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Adventure Photography – Gear, Tips & Tricks

I’ve been asked many times for some tips & tricks regarding photography and digital photography gear and while I’ve written about this topic a few times, the articles were getting a bit dated in this fast-moving world and I’ve decided to simply start from scratch with a new one. The topic of photography and all that modern digital photography entails is a long and convoluted one. I’ve written about astrophotography (night time shooting) and how to photograph and stitch panoramas. I’ve also written an extensive article about taking and printing photographs. These are good topics, but they’re pretty complicated and in order to follow them you must have good gear and sophisticated software at home. This article will try to keep things as basic as possible while giving you an idea of what you should think about as an  adventure photographer.

Digital Photography 101

There is a LOT to learn about digital photography! There’s no way I can put all of my (limited) knowledge into one section of an article but I’ll cover the basics here. For more in-depth reading go here.

It’s Not About the Gear

Before talking gear, there are some general things you need to consider when approaching new camera / video gear. You get what you pay for. That’s a big one. You’re going to be shocked by some of the prices if you haven’t bought camera gear before. For example my Sony 24-105mm f/4.0 G OSS lens cost over $1,700 CAD! That’s just one bloody lens! And that’s not even bad. You can easily spend over $4,000 on a Leica prime lens that doesn’t even have autofocus. With today’s focus on huge numbers (the Sony A7RIV is over 60 megapixels), lenses have to be very precise and within tiny tolerances or your photos won’t match the quality of all those yummy pixels.

Sunset over the Catacombs Meadows. Mount Alberta at center-left. Stitching photos like this one allows me to carry smaller cameras with less megapixels and still get photos that are 100+ megapixels once stitched.

Something that most folks don’t want to hear is that despite the gear being somewhat important, in the end it’s not really about the equipment that’s being used. It is to a point, but mostly it’s about the creative juices flowing through the photographer’s brains ‘n veins. It’s about having the vision and the execution of that vision. It’s about the post-processing techniques and the so-called “tricks of the trade” more than the technical details of precisely what gear was used.

Asking a photographer what gear they used to produce a particular photograph is like asking an artist what brush or chisel they used to produce their work.

Does the equipment really matter in the end? Yes – but only to a point. Masters at any craft will insist on only using the very best tools of their trade – but almost every single one of them didn’t start out that way and neither will you. Almost every master craftsperson can use the cheapest tools of their craft and still outperform most amateurs. The best way to spend thousands of dollars and be disappointed in the results is to not acknowledge that post-processing and visionary talent and experience are what make most photographs “good” or “bad”. Very rarely is it the photography gear that produces something special – it’s the person holding and using that gear that makes the result special. With all that being said, this is a post about gear, so let’s get into that. 😉

Let’s talk Camera Gear

What camera should I buy?

This is probably one of the most asked questions on any photography website. People are constantly asking me what gear I use. It’s disheartening when I tell them that I use a little bit of everything! And I’m not lying. Right now I have and use the following gear for my photography;

  • Sony A7C with an assortment of Sony FE lenses includes the Zeiss Loxia 21 prime lens and Zeiss Batis 25mm lens.
  • iPhone 11 Pro with its built-in 13mm, 26mm and 52mm lenses.

So what gear should you buy? Ask me this question 5 or 10 years ago and it mattered much more. In today’s wonderful technological world of wizardry anything from a $200 point ‘n shoot to your smartphone to a $10,000 camera are all capable of producing stunning shots of your latest adventure. BUT. That doesn’t mean there aren’t better or worse options depending on your specific needs and applications. There are many different combinations that can be whipped up from any manufacturer you choose for any situation you’re looking for. It’s truly mind-boggling. I remember when I first started out in digital photography over 15 years ago, the options were much more limited and they all pretty much sucked. For a great tool on what gear to buy for different budgets check out this excellent buying guide on DPreview.

In general terms I would suggest you start with a budget and an idea of what type of photography you’re interested in. I wouldn’t plan too far into the future either. For example if you think you might eventually some day do astrophotography but aren’t really that keen on it right now, don’t factor that into your buying decision. This exercise will get expensive enough on its own – you don’t need to start overdoing it. Here’s a simple checklist you could use;

Generally a small, light camera works best for travel photography. It’s less noticeable and you can stitch if needed like I did with this iPhone shot in the small Cuban city of Trinidad.

