Adventure, outdoor, and eco-sports photography has had a surge in popularity over the last decade. Rapidly growing social media outlets like Instagram have narrowed a spotlight across specific arenas of interest. Many photographers are making a living on the outskirts of the grid creating mesmerizing imagery of U.S. National Parks, remote foreign territory, and backcountry destinations only accessible by highly technical off-road transportation or arduous hiking. With the flux of imagery and surge of outdoor brands promoting a simpler lifestyle more closely connected to nature, more photographers are taking to the outdoors to create imagery that communicates a love for nature.
I have been on the road photographing the outdoors for nearly two years. Finally, after moving into my '94 Toyota pickup "Gertie" at the end of 2015, I tapped into a freedom to roam that I never knew existed. This fortune of professional exploration comes with a fair share of daily setbacks. Unforeseeable becomes normality, simplicity takes on a whole new meaning, and time seems to slow to a refreshingly transcendent pace. The challenges of the newfound liberation lays way to a unique set of skills for maximizing efficiency in daily life and professionalism. As a photographer these skills become essential in streamlining one’s process, satisfying clients, and maintaining an elevated level of work. Here are a few important tips.
Pack Light, Think Simple
I’ve spent countless hours with a headlamp beaming into my camera bag trying to decide what gear I should bring for a shoot only to find myself using one setup the whole time. A successful campaign can be photographed with a single body and a single lens. Of course, this is the minimalist extreme.
I often find myself second guessing gaps in my lens coverage and bringing extra glass just for the hell of it, then feeling every ounce on my back as the day wears on. Weight is always a huge issue when working outside of the studio. A good self-reliant photojournalist considers every ounce. It is easy to get carried away tossing lenses into the bag. How about an extra body or two, batteries, flashes, or that intervalometer you never use? Then, barely being able to zip your bag shut before you swing it over your hunched shoulders and trudge up trail.
Thinking small is good practice in building a shoot. However, it is wise to be prepared, especially when photographing sports with timing as an element. The common ground between these two factors is finding a few lenses that work with your shooting style and making them work. My personal preferences are the 16-35mm f/2.8 and 100-400mm USM II L on a full-frame body with a 35mm Sigma Art prime set aside for the "in-between moments." Every shoot is different and definitely there isn’t a trump card formula for all scenarios, but this works well in most. It's overly simple, but learning to think small will save frustration in the long run.
You body is the best piece of equipment you own. It sounds hokey, but it is a very plain fact. If you’re documenting landscapes, or anything in nature, you need to get in and out of challenging places with heavy equipment strapped on your back. If you’re covering athletes, you will need a equal and corresponding dose of fitness to be able to keep up with them. Movement is elemental to being a photographer. It is a physically demanding job at face value. When you start adding difficult terrain, gravity, water, altitude, or speed to the mix, the strong are quickly separated from the weak.
You take care of your cameras and lenses, why not provide the same amount of attention to your body in the form of diet and exercise?
Keep in mind, the key element to a healthy body isn’t necessarily being buff or losing a ton of weight. It is merely necessary to be able to carry equipment, get in place for the shot, and direct where necessary. No one will want to work with someone who is a physical liability. Consider your overall shoot and prepare accordingly. Bring plentiful water if the environment demands it, prepare for altitude if necessary, and eat appropriate calories for a long hike or ride. Don’t betray yourself by selling yourself short of energy.
Know Before You Go
You wouldn’t know it from the abundance of geotags on Instagram, but many remote destinations don’t have great reception. Oftentimes that is precisely the allure of a visually beautiful, natural, and remote location. It is nice to get away from the demand of being available for phone calls or emails. The chief drawback from this remoteness, in my opinion, is that your GPS doesn’t work. Over the years of traveling I have become incredibly reliant on my phone’s GPS. The "set it and forget it" mentality has made traveling, mainly long drives, thoughtless and easy. But if you head out into the bush with this kind of mentality you will quickly find yourself lost, aimless, and unproductive, especially if you have a shoot objective on the mind. You should approach an outdoor shoot with a firm knowledge of the area. It is highly valuable to know as much about the area, particularly if it is remote.
