Beginner’s Guide to Outdoor Adventure Photography


What is Outdoor Adventure Photography?

Adventure photography is one of the most popular fields in the photo industry today. It’s a pretty simple concept: the art of photographing outdoor adventures. Adventure photography includes a wide range of subjects from hiking and climbing to kayaking and mountain biking with a mix of landscape images as well. The most successful adventure photography not only documents, but tells the story of an expedition or activity.

Man Hiking up the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu

Preparation

It is important to remember that an adventure photographer can’t just sit on the sidelines and document other people on adventures, the photographer is part of the adventure, so they have to be prepared. The photo shoot has to be well thought out and planned for. Not only must the appropriate camera equipment be considered for the job, but also the gear you will need for the expedition as well.

Wear the Proper Clothes

Do some research and figure out what the weather is going to be like while you’re shooting and dress appropriately. There’s nothing worse than missing shots because you’re tending to wet feet or are too cold to press the shutter. On my expedition to Maui, I made the mistake of only packing clothes for warm weather and when I found myself on top of Haleakalā Volcano at 4 a.m. to photograph the sunrise, I was not prepared for the cool temperatures. I ended up having to borrow warm clothes.

Julie Whelan, photographer, standing on top of Haleakalā Volcano in Maui with a camera and tripod.

Pack Lightly

Going light on the amount of camera gear you pack is essential because often you’ll be packing more than just camera equipment. You may also need to pack extra clothes, carabineers, first aid supplies, a helmet, a tent, ropes, etc. Also depending on where you are going and what you’re doing, you may have to carry all this equipment on your back.

Plan Ahead

Before you even embark on your trip you should study the environment in which you’ll be shooting and consider what activities you will be doing while shooting. This is paramount because you’ll need a strategy to pull off an outdoor adventure shoot with ever changing weather conditions while keeping yourself and your equipment safe.

Protect Your Gear

You don’t need the fanciest camera gear to take amazing photos of your excursions, but you do need to protect the gear you have. Adventure photographer Krystle Wright uses an AquaTech weather shield but if you’re like me and don’t want to shell out the money for protective gear, pack your camera body and lenses in sealed plastic bags and cover them with grocery bags while shooting. This will protect them from sand, rain, and snow.

Camera on tripod and flashes covered with shopping bags to protect them from the snow and rain.

Choose a Location

If you’re looking to add images to your portfolio and are having trouble choosing a location, try using a place in which you’ve already been. Often if an environment boasts epic adventure in the summer, it’s likely to not disappoint in the winter either. Going back to the same location in different seasons can put a whole new spin on things and give you the opportunity to shoot different activities and sports.

The View of Canmore Reservoir Alberta

Photography

Tell a Story

Look at the adventure you are on as a whole and photograph its entirety to produce a photo essay or story, along with the intense action moments. There are so many moments to capture on an expedition. For example, preparing and eating food in the outdoors, doing inventory and packing the proper gear, or the mode of transportation to get you to your destination. Photographing the entire journey lets the viewer feel like they were on the adventure with you.

The View from a Tent Camping on the Inca Trail

Camping on the Inca Trail © Julie Whelan 2014

Photograph Your Passion

When first starting out, it is helpful to photograph a sport or environment you are passionate about. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become a really proficient adventure photographer, so you might as well spend all day on expeditions you love. Your passion will be obvious in your images.

Photography Basics

Whether you are picking up a camera for the first time or you’re a seasoned pro looking to get into the adventure field, basic photography principles still apply to adventure photography. Think about how you’ll use the light, how you’ll compose your image, what moment you want to capture, and what feeling you are trying to convey in your images.

A Hiking Trail in Killaloe Ontario in the Winter

Killaloe Snow Tracks © Julie Whelan 2011

Exposure

Choosing the correct exposure really depends on what you are photographing and the look and feel you want to portray. An understanding of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO is a must when photographing adventure.

Aperture is the opening through which light passes into your lens and is represented in f-stops. The wider the aperture, the smaller the number, and the more light you let in. The narrower the aperture, the larger the number, and the less light you let in. When you set your camera to a narrow aperture like f/22, more of the photo will be in focus, resulting in a deeper depth of field. When you set your camera to a wide aperture like f/1.4, less of the photo will be in focus, resulting in a shallow depth of field.

Shutter Speed is the time in which your shutter is open and exposing the sensor to light. A slow shutter speed (3 seconds) will expose the sensor to more light, creating a brighter image. It will also capture motion, making a moving subject appear blurry. This is useful when photographing water or a star trail. A fast shutter speed (1/1600) will let in considerably less light as the shutter is only open for a small fraction of a second. A fast shutter speed also gives the illusion of stopping motion as there is no time to capture motion blur, which is really useful when photographing sports.