Next you should think about how you’re going to use the photos. For example;

  • Digital only (Facebook, IG, online photo albums)
  • Digital and print
  • Professional (sell via print or on micro stock sites)

Now think budget. This is a tough one but in general I’d say the following categories for camera prices work well (remember, you’ll have to at least double these costs to buy lenses);

You have to buy lenses on top of the spends above and you will also have to buy storage card(s) and extra batteries. Manufacturers charge way too much for these peripherals because they know you need them. I recommend 3rd party replacements – obviously buy and use these at your own risk! I’ve bought and used many batteries off eBay or Amazon with no issues over many different camera brands. Don’t get suckered into buying lenses you won’t use. For example, I often got suckered into buying macro lenses or fast portrait lenses but over the years I realized I pretty much never used them. My sweet spot for lenses is a fast wide angle (i.e. 18-21mm f/2.8) for astrophotography and landscapes, a walk-around landscape zoom (i.e. 24-70mm f/4 or 24-105mm f/4) and a telephoto (i.e. 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6). The reason I buy “slow lenses” is that they’re smaller and lighter than f/2.8 ones. Three lenses is pretty much all I need for 99.9% of my photography.

Adventure Photography Tips

Now that we have the gear discussion out of the way, let’s talk about some tips that I’ve learned over the years. These are all obvious but aren’t all insights obvious on hindsight?

You use the gear that’s with you. Yes, obvious I know! But it’s also very true. If you’re hiking quickly through the forest and you spot a beautiful deer frozen in a shaft of sunlight looking at you, you have 1 second to snap that once-in-a-lifetime shot. Fumbling around with a camera case, digging in your pack for a different lens or realizing you packed your camera away means no shot. I understand 100% that when you spend hundreds, if not thousands of $$$ on your camera gear you want to protect it, but protect it too much and you’ll miss the only shots that are really worth all that expenditure, IMHO. There are camera cases and skins to protect your camera and lenses if you are paranoid. I carry my gear around my neck almost 100% of the time, only putting it in my pack in pouring rain or on really bad bushwhacks. Remember, if you use your smartphone for navigation like I do, you always have a pretty good camera in your pocket for those really fast moving scenes. A smartphone photo is much better than no photo at all! A camera that should not be ignored by the adventure community is the amazing Sony RX100 series cameras. With a 24-200mm zoom lens and packed with tech, this tiny camera is almost perfect for travel and adventure photography and a lot of my friends use it.

Steven climbing the lower couloir below the summit of Mount King George. Shots like this only last for seconds. If your camera isn’t instantly available you won’t get them!

Zoom lenses for the win. I’ve tried hard with the primes. I really have. For street shooting this might make sense but for travel / adventure photography it usually doesn’t. I’ve walked around for a whole summer with nothing more than a 28mm or 35mm single lens camera and while I came away with great photos (remember, it’s mostly about the vision behind the lens? :P), I missed a ton of great shots too. 🙁 I know and appreciate the creativity that comes with using primes, but the flexibility that comes with zooms is simply too great to be ignored. That being said, there are times when a zoom lens is simply too heavy or too large to sit around my neck all day. In these cases a small prime with a telephoto zoom in the pack makes sense. I would avoid ultrazooms like a 24-200 on a full frame camera as they’re way too heavy and bulky. My absolute favorite camera / zoom lens combination over the many years that I’ve been carrying cameras around my neck has been the Olympus Pen-F with the 14-150mm (28-300 equivalent) lens. A close second was the now-discontinued Nikon 1 series system which offered a great system, albeit not great IQ which doomed it to failure after only a few models were released. I’m super excited about the Sony A7C camera which offers a tiny kit zoom lens and a small full-frame body for use with the smaller Sony FE lenses. This camera seems like the perfect upgrade to my beloved Pen-F.

Olympus PEN-F Digital – one of my favorite digital cameras from over the past 15 years.

