I’m definitely more of a hiker than a photographer. Nevertheless, I very much enjoy recording and sharing the scenery I encounter on my walks, and so photography has become an integral part of my hiking experience. This escalated rather when I started my blog.
I definitely wouldn’t classify what I do as landscape photography. Those guys spend a lot of time setting up a shot, choosing the right lighting, and editing the photo afterwards. And they use a lot of gear I don’t have, like lens filters and tripods. The end result is often a work of art, but that’s not even what I want out of a photo. I just want to accurately portray what my eyes saw, and sometimes add a little artistry to a shot.
As I get more obsessed with my photography I am inevitably learning things ]through trial and error. I’ve compiled some of this learning into ten tips for taking decent shots of your hikes.
- Not Too Much Sky
- Landscape or Portrait Orientation
- 16:9 versus 4:3
- Wonky Horizons
- Light and Shadow
- Shooting Wildlife… with a camera!
- Photography Gear
- Editing Your Photos
- Have Some Fun
(If you want to look at some galleries of my photos, you can find them here.)
1) Not Too Much Sky
Framing a scene is a fundamental task in photography. Generally speaking you want to focus attention on what’s of most interest. When shooting landscapes this is usually the land and its features. Hence they will usually take up most space in your frame. If the sky is of interest, then of course give it some photographic real estate.
One thing that really irks me is when people unthinkingly centre the frame of their photo on the horizon, which is neither here nor there. Here’s a shot I took some years ago from the Main Range Track in Australia’s Koscisuszko National Park:
It’s a nice scene, so it got a few likes on Instagram. But I don’t like the framing, and it annoys me slightly every time I look at it. Instead of filling the frame with the attractive cirque basin, I’ve relegated it to the bottom half of the photo, and in doing so left a slab of empty sky in frame. The photo looks unbalanced.
In contrast, here’s a photo from a recent walk high up in the Remarkables Range near Queenstown, New Zealand. There’s enough sky for the photo to ‘breathe’, but I have allocated more space to an attractive foreground of tussock grass. This also adds depth to the photo.
2) Landscape or Portrait Orientation
Not surprisingly, the obvious orientation for a landscape photo is in landscape (ie, wider than it is taller). The shapes and lines in most landscapes are horizontal and wide. Below is an example of this, where the long clouds* and mountain range stretch from side to side. A landscape orientation complements this pattern.
*This shot was taken in New Zealand, also known as Aotearoa, the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’.
However, since I joined Instagram—which allocates more screen space to portrait shots—I have learned to make better use of portrait orientation. And if I didn’t originally take a photo in portrait, I have sometimes cropped it to portrait later, and been very happy with the result.
Below is a good example – one of my most liked photos on Instagram. The original photo, which I took in a hurry to catch the dissipating mist, was in landscape. Later on I cropped it to portrait for Instagram.
The lines of this scene are those of the vertical cliffs and rock striation. This shot is also about height. And the most pleasing sections of mist are in the centre, where it intermingles with the rock. So a portrait orientation accentuates the best qualities of this photo.
3) 16:9 versus 4:3
Photos shaped in a 16:9 ratio (width to height) are wider, thinner photos, and can be good for landscapes. The next shot is an example of this. There was interesting light on the Remarkables Range, viewed here on a walk through the Queenstown suburb of Kelvin Heights. But my original 4:3 photo included a lot of road and sky that I didn’t want:
The 16:9 photo crops a fair portion of that out, and the result is nicer I think. It also accentuates the length of the mountain range.
Here’s an example of the 4:3 ratio being more suitable. It’s a shot I took a couple of weeks ago in Christchurch, New Zealand. First the 4:3 version, and then 16:9.
As I say in my captions, the 16:9 version looks cramped, and there’s no foreground. The 4:3 version gives enough room to five layers of geography, and I think is the better photo shape in this case.
Note that most cameras take photos in a ‘fatter’ 4:3 or 3:2 ratio. If you want to shoot in 16:9 the camera software will trim off the top and bottom, making a smaller (thinner) photo. This is something you could do later in the most basic of photo editing software. Hence my suggestion is that you shoot in the default 4:3 (or sometimes 3:2) ratio, and if you want a thinner looking shot then crop the photo later (it takes a few seconds). Or else take a panorama and actually fit more in. This at least gives you the choice, whereas shooting in 16:9 means that is all you get.
One last suggestion is learn how to use the panorama function on your camera. Wider and thinner than 16:9, panoramas can create some very sweeping vistas indeed, like this one from the Warrumbungles in NSW:
4) Wonky Horizons
Another photography bugbear of mine are wonky horizons. These are particularly obvious if you have a nice straight horizon in your photo, such as the edge of a lake or the ocean. You can fix these up later in any photo editing software, but the more you rotate it, the more of the picture you will lose at the edges. Here’s an example of a wonky horizon:
Next is the same photo with the horizon adjusted to horizontal: an improvement I hope you’ll agree. Notice though how I’ve almost lost the Gymea Lilies off the edge of the photo. It’s better to just get the horizon right in the first place.
