5 Tips to Better Trail Photos

To balance out images that show contemplation and meditation (a person just sitting and watching a sunset) I try to shoot active hiking images as much.

1. Have your camera ready to shoot. Carry it on your chest, shoulder strap or hip belt. This is easy with a smartphone but a bit more challenging with a DSLR. Use a chest harness or shoulder/hip belt. Don’t rely on taking off your pack every time you want to take some photos. Simply using a neck strap and having your camera bouncing off your abdomen as you hike down the trail is awkward, uncomfortable and increases risk of damage to the camera.

Michael on a day hike on the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico. We were scouting while on an assignment for Backpacker Magazine for a Gear Guide shoot. Michael uses an F-Stop Navin case with 4 attachment points to his day/overnight pack (a Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest). Inside is his APS-C sized mirrorless camera – a Sony A6300 with Sony-Zeiss 16-70F/4. Other chest holder pouches that can be configured to carry a lightweight system are made by Osprey Packs and Mindshift Gear.

2. Camp High. Most campers/backpackers like to nestle in shelter in lower lying areas, close to water. When camped in a valley, the sun goes behind terrain or stays behind terrain in the morning, long before or after the colors and light are at their best. Yes, being up high means risking exposure to weather. You need a bombproof tent and the knowledge to pitch it correctly but up high is where the best light and views are! It doesn’t always mean camping on ridge tops, but ideally, high enough to catch twilight and the very first and last rays of light hitting interesting terrain in both foreground and background. Even in desert locations like the Grand Canyon, we prefer to carry water a little ways to a high dry camp with better views and light.

Camped at Portage Pass, with open sweeping views, Lauri waits for sunrise over Passage Canal and Prince William Sound. We were pounded all night by strong winds off of Portage Glacier, but we use a bombproof pyramid tent from Hyperlite Mountain Gear.

We always strive to camp in open country as in this campsite on the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon National Park. This is Lauri at first light, getting up to start our day. Whenever possible, Michael tries to facilitate images that depict what happens before, in-between, and after the act of hiking/backpacking, such as this camp scene. Yes, he sleeps with his camera in the tent, or within arm’s reach in the vestibule and leaves it set up for shots like this.

3. Start early, end late. Duh! Sometimes you have to state the obvious but the best light is at the ends of the day! And if you are up high, you stand a better chance of capturing magical light than if you are in trees or canyons. We like hiking late or pre-sunrise to get the best hiking in the landscape imagery. Twilight, alpenglow and night images also work better in open terrain. If you have a sturdy but light tripod or you are in open country with rocks, you can stabilize your camera and take long exposures, say in the 1/4 second to 20 second range and capture the soft colors of twilight balancing with the light of a headlamp or tent light. It is not uncommon for us to hike to a pass or ridge for a sunset and return to camp or trailhead under headlamp.

We hiked 7 miles to Kearsarge Pass on the border of Kings Canyon National Park in the Eastern Sierra to capture the best light at sunset! With a well defined trail, it wasn’t difficult to do our return hike at night.

4. Photograph people more and avoid direct sunlight on faces.Don’t just focus on the act of hiking within a beautiful setting. Focus on what happens before, in between, and after the action.

As far as lighting people goes, direct sun on faces is harsh and unflattering. Shadows under hat brims, eyes, under the nose and chin will appear darker and harsher in a photo than they do to the naked eye. The only exception to lighting a face with direct sun and getting flattering results would be when the sun is literally sitting on the horizon going through maximum atmospheric to soften the harsh sun.

On this hiker portrait of CC (Color Coordinated) on the PCT in Washington, it was harsh mid-day light and Michael had no lighting equipment. The only way to get a decent portrait was to turn her away from the sun, overexpose the image to make her skin tones bright, and use the little pop-up flash.

The best natural light for peoples faces is on bright cloudy days. On sunny days, turn your subject away from the light (backlight) and place them against a dark background such as shadowed rock cliffs or dark forest. The goal is to keep the light even and soft on your subjects’ faces. (To avoid faces appearing muddy and dark, see tip 5 below.) Most backpackers do not carry a flash (strobe, speed light) with them on the trail. But, many point and shoot cameras and lightweight mirrorless cameras come with a little pop-up flash. If you have one, use it! They are great tools for filling in harsh facial shadows in hard sunlight. The trick is to stay close. When using a small flash the effective range is almost always closer than 8 feet.

