5 Tips and advice for easier photography on the trail
Combining hiking with photography can offer some of the most rewarding experiences in nature. When you hike with your camera and have a focus on taking photos, you can quickly find yourself becoming more immersed in the environment as you eagerly seek out unique landscapes, interesting terrain features, or rare encounters with wildlife. This can also lead to being less concerned about the destination and more focused on the journey, which can take many more hours as you get distracted with capturing the best composition or patiently waiting for those perfect conditions. But hiking also presents a range of different challenges for photographers, and many of them are not obvious until you’ve encountered these problems in the field, which means you could miss out on some brilliant shots if things go wrong, or even worse, you could injure yourself or damage your gear.
So in this post I’ll go over some tips that I’ve learned over years of exploring the mountains with my camera. This list will focus mainly on logistics to make hiking easier and avoid issues while shooting, it will not cover compositional advice on tips not related specifically to photography while hiking. If you want to read about composition for taking better hiking photos, you can read this article here.
We would also love to hear your own stories and experiences, so share them in the comments section below!
1. Bring two SD cards, in ziplock bags
Yes, you need a spare, one might not be enough, and there is a chance they will eventually be exposed to water.
You might think having 2 backup SD cards is excessive and only in case you encounter technical difficulties, but this isn’t the whole story. Although it’s true that even today’s high-quality, reliable, and durable SD cards can encounter unexpected technical problems, another possibility is filling up your card waaay faster than you expect.
The luxurious storage capacity we have in SD cards today provides a lot of peace of mind, but you don’t know what you’re going to encounter on an 8 hour hike, or a multi-day hike - I’m talking about photogenic encounters. Conditions on the mountain can change so quickly, vary so widely, and be so rare and beautiful that you might take 300 photos within 30 mins. Consider the rapidly changing lighting conditions as clouds engulf you, then briefly break exposing sunshine on different terrain features, all the while you’re bracketing your images to avoid highlight clipping and then suddenly moving 10 meters as you get an idea for an even better composition. And unless you’ve been on the same trail before, it’s hard to predict exactly what subjects you’ll come across. Perhaps you’re only thinking about the beautiful view you’ll get at sunset, but then along the way you find misty waterfalls, unexpected wildlife, or a stunning campsite with a perfectly clear night sky. That huge storage can suddenly become insufficient, so make sure you have at least two backup cards. Two spare SD cards can also mitigate possible oversights you made when preparing for the hike: perhaps you only uploaded half of the images from your last trip so didn’t clear your card and it’s nearly full, or you simply forgot to bring one of the spare cards. If you always bring two spares you can avoid these issues.
The ziplock bags are of course to protect against water and rain which can occur unexpectedly in the mountains. A full day of misty rainfall, where you can encounter amazing photo opportunities, has a tendency to get into your GTX bag or pockets throughout the hike. Many hikes also involve river crossings, so ziplock bags are a reliable way to ensure your cards are safe no matter what happens. I must admit I often don't remember this myself, I haven't had any issues after 5 years of hiking with my camera but it's on my mind every time I cross a river.
2. Bring two spare batteries, & a heat pack
Okay so the heat packs are somewhat dependent on the type of hike you’re doing, but temperatures can change drastically in the mountains, and there are good reasons to always bring at least one extra battery every time you hike. Aside from rare technical issues, developing this routine habit will make preparing for hikes much easier and prevent some forgetful mistakes that could potentially happen. With all the distractions that can occur in the lead up to your hike, it’s easy to forget some things. Perhaps you didn’t charge your battery after your last trip, or the new battery you packed before leaving was actually an empty one, or you forgot that one of your spare batteries is still attached to the charger at home. Of course, these instances are rare but they do happen, so forming this habit is a great strategy.
Next up is a more well known problem with batteries: cold temperatures. Anyone who’s tried shooting in snowy environments knows that cold temperatures quickly drain your battery, and the mountains have a tendency to get very cold without much notice. It can be beautiful and warm at normal elevations but the temperature difference can be significant once you’re high up in the mountains. Although a heat pack is usually unnecessary unless you’re shooting in the snow, it can be a lifesaver when your batteries are struggling on the ice-cold summit. They are also very light and can be useful to stop your fingers from freezing while you’re trying to get that perfect shot.
3. Minimal Gear - Do you really need that tripod? Is one lens enough?
If you’re only hiking for a few hours, go ahead and bring everything you want. In fact if you’re hiking with a heavy pack full of gear, it can serve as training and conditioning for when you choose longer and more difficult hikes. But there is one thing you need to consider when choosing extra weight, will the reduction in energy from the heavier backpack discourage you from taking more photos? For easy day hikes this is usually not a problem, but for big hikes and multi-day hikes it becomes a different story.
The weight you carry might not seem so bad when you start, but after many hours on the trail it can have quite an impact on your motivation for taking photos. Take the tripod for example, the tripod is a very nice convenience and an essential piece of equipment in normal situations, but is it really worthwhile for a big hike? What will you use it for? Can you achieve similar results without it? I have spent years hiking with a tripod, but recently have experimented with leaving it behind for those multi-day hikes, and have now concluded the minuscule amount of use it gets is, in most cases, is not worth it. For HDR or bracketing images, a steady hand is usually sufficient as Lightroom can handle small alignment issues. For night photography, indeed you will miss out on some of those perfect angles, but you'll also find interesting compositions when you’re forced to use your environment as a tripod. However, if you want to include yourself or your hiking buddies in your photos, then things become more difficult. If you’re feeling fit, go ahead and try it out, but I’ve found that the minimal use it gets on multi-day hikes is an interesting consideration.