If you’re feeling artistic you might nevertheless give your horizon a bit of a jaunty angle, like in the photo below…
5) Light and Shadow
Until very recently I lived in Sydney. We have a lot of bright sunny days, and with bright sunlight come dark shadows. This is particularly so in the Blue Mountains, one of Sydney’s most scenic areas. Despite the name, the Blue Mountains are actually a raised plateau with deeply cut valleys lined by sandstone cliffs. This topography can result in greatly contrasting light, like in the photo below.
The eye has no problem adjusting for this high contrast, but cameras can struggle. ‘Dynamic range’ describes the ability to pick up detail in these extreme lighting conditions. Modern cameras have High Dynamic Range (HDR) functions that do a very good job of this. Have a look at the following two photos:
This was my first time using a mirrorless camera, and the results weren’t very good. The camera is certainly better equipped than my phone camera, but without using HDR the results were inferior to my phone. The shadows are not too bad, but the clouds are overexposed and pretty much a write-off. (I think they call these ‘blown highlights’.) In comparison, my phone has lightened the foreground nicely, and in particular has avoided overexposing the clouds. (In fact, some phones do HDR better than many cameras due to large processors.)
With minimal further editing the scene looks more like how my eyes saw it (…maybe):
Note that shadows and bright light may sometimes enhance a scene. And when the light is already flat, like on an overcast day, you may want to enhance the contrast in light. So applying HDR may not always be the answer. But for me, once I bought my first good phone camera (the original Google Pixel), the quality of my Blue Mountains shots went up measurably, and mostly because of good HDR.
The scale and grandeur of a landscape are difficult to portray in photography, but are often what I most want to get across to my audience. Grand views are what give me that natural high, and I want others to gain some sense of how I felt looking at a magnificent scene. Here are a couple of things we can do to enhance a sense of scale.
Include a small person in frame
Juxtaposing a small person against the enormity of the landscape is a good way to create a sense of scale. They don’t actually have to be small of course. You can make them small by keeping some distance between you and them.
Consider the following photo, taken with my old phone camera on the summit plateau of the Pisa Range, Central Otago, New Zealand. I imagine there is some sense of scale inherent in the landscape, but what puts that beyond doubt is the presence of a small speck of a person in the mid ground – my wife. (I’ll admit that you may not have known the spec was a human without me telling you: probably a bit too much distance in this case).
Here’s another shot from New Zealand, also taken with my old phone. This particular spot is now so popular with Instagrammers that they will queue for a long time to get this shot. I didn’t actually plan this however: the person conveniently standing in just the right spot is some random hiker. I may even have waited for them to move, but perhaps got impatient and took the photo anyway.
And here’s a final image of this kind, taken with a more recent phone.
I also like to demonstrate the scale of plants, like in the following photo of grass trees on Mt Exmouth…
There’s limitations to this method though, as the more distant features of landscapes can seem puny despite their true size. And of course you may not be able to put a person or other figure in just that right spot, especially not when hiking. (And impossible if you are hiking alone.) Often you need to bring things in closer to create a sense of scale, and to do that you need to zoom.
Unless you recently bought a high end phone, your phone camera very likely has only a digital zoom. It achieves magnification by taking a normal photo and digitally enlarging part of it. The result is usually lacklustre: blurry and/or grainy.
Optical zoom magnifies by refocusing light entering the camera lens, and the results are far superior. The newer high end phones can do this, as can almost any dedicated camera (depending on the lens).
Recently I bought a mirrorless camera, a smaller alternative to the traditional and somewhat bulky DSLR cameras. You can change lenses on these cameras, and mine has a wide angle lens capable of some zoom, but also a long telephoto lens for more serious magnification. Here are some photos I’ve taken with this camera setup (read the captions for commentary):
The next few shots incorporate both telephotography and a small human (my wife).
Zooming into a scene creates ‘compression’, pulling elements closer together, often enhancing a sense of scale. This is a bit more obvious in the next two photos, with my wife in the foreground, and big mountains in the background.
Here’s Mt Earnslaw from roughly the same spot, but with just a little magnification. Looks big, but not enormous like in the previous photo.
Clearly some of these shots are not what my eyes saw. But they do portray what I felt about the grandeur of the scenes as I saw them. They are a bit more impressionistic in that way.
7) Shooting Wildlife… with a camera!
To cut a long story short, if you want to take photos of wildlife when hiking you need a telephoto lens. Most of your subjects will be just too far away otherwise. (Some insects might stick around for you to get close enough, and tame animals.)
