So you’re into adventure photography? These outdoor photo tips will help you create better adventure photos in no time.
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1. Your Photos Should Tell a Story
First, your photography should tell the adventure story. Look at outdoor adventure magazines. You’ll notice the stories appear as photo essays.
Before I set out, I research and create a list of ideas that will tell the complete story in photos.
This includes locations I want to photograph and ideas for photographing people. I also write down the specific photographic techniques I want to apply.
Here’s an example of a pre-planned idea. I captured this photo during a magazine assignment on a wilderness backcountry camp. I needed to photograph a guest relaxing and enjoying the camp.
The idea I had was them sitting on their cot as close to the side of the tent as they could.
I used a wireless flash to create this silhouette, and the illusion that a lantern was inside.
On another assignment rafting Alaska’s Copper River. I found it interesting how the guides secured a watermelon to the raft using a carabiner.
A 24mm lens and close-in perspective emphasised the subject. And the background told the story of what we were doing.
2. What Equipment Do You Need
This depends on the adventure you are planning. But it’s fair to say you should take everything you can if it’s appropriate to the adventure.
For example, backpacking requires carrying a lot of weight already. Too much camera gear can become an extra burden.
On adventures where weight (or lack of space) is a big issue, consider one camera with a lens such as a 28mm – 300mm. This will provide most of the focal lengths you might need from wide-angle to telephoto.
A carbon fibre tripod is a good choice and much lighter and easier to carry.
Photographing adventures like rafting means being around water. Protecting your gear is important.
I use a waterproof case like a Pelican for my DSLR cameras, lenses, and accessories. And when photographing rafting I use a waterproof camera like a GoPro.
In fact, the GoPro is excellent for mountain biking and other subjects. The participant can have the camera on them showing their point-of-view.
3. Decide If You’re a Participant or an Observer
If your adventure includes photographing action sports, are ready to join in?
If you are photographing rock climbing will you be climbing on the wall? Or will you be capturing climbers from a different vantage point?
Both approaches can provide excellent adventure photography. Being on the climb can often add greater impact to the photograph due proximity to the action.
I was up on the wall when this woman was bouldering and the close-in perspective provides a sense of where she is.
To further this point here’s two approaches to rafting. I took the left from the riverbank using a 300mm lens. I was photographing as an observer.
The right image, captured during a winter rafting trip, showcases an angle where I am in the bow of the raft. You can see a river wave from the rapids crashing over the top of me right as I clicked the shutter.
Both images resulted in great adventure photos: one as an observer and the other as a participant.
4. Isolate and Illustrate to Emphasise the Subject or the Scene
These techniques emphasise either the subject or the scene.
The ‘Isolate’ subject is the sole subject in the frame creating a story about what they are doing.
There is little else in the frame that could distract the viewer.
This kayaker demonstrates the Isolate technique. I used a 200mm telephoto lens to fill the composition.
The tight framing emphasises the subject and minimises the background.
The Illustrate concept includes the subject as one aspect of a bigger scene. Like this kayaker in the Grand Canyon.
There is a powerful visual story here of a big boiling rapid and the small kayaker. It provides a sense of scale of how big the river rapids are, compared to the human.
5. Play With Perspective and Scale to Highlight Your Subject
Perspective relates to the point-of-view you choose to frame your subject. Many photographers shoot at eye level.
Changing height conveys a completely different perspective of your subject.
Some adventure photography subjects look great when photographed from up high. But others will appear more interesting from a perspective near ground level.
Wide angle lenses are great for subjects where you want to show a lot of the scene. Or if you want to get close to the subject like this snowshoer.
I was low to the ground looking up and it created a perspective making her appear large and dominant.
An up-high perspective was perfect for this camp along Alaska’s Copper River.
I could have taken this from ground level with tents in the foreground. But this up-high perspective stretches the scene.
It shows the size of the beach, the width of the river, and the distant peaks.
Telephoto lenses create the appearance of bringing the subject close to the camera. Or they can compress a scene like this photo from Sequoia NP.
We all understand the size of people. By zooming in, the trees are visually squeezed together. And the woman in the lower frame providing a sense of scale.
I’m always looking for new perspectives. I created a ‘crow’s nest’ perspective while photographing from the raft.
I strapped my tripod to the back of the boat using a ratchet strap. Then, I mounted my waterproof camera to it. I sat down and triggered the camera as we bashed through Hermit Rapids.
This perspective shows much more than the view seen while sitting in the boat.
6. Front Lighting, Side Lighting or Backlighting?
Like all photography, great lighting is essential to creating superb adventure photography.