Similarly, your extra lenses might also hold you back, in most situations a 24-70mm 2.8 can give you amazing results. Although, a wide angle and zoom lens can make the difference between an average shot and an amazing shot, so if you're bringing these then reduce weight in other aspects of your backpack so that the extra lenses don't burden you after 3 days of hiking.
4. Protection and Performance - equip a high quality polarizing filter
Investing in a high quality neutral density (ND) or polarizing (CPL) filter can literally save your entire lens from requiring a replacement. And even if that situation never arises, it will still save your lens from the inevitable wear-and-tear scratches that occur over the years.
Story time! I was on a roadtrip with some friends, and at the time I had upgraded my camera so I lent my old camera to one of my friends for the trip. It was a lot of fun teaching him about photography while traveling together. After a couple of weeks, we were on a hike and reached a viewpoint, as he was organizing his things he put the camera down on his backpack, thinking it was stable. A few seconds later he screamed as the camera rolled off the backpack and tumbled down the hill. The camera was okay, but the lens hood broke off during the fall. The filter however, absorbed all the cracks and damage, leaving the lens completely fine…
A couple of years later I was in hiking in Japan and found a spot to shoot the full moon rising over the valley, I was setting myself up on the side of hill, somewhat off the trail. I had taken some test shots and set my camera down on the ground to take out my tripod. It was the end of blue hour and I wasn't using any lights yet to preserve my night vision, I guess my spatial awareness was a bit too relaxed and I ended up gently nudging the camera, which sent it bouncing down the steep hill. In slow motion I saw the screen fly off, the lens hood fly off, and the battery fly out - at this point I was quite worried. It was also the start of covid lockdowns, with no work and no money for repairs. I precariously made my way down the steep hill, collecting my lens hood, screen and battery on the way. First thing I did was see if the camera would turn on, it was still functional using the viewfinder! Ahhh, the first sigh of relief. The filter was very damaged and hard to take off, I was bracing for the worst. But upon inspection the lens was completely fine! I was so relieved, and the next morning I got some beautiful shots during the sunrise.
The other reason to use a polarizing filter isn’t exclusively related to hiking, but it’s worth a brief mention. The glare from clouds, leaves, rocks, snow, and water can often have quite a big negative impact on the photos you take while hiking. I originally bought mine with the intention of using it for snow, but then found it so useful that I never took it off. It can be used as a permanent form of protection, and simply rotating the lens will disable the polarizing effect. I recommend spending the extra cash on the highest quality filters - the preservation of sharpness and image quality will be significant, and the build quality is important for protecting your lens.
Bent, cracked, and destroyed.
My polarising filter still in one piece after a severe fall, completely saving my lens.
5. Carrying Techniques and Options - comfort, safety, and personal preference
A common question about hiking photography is: “what’s the best way to carry your camera?”. The main options here are: a dedicated camera backpack, a clip-on device for your backpack strap, a camera sling, a camera harness, and the ol’ traditional neck strap. Needless to say the neck strap is not ideal for hiking.
When considering your choices here, there are 3 points you should really focus on: comfort, protection for your camera, and convenience for access. I won’t spend too much time discussing all the options as I don’t have experience with all of them, but it’s worth mentioning what I’ve personally found works best for multi-day hikes.
A quick search online surprisingly reveals that camera clips - a device for clipping your camera onto your belt or backpack strap - are quite a popular choice. Why am I surprised by this? Because they provide zero protection for your camera in case you fall, and I imagine this could become bothersome while climbing up rocks and steep terrain. Although I can see the appeal it really depends on the type of photos you want to take. For me personally, while hiking I do not need constant instant access to my camera, so these clips are not my choice. Most photographers also find that they shoot a lot more photos when they are still in the early stages of developing their skills, so a clip-on device might become less useful for you as time goes by.
Similar options to the camera clips that usually provide more protection are the slings and harnesses. I use my padded sling occasionally but have always thought a harness would be better and intend to test them out one day. The backpack, of course, offers the most protection and comfort, especially the dedicated camera backpacks.
There are heaps of amazing camera backpacks ideal for day hikes, I opted for something that only dedicates ⅓ of the pack to the camera gear, leaving ample space and features that are perfect for using it as an everyday bag. But what about multi-day hikes? There are some dedicated trekking backpacks designed for photography, but a lot of hikers prefer versatile packs that have a strong reputation for multi-day hikes, and this led to my decision too. Using the Osprey Aether 70L, I purchased an additional well padded sling bag and place it in the base compartment - whenever I see a possible shot, it takes me about 4 seconds to put down my pack, flip it, take my camera out and turn it on. Then I continue to carry my camera by hand if I’m expecting more shots, or take out the sling if there’ll be a longer time seeing potential photos. This might not be the most convenient in terms of access, but for days of hiking I’ve found it to be the most comfortable way to carry my camera. Would love to hear your own experiences in the comment section below.
So there you have it, 5 tips aimed at people with an existing basic level of photography and hiking. This article could easily snowball into a long list of things you need to know if you're just starting out with either hiking or photography. So if you're a true beginner and need more info for then have a google for basic hiking prep or basic photography tips. I'm also going to write up a list of tips for good composition in hiking photography, so stay tuned or sign up to our email list to get notifications when new articles are published.