Tired of Lackluster Backpacking Photos? Try These 8 Tips to Capture the Backcountry Like a Pro
Get ready to create Insta-worthy wilderness photos from your backpacking trips.
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Golden sunrays blanket a sprawling valley below the rocky outcrop of Charlie's Bunion. The Jumpoff lies across the expanse of mixed forest somewhere to the left, and Douglas Lake shimmers near the horizon to the north. The stunning scene resembles a National Geographic Instagram post. You pull out your phone to snap a quick photo and quickly set off for your shelter along the Great Smoky Mountains portion of the Appalachian Trail. When you finally get home, you're exhausted from a five-day backpacking trip. Your legs feel like spaghetti, and your shoulders have more knots than a pine tree, but the elation of your journey still reigns over your aches and pains, pushing them to the back of your mind. Recalling the amazing scenery, you check out your photos, and immediately...disappointment hits. The dull bluish-grey or washed-out green photos look nothing like the actual views you remember, and you think, "Why doesn't it look how I remember it?"
There are some very detailed scientific answers to that question, but in the simplest terms, cameras don't "see" the way we do. Our brains work hard to process all the highlights, shadows and colors of our surroundings, and cameras can't automatically do that with a single tap of a button (yet). Fortunately, there are some easy ways to get Insta-worthy wilderness photos from your backpacking trips that you'll want to share with everyone. Here are a few tips for backpackers wanting to better capture the landscape.
No. 1: Keep It Light at First
A first impulse for improving photos may be to get a better camera. Interestingly, however, this solution rarely comes from experienced photographers. Instead of buying the best or newest technology, shoot with what you have until the limits of your camera are actually holding back the quality of your photos. Phones are now highly capable as cameras, so if you have a relatively new phone (iPhone 5s and up, for example) stick with it for at least the first trip you want to focus on photography.
One major benefit of phones over "better" camera setups is weight. Backpackers know that every ounce counts, so why add 3-5 pounds and use precious pack space for that big, new camera you don't know how to use yet?
If you don't have a good camera phone, opt for an action camera or compact camera. Just make sure the camera has a manual mode and shoots in a RAW format, so you'll have some room to grow. Inexpensive phone lens adapters can give your photos that professional wide-angle look or help you get that zoom shot of a distant peak. Mobile photography has also progressed to shooting in RAW file formats which help immensely during the editing process. To take advantage of RAW, you'll need to download an app with third-party cameras like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
No. 2: Hit Sunrise and Sunset
Backpackers tend to rise with the sun and go to bed as it sets, but for better photos, you have to be willing to beat the sun to your location and prepare for sleep after it sets. Sunrise and sunset usually offer the best light, so you need to be ready to shoot before they begin. Sometimes this means breaking camp two to three hours before sunrise, but that commitment pays off. I'm not saying this is the only time you can shoot, but it's definitely a time you shouldn't miss. Invest in a headlamp for packing up in pre-dawn darkness, setting up gear in the dark and settling into camp after nightfall. It will also be useful if you ever try night sky photography.
No. 3: Mind Your Composition
Composition can make or break a photo. The prettiest sunset, when presented in a flat and boring manner, will make an uninspiring photograph indistinguishable from every other backyard sunset post on social media.
The "rule of thirds" has been drilled into the brains of aspiring photographers so hard already that I'm not going to explain it here. I will say this: it's over-communicated because it works. The rule of thirds adds interest and balance to a photo by offsetting the subject so the viewer's eyes will move across the photo, taking in bits at a time. It's a useful tool more than a rule. You can find S curves and leading lines throughout nature. These compositional techniques can be used with the rule of thirds, or on their own, to add variety to your shots.
Lastly, include people. "But it's a landscape photo..." Yes, but you're there. Other people are likely there. The landscape you (almost always) see isn't actually "wilderness" untouched by humanity, so there's no inherent need to depict it that way. Occasionally, including a person adds elements of human interest and scale.
No. 4: Research Your Trails and Have a Plan
While some amazing photos occur spur-of-the-moment, most result from well-executed planning. Before your trip, research the best photo spots along your trail. Google Earth is a great resource, and there are other apps that can help too. Mark every "must-shoot" location on your physical map, and plan to be at the best ones at sunrise and sunset.
Don't forget to take weather into account. It's tempting to only shoot on clear, sunny days, but dramatic, stormy weather produces some of the best photos. Hiking up to that point in heavy rains or low-visibility fog will occasionally pay off with an incredible break in the storm, a rainbow or another photo miracle well worth the hassle. (Just be safe when backpacking in unpredictable and potentially dangerous weather. Your safety is more important than the photo.)
No. 5: Pack a Tripod
You don't have to lug a massive tripod along. You can if you want—I have—but you definitely don't have to. But at least take a small, lightweight tripod. It just needs to support your phone or small camera, so you can A) put yourself in the frame, and B) take long exposures and shoot in low light. Long exposures add motion and interest to a scene by either blurring the clouds or blurring waterfalls and streams. These photos can create a kind of dreamy, mystical feeling. All you need is a tripod and a neutral density filter. This tutorial will show you everything you need to know to get cracking with long exposure.
No. 6: Practice Before You Hit the Trail
The previous tips are not easily implemented on the first try. You're almost guaranteed to remember one or two things and forget the rest until you look at your photos later and realize your errors. Plus, tripods, apps and other gadgets can be frustrating to work with at first. Long exposures and correct compositions require practice. Instead of experiencing frustrations on the trail and missing the shot, learn these new techniques before your next trip to make them second nature.
No. 7: Learn Some Post-Processing
Those amazing photos you see all over the internet rarely come straight from the camera. Behind-the-scenes editing is usually involved, as is sometimes glaringly obvious. I have definitely been guilty of over-editing, but a few simple editing techniques, carefully applied, will make landscape photos pop on screen or in a print without a filter-blasted look.
Post-processing has a learning curve, but it's well worth the energy. Even free mobile apps can make a world of difference. Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom are my two favorites. Between these apps, I have everything I need to transform a muddy, flat photo into a vibrant and interesting image.
A basic workflow through those apps looks something like this: adjust brightness as needed, decrease the highlights (move the slider left), increase the shadows (move the slider right), increase the contrast, increase saturation and vibrancy (a little goes a long way), add sharpness and use the blemish brush to remove spots and unwanted debris/branches.
No. 8: Expand Your Gear as You Grow Your Skills
Tips 1-7 are enough to give backcountry photos that extra bit of "wow" most of us want, but some will catch the photography bug. And that's wonderful! As you become more competent with the tools you already have, you will eventually outgrow them. You've taken your phone or action camera to its limits, and you need to upgrade. But what camera do you buy? And what's the best "real" tripod for a backpacker photographer? Again, I will draw from the wisdom of professional photographers. The best camera is the one you can afford and that you will actually use. I carry my Nikon D7000 and a tripod on most trips because the setup allows me to shoot long exposures and to blend exposures together in post-processing to get all the details in a sunset and foreground. The camera itself was a gift five years ago, and it still works great. However, if I were to shop for a new camera for backpacking, I would definitely go mirrorless and maybe even forego interchangeable lenses. Fujifilm, Sony and Olympus all make fantastic fixed lens cameras that allow most of the manual control that DSLRs and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras give. If you still want more camera and are willing pack the extra weight, check out Sony and Fujifilm for mirrorless and Nikon and Canon for DSLRs.