The angle, the colour, and the quality of light are the main things to look out for.
I used front lighting, photographed early in the morning for this photo. It was perfect for this kayaker preparing to launch on the river.
It’s warm in tone and has a shallow depth of field, forcing the viewer to look at her.
I used side lighting, coming right after sunrise here. It makes these adventurers stand out by creating highlights and shadows.
These help define the shape and textures of the scene.
Backlighting is so beautiful on the right subjects. Here, the late light is coming from the rear left.
It has a warm color tone as it highlights this adventure camp on Alaska’s Copper River.
When it comes to quality of light, many subjects look better in flat, overcast light or shade.
This light quality often has no direction. And it produces a soft, low contrast light quality, like these hikers resting near a waterfall.
7. Change Shutter Speeds for More Creative Photos
One way to create captivating adventure photos is to play with your shutter speed.
Longer speeds result in blurring subjects when photographing a moving subject. And fast shutter speeds freeze things that are moving.
The image on the left uses 1/60th while the image right is 1 second.
The blurred waterfall is often the preferred technique. This is because of the mood it creates.
This image was captured on another outdoor photography adventure. One of my trip companions decided to cool off under a waterfall.
I asked him to hold real still for a few exposures while putting my camera on the tripod and setting it to 1 second @ f/16.
A fast shutter speed was the only choice for this death-defying plunge over a waterfall. I chose f/4 @ 1/1000 to freeze this kayaker and ensure he was as sharp as could be.
Using fast shutter speeds is a way to grab a brief moment in time.
If your camera has a burst mode, you can capture many more moments as the kayaker plunges downward.
8. Use a Flash to Fill in Shadows
Flash is a very powerful tool for outdoor adventure photographers. When shooting in the midday sun, the light is less flattering and creates a need for more light.
When outdoor light is your main light, you may need to supplement the natural light. That’s where you can use a flash to fill in shadows and lightening them.
This rafting image was captured in the middle of the day where the suns angle was high. The boatman’s visor cast a shadow over his face.
I added a flash and set it to -1 flash exposure compensation to brighten that shadow.
I captured this camp scene on a canoe trip. Adding a wireless flash to the tent to illuminate it improved the photo. The flash mimicked an interior lantern.
9. Skip the Selfies and Take Group Photos
We all know what selfies are these days, and they are just as important for outdoor photography.
When it comes to adventure storytelling, ‘groupies’ are better at giving a sense of the atmosphere.
This is a perfectly fine group photo. But pushing your limits with ideas can create images that may tell a better story.
Not your traditional ‘groupie’.
These guys taking a mud bath along the river bank, is a strong storytelling image about the variety of things to do on this adventure.
I took this group photo at the edge of a cave and created a silhouette. I asked them to all line-up and touch their fingertips.
The result was a powerful storytelling image about companionship, camaraderie, and peace.
To expose for silhouettes, base your exposure settings on the background only.
10. Adventure Photography Is Not Always Extreme
Adventures can be family camping, international trekking, or a simple day hike.
Capturing great adventure photography does not have to mean a multi-day adventure. Or turning into an extreme skier or rock climber.
You can go on a day hike with friends, set up a tent in a local forest, or ask kayakers at the river if you can photograph them.
The same outdoor photo tips apply no matter the adventure.
On a day hike with friends, I saw her filling her water bottle. I asked her to hold still while I captured this scene using an exposure of 1 sec @ f/16.
And I also attached my polarizer to slow down my shutter speed to 1 second for blurring the water.
I was on assignment photographing a backcountry wilderness lodge in winter. Two guests said they were going for a night ski.
Then the idea clicked about photographing them with headlamps turned on.
For this image to work during a long exposure at dusk, they skied until I yelled “STOP”. Then I began pushing the shutter quickly.
By asking them to stop, they were frozen in a position and looking like they were skiing.
My shutter speed was around 1/4 second so if they actually were skiing when I clicked the shutter, they would blur.
Some of your outdoor photo adventures may be solo. If are the only person around, photograph yourself.
That human element in a scene adds so much to the story you want to tell. Consider using a remote trigger to fire the camera once you position yourself in the scene.
This image was a backpacking trip in Oregon’s Cascades. After photographing the sunset, I stepped up on the rock and used a remote shutter to take more photos.
Adventure photography is a natural extension for people who photograph wild areas.
The goal is to share the experience through photography. And make your viewers wish they had been there.
Following these adventure photo tips next time you’re out there. We guarantee your outdoor adventure photography will improve.