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Taking Better Hiking Photos

5 Tips and advice for photography composition

Overview

There are a number of surprisingly unexpected challenges when trying to capture the experience of hiking with photography. After all, a photo is a two dimensional image that can’t replicate all the elements we see with our own eyes. But on the other hand, a photo can also highlight things we might overlook in person, so the challenge of photography also comes with opportunity. 

A big portion of hiking photography revolves around taking landscape shots, and most of the fundamental techniques here do not need to be changed. But there are some things that I have learned while hiking that are often not covered in articles that focus solely on landscape photography. So, here are 5 insights for improving your composition while exploring the mountains with your camera.

  1. The Noisy Forest & Dappled Lighting

  2. Breaking The Rules - Golden Hour

  3. Embracing The Weather - Difficult Weather Means Better Photos

  4. Adding Scale & Context

  5. Your Phone - Test Shots In Your Pocket

1. The Noisy Forest & Dappled Lighting

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The forest lighting is softer during golden hour
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The dappled lighting becomes harsher closer to midday

That beautiful forest? Amazing with your eyes, noisy and crowded in your photos. While hiking you are often surrounded by stunning forests full of interesting plant life, peculiar insects, and shy but curious animals. And when you see a trail meandering through such beautiful forests, usually the first thought is to take out your camera and get some shots. But when you look at the images later you find, for some reason, it does not have the same visual impact that it had in person... why? Well, all those leaves, bushes, and branches are simply too distracting and noisy for your eyes, and the depth of the forest is lost in a two dimensional image. So to get good photos in the forest, you'll need to solve these issues.

Here are 5 ways you can tackle this problem:

 - a zoom lens

 - low aperture

 - indirect lighting (no harsh shadows or highlights)

 - rain/mist/fog

 - a polarizing filter

First up, using a zoom lens or low aperture. This will help narrow down your subjects of interest and remove the distracting elements. A zoom lens will also bring elements closer together to provide more depth and scale to your photos. 

Next we have indirect lighting. Dappled lighting in the middle of the day looks awesome in real life, but the strong contrast looks too busy in photos. The same goes for hundreds of leaves bouncing light into your camera, so indirect lighting can help to calm everything down. This could mean shooting in the morning or afternoon when there is more shade, or when the sun is behind a mountain, or during golden hour. HDR bracketing can also be useful for the harsh contrast of dappled lighting, but the results from the midday sun are still difficult to manage and will take some practice.

Rain, mist, and fog are one of the most effective ways to add depth to your photos within a forest setting. They are powerful elements that can create beautiful conditions for amazing photos. Rain may ruin the plans for your trip, but if you’re prepared, you can walk away with strong and unique images.

And finally, a polarizing filter. Although most commonly associated with water, a polarizing filter is a highly effective way of removing the reflections from leaves, trees, and rocks. Removing these reflections will help immensely with smoothing out your forest photos.

2. Breaking The Rules - Golden Hour

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1pm - the light bouncing off all the clouds enables nice midday shooting
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3 hours after sunrise - HDR and a polarising filter helped to tame the strong highlights

 

It’s no secret that the best conditions for landscape photography are usually close to the sunrise, sunset, golden hour or blue hour. But usually you don’t want your whole portfolio to look the same, and always shooting in the same conditions can get boring, so what are your options? Well, midday shooting is actually possible on high mountains, mornings and afternoons can provide nice shadows, and HDR can help restore balance when the highlights are too extreme. A polarizing filter will also be helpful for harsh lighting.

Wait, midday shooting??? Yes, there are actually many opportunities for amazing photos during midday if you’re high up in the mountains - high mountains create their own clouds and weather systems so you can get some truly unique and interesting conditions even in the middle of the day. Being surrounded by cloud and mist often provide the perfect opportunity for dramatic images, and certain features can be isolated from the rest of the scene. This also doesn’t mean you’re in the rain, the clouds forming on mountain peaks are often absent of rain. This leads us onto our next tip.

