the gig.  Choose colors that will contrast with the environment.  For example, a hiker in the mountains wearing a bright red top will stand out dramatically from a background of green trees.  That same red top won’t contrast as strongly against the red rock of Canyon Country.  Maybe a green or blue top would work better.  Think camoflauge, in reverse.

Get Low.  Get High.

Just as in landscape photography, you can use unusual camera angles to create dynamic images.  Lay down on your belly or climb up above your subject.  Shoot from in front, behind and to the side of your subject.  One angle may work better than another.  The more you experiment the more creative your images are likely to be.

Go Wide.  Go Long.

Altering your perspective isn’t the only path to creative adventure photography.  Get down low with a wide angle lens and shoot close to your subject’s feet.  Use a telephoto lens to compress the distance between a hiker perched on a rock outcrop and the snow capped mountain behind them.  There is no “right” technique.  Each situation calls for a different approach.  As you experiment in the field you will discover what works and what doesn’t.  Chances are you’re shooting digitally.  Carry lots of memory and don’t forget that it doesn’t cost you a penny to push the shutter button.

It isn’t always easy to convey motion in a still image.  Using a slow-ish shutter speed and panning the camera with your moving subject works great for trail running, kayaking and mountain biking.  Your subject remains reasonably sharp while the background blurs into streaks that imply fast movement.  Or, set your camera to motor drive and fire off several images in a row and you might just capture your subject in transition with both feet (or both tires!) off the ground.  A human hovering in mid-air is pretty much a dead giveaway that they’re not standing still.

Show The Whole Story

The adventure begins long before you step foot on the trail.  Photos of friends setting up a tent, chilling around a campfire and performing seemingly mundane tasks like cramming gear into every available inch of the SUV are all part of the story.  Find a fun way to depict the action.  If your spouse or friends are willing to look a little silly, use a wide angle lens and photograph a tight composition of their puffy cheeks filled with air while blowing up an air mattress.

Location is a big part of your story.  Show it off in your photos.  Include a prominent, well known peak in the background with your subject hiking in the foreground or show a hiker standing in awe on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  Found a killer campsite near an alpine lake?  Scout out a composition that shows your tent surrounded by wildflowers next to that jewel colored lake and your friends who bailed on the trip will cry tears of regret.

While this primer is by no means everything you need to know about adventure photography it does give you a few things to consider on your next adventure.  Don’t waste mid-day.  Get out there and burn through some memory!

Adventure Photographers Who Inspire Me

Jimmy Chin

Michael Clark

Kennan Harvey

Galen Rowell

Tyler Stableford

Corey Rich

Adventure Photography Resources & Training

Rocky Mountain School of Photography Adventure Photography Course

Adventure Photography: Capturing the World of Outdoor Sports

Don’t let the adventure stop here.  Ask a question, leave a comment or tell us how you coaxed your spouse into being your adventure model.  Got some cool adventure photos online somewhere?  Feel free to link to ’em.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2010 9:10 am

    Great post! Most important “Showing the Whole Story” It’s not a story without the details!

  2. Gail Diane Yovanovich permalink
    February 1, 2010 9:12 am

    Lots of good advice here, Bret, especially the part about contrasting colored clothing – something that didn’t occur to me.

  3. February 1, 2010 11:43 am

    Thanks, Bret! I love including people in the landscape, and I’m always a little frustrated that such shots often don’t get much appreciation outside of commercial or family album contexts.

    One further piece of advice I’ve always liked is not to stop shooting when the going gets tough. A slide show that ends along the lines of “…and then it it started pouring, with thunder and lightning and flash floods, and it was totally epic, but I stopped taking pictures,” is less than inspiring. Of course, you have to be judicious about safety concerns and the patience of your companions, but it’s worth the effort. Commercial clients like Backpacker may not be too interested in shots of outdoor misery, but if you’re illustrating a different kind of article or just shooting for your own satisfaction, keep the camera out as long as you can.

  4. February 1, 2010 2:29 pm

    Thanks for all the comments!

    Jackson: I totally agree that the camera should stay out as long as possible while it’s relatively safe to do so. Some of my favorite images resulted from trying to outrun a storm. You never know when a photo editor will need an image of a soaking wet hiker waiting out a thunderstorm under the shelter of some trees! Really good point, and thanks for sharing it.

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