When my daughter turned two and half years old, I took my family on our first backpacking trip to Yosemite carrying an eighty pound pack. Prior to this, I had taken a few backpacking trips when I was in college. However, after starting a career, getting married, buying a fixer up home, and starting a family, any dreams I had about outdoor adventures had long faded away. As I watched my daughter grow up, I wanted her to appreciate the outdoors like I did while growing up in at the foothills of Mt. Diablo, East of San Francisco, rather than just being a couch potato like so many of her peers.
After hauling a bone crushing eighty pound backpack, I began a quest to lighten my load in order that I could travel more comfortably, faster, and further into the backcountry. This quest led me to the backpackinglight.com website where I met Jacob and subsequently was able to cut the base weight of my pack down to about ten and a half pounds – excluding variables like food, water, and fuel. After five and a half years of backpacking, I would describe my style of backpacking as lightweight and long distance, where I can easily hike fifteen to twenty miles in a day with a pack that is seldom over twenty five pounds for a five day trip in the Sierras
My priority has always been getting out on backpacking trips, while taking photos has merely been about documenting and preserving the memories of the people and places I have been with on my adventures. I want my photos to show the spectacular things I witness in nature and the sights that humble me with their raw power and beauty. It also captures the time on the trail with friends and family, learning about each other and ourselves and sharing experiences that inspire new journeys to be taken in the future.
Selecting a Camera for Documentary Style Photography
My criteria for selecting a camera was simple; I wanted one that was small and light enough to fit in my cargo pocket of my hiking pants for quick and easy access while moving on the trail. It had to have a wide angle lens to better capture the scale and scope of the where I would be traveling. I also wanted it to have the ability to take multiple photos that could be “stitched” together on the computer to create panoramic photos. Lastly, I wanted a camera that had good battery life to reduce the number of spare batteries that I would need to carry with me.
I admit that I did not do a lot of research in selecting a camera. My first digital camera was a 3.2 mega pixel Canon Digital Elph, which served me well for six years. When my old camera finally died, I chose another Canon Elph out of brand loyalty and because of the familiarity of layout of the controls to allow me to compose shots quickly. However, I did make a point to make sure that my new camera did have wide angle lens and the ability to create panoramic photos. The 10 mega pixel 6.5 oz. Canon Power Shot SD880IS with 1 oz batteries was the camera that I settled upon.
Know Your Camera Well
When selecting a pocket camera, it is important to be aware of their inherent limitations including: limited zoom capability, poor low light performance, very limited manual control of camera settings, and restrictive ability to use the flash in order to extend battery life.
Compensating for these limitations is not difficult but simply requires me to be aware of them when I compose a shot. For example, the Canon SD880IS only has a 4x zoom lens and I prefer not to use the digital zoom feature. Often, I find that I will have to physically move closer or further away from my subject to compose and capture the shot. Sometimes this requires that I hike off the trial a little bit to allow me to capture the shot that I want.
Taking shots in low light without flash (to avoid the unnatural flash appearance) requires me have a very steady hand and control my breathing to avoid blurring my shots. I have also learned that it is a good idea to take two or three shots of the same subject to increase my odds of having a photo that is free of blurs and distortions due to the slow shutter speed.
One of the trickier issues to deal with is adjusting the exposure with limited manual controls found on a point and shoot camera. This can be accomplished by partially exposing the frame at lighter or darker areas outside of the scenery, then lightly depressing the button on the camera to lock in the exposure and finally recomposing, framing and taking the shot. By making sure that the camera is adjusting the exposure for the area of the scene that’s most important to me, such as the sky or a foreground with shadows, the detail captured in those areas will be much better. (look up “auto exposure lock” or “ae lock” in your camera user guide for specifics about how to do this on the camera that you own)
Recognizing Photographic Opportunities
While hiking out in the backcountry it is very easy to get lost in the raw beauty of the mountains, lakes, meadows and valleys that we come across along the trail every day. Unlike nature or landscape photography, the documentary style of photography seeks to tell a story not with just a singular photo but within the context of many photos that tell a greater story. These moments are often sudden, unexpected, and seemingly mundane. Photographic opportunities to document a moment might only come once or within a few seconds. Being able to recognize when that moment has arrived, being able to pull out your camera quickly and to compose the shot is critical. Being able to capture these candid and unexpected moments requires two critical things. Always having your camera within reach for quick and easy access and constantly being cognitive of what might make a good shot to help tell the story of the journey you are on.