3. Embracing The Weather - Difficult Weather, Better Photos

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The clouds giving depth and interesting lighting
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Summer rain in the mountains

Usually for normal people, extreme or unpleasant weather such as rain, wind, snow, or storms are an undesirable and miserable inconvenience. But for photographers, these conditions can provide some of the best opportunities for amazing photography. Once you learn to embrace these conditions, not only will your photography improve but you will find enjoyment and pleasure in difficult situations. Some of the best memories I’ve had, and some of the best photos I’ve taken, have been accompanied by numb fingers, wet shoes, and howling wind. The only caveat here is that safety should always take priority, you need to be accurately aware of your own risk, most injuries (and deaths) occur without any expectation, and they occur across all skill levels. Beautiful summer rain can turn rocks into hazardous obstacles, make rivers uncrossable, and change into dangerous lightning storms. However, these dangers are easily avoidable, you just need to respect the environment you're in.

4. Adding Scale and Context

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One of the biggest challenges with hiking photography is adding scale and context to the scene. As nature and landscape photographers, we’re usually accustomed to avoiding people in our photos, but we need to break this habit for our photos to become more dynamic. The good news is people are not the only way to add scale. Tents, mountain huts, individual trees, and a zoom lens are great ways to give context and size to an image without the complexities that come with including people. 

However, people are an extremely effective way to add a story and connect viewers to the experience, along with demonstrating the size of the natural landscape. Indeed, the right person in the right position can turn a good image into an incredible one. But they also pose some challenges that might end up ruining your shot.

For example, position and pose. A person’s pose can make-or-break your photo, and for hiking photography this is something you usually have no control over. Another example is color and clothing. Aside from the obvious exceptions such as the fashion pursuits of some outdoor brands, most hiking clothing is not aesthetically pleasing, or if it is, the colors often conflict with the natural tones of the landscape. The fluro pants and jacket might be perfect if you get lost, but they are very distracting for hiking photography. If you’re planning to include yourself or your friends in these photos, consider the visual aesthetic of the gear you're wearing.

5. Your Phone - Test Shots In Your Pocket

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Ultra-wide while climbing along the chains
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A test shot on a busy path

 

We live in interesting times where our phones are capable of taking decent photos, usually with the option of 3 different lenses including a wide, ultra-wide, and zoom lens. If you're a photographer, then choosing a flagship phone that includes these 3 lenses can be a very valuable tool for getting test shots without taking out your camera. Whether you're hiking, travelling, or roaming the streets, sometimes the effort to take out your camera will discourage you from a lot of the "maybe" photos that you come across. So taking test shots on your phone, with the versatility of 3 lenses, is a very useful way to check if it's worth getting a proper shot. 

 

I have found this especially useful while hiking, the increasing effort of taking your camera out of your bag after multiple days of hiking can lead to some missed shots. Plus sometimes I find myself wasting energy for potential photos that just aren't worth it until I see the result on my camera. But since I started using the Galaxy S20 with it's three lenses, I am now saving all this trouble as it accurately represents what I might be able to achieve with my camera and a 24-70mm lens. It's also a great way to experiment with different angles and compositions, and then break out your camera if you find something that works.

In addition to this, sometimes I'm able to capture usable images on my phone that wouldn't be possible with my camera. Although partly because I don't have an ultra-wide lens, the other reason is simply because grabbing your phone while holding onto ladders and chains is much easier and safer than grabbing your camera. Granted, usually you won't be able to get print quality photos, but they are often suitable for social media.

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Closing

Developing the skills of good composition takes a lot of practice, the more you shoot the more you will find out about what works and what doesn't. Fortunately, there's a huge amount of motivation to be found in the beautiful visuals that can be experienced in the mountains, so learning is heaps of fun. Just don't leave your camera behind, even you don't get any shots your happy with, the exercise and practice are worth it.

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