Long exposure of a waterfall with rocks with green moss in Rockingham, Ontario.

Rockingham Waterfall © Julie Whelan 2002


ISO
measures the sensitivity to light of your camera’s image sensors. In film days, it meant the film’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive it is to light whereas the higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is to light. When shooting outdoor adventures, your camera will probably stay on a low ISO like 100 or 200. But for overcast days or shooting at night or indoors, you’ll want to bump up your ISO to a higher number so that your camera’s sensor can pick up more light. These days digital cameras have incredible sensors that can handle high ISO, but one thing you’ll have to be careful of is noise, also known as grain. Noise is visual distortion found in the shadows or areas of colour in images with a high ISO, making it look speckled. Depending on what camera you have, you’ll need to be aware at what ISO noise will start appearing and adjust your settings accordingly.

Composition

Use the rule of thirds to compose your images. Most DSLR cameras have a grid overlay you can see through the viewfinder to help you place your subject or the important elements of your image on the four points where the grid intersects.

An example of the Rule of Thirds of an image of a man next to a Waterfall on a Hike in Scotland

Scotland Hiker © Julie Whelan 2012

Try balancing out your image by placing elements on both the left and right third of your image or both the top and bottom third.

Physically fit Woman Holding the Tree Pose in a foggy autumn field.

Autumn Yoga © Julie Whelan 2016

Perspective – Remember, you are not just documenting what’s happening on an adventure. In order to make your images dynamic, move around. When you get low and shoot up at a subject, you make it look large and powerful. When you’re above a subject, you can make it look small. Similar to where you are going to place your subject in the frame, consider how much of the frame your subject will take up and at what angle you’ll be photographing it.

Draw the Eye –  You can control where the viewer’s eye goes when they look at your image by using natural lines and shapes in the environment to pull them in. For example, a road pulling the viewer’s eye toward the mountain. Always be conscious of where you want the viewer to look and use the lines and shapes accordingly.

A dock leading out to the Golf of Thailand in Koh Samui

Koh Samui Dock © Julie Whelan 2008

Lighting

Using Available Light

When shooting outdoors you have a free and powerful light source at your disposal that you don’t have to carry around, the sun. The only downside is that you can’t control it so once again, a little planning is required. You know roughly where the sun is going to be throughout the day so you can plan out your shots accordingly. Think about where you’ll be, where the sun will be, the positioning of your subject, and how you all fit into the landscape. Do you want your subject to be backlit or do you want to see their facial expression? Are you shooting from a lower angle with the sky as the background or will there be shadow?

A Blonde Woman with a tatoo stays active by Trail Running in Medway Forest in London Ontario

Trail Running © Julie Whelan 2016

Lighting the Scene

I like to use the Canon 600EX-RT and the Canon 430EX III-RT flashes for my on location shoots. These flashes are light, powerful, run on AA batteries, and have high-speed sync. I have three 600EX-RT flashes and one 430EX III-RT flash, and all four flashes fit in my bag along with all my camera gear. You can get into using reflectors and strobes out in the field, but for adventure photographers just starting out, I think it’s more important to focus on the story you’re trying to tell and creating images than on complicated lighting gear.

A Man Walking into the Water with a Surfboard in Maui Hawaii

Maui Surf © Julie Whelan 2012

Conclusion

Now that you have an arsenal of tricks and tips to use out in the field, you’ll need to do the most important part of adventure photography: go on an adventure. The beauty of adventure photography is you don’t have to travel halfway across the world to do it. You can find many environments close to home for your photos. Places like parks, trails, conservation areas, and rural areas offer the perfect backdrop for your adventure photos. The key is to get out and shoot. The more you shoot, the more your camera settings will become second nature, the more you can focus on the story you want to tell, and the stronger your portfolio will be.

Keep up with Julie’s Adventures

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About Julie Whelan

Julie Whelan, professional photographer of over fifteen years, has had the opportunity to shoot all over the globe--from capturing portraits in Vanuatu to shooting off rooftops in Maui to photographing products in Calgary. She now finds herself in Ontario photographing outdoor adventures and the active lifestyles of athletic individuals and athletes in competition & training. Julie has also worked with professional athletes such as Don Cherry, Darryl Sittler, and Roberto Alomar. When not behind the lens, Julie likes to unwind with a good book or spending time in the garden.

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