Before you leave, get a paper map of the area. I bought a U.S. road atlas a few years back to document my travels. I mark it up with notes of places along the way I might not have otherwise found or remembered. Pre-research your route, your campsite, and potential shoot locations before you leave. Make clear distinct notes in a notebook or directly on the map. The more thorough your research can be, the better. You will be able to make quick decisions that can make or break important visual elements of your shoot.
The urge is often to wander organically into a beautiful spot where the element of serendipity is undeniable and beautiful. The reality is, life often isn’t this whimsical. If you have no idea where you’re going, you’ll drive right by it. You might stumble on something amazing in your travels, but the chances of it being accidental are slim. There are many things you can’t plan, the majority of great photos are a healthy combination of luck and knowledge merged together in a split second. To get to this magical realm time after time takes a predictive ability that can only come from research. I find talking to locals can be really useful as well. With a little previously researched foundation of knowledge I am able to hold a good conversation, learn a good deal of local lore, and gain highly useful insight to great photos and interesting stories.
Being thorough about your research will be helpful as you build your shoot. I find the more I know about an area, the more I am able to give it justice in photographs and the overall story I am creating. Of course, everyone’s methods are very different, some much more spontaneous. However, knowing about an area before you visit can only help your creative outcome.
Have Your Camera Ready
The best way to miss a great photo is to have your camera in the bag. I mentioned earlier the importance of packing light; if your bag is too heavy filled with gear, you likely won’t want to take it off to dig out your camera. If getting to your camera is too difficult you will rationalize a reason not to take a photo, or worse, stage the image after the moment is already gone.
When I’m packing my bag I generally carry two Canon bodies. One camera is ready to go with my 16-35mm fit with a circular polarizer. This is my go-to camera. I have this camera on my shoulder or in hand. Having this setup ready keeps me primed for the in-between moments. These moments are integral to telling the candid aspect of the story, moments that happen between scheduled or planned shots.
It is often said portrait photographers aren’t as interested in the actual poses as they are in the movement between each pose. Having a camera ready operates on this principle, such that the candid moments can’t be created or manufactured.
The most important thing you can do as an outdoor photographer is represent your subject, not only by taking beautiful and majestic images but by taking care of the beauty you are documenting. One of the most notable American photographers, who we all know and love described the outdoors as “a mystique: a valid, intangible, non-materialistic experience.” Ansel Adams was a true environmental crusader. From a young age of 13 with his Brownie box camera he learned about his subject wandering through Californian mountains developing his passion of photography. David Bower, Director of the Sierra Club (a noted environmental organization), once said of Adams: “It is hard to tell which has shaped the other more — Ansel Adams or the Sierra Club. What does matter is that the mutuality was important.”
Many more contemporary photographers have likewise used their artistic notability and publication platforms to raise awareness for organizations, like the Sierra Club, trying to do good for the environment. If you are in a position to be photographing a natural aspect of the world, you have a duty to protect it. I write and photograph for a number of travel blogs. I often find myself at a crossroad of moral ambiguity on whether or not to depict certain details in the fear that that will be exploited. It is seemingly human nature to destroy something beautiful, hence the responsibility equally falls on us, the appreciators of the beauty, to protect and defend the natural world.
It really begins with cleaning up after yourself, your models, and your crew. Use your personal platforms to educate where you can and pass along the message in your work. Research the needs that are local to you and donate time and proceeds to foundations that protect your favorite areas. After all, the cliché saying goes “Take nothing except photos, and leave nothing except footprints.”
In all, these are just a few suggestions that I consider on every shoot. Everyone has their own tricks and tips for photographing in a challenging environment. Please share any tips you’ve found to make capturing the natural world a little easier.