These days anyone can press a button, take a photo, and doctor it up with filters, but outdoor photography is as much an art as it is science. With the right light and finesse, you can tell a harrowing story through your pictures and inspire the masses. Here are some tips any beginning photographer should consider when venturing out into the backcountry.
Know Which Direction the Peak is Facing
One of the most obvious, but often overlooked factors in outdoor photography is figuring out where the sun rises and sets. Sure we all know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but this may not be so cut and dry if you're in the mountains. Some peaks face Northeast, Southwest and others slightly off in another direction. And to complicate matters further, the time of year can affect the position of the sun, as well. The best thing to do is research your shooting location prior to visiting to determine what direction the peak is facing, and bring a compass to determine what direction you're facing.
Check the Weather
As any adventurer knows, the weather in the mountains can be unpredictable even with the best forecasting tools and can turn an easy hike into a gruesome journey. While I wouldn’t advise shooting stills above the tree line during a thunderstorm, given the right preparation, inclement weather can actually work in your favor. Clouds add depth to sunrises and sunsets, and can reduce harsh daytime light by providing a natural bounce board for the brilliant rays. The most ideal shooting conditions would be partly cloudy skies to add some contrast, but not too much that it makes the lighting flat like a lake on a misty day. With harsher rain and snow, it's up to you whether you're willing to brave the elements, but ensure you have the right camera casing before venturing into a storm. In general, it’s always good practice to research the weather ahead of time to set realistic adventure expectations.
Scale Down your Technical Abilities
Outdoor photography requires a compromise. Not only are you actively climbing a mountain, but you are trying to document it as you go. Trying to do two things at once can often be a challenge. It may not be wise to try soloing the side of a cliff while taking stills with your camera as doing anything well requires keen attention and creative precision. One thing I’ve had to learn the hard way is knowing when an adventure is beyond my capabilities. Don’t be hard on yourself if you have to do something slightly easier than what you are use to -- or bring a friend. Ask yourself if the purpose of the trip to get amazing pictures or to set new climbing record. It’s not impossible to achieve both, but it may not be super safe either.
Set Out Well Before First Light
As any mountaineer or alpine climber knows, the best adventures start while the rest of the world is still sleeping. And for capturing amazing sunrises, this adage holds true. You are gonna have to wake up hours before the sun even rises to capture first light, before the first rays of sun even hit the peaks. Pack your gear the night before so you are ready to go. Get that stove hot and wakeup with a fresh cup of coffee or tea. You always want to allow extra time to reach your destination just in case something goes awry, but also because some of the best photos can occur along the way. You always have time to stop and be present.
Charge Up and Clear Space
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to bring extra batteries. The worst thing that could happen is you run out of juice just as that perfect sunset is hitting. Batteries drain faster at colder temperatures, so always bring more than you think you need. One trick I've learned make them last longer is to store them next to your skin while you're hiking or in your sleeping bag camping to provide them some extra body warmth.
Timing is Everything
Capturing a great photo takes time. Clouds move and light changes. This is why time lapses are so popular. As long as you have the memory and battery life, its okay to take 100s of photos. You can always delete the ones you don't like. And most importantly, be patient out there, especially when trying to capture that animal or a moving target. It may even be smart to allocate multiple days at a location. With the unpredictability of the weather, and unforeseen factors in the wild, its always a good idea to have a cushion. Most importantly, remember to have fun and to stay safe on your next voyage into the great outdoors!