Stitch to fit. Digital stitching has gotten easier and easier over the years. Nowadays programs like Adobe Lightroom make stitching photos a breeze. You can stitch multiple directions and layers (i.e. two vertical rows of 6 horizontal shots). The only disadvantage of stitching is getting carried away and ending up with hundreds of photos that you don’t use or really huge files. I’d rather take the stitch and not use it than wish I did later. Stitching can also be used to generate a very high resolution photo that doesn’t have to be a wide or tall panorama – many of the modern cameras have a setting to do this for you. Stitching does not work well with moving subjects (i.e. clouds or water) although newer software can even handle these surprisingly well.

Mount Columbia casts an early morning shadow towards the lower Mount King Edward. Stitching on vast landscapes like the Columbia Icefield makes good sense. In this case it was a “tele-stitch” of a zoomed in series of shots.

Less is more. Less gear == more kilometers traveled == more scenery == more happiness. This is how “less is more” when it comes to adventure photography. I know many professionals carry full frame DSLRs with a full set of top-of-the-line lenses but there’s little need for the average person to do this.

Late evening views at almost 11,000 feet on a remote Rockies peak – Cataract Peak. We approached and climbed this remote mountain in one day before descending and bivying near its base. Part of this successful and very long day was carrying one camera (PEN-F) and one lens (14-150mm) Obviously I made generous use of stitching to get this summit shot!

The key takeaway is that no matter what camera you have, limiting the number of lenses and gear you carry is imperative! I know old school photogs still carry huge tripods everywhere they go. Really?! Tripods are not needed often (ever?) anymore. I’ve taken astro shots using an improvised “rock tripod”. Same with timed shots. My camera is stabilized at both the sensor and the lenses and I can take shots in the dark with it even at f/4 with no blur. As for lenses, really pare them down. It’ll save you $$$ and force you to be more creative. On the Sony I mainly use the 21mm prime and the 28-60mm zoom. Only on special occasions will I bring the wide angle lenses or Sony 70-300mm. Less is definitely more when it comes to adventure photography.

Use a CPL. A circular polarizing filter (CPL) is a must in adventure / landscape photography. It’ll cut back the reflected glare from snow, ice, rock and water and deepen the blue in your skies. The only caveat is using them when stitching can produce very uneven skies which can be fixed in post but is a PITA.

Views off the summit of Puzzle Peak looking east (L) and south (R) over the impressive false summit and the lovely Mosquito Creek Valley. I used a CPL to bring out the blue sky, green valley and lessen the harsh summer reflections.

Remove yourself from the scene. In the day and age of selfies and Insta fame, this is going to seem counter-intuitive. I’ve gotten some of the best shots of my life from separating myself from the rest of my group and catching them unaware in their environment.

One of the best ways to photograph adventures is to put people in them to show scale and set the mood. Those people should NOT be you. 🙂

Go low to get interesting. Some of the most engaging and interesting shots are from angles that 95% of people couldn’t be bothered with. Stopping in the middle of a river while crossing it can be worth a unique photograph provided it’s safe to stop. Laying down next to a wildflower could produce a very unique and interesting angle on a landscape that’s been photographed a million times already. Nothing is off limits in adventure photography – get down, get funky, get loose!

Bright flowers and Carnarvon Lake. I used shallow depth-of-field to throw the mountain and lake out of focus. I wasn’t sure it would work but I love this photo.

Be natural. Be original. Find your style and what makes you engage with the landscape and people around you and try to improve it every time you set out on another adventure. This sounds easier than it is! In the world of IG we all seem to be copying each others techniques and styles and this is too bad. Find your own path, find your own style. Who cares what others think? They’re not you and you’re not them. As long as you love your art, others can choose to ignore it if it’s not their cup-of-tea.

It’s not all about the wide angle. Most amateur photogs think “landscape” means a wide angle (16-21mm) lens. This couldn’t be more false. You want impressive landscapes? Use a telephoto lens to capture compressed landscapes which typically look much more dramatic and provide a sense of scale. Wide angle lenses are awesome (they’re my favorite creative lenses) but they have the side effect of flattening out your landscapes and making them less dramatic.

Our giant destination – Mount Columbia – looms ominously in the clouds many kilometers distant beyond the trench. Using a telephoto lens for this shot results in a much more dramatic shot.
Are we even getting closer?! This wider angle shot shows a much “smaller” mountain, rising from a wide glacier plateau. Same spot, much different feel to the photograph.