Bright overcast is the best light for flattering faces and portraits. When we have these conditions, Michael throttles back on small hikers in a big landscape and focus on candid moments such as this.

On this hiker portrait of NeeMor on Scout Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington, the sun had been up less than a minute. This is the only time we would use direct sunlight on a portrait.

5. Add light to bright scenes.Yes, you heard that right. Most landscapes involve lots of sky, water (we all love shooting alpine lakes) and/or snowy landscapes. All these surfaces are brighter than middle tone and can fool light meters even in pro level cameras. Even though high-end cameras divide the image area into multiple zones (referred to as “evaluative” or “matrix” metering) and average them, if most of the zones are bright, then your meter reading will be faulty. This is because your meter renders whatever it is averaging to be middle tone. Sky, even with dark clouds, reflective water, light colored rock and snow are all brighter than middle tone! So add exposure to your camera’s reading to bring the tones described above back to where they need to be.

When photographing faces as described in tip 4, where you turn your subject away from the sun, their faces will appear dark and muddy, unless you add light to your camera’s suggested exposure. Many cameras today, including DSLR’s and mirrorless, will allow you to dial in exposure compensation (adding light) when you are using a program mode such as full automatic, aperture, or shutter priority modes.

A short but steep trail brings you to stunning sweeping views of Portage Glacier. This location is only a 40-minute, (900 foot gain), hike from the trailhead. When shooting in backlight and showing facial features Michael almost always overexpose from what the camera meter reads for more pleasing and brighter skin tones. Exposure was 1/250th of a second at F/5.6 and was 2/3 stop brighter than what the camera suggested. Camera: Canon 5DMarkIII, Canon 70-200F/4 L IS lens, hand held.

Cold Air, Warm Light – Winter Photography Tips

Now that the first day of winter is close (though winter began months ago in some places), there is no reason to put your photography in hibernation! In fact, my favorite light of the year is winter. This is mainly because the sun doesn’t get as high in the sky and thus, yielding more hours with great light.

I spent much of the afternoon a few days after Christmas last year searching for the location I wanted to shoot sunset from. The night before it had snowed heavily and the forecast was for clearing skies later in the day. This was a predictable “great light” scenario over the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico after nearly a foot of fresh snow. This was a very cold airmass for southern New Mexico and as usual, cold air yields warm winter light.

Generally speaking, if you live in a location that has real winter, defined by frequent temperatures below freezing and snowfall, the colder the air the better the light. Cold air produces warm light and winter landscapes in warm light make fantastic images. It may be uncomfortable on my fingers, operating the camera in well below freezing air, but very cold air, especially shortly after a frontal passage, often contains ice crystals suspended in a cloudless atmosphere. These ice crystals create backscattering and reflection of the longer (warmer) wavelengths of the visible light spectrum back toward the light source often creating a pink alpenglow opposite of the sunrise or set. High humidity in the lowest levels of the atmosphere in sub-freezing air can also produce a beautiful warm color wash shooting into the sun.

This was one of my best selling winter images ever. In a very cold (highs remaining below zero) airmass, I found a small body of water near Anchorage that didn’t freeze. Water vapor rising into the very cold air scatters the light creating a warm glow shooting the setting sun. This image follows the cold air-warm light formula.

WHEN TO SHOOT: I study forecast transitions in weather patterns. Pay attention to the forecast changes from clear to stormy weather and visa-versa which usually produces the most dramatic light. Approaching storms in the mid-lattitudes often produce dramatic and colorful clouds at sunrise and storms that clear in the afternoon often produce rich vibrant colors at sunset, especially if associated with a fresh snowfall. I also look for fog, especially if you live in hilly or mountainous regions where you have a chance to get above the fog. If you wake up and you can’t see across the street, rejoice! Grab your camera and try to get to the edge or top of the fog layer. That is where the photo magic is happening.

This shot of a runner is from Park City, Utah a valley that gets frequent winter fog. In the valley, it was grey and dismal (and colder) Driving to the top of the fog yields this crisp backlight with a high-key soft box feel. The freezing fog was at this height earlier and deposited “dew” on the snow, known as surface hoar giving the snow a bright crystal look.

