November 28th, 2007 by Carl
Recently someone asked me about some photography tips, and I thought that might make a good post for a blog. There’s obviously way too much stuff to talk about in one post, so I’ll just make this one specific to shooting landscapes on backpacking trips. Hopefully this will help you bring home some better images from your trips. The image I’ve posted here is of Regal Mountain, a 13 845′ high shield volcano, or stratovolcano, in the Wrangell Mountains, seen from Skolai Pass, Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Regal Mountain is most commonly seen from the west, from the Root Glacier near McCarthy. Because the mountain is so covered with glaciers, it’s hardly been studied at all by geologists. It’s a WAY cool mountain!
First thing is suck it up and bring your tripod. Even a little lightweight tripod is WAY better than no tripod at all. These days you can buy an ultralight tripod that’ll really help you out. Like everything else, it seems, you pay more dollars for every ounce you lose. Something like the Gitzo GT-0530 Mountaineer 6X Carbon Fiber Tripod or the Gitzo GT-0540 Mountaineer 6X Carbon Fiber Tripod or even the Gitzo G-0057 Table Top 6X Carbon Fiber Tripod is worth considering. I sometimes carry a larger Gitzo 1325 with me, particularly when I’m going to be doing some wildlife shooting as well. But for strictly landscapes, the lightweight models are generally fine. Everything’s a compromise, and you lose some height, some stability, some functionality (generally they won’t go as low to the ground), but a few pounds lighter is REALLY nice when you’re backpacking. If you’re basecamping and dayhiking, it’s not as big a deal, and by all means, bring a better tripod if you can.
I can’t stress the importance of a tripod enough. A tripod allows you to compose more carefully (IMO) and especially to shoot in lower light, such as when I made this photo. I forget the shutter speed I ended up with, but it was WAY too low to handhold and expect a sharp image. If I’m shooting mid-day snapshots, I might not set up a tripod, but probably 90% of my photography, and probably 99% of my better photography, is from a tripod. I feel like I’m shooting naked without one.
Get up early and stay up late. I think one of the biggest things that helps is really making the effort to get out of a warm sleeping bag, and get out before dawn, regardless of what the potential looks like, and hoping for the best. I spend a lot of mornings where I don’t get anything, where I don’t even shoot any photos, simply because the weather isn’t what I had hoped for – but occassionally it works out and I get a nice sunrise or some nice light like this. The same thing with going out in the evening, after dinner. It depends on the conditions of course; often in Alaska, when the weather’s bad, it’s simply flat grey clouds, and there’s not much hope for dramatic light to poke through. Often in the Lower 48, though, cloudy weather can bring some amazing scenes. ya just gotta be out in it, and hope for the best. be prepared to spend a lot of time coming home with nothing, and you’ll eventually start to collect a portfolio of dramatic images that you’d never have managed to shoot had you not been in the habit of making that effort.
Composition. This is a difficult one to write about, because it’s SO personal. No 2 people “see” the same way, so there’s not too many ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ of composition. My rule is shoot what grabs your attention, and keep shooting it. Look at it closely, whether it’s a grand landscape or a waterfall or a flower or a bear, and discern what it is that grabs your attention. Try to isolate that, and you’ll generally find your images you return with are a better reflection of your experience.
Learn some basic stuff, such as an understanding of depth of field, exposure, light, and also of image processing (usually digital these days, such as Photoshop). Often a little processing can make a BIG difference in the impact your image can have. This is the one I struggle most with, as I’m by no means as proficient as I should be – me and computers don’t seem to gel too closely. I’m learning, though, and as I continue to learn,so do I see an improvement in my images. Similarly, understanding depth of field, exposure and light all help me improve my photography. I come home with less and less images that are flawed because of some stupid thing on my part that I could’ve done differently to better control the image. If you have any questions on any of this stuff, visit a few photo forums, or post a question here, and I’ll try to answer if I’m able, or at least point you in a better direction.
Spend more than one day in a place. This is a big one, I think. I’ve spent many, many nights in Skolai Pass (where I shot this image from), and it’s the reason I have a nice array of images from there. I’ve visited many places that are very impressive in their grandeur, but I’ve only had a night to explore them. Spending a couple of days in one place allows me to find a composition or scene that I like and set up a couple of times, hoping for good light. Nature photography is largely about time in the field, and the more time I get to spend in a place, the more often my images stand out, to me.
So don’t just give yourself time to get to camp, eat, go to bed, wake up, eat, break camp, and hit the trail. Often, if I think I can do a hike in 5 days, I’ll allow 7 or 8, or 10, and take my time, spending a couple of nights in one place. It really makes a big difference. If you only have 5 days to spare, don’t try such a long hike, cut the distance down, or do a basecamp trip, and really explore the area. I guarantee your photos will be way, WAY better!
Any other ideas or tips, feel free to post them here.