Taking Pictures on the Trail

1/1250 sec. f/5.6If you’re a lover of photography as much as I am, then you should appreciate as much as I do the uniqueness of taking pictures in the outdoors. What better place to take pictures of unique environments of which I’d say 99% of Los Angeles’s population hasn’t seen before.

These unique environments do have their own challenges though. From extremely harsh sunlight, to overcast days, to awesome sunrises in the desert. Well, over the year and half of hiking that I’ve done, I’ve always had my camera with me ready to snap a photo at a moments notice.

Over this time, I’ve also refined my picture taking and generally know what settings my camera should be set at. But it’s still a lot of trial and error. Thank God for live preview and expansive memory cards. Since my first hike on July 14, 2007, up until the time of this posting, I’ve taken a hair over 5,400 pictures.

So this post is about tips that I’ve come to use during my hikes and my general opinion on how I like to take photos. Hopefully you find this “guide” useful and give it a try.

1. Keep your camera close and easy to reach – This is assuming you have a small point and shoot. Even if you have a super zoom, you can get a small case and carry it across your shoulder. But the key is being able to get your camera out in at least 5 seconds. I keep mine in a case zip-tied on my right suspension strap. This allows me to unzip, pull out, and turn on my camera with only my right hand.

1/400 sec. f/5.62. Shooting subjects – For me low angle images are king. Especially if you get a good silhouette. But chances are you’re on the move or are just too tired to bend over and to try to compose the image. So my advice is don’t. Just blind fire a couple of shots. Don’t expect anything fancy to come out, but you never know; and you may even be surprised when you check out the pictures on your computer.

Also, posed shots are great, but candid shots are even better. There’s nothing better than catching grimacing face as someone nears a peak.

3. Shooting subjects off center – The rule of thirds should apply whenever possible. There’s a time and place for being front and center. But I think pictures look better off center. The point here is that you’re most likely trying to capture the person with the surrounding background. Why obscure the main subject which is nature? Sometimes I like to put the person at the far edge just to give a sense of scale to the overall image.

1/1250 sec. f/5.64. Shooting subjects in the sun – Summer months, overcast days, snow on the ground, or a setting sun can ruin your image if the sun is behind your subject. Depending on the angle of the sun, effective flash range I’ve found is about 3′ with the sun in the image. From my guess, with the sun about 60 degrees angled from the camera, range is about 5′. It’s pretty much trial and error. You’re just going to have to play around with the settings and camera distance. Regardless, your image is most likely going to be slightly overblown or underexposed.

For the picture at right, I decreased the exposure to -1. The shadows are extremely dark, but the sky and some of the edges of the branches still have color.

5. Get a minipod – Find a Guerrilla Pod or a mini tripod. These prove pretty valuable when on the trail and you want to take a group shot or a solo shot. Or if you just want to take pictures of yourself without setting up a tripod, get an extender.

1/400 sec. f/5.66. Shooting macro – Spring is around the corner, and with it comes the blooming flowers. It’s at these times that you would want to take up close shots. Chances are, your camera has a macro setting. Use it. This tells the camera that you’re going to take a close up shot and focuses the lens on the closes subject.

However, if you want to get a good bokkie shot, where the image is in focus while the the background is blurred, then leave the macro setting off, stand between 5-10 feet and zoom in the target. This doesn’t work well on my point and shoot, but may on yours. It should work relatively well on a superzoom though. You can also try this on people too.

7. Manual settings – I prefer to go full manual with my camera. With a p&s there’s really not too much to worry about except for exposure and ISO. If it’s bright out, just leave it at ISO 100. I also tend to decrease my exposure to -2/3 so as not to blow out some parts of the image. If it’s a really must have image though, take 3 or 4 shots at different exposure settings.

If you’re shooting at dusk or early morning, jack up the ISO until you get the properly exposed shot. Avoid going to the max as there will be a lot of noise.

8. Shooting at night – I wouldn’t use the flash to take pictures of people unless you want some hikers being angry at you for blinding them. If you want light, use your headlamp. Here you would have to turn up your ISO to the max, chances are though, you’ll still get something blurry. Play around with the exposure and see what you get. Anything between +1 – +2 stops and chances are your picture is going to be unusable.

1/1000 sec. f/5.69. Shooting the sunrise/sunset – Shooting sunsets can be tricky. The key here is a tripod. But if you don’t have one handy, then you would have to hold the camera a bit steady. Exposure settings should be 0 to -1. Anymore and you image might come out dark. Try to set the exposure to 0 to +1. You may have to hold the camera extra steady else your image may come out a bit blurred.

You can also up the ISO here. Crank up it up incrementally and see how it comes out.

The sunrise at left is over the Salton Sea as we charged our way to Villager and Rabbit peak.

10. Shooting water – Still water is pretty easy. It’s moving creeks and waterfalls that are interesting. If you want a blurred motion, you’ll have to crank up the exposure to +1 to +2 and set the camera on something steady. If it’s a bright day though, your sky or background is going to be blown. There’s kind of a fine balance here. You’ll just have to find it. Also, if able, drop your ISO to 50. This will decrease the sensitivity of the sensor some which might compensate a little for the increased exposure.

15 sec. f/2.811. Playing around with long exposures – This is especially fun to do at night. I recently found out that my camera is able to do 1″ – 15″ exposures! I haven’t been up in the front range at night to play around with city shots. But I have been up in the desert and took some pics from Red Box looking towards Monrovia. Here the ambient light from the city gives a good image.

The image at right is inside one of Allison mines. Here I had setup my minipod and propped it up on a rock and just let them pass with their headlamps on. It took about 4 different people to come down for me to figure out the timing. Good thing we had a decent sized group. But this is a 15 second exposure.

Those are pretty much all the tips that I can think of. Overall though, my style of shooting involves taking mostly candid shots when I can. Of course I always like the group shot, but I would prefer the random group photo over a posed one. Of course it’s pretty tough to get everyone looking in the same direction at any one time. Also, what I like to do when I’m in the back of the group is to take shots of the group in a line as they go down the trail. If the trail starts to curve, then even better. And I’m a sucker for silhouette shots too. I think the last picture would have been perfect if I had gotten more of the reflection.

1/30 sec. f/2.81/125 sec. f/2.81/125 sec. f/2.8

Hope this was helpful. If you can think of any other points that I missed out on or want to add to or discuss something, then leave a comment. So go out and take some photos. The world is a big place that needs to be captured.

Related posts:

Mt. Wilson Cam at Night
Sheep Fire
Photos from Icehouse Canyon on Saturday (1/23/10)

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This entry was posted on Monday, March 2nd, 2009 at 10:32 pm and is filed under Photography. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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