TECHNIQUE: Snow is the easiest thing to shoot and expose for. It is nature’s best fill card, bouncing light everywhere and allowing for images not possible without it. You can shoot snow-covered spruce trees into the sun with amazing detail on the shadowed side. Over expose from what your meter is saying to bring your snow to a crisp bright white, otherwise, your images will be underexposed and muddy. Don’t forget to shoot images while snow is falling, especially if the flakes are big. When this happens you can get the most dramatic results if you place your subject, a person or animal (wild or domestic), against a dark background such as evergreen trees. Shoot with a telephoto lens to make dramatic images of falling snow around your subject. Pay careful attention to your focus. Snow falling in front of your subject can make your AF search needlessly and focus on something other than your subject. More often than not, I manual focus when I’m shooting in falling snow. I love portraits in falling snow which beautifully enhances bokeh.

I love shooting shooting during falling snow. The soft bright light is great for skin tones and portraits. Images in falling snow can yield great results. Using dark colors on your subjects and dark backgrounds enhance the feel of the falling snow. The falling snow feel is even further enhanced by the using telephoto compression. This shot of a happy couple in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico was shot at with the exposure compensation at +2/3 or .7 of a stop above what the camera meter read to brighten the subjects’ faces.

The most appealing and best selling winter images (tracking sales reports) are of two things: really warm light and alpenglow, fresh snow with a winter wonderland looking landscape, and portraits in falling snow. In general, the coldest air, especially after a fresh snow, produces the warmest light with pink and orange sky and clouds.

This was a dawn alpenglow shot of the setting moon on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in late December. This was 2 days after a snowfall and the morning temperature was around zero Fahrenheit.

My favorite light is backlight and shooting into the sun is my favorite tactic to render a scene. Had this been a hiker in a snow-free setting with the dark spruce trees, this shot would not have worked. The fresh snow and “winter wonderland” look reflecting light everywhere is what makes all the detail on the shadowed side of the trees and skier possible.

One Degree Of Separation – One Percent Better

Bull moose on early autumn tundra dripping water from antlers in velvet

Denali National Park, Alaska, bull moose on early autumn tundra dripping water from antlers in velvet

I’ll never forget listening to a lecture from the president of Tony Stone Worldwide in the early 1990’s saying that when a photo buyer has narrowed down their selection, the image that’s one percent better gets 100% of the sale. That has stuck with me for two decades now and has driven me to push myself to always make the best image I can. To do this, I’ve always prioritized creative technique. I’m less of a “rule” guy and more of a “technique” guy. We use technique to add visual impact and pizzazz to our images. Rules, such as the compositional rule of thirds, are important and have their place, which in my eyes is mainly to satisfy formatting needs for commercial use. Technique helps us attain impact and brings the image closer to the impact we saw in real life. Separation of your subject from the background is critical to a successful image.

Remember, life is in 3D and photography is in 2D. When we are photographing we see a 3-dimensional separation between our subject and the background. However, when we view the image on the screen, we lose that real life separation and instead we might see a bunch of chaotic and busy lines running together. There are several techniques to create separation of subjects and backgrounds creating depth in our images. This blog just addresses one technique of simply moving around and paying attention to intersecting lines until you get your image to where it needs to be.

In my workshops and private consults, I still see shooters focusing too much on exposure bracketing. I say forget exposure bracketing. Dial your exposure in and focus on other stuff like composition, point of view, different apertures, and even lens focal length if the situation allows. Doing these things will help you find a more impactful separation of subject from the background. Great separation leads to simplifying and simplifying strengthens the core message of the image and that’s what it’s all about.

This is where one of the powers of digital photography and its instant feedback are very helpful in determining when you got the shot. Here are a couple examples of how I used my LCD and bracketed my compositions to get the image to where it needed to be, creating a good separation of subject and background.

This was my first attempt shooting Jackson making this jump off Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. The ridge off his left shoulder is a long way away in 3D, but in the image his green pack blends into the patterns of trees and snow on the distant ridge yielding a murky separation of my main subject. Fortunately, I saw this in the LCD after evaluating the shot. I knew what I had to do to make it better.

