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Many landscape photographers’ love for wilderness, drives them to venture far in search of wild and remote locations. The lure of solitude and unfamiliar scenery motivates many to photograph far off the beaten path. Adventure photography at it’s best.
Backpacking, rafting, canoeing, trekking, climbing, and other self-propelled modes of travel are a few of the ways these remote locations are accessed and used. Those adventures are often with other people and the rewards can be stunning scenery, wildlife, and of course: the wilderness experience.
On a canoe trip with my son we discovered this campsite on the shore (see image below). Earlier in the day I photographed the mountain reflecting in the lake before realizing the setting would make for a stunning photograph of a camp scene.
That experience is one reason many of us photograph! We photograph because we want to tell a story about the place we visited, what we saw, and how it looked. We do this by capturing wide views,long views and intimate details to create stunning nature images.
Photographing the landscape may be the sole purpose for some photographers heading into the wilds, but there might be another story that is often overlooked: the adventure itself. There are many photo opportunities from the scenery to the human experience that tell the story of a successful wilderness photo trip.
Getting into the adventure mindset starts with pre-trip planning and determining a story line.
Whenever I am preparing for an adventure I try to think like a National Geographic photographer. Their job and goal is to tell the story in pictures, in unique ways, and so is mine.
I have rafted many rivers including the Grand Canyon three times and each trip had a different group, with unique dynamics. To capture great storytelling images of an outdoor adventure, start by simply observing the other participants’ behaviour at the beginning of the trip. What will they do on the trip? Kayak, hike, climb, read, play music, or anything that you can observe and then plan to later photograph.
Next, I develop a list of photo ideas to reference during the trip. Most trip participants are not committed photographers like me, so it’s not hard to capture great images of them pursuing their interest and enjoying the adventure.
While I will photograph the scenery, all the activities like hiking canyons, cooking meals, sitting around the campfire, swimming in the waterfalls, dealing with physical challenges, and whitewater rafting through some of the biggest rapids in the U.S., are all on my mental shoot list.
Besides pre-planning the photo ops, I also plan the equipment and other gear I will need. For rafting trips I will take mostly the same gear as any other trip (when it comes to basic camera gear) keeping in mind limited space. But because it is a trip based around water I also take waterproof devices for the camera gear including Pelican cases, an underwater camera housing, and military ammo cans for accessories.
On a magazine assignment years ago, I took a horse pack trip into Hells Canyon in Oregon. The focus this time was on the outfitter himself, a cowboy (see image below, right) who ran backcountry horse trips and was also an elected official holding public office. The focus of the photography was the trip he was leading and included landscape imagery, the horses and horse packing, and the guests enjoying the wilderness adventure. I captured the adventure while the writer wrote about the politics. For my camera gear, I wore a hip pack for easy access to my camera while on horseback, while my camera backpack and tripod were tied down on a pack horse. Plan to take the right gear for the adventure.
During your pre-trip planning, start with some research on where you are going and observe how other photographers have photographed a similar trip. Make a list of the obvious: who, what, where, when, and how. This will remind you during the trip of images you had planned to capture when illustrating the story line.
The woman above was always writing in her journal or reading in the evening, so I asked her to pose and read a book. (see image above, left)
People are the key to telling adventure stories. It is images of their behaviour and how they interact with the wilderness adventure that communicates to the viewer just what the trip was about. Photos showing their highs and lows, their pain and their exuberance, how they overcome a physical challenge, all convey a sense of adventure.
As the adventure progresses you will develop a sense of how things are moving, what people do for activities, and where and when you can setup photo ideas from your to do list. I then suggest you ask people to pose in a storytelling scenario that ideally appears natural and un-posed. Posing can be a challenge to make look real, but by suggesting to the people to just ‘be themselves and read a book’ for example often results in a more natural pose. Other times, work like a photo journalist by keeping your camera in hand and ready to capture spontaneous moments which often lead to powerful storytelling images.
Photographing an Alaskan rafting trip, I was intrigued when I saw the river guide carrying this watermelon and in particular, his method of insuring we would not lose the fruit that went with tonight’s dinner. I asked him to stop and hold still.
Look up and down and all around when choosing your camera angles and storytelling compositions. I describe the two approaches I use as Observer and Participant. The photographer as Observer captures the activity as it happens, from the sidelines. The Participant photographs the action while being a part of it. The difference is the Observer captures views easily seen by anybody while the Participant captures views more difficult for everybody to see.
This is an angle photographed as an Observer from the river bank and while effective, was easy to capture the action and the setting.
This point of view photographed as a Participant, from within the boat, is very powerful; allowing viewers to feel like they were along for the ride as the boat was tossed around in the waves.
The advantage for the photographer as Participant is capturing angles of the activity as though the camera was their eyes. Images shot from this approach give the viewer a perspective that can make them feel as if they are immersed in the action. A rock climber taking a photograph of the climber below them offers a unique perspective of what it is like to be on the rock wall. A view that the casual observer would not see without climbing the wall.
Rafting on a winter day with intermittent snow, I was positioned in the front of the raft when a wave came over the top of me and this paddler’s expression shows her bracing for impact.
Another effective visual approach in telling the story is to ‘isolate and illustrate’. Isolate refers to a subject isolated in the composition. They are the sole or dominant subject in the frame; the story is all about them and what they are doing. Nothing else visually is needed. These photos usually say ‘who and what’.
Here, a woman enjoying her coffee at sunrise was isolated in the composition using a telephoto lens, shot from the other side of the camp. The visual story is her and her camp. (see image below right)
Captured on a 10 day climbing and photo adventure, the image above left, was shot during a hike up to watch the sunrise and it tells a story that the day is beginning. From the sun flare on the lens to the large view, this image clearly Illustrates the story of where they are and when.
The illustrated approach to a storytelling composition could be a subject much smaller in the scene in comparison to their surroundings. It’s a great approach for giving viewers the big picture and a sense of scale to the overall scene. An Illustrated image says ‘what and where’.
The example below of the illustrative approach shows a camp set among large mountains and the river. It tells the story differently by showing the size relationship between the subjects and background providing a sense of scale to the scene.
As we were hiking back to camp, I noticed the shadows on the rocks and stopped and asked them to try various poses like a high-5 and dance on the rocks.
Captured later in the afternoon, I used the Isolated approach to the composition showing the climber between the rocks. This created an image that’s all about her and what she is doing. (below left)
Hiking with a group in Utah, one hiker spotted a small frog near a pool or water and picked it up to show it. The wide angle, up-close angle tells the story of humans interacting with nature (above right).
You can also create storytelling images by adding lighting to further tell that story. Here, one of my preconceived ideas was someone reading in this comfortable wilderness cabin tent. I asked them to sit on the bed and read a book, then placed my flash behind them so it placed a shadow on the tent that told the story.
There is always a story to be told from any photographic adventure and if you plan to go on an expedition of any kind, large or small, plan to photograph more than just the scenery. Here are a few steps to prepare:
In the end you want your story in pictures to leave viewers feeling a great sense of what the trip was like, what was experienced, and how it might have felt to have been a participant.
Have you been on any adventures? Do you have any other tips to share? Please do so in the comments below.
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