Want to take better scenic landscape pictures on your next adventure? In this article, I’m going to share some tips from my experiences that have helped me take my hiking photography to the next level.
How can you take your outdoor photography to the next level?
Let’s start with some basic principles that I’ve learned over many hikes out in the wilderness. Good photography gear matters, but amazing scenic photos can be accomplished with almost any type of camera setup by following these tips:
- Be prepared to wake up early and often. Get used to hiking in the dark using headlamps.
- Camping in the wilderness provides opportunities to capture a variety of vistas such as scenic sunrises, sunsets and starscapes.
- Don’t think about if something will make a good landscape photo or not. Just keep taking pictures – as many as you can. Having too many pictures at the end of the day is a good thing.
- The ability and strength to hike to farther destinations will set you apart from other photographers who won’t venture far off the trail.
- Practice as much as possible. Learning from our own mistakes is an invaluable experience and cannot be taught in classes or workshops.
Hiking Photography Gear
To get amazing mountain landscape photographs usually requires lots of hiking. For this reason, your camera gear weight is a serious concern when it comes to hiking photography. The longer your hike, the higher the elevation gain, the more extra photography gear is going to weigh you down.
Camera and Lens
I would recommend only bringing one DSLR/mirrorless body and one lens. A small action camera or cell phone will work for backup and video. I currently use the Nikon D780 paired with the 24mm f/1.8, which combined weigh about 3lb.
Whatever camera body and lens combo you choose, consider the following for landscape photography:
- How weather proof is the camera? You don’t want rain and snow damaging your gear you invested in
- Resolution, or megapixels matter more if you plan on printing big pictures
- Full frame bodies that shoot in RAW format help recover shadows in post processing, as well as capturing more information
- In my experience, DSLR’s handle better in extreme cold environments as well as better battery life
- Prime lenses are cheaper, sharper, and weigh less – aim for 16mm to 24mm
Tripod and Ballhead
This setup is one of the most important tools for hiking photographers to get crisp, sharp, scenic pictures of colorful landscapes. A good tripod and ballhead combination will allow the hiking photographer to shoot at low ISO and a closed down aperture to get noise-free images that are sharp throughout the photo. Tripods can get heavy and the lighter they are, the more expensive. For me personally, I find myself shooting at ground level 95% of the time. Considering size, weight and durability, I’ve found the RRS Ground Level Tripod legs and Acratech Ballhead to be the best tripod ballhead combo for hiking photography for scenic landscapes. It weighs only 3.45lb; the only drawback is you can’t get the camera that high off the ground.
Sometimes finding that perfect spot will lead you on long journeys in the dark. I’ve found that sunrise is safer to hike in the dark at long distances than sunset. This is personal preference but if I were to get lost, I’d like to get lost with the sun coming up.
Always have a GPS of some sort, a main headlamp and an extra headlamp with batteries. Back country hiking comes with risk as many locations have no cell phone service. I highly recommend an emergency SOS beacon, letting others know where you will be going, and not hiking alone if possible.
Here is my personal essentials list in my hiking camera backpack:
- Topography map of the area and a compass
- First aid kit
- Fire starter
- Water filter and extra water
- Emergency heat blanket
- Extra clothes, gloves, hats
- Multi-tool, electrical tape, zip ties
- Garmin InReach Mini
Here is a full breakdown of my hiking photography backpack that I use during the winter and snowy months in Colorado.
Location and Scouting
This is going to be your bread and butter for those portfolio shots. Though great landscape photographs can be caught by accident or on the hike, the majority of them should be planned. Hiking books, articles and apps like Alltrails and Gaia GPS are great resources for finding photographic hiking trails in your area. Facebook groups are also an amazing resource as there seems to be active groups for nearly every location out there.
Finding the Perfect Spot
If you are visiting a national park or somewhere similar, it’s good to scout images that other photographers have taken. You can plan the composition better and get an idea of what you are looking for. Apps like Photopills are also great for sunrise/sunset time and position as well as Milky Way position.
Popular locations are good to practice your hiking photography skills. But venturing out into the wilderness will make your portfolio more diverse.
Finding Unique Locations for your Landscape Photography
Reading topography maps for less known locations can open up opportunities and separate your images from those of other photographers. These can be known as “secret” locations that not many other hiking photographers have made the hike to find. For instance, if you are planning photography at Rocky Mountain National Park, my page, RMNP Lakes, is a great place to get ideas for photographs that aren’t going to be the destinations that have been shot a million times.
Locations that have been less photographed often require 10 miles or more of hiking. I’ve found here in Colorado the sweet spot is somewhere around 15 miles RT is where the most in demand photographs are needed. This should only be attempted by those that are fit and experienced as there’s obvious safety risks involved.
Camera Settings for Hiking Photography
Now that we found our scenic location, what settings should we use? I like to bracket all of my landscape photos. This will result to three or more different exposures all a full stop apart. I don’t do this for HDR, but sometimes I will exposure blend the foreground and background together. Shooting sunset and sunrise is going to be all over the place in terms of exposure. You want to get at least one exposure where the highlights aren’t blown out. With many full frame camera bodies, this will allow you to open up the shadows in post-processing. Always shoot in RAW mode for hiking photography.
Set the aperture to f/8 or f/16. Focus a few feet into the image and take your bracketed shot. Focus halfway into the image, take another bracketed shot. This ensures you have every pixel of the image sharp and in focus. Shoot at the lowest ISO possible. This should be achievable with a good tripod and ballhead.
To avoid camera shake, use the camera’s self-timer or optional shutter release cord. The Nikon D780 has a touch screen shutter that works pretty well.
When photographing alpine lakes, streams or waterfalls, I’ll put on a neutral density filter to smooth out the water with longer exposure times.
Composition Tips for Hiking Photography
Arriving at your destination a half-hour or so before the golden hour will give you time to find a good composition. One mistake I used to make all the time is that when the golden hour started, I would be running around taking as many photos as possible, with as many looks as possible. While this has given me good results in some cases, it’s better to focus on one good composition to get that eye popping photograph.
Making a Photograph Interesting
- Identify your main subject. Aim to keep your main subject halfway or more into the photograph.
- Find an interesting foreground. This could be anything: a log by the lake shore, a rock, flowers or plants, a crack in a frozen lake.
- Look for and identify any leading lines from the interesting foreground to the main subject. Examples could be a stream into the mountains, a hiking trail, a narrow field.
- Wait for the first light hitting the tops of the mountain landscape.
- Use your hiking partner as a subject in the photograph to add an additional element of scale to the landscape (professional landscape photographer Daniel Kordan is a master at this). If you don’t have a hiking partner, put yourself in the frame. You’re using a tripod, right?
Following the above tips will help give depth to your landscape photo. We see the world in 3D and our cameras see it in 2D, so the more depth you can create in the photo, the closer it looks to the real thing. These are just starting guidelines. However, all rules are meant to be broken in certain situations.
Bonus Tip: Keep Your Camera Out and Lens Cap Off
When hiking to or from your destination, you never know what kind of photographic opportunity will arise. You want to get to your hiking destination in a timely manner, but hiking is about the journey and experience, so why not record it? If you are constantly stopping to pull out your camera, you are just wasting time. Cameras can’t take photographs when they are stowed in your backpack (yet). Keep it out, keep an eye out for compositions and shoot often. Just because it’s not the golden hour doesn’t mean that you can’t get amazing landscape photographs.
Do you enjoy hiking photography? If you have any tips, questions or suggestions, please leave them in the comment section below!