Beyond the mechanics of how I access and use my camera while hiking, the more important issue is what sort of details do I look for when taking photos to document a trip? Ultimately, I believe that is about people and their interactions with the environment each other. Each adventure on the trail has it challenges to overcome and documenting them can span a wide range of emotions that are reflected upon the faces of the people I travel with.
In order to capture the shots that I am looking for to help tell the story of our adventures, I make a point of walking behind everyone else. Perhaps it is because I am slower than them or more out of shape, but I have found that my photos are much more interesting when people are a part of the scenery that I am photographing. In particular, I seem to enjoy taking photos of a gently curving trail that cuts across a vast landscape with a person walking in the frame. Perhaps it is the fact that the curve of the trail provides me a slight side profile shot of the person vs. just a shot of the back of their pack which I find more interesting. They can often be the smallest subject in the lower right hand corner of my shots, but it provides a scale and suggests that the person in the photo is exploring or discovering a new landscape.
There is also beauty to be found in the mundane. These are the images which transforms a series of landscape photos into a documentary. They are candid moments which are fleeting and the hardest to obtain. They are the moments on the trail such as taking a compass bearing and referencing it against a topo map, a quick series of shots capturing a river crossing on a fallen log, a shot of someone cold and miserable from being soaked by the rain, or stumbling upon the trail while suffering heat exhaustion. After dark the warm glow of a campfire reflected off the faces of people or a longer distance shot of a lone group huddled around a fire with darkness all around can convey a sense of intimacy or isolation. In each case, the expression upon their face captures the mood of the moment.
I especially like to capture the shots of when we first get into camp and are attending to routine chores. People setting up their shelters for the night, walking down to the creek to get some water of dinner, setting up stoves to cook their meal, a pot boiling and steaming away over a flame, the contented look of someone savoring the only hot meal of the day, and ending it all with a shot of someone getting tucked into their shelter and sleeping bag for the night. Simple details help tell the whole story.
Despite my emphasis on trying to photograph my friends who I am sharing my adventures with, I will make a point of taking shots of the surrounding landscape, fauna, and flora to give a sense of the beauty of the places we are in and to show why we chose to go backpacking so far into the backcountry. Often these will show an empty trail that stretches before us that leads into a spectacular meadow or valley. Sometimes it will be with a mountain or lake in the distance to signify where we are headed to or simply as a backdrop to what we can see from the trail. In each case, the photo with the trail in it is showing where we are going, each new bend around the corner another adventure. Additionally, I will get down on my hands and knees to capture the finer details of things along the trail, such as the delicate details of a vibrant spring flower in bloom, an alien looking insect or reptile crossing the trail, or the interesting contrast of textures of ice upon rock found unexpectedly at high mountain pass.
Tips on Technique
Now that I have talked about the types of shots that I like to capture, the question is how to go about getting them. Here are a few simple techniques that may help you bring home more “keeper shots”.
I make a point of taking two or three photos of each moment I am trying to capture. Each photo is composed slightly different to offer a different perspective and to ensure that a “keeper” shot is taken. Pick the best one when you get home and review them all.
Kill the Blur
Small cameras tend to suffer from slow shutter speeds when the available light is less than ideal. Learning to get stable quickly to limit blurred photos is an important technique. Sometimes this requires me to take a moment to hold my breath or catch my breath in order to help steady my hand. Do not be afraid to get down onto your hands and knees for a stable shot. I have been known to lay down on stretches of granite to get better shots of a raging river churning away at the boulders trapped in them. Other times, I will squat down to rest my elbows on my knees or to bend one knee down on the ground to give myself a steady platform to shoot from. Shutter speeds of less than 1/60th second will tend to produce blurry photos when taken in a casual shooting position. Taking the time to get into a steady position always pays off.
