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Outings Photography 101

by David Van Winkle

Photography on outings is one of the most interesting aspects of the trip. It gives you a chance to record where you have been and what you saw. You know a picture is worth a thousand words. Photography also allows you to create memories of your activities with your hiking friends. It also allows you to create art. So, let’s discuss the key aspects of photography on an outing.

You need to have 4 things to make it happen.

  1. A camera suitable to the task.
  2. Be prepared to take the photo.
  3. Proper composition.
  4. Great light.

Camera selection

  1. Your camera will most likely be a digital camera. A few professional photographers still use film, but even most of the photographs in National Geographic are from digital SLR cameras (expensive ones). The digital medium allows you to share your photos via e-mail, websites, computers, and projectors so much easier than film. Digital provides much faster feedback.
  2. SLR vs compact – An SLR has some capabilities that currently do not exist on compact models. However, an SLR is more expensive, heavier, and requires multiple lens for multiple uses. The SLR is great for some applications, but not really required for amateur nature photography on Sierra Club trips. However, if you plan on submitting photos to National Geographic, you should bring your SLR.
  3. Megapixels – Unless you want to print large photos, 5M will be enough for viewing on a computer or sharing with your friends.
  4. Zoom – Really compact digital camera have 3-4x optical zoom. This is enough in many circumstances. HOWEVER, we saw a grizzly bear and her two cubs at a hundred yards in Glacier National Park August 2006. My 12x optical zoom made them look good, instead of a spec on the photo. BTW, digital zoom is meaningless, so don’t pay any attention to this spec when buying a camera.
  5. Automatic vs manual – All cameras have automatic settings and many have manual settings. I usually use my camera in a manual mode called aperture priority. If you are really into advanced photography, you will need the manual settings.

So, what you need is a compact, digital with 5 Megapixels and you have a choice between the really small ones that fit in your pocket or the ones that need a small carrying case with the 10-12x zoom.

I carry a Canon S2-IS on most Sierra Club outings. This is a 5M digital with 12x zoom with manual options. I have also taken great photos with the smaller version with the 3x zoom.

Be prepared to take the photo

You will need a carrying case that fits your camera, easy to carry, easy to access the camera, and protects your camera from the elements. So, stop carrying your camera in your backpack. Do you really think that the horny toad, mountain lion or black bear that just appeared is going to wait for you to get your camera out of your backpack? In Sept. 2003, Emil Raggi was the only person in our Kings Canyon group ready to take a photo and successfully captured the black bear on “film” as it crossed our path.

Also, when you become aware of a great photo opportunity, get the camera out and turn it on ASAP. In March 2007, I was hiking in Bandelier National Monument with the Santa Fe group of the Sierra Club. Some one ahead, said “look a horny toad”. Before, I had caught up to the group, I had my camera out, turned on, and starting to aim it. I got two great photos before it scampered away.

Also, be aware of your surroundings. In January of 2005, Arthur Kuehne, John Shannon, and I were exiting the restaurant in the Chisos Basin in Big Bend. We looked to our right and saw the most awesome example of Alpen Glow I have ever seen. Of course, none of us had a camera in hand, so we ran to John’s car to get our cameras. We had about 15 seconds left to take photos before the sunlight changed. I got some awesome photos. Most people that see the photos think that I modified them in Photo Shop.

Proper composition

Composition is about story telling. Just a broad view of the landscape is boring. Even double rainbows are considered boring by many people. Put something of interest into your photos. Put people in your photos. About 20 years ago, I was proudly showing my dad some photos that I had taken of some interesting landscapes. He said “where are the people? I want to see what the people look like there.” People also help to demonstrate scale. If you do not put something in the photo of known size, that huge mountain or cliff in the background will not seem as big as in real life. Another technique that is useful is to put an object in the foreground, life a flower, with the mountain in the background. Depending on your creative style, you can have both the foreground and background in focus or your can choose just one of them to be in focus and have the other one fuzzy. (This will require that you learn to use aperture priority for taking your photos.)

Great light.

You photograph light, not objects. The light is usually the best at sunrise and sunset. You have certainly seen great sunsets and sunrises, but have you ever seen a great noon? No. The light during the day is so strong that it washes out most colors. So, get up early to take great pictures. The early bird catches the great photos. Also, taking a photo with dark and light areas is very difficult. If you have a lot of contrast, just photograph one of the areas. If you try to capture both, either the light areas will be too light or the dark areas will be too dark. Your camera just cannot see like your eyes. Your eyes are much better than any camera.

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