Hiking season is upon us here in Alberta - or at least pleasant-weather hiking season is. Which will mean a lot of people capturing images along the trail. So today, I'm going to give you five of my best tips to capture the best photos of you and your buddies out hiking. We aren't going to talk about the things that are always the same in photography - so no discussion today on composition, golden hour, settings, or lenses. These are things you should understand and know how they work into your workflow. If not, check out some of the fundamentals of photography right here on this podcast to get up to speed
Tip #1 - Get Ahead of your Party
Being in front of people while they are on the trail makes for the best photos, regardless of if you're hiking up a mountain or across flat terrain. Pictures of people from behind just aren't as engaging typically as those with their faces in them. Outside of the mountain top hero shot, of course. So get in front of them to show off those pretty faces.
But how far in front? You also don't want to be just a few inches away from your party. Selfies are great and all to remember moments on the trail, but for genuinely marvellous pictures, you are going to have to get at least a few feet away from everyone else. The further back you go, the more you can include the environment in your shot, which is part of what makes hiking photos so breathtaking. This also gives you a chance to include foreground elements in your pictures, giving a sense of place to the images of your party.
This will mean more work for you as you will need to move fast to get in front of your party to get the right shots. And typically, this will mean a lot of running, shooting as they pass, and then running ahead again. Just to repeat the process. If you want to get really fit really fast, become an active adventure photographer. You will end up running up and down mountains a lot.
But the images are so worth it. Especially on vertical trails when you are heading up, where shots from behind just show bits of mountain, sky and people's buts. Whereas, if you are in front of them, you can see their faces and the ground below, adding more dynamics to your images. So, do the work, and get ahead of your party on the trail. Going down this tip kind of changes, but being in front of people here still has way more drama to the images because you can see the work and exhaustion on people's faces.
Tip #2 - Shoot All Day
Taking photos while hiking only when the light is perfect is a fool's errand. You will not only be hiking when the light is excellent. So don't make that a primary characteristic to shoot if you are looking to capture great images of your party. Of course, we all prefer those wonderful, magically lit days. But, let's be honest, most of us aren't going to get that a lot of the time. So work with what is in front of you. Likely this will mean a lot of images on blue-bell days with a bright sun and then the odd instance of beautiful lighting as we approach golden hour. And this is great! You can make amazing images on bluebell days. You just have to work with the sun. Remember, don't put your subject staring directly at the sun as they will just be very squinty and, honestly, the light on their face will be harsh and flat. Instead, put their back to the sun and use it as rim lighting or put it just off to the side, so it illuminates them from one side.
Also, look for those instances where you can cause sun stars. These are a great way to add a visually interesting component to your images. Finally, and this is backwards from portraiture on bright days, don't always shoot with your people in the shade. On trails and on mountainsides, there often isn't much shade. There will be odd clumps of trees, but really, they don't happen that often. So, by only shooting people in the shade, you are severely limiting your options. Also, trail photos aren't normally close-ups of people's faces (they can be, and those can be very cool), but if you're looking to add the scenery and a sense of place, you will need to be further away from the people in your shots. If you put your subject in the shade and then walk a ways away, that person will just be lost. So, instead, put them in a spot on the trail where they stand out and are visible. Usually, that is going to be by getting them out into the sun.
Tip #3 - Contrasting Colours
Staying with making people pop. When you are looking to shoot people in your images, try to get them to contrast against the background. This is a pretty simple but potent trick in photography. Dark clothing against dark backgrounds will mean your subject and the environment will blend together. Making the person disappear in the image. But, bright clothing against dark backgrounds makes your subject pop and really brings focus to your shot. Think of it this way, a black shirt against a grove of trees will blend together, but a pink shirt against a grove of trees will ensure that person stands out. This makes a huge difference when you're on a densely forested path with lots of dark spots, deep greens and deep browns. A bright red shirt will allow the person viewing the image to quickly find the subject, whereas a green shirt will make that person in the image blend in.
Sometimes though, you don't have a choice of the colour your subject is wearing. Especially if it's just a day hike with friends, you shouldn't be dictating what they wear. But, there are ways around this. If you are on a forested trail and your friend is wearing a green shirt, get them to stop in brightly lit areas, like the sun coming through a break in the tree cover. This basically spotlights your friend, and the light from the sun will separate them from the rest of the path and forest. You can fake this by tossing down some lights and making it look like the person is illuminated by a sunbeam. But that will undoubtedly detract from the hiking experience if you're setting up a photoshoot midway. I'd stick to just using what light is available around you.
Tip #4 - Don't Forget the Moments Between Movement
Too often, I find myself only shooting while we are on the go. And that's a mistake. Some of the best photos can come while we are stopped. Capturing the laughter at lunch, the contemplation as we sit for a moment resting weary legs. That second where someone is literally stopping to smell the roses. All of these are powerful moments that can really add to the story of the day and can become some of your favourite images. Yes, the epic photos are astounding, but the in-between moments are essential too. And they are the ones I often find myself coming back to for memories because they are the ones that show off the genuine person you are hiking with. So, document those non-moving moments, and you will likely walk away with some of your favourite memories.
Tip #5 - Put Down your Camera and Look with your Eyes
It's easy to always have a camera in front of your face while hiking. You get so focused on shooting that it just kind of stays there. But to create the best images while on the go, you need to learn to see things with your eyes before you put up a camera. This means looking for those angles, composition, light, and placement of people before they get to the spots you want to shoot. And then waiting for everything to line up.
You can't hike by staring through a lens, it's dangerous, and you're missing out on some of the best experiences. Instead, train yourself to see the shots you want to take with the equipment that you have. If you're carrying a telephoto, envision those shots with your mind's eye as though you were using that telephoto. Same with a wide-angle or a prime. Envision those shots beforehand. And then only bring up the camera when you are ready to shoot.
This has the added benefit of keeping you in the moment as well.
Bonus Tip - Stay Safe and Stay Aware
This is important for me to mention here, but be smart about the type of photos you are taking and stay keenly aware of your surroundings. I've seen far too many people on mountain tops back up without noticing a cliff behind them or try to move out along a path that puts them in a precarious position. This isn't meant to tell you what to do but to be aware of your limits.
I know what my limits are. I know I shouldn't be scrambling up tiny ridges to get photos because I'll have problems coming back down. I know I am a bit clumsy when I'm shooting, so I stay away from edges where I may lose my balance and fall. Those are the things I know about myself. And you should get to know those things about yourself as well.
If you have no experience rock climbing, maybe don't go scrambling—things like that.
Also, stay aware of trail conditions and signs of animals. It is essential to always be animal aware in areas, even if there are many other people. You don't want to startle a moose, bear or anything else by suddenly coming upon it on a trail. So, pay attention and know your capabilities.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.