Get a New Perspective
Go where ever you need to go to best capture your shot. Do not be constrained to just follow the trail you are hiking on to capture all of your shots. Often, when hiking behind everyone, I will simply walk a few feet off the trail to position myself so that I can get a side profile shot of my friends walking along the trial vs. taking a shot of just the singular person in front of me. Sometimes I will run ahead of the group I am traveling with and then turn around to capture a shot of them entering a scenic area. I especially find this effective on steep climbs and also by squatting down low to the ground to emphasis how steep the ascent is. Stand on a fallen tree or climb a rock that close by to give yourself a different way to view your subject. Use the landscape to your advantage and create shots with new and interesting perspectives.
When taking photos of people, look for a candid moment when the person is not aware you are photographing them doing the most mundane things such as cooking or writing in their journal. Frame shots to not only capture the person and the scenery, but the gear that they are using to provide a larger context to where they are and what they are doing. One thing that I am still trying to make a point of doing is to use the zoom on my camera to create more intimate shots that focus the viewer’s attention onto my subject.
The Aftermath – Processing, Organizing, and Presentation
At the end of a trip, when I have had time to come home to my family, have a hot shower, and time to sleep in a soft bed, what am I left with? A few hundred and sometimes over a thousand photos which are the collective fragments of my memories on the trail. They are the means by which I share my adventures with others and strive to show the scale and breadth of what amazing sights I have seen that compel me to keep going back out there.
To aid in telling the story of my adventures, I rely on photo editing software to compensate for the limitations inherent to pocket cameras. In my case, I am using the Basic Features within Photoshop Elements (an inexpensive and simple program, yet powerful) to automatically adjust color, contrast, brightness, and sharpness to quickly clean up all of my photos. I use these features to correct for under or over exposure or to simply salvage what is a poor photograph of an important moment in the journey. Sometimes I will manually adjust the color and contrast to bring out the colors in the photo that matches my memory of that moment. Often these adjustments take only a few clicks and are done in a matter of seconds but dramatically increase the appearance of my photos.
I find that zooming in and cropping shots allows me to recompose the shot on the computer, which was hastily taken on the trail. It allows me to eliminate elements in in the photo that distract from what I would like the viewer to focus on and to create a sense of intimacy that was lacking in the original photo. Also, simply being able to correct a tilted image can eliminate unnecessary distraction to a photo. Again, cropping and zooming are very easily applied using Photoshop Elements and have a major impact on the emphasis of the photo.
In a sense, the editing process is a critical part of creating the documentary in that it allows you to shape and focus the attention of the viewer upon the moments that you found important. The simple choice of what photos to keep or discard can determine the emotional tone of the story you wish to present. Do you want the photos to reflect a happy and jovial atmosphere? Do you want to have somber moments that capture a sense of starkness and isolation? Do you want to present a trip that was seemingly effortless by eliminating the moments of hardship? In my case, my preference is to try to capture all of the range of emotions and to try my best to honestly show all of them. I strive to never shy away from showing moments of others or myself when we are not at our best. Perhaps, in that way, we seem all the more human.
To tell the story of your trip give a narrative context of understanding of what the viewer/reader is looking at, whether as a photo caption or a small paragraph. Do not be afraid to open up yourself to honestly share your thoughts and feelings of what was happening at that moment captured in the photo. The narrative of these few words shared in these captions is your opportunity to give voice to your photos and to transform what could be a simply and dry list of dates, times, and locations into a captivating insight of what compels you to make these journeys. Your photo essay is the culmination of everything you have experienced along your trip. It is your chance to inspire others to perhaps follow in your footsteps and to take the same journey you have been on, which is the greatest compliment or flattery to your efforts.
Edited by Jacob D
The rest of this series can be found here.