Shoot RAW if you like PP, otherwise shoot JPEG. I’m tired of everyone on the Internet shouting about “shooting RAW”. Yes, yes – you should definitely shoot your photos in RAW format if you’re planning to use them commercially or whatever, but if you don’t enjoy post processing than I recommend shooting with your favorite JPEG settings and not worrying about it. Remember – it’s not about doing it one way, it’s about doing it your way. There are a lot of advantages to shooting RAW, but there’s a lot of disadvantages too. Just be aware of both and move on. For the summer of 2020 I was shooting with a Fujifilm X-Pro 3 almost entirely because I love the JPEG options on this camera.

Hiking McConnell Meadows. I love the “Color Chrome” JPEG look of the new Fujifilm cameras and used it here. I shot almost exclusively in “RAW+JPG” mode for the summer of 2020 so that I could use the JPEG files.

Adventure Photography Tricks

Save batteries, save weight. This one’s pretty obvious but will save your batteries out in the field. In winter time carry a spare battery in your pants or inner coat pocket. The cold will sap your primary battery quicker than you want and having a spare warm one could make the difference between getting the shot and not. Another trick for saving batteries is to always turn the camera completely off when not using it – don’t rely on the “sleep mode”. My cameras get double or even triple the quoted battery life because I turn the camera on while I’m raising it to my eye and turn it off again right after the last photo.

Use presets in Lightroom and actions in Photoshop. I use Adobe Lightroom for 95% of my post processing edits and Adobe Photoshop for the rest. I generously use presets in Lightroom – I bought several sets including this one from Landscape Legends Presets. I almost always start with the “1-click” presets and tweak to my liking. For Photoshop I have pre-recorded actions for fixing skies and generating borders on my photos which I reuse all the time. These are a combination of my personal settings and stuff I’ve “stolen” off the Internet from others over the years. For astrophotography I use Dave Morrow’s “Under the Stars” Lightroom presets as a starting point. Unfortunately unless you take photos exclusively on your smartphone, you are going to have to learn some basics of photo editing if you want your photos to “pop”. There is no way around this.

Mount Robson with the Milky Way and Berg Lake. I used presets for the base photo and tweaked to taste afterwards.

Note: The topic of post processing (PP) is vast and complicated. I’m not even that good at it and I’ve been using these tools for many years. I will try to put together a quick ‘n easy article on my top 10 Adobe Lightroom / Photoshop tips ‘n tricks in a separate article but in short here’s the minimum that almost every photo needs in post – especially if you shoot RAW;

  1. Adjust Exposure – Mountain landscapes are almost always either too dark or too bright.
  2. Adjust Shadows / Highlights – Almost all photos need tweaking, especially RAW photos, to lift shadows and/or dull highlights.
  3. Adjust Contrast – To avoid “flat” looking photos, contrast should be tweaked to taste.
  4. Adjust “The Curve” – Subtle is best.
  5. Adjust Color – Don’t overdo this step! I slightly tweak greens and blues depending on the scene and not always.
  6. Adjust Hue / Saturation / Luminance – Don’t overdo this step! Too many folks overdo the saturation in their photos IMHO. It’s your art but generally less is more here.
  7. Adjust micro-contrast – this step is important to make photos with lots of detail (i.e. leaves, grass, stones) really pop.
  8. Adjust sharpening – this is a hugely complex topic but sharpening is very important.

I told you post processing was a deep hole to plunge into! The good news is that there are MANY presets now available. Be forewarned that nobody has a preset that’ll do everything with one click, no matter what they might advertise. You will almost always have to tweak the photo afterwards for the best results.

Expose for the highlights. Expose your photos for the bright parts of the scene and lift the shadows in post. Modern digital cameras have lots of exposure room so this is possible. See this article for more details but don’t get too carried away either. Just remember that you don’t want your skies or bright areas blown out too much or you’ll be screwed later when trying to make the photo look good.

Conclusion

Phew! I could keep going on this topic forever but I think this covers the basics. To conclude, there are only a few basic things you need to know in order to take great adventure photos (and video for that matter);

  1. Figure out what you want to take photos of
  2. Build a system that works for your budget and usage
  3. Teach yourself some post-processing in order to really make all your hard work pay off

That’s it. I hope you found this article useful – I will be publishing a few more over the long winter months. 🙂

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