Tips for Improving Your Backcountry Photography

By Eric Hanson

Carrying extra weight on a week-long backpacking trip is not exactly a great idea. But if you love photography, that’s pretty much what you are signing up for any time you go backpacking. Good photography in the backcountry requires extra effort and a slight willingness to suffer. But that means the results are that much more rewarding.

Not a photography expert? Not to worry. Here are some simple tips to take your backcountry photography game up a notch.

Framing landscape shots:

Composition is the foundation of photography. Everything else is a detail. Most people who are just beginning to shoot instinctively place the main subject of their photograph at the center of the frame. But this is often the most boring way to present an image to your viewer. One of the primary lessons in photography is known as the “rule of thirds,” in which the frame is broken into thirds vertically and horizontally. This creates a grid with nine squares and four “hot points.” The hot points, where the imaginary lines intersect, are the ideal locations for subjects or areas of focus within an image. The basic rules of photography suggest that whatever you want to be the focus of attention, such as a hiker, a tent, or an interesting feature in a landscape, should be placed at one of the four intersecting lines in an image.

In most landscape shots, the horizon is the principle dividing line in an image. Proper framing of the horizon can make an image more interesting. In general, it is most aesthetically pleasing to have the 2/3 of the image consist of whatever you think is the more interesting component of the shot. If the landscape is the primary focus, then the horizon should be at the upper 2/3 of the frame. If the sky is the most interesting component of the image, then the horizon line should be at the lower 1/3 of the frame. Of course, there is room to deviate from this, but this is the general rule of thumb for composition with horizon lines.

How to shoot moving water:

Ever see those dreamlike images of waterfalls and wonder how to shoot it? Our eye doesn’t register these scenes in the same way a camera does. But they are reasonably easy images to create. First, you need a tripod, or a way to keep your camera perfectly still for a longer exposure. It is impossible to create this shot if you are shooting handheld. But a stack of rocks or a balled up puffy jacket can work magic in a pinch.

To shoot a really smooth, dreamlike scene, the exposure should be slower than 1/3 of a second, and ideally around 1 to 2 seconds. This can be difficult to shoot if the scene is brightly lit or in full sun. But you can slow down your shutter speed by setting your ISO (the light sensitivity) as low as possible, such as 50 or 100, and adjusting your aperture to a high number, such as f16. Additionally, filters cut down the light passed through a lens. Circular polarizers are effective and also reduce the glare on the water’s surface. Neutral density filters further reduce the amount of light allowed into the lens and are very effective at creating long exposures even in brightly lit scenes.

But maybe the dreamy scene is not what you are going for. In order to create an image with more energy or a sense of action, a fast shutter speed is required. A fast shutter, such as 1/1500 or faster, will freeze every droplet of water in its place.

Capturing stars and the Milky Way:

Getting deep into the backcountry means getting away from light pollution, and opportunities for beautiful stargazing. In order to capture the night sky in all its glory, you need a long exposure (and a tripod) and a cranked up ISO so that your camera is ultra-sensitive to the smallest amount of light. One thing to keep in mind is that the moon will greatly alter how you can shoot on a given night. If there is no moonlight to interfere, whatever is not sky (the horizon, a tree, a rock) will be silhouetted in the photograph. If there is moonlight, your ISO will need to be set lower so that the whole scene is not blown out.

Typical settings with no moonlight: High ISO (2000 or above), small aperture (f2.8 or f4 depending on lens), slow shutter (20 – 30 seconds). The images will be noisy at high ISOs, but the stars will appear brighter, and if you are pointed at the Milky Way, it will really pop! It’s worth noting that at shutter speeds of 30 seconds or longer, the stars will become lines instead of points of light, as that is all it takes to capture the motion of the stars (well, the earth’s rotation to be more exact).

Typical settings with moonlight: Moderate ISO (640 – 1600), small aperture (f2.8 or f4 depending on lens), slow shutter (8 – 12 seconds). When shooting with moonlight, the stars will appear less bright and less interesting. But the advantage is that the moon illuminates the landscape. This allows plenty of opportunity to create fascinating images!

As with any creative outlet, this requires lots of practice, playing, adjusting, and seeing what works based on conditions. These are general recommendations, but certainly not rules. So get out there and go play!

Basic photography tips:

Use a tripod

I believe the single most effective way to make better images is to use a tripod. The main reason to use a tripod is to create the sharpest images full of rich color and detail. Tripods force you to slow down and think about your composition. If you shoot handheld, you often have to crank up the ISO and shoot with the largest aperture (smallest number) unless you are shooting in full sunshine. My old photography professor once taught me that it is impossible to keep an image sharp if you are shooting handheld at slower than 1/500th of a second. While the image may look good on your camera screen, you can really see camera movement at these shutter speeds once you start to enlarge the images. A tripod opens up your shooting settings when the light is soft and ideal for photography.

Of course you can work around not having a tripod by using a stack of rocks or a balled up puffy jacket in order to keep your camera still. This works in a pinch, but it greatly restricts your ability to compose a scene, and therefore, should be avoided.

Use a remote shutter release / timer

The other main tool I use for outdoor photography is a remote shutter release. I use this for choosing shutter speeds outside the in-camera functions (i.e. shutter speeds slower than 30 seconds), time lapse photography, and taking selfies (perhaps I should mention that one first).

This tool allows for greater creative control, and you can create images without having to be behind the camera. This is especially useful for anyone wanting to shoot the night skies or timelapses.

Shoot when everyone else is tucked in their sleeping bags:

It is no secret that the best light is at sunset and sunrise. Usually the most dramatic and beautiful lighting occurs the five minutes before and after the sun breaks the horizon. Shooting at sunset is pretty easy. But it requires dedication to get out of that sleeping bag when it is still dark. I usually have to sleep with some form of alarm device (a watch or a cell phone) inside my sleeping bag in order to actually notice the alarm when I’m all cozy in my bag. Otherwise I’ll just sleep right on through until someone starts brewing coffee, which I guess isn’t that bad either.

Eric HansonEric Hanson is a landscape and adventure photographer, filmmaker, and host of Backpacking TV. He just returned from seven months of trekking South America. Follow him on Instagram, ericrhanson.