In roughly eight years shooting with only my phone I took barely a handful of decent wildlife shots. Below is one of the best, but then New Zealand’s kea often make for accommodating subjects:
Having a telephoto lens allows you to get up close and personal with wildlife, and modern cameras will help you to focus the shot too. As discussed earlier, optical, rather than digital, zoom will also preserve the size of the photo. You might still want to enlarge your subject later digitally, but at least you are starting with a good sized original.
If your subject is standing still then you have a good chance of getting a nice clear photo. Here’s a few I took in the past year or so:
Things get tricky, even with the right gear, when your subject is moving. If they are moving across your field of vision then you have to pan the camera with the moving animal. Here are two shots where I managed this (somewhat) successfully:
One thing to note is that with all of the above shots taken with my telephoto lens, the backgrounds are out of focus. This is good to focus attention on the animal, but you may want to see your background, as with the kea on the summit of Ben Lomond. You need to understand aperture settings on your camera to manage this, and I’ll let you look that up if you are interested.
You might also include plants in with wildlife. Taking shots of these is technically simple, but can be artistically challenging. Close ups of flowers are easy enough (so long as you get them in focus), but I find trees difficult to photograph well. Here’s a few I like (with commentary in the captions):
8) Photography Gear
When hiking you don’t want to carry lots of heavy gear, so keep your camera light. One way to do this is buy a phone with a good camera and then that’s all you need. I like having both a wide angle and telephoto lens however, so I bought an affordable mirrorless camera with two decent lenses (Panasonic Lumix GX85). (DSLR cameras are the traditional ‘proper’ cameras but are quite large and heavy, so I chose to go with a so called ‘mirrorless’ camera, which are quite similar but smaller).
One benefit of my camera is stabilisation technology in the body and also in the telephoto lens. This is useful for handheld photography, especially on a windy day, or when you are nervously perched on a narrow ledge! My camera is capable of all sorts of clever things, however despite learning introductory photography, I almost always use just a handful of pre-programmed settings.
I carry my phone in my pocket, but you may like to carry a small bag strapped to your backpack waste band (especially if you don’t have pockets!). I use a Capture Clip to carry my mirrorless camera on my backpack’s left shoulder strap, and I can’t recommend this enough (about $70 USD in 2020). Having a camera bag swinging all over the place, or having your camera in your backpack are both highly inconvenient. You might consider getting water resistant gear, although neither my phone nor camera are, and I get by.
9) Editing Your Photos
Basically, if you want to present the best version of your photos then you should edit most of them at least a little. But if you want them to remain realistic then don’t edit too much.
I use Google Photos to both edit and store my photos for free. I can edit using my phone or on my laptop. It allows pretty basic adjustments to light, colour, sharpness, size, and rotation. I’m sure Apple have similar software. Professional photographers use much more sophisticated packages, but if you are reading this blog post then you aren’t a professional and you don’t need that stuff.
I also use Snapseed on my phone, which is good for making additional adjustments to the content of the photo, such as removing a rogue twig that I don’t want ruining my nice blue sky.
Here are a few quick tips on editing:
- Don’t over-saturate your colours. You might get a few cheap likes on Instagram, but you are not realistically portraying the landscape. (That’s very preachy of me, but I hate ‘clownscapes’. Nature is beautiful enough, and is not enhanced by applying heavy makeup.)
- You can change the shape of your photo, zoom in on your subject, rotate the photo to level your horizon, lighten shadows, or darken over-exposed sections. These are things I’ve mentioned already in this article. In Google Photos there is an ‘Auto’ filter that applies quite realistic enhancements. I probably use this a third of the time I make changes.
- I prefer to take my shots slightly under-exposed to avoid ‘blown highlights’ (very bright sections, usually in the sky). Afterwards I usually lighten shadows and may increase the whiteness if the photo looks a bit dull. Your approach will depend on your camera though, so best experiment.
- I increase blackness or sharpen photos if they look flat.
Here’s a photo from earlier, only further edited in Snapseed. First I removed a pesky tree from the upper right hand corner. Then I expanded the edges using a smart function that fills in the extra space with similar features to what is nearby. I was then able to rotate the picture (fixing the horizon) without leaving the lilies too close to the edge. Finally I lightened the shadows a little more. Voila! The photo as it should have been from the start. It took me about 5 or 10 minutes to do this.
10) Have Some Fun
As a final word, try to have some fun and experiment with your hiking photography. So long as you get a few conventional shots of the views you can then try something a bit different, which could be artistic, fun, quirky, dramatic, cute, or abstract. I for one spend a lot of time running around trying to get my wife in shot to better portray scale, and this keeps me extra fit 🙂
Here’s a handful of my less conventional shots…