The ski shots are from a routine stock shoot with hired talent doing a mix of stunts and ski lifestyle scenes. When I first saw this jump, knowing what my talent was capable of, we set up a shot. On the image from the first take, there is clearly a separation in real life between the skiers left side and the distant hillside. When I reviewed the image on location I saw that his orange jacket stands out and the separation is OK but I knew I could do better. I wanted him above all the terrain and have his orange jacket pitched against the high altitude Southwest blue sky. Usually, a lower point of view solves the separation problem, so I skied downhill and got closer and lower. It worked. I verified on the LCD that I got the shot and it was sharp so we could move on to other shots. Mission accomplished.

On my second attempt, I simply skied downhill a little and planted my butt on the snow. I knew I wanted Jackson and his colorful orange parka and green pack to clearly stand out against the blue sky. Fortunately, I got the shot on the next take, verifying sharpness and exposure on the LCD. Time to move on to other ideas. You never see everything you need to on location no matter how hard you try. In retrospect, I should have gone to the other side of the jump, got low and shot him into the backlight. It would have been a totally different image. I think I passed because that would have put the lift in the background – something I didn’t want.

This image of spring bloom and cholla cacti near Abiqui, New Mexico along the Rio Chama lacks a center of interest. Even though I could clearly see separation between the cacti and the background cliffs, the image comes back with a bunch of busy and confusing intersecting lines. Perpendicular lines, as seen in the upper right between the cacti and the distant hills, is visually distracting to me.

On the desert landscape images I was intrigued by the cholla cacti in spring. On the first shot, you can see there is no separation between the cholla and the background. I changed my point of view by getting down low and pitching the cholla against the sky, thus achieving more separation. Though it’s a stronger shot, I lost the background in the process. Toward sunset I tried again but this time, to get separation I chose a higher point of view but carefully searched for a cactus that I could completely, or near completely, surround by colorful lower weeds and still show a sense of place with the distant sandstone cliffs. Mission accomplished simply by taking the time to work the composition.

To create separation and emphasize the cholla I chose a lower point of view and moved around so the foreground cactus didn’t intersect with the other cacti in the right middle ground or blend in with similar tones and textures. In the process, I lost the background cliffs and a “sense of place” but the image is stronger and you still get the idea of a desert bloom across.

I continued my search, as the light improved toward sunset, bracketing my compositions until I came away with something I was happy with. This time I chose to separate my cholla by completely surrounding it with the sea of lower weeds and still showcased the sandstone cliffs that add to the sense of place I really wanted.

Next time you are chimping don’t just pay attention to “blinkies”. Look critically at your composition and design and whether you’ve achieved clear separation of your subject from a complementary background.

If Things Aren’t Going Well, Keep Shooting!


Family stand up paddling on the Great Salt Lake near Ogden, Utah.

My first stand up paddling shoot last summer seemed like it was circling the drain before it even started. I arrived at the Great Salt Lake about an hour before the talent (a family of 3) did. Forest fire smoke and thick high clouds delivered flat lifeless light and the mountain vistas that I was envisioning as a backdrop just were not going to happen. On top of that is was miserably hot like 100 degrees even with overcast skies! Understandably, my talent seemed sluggish at first to take to the boards. I began to question my judgment of doing a shoot with people who’ve never been on stand up paddle boards. The heat was getting to me. They were amazing athletes and after a half hour or so they began to take to the boards.

I still was not convinced at the time that I’d produced anything worthwhile and creative – mainly due to the normal stress that comes with every production on top of the heat stress. From past experience I new better than to edit in the field. Something inside my head that could not be articulated at that moment told me to just keep on shooting. And that’s what I did.

For about half an hour the air became very still and surreal and the reflections were amazing. The near sunset sky became slightly warmed and very pastel like. The talent was relaxed and had a rhythm going. All I had to do now was apply some skillful off-camera speed light and I had a fighting chance of getting something decent.

Another shot from this series is a finalist in a national contest, the Great Outdoors Photo Contest. I won’t know where I placed until the August issue of PDN comes out.

Even after 20 plus years of shooting I rarely know how successful a shoot will be until I look at the results on the computer. Sometimes it goes the other way. On another recent stand up paddle shoot I had great talent, great light at a location I was familiar with and I had half a dozen pre-visualized shots in my memory bank. I was just not on top of my game that morning. Shit happens. To all of us, pro and hobbyist alike.

Let the outcome be what it will be. Just remember – DON’T edit in the field and DON’T give up until the light is gone.