So you like photography and go on some pretty cool adventures too? Then adventure photography might be for you. We'll teach you everything you need to know to get started.
What Is Adventure Photography? The name is pretty straightforward. Adventure photography is simply the act of photographing adventures, typically in the outdoors. It's a niche defined by stunning landscapes, dynamic personalities, and challenging, ever-changing shooting conditions.
There are a plethora of subjects to photograph within the niche - anything from trekking and climbing to whitewater kayaking to downhill mountain biking; and everything in between.
My personal style stems from a journalistic, documentary-style approach with lifestyle photography influences. I prefer to go on epic adventures; capture them as they unfold before me. Or behind. Or above. And I'm not afraid to go out of my way (or comfort zone) to get an especially epic shot whenever an opportunity presents itself.
All geared up; ready for adventure! This is the stuff that I'm carrying on my journey around the world.
What You'll Need: Chances are if you're already shooting, you're already using a lot of these tools. If you're not, we'll help you figure out what you need to get started.
Camera: This one seems obvious, but there are tons of different options out there. I personally shoot with a full-frame digital SLR (specifically, a Canon 5D Mk II.) The 5D's full-frame sensor has incredible image quality, great low-light performance, and takes full advantage of wide-angle lenses. However, it is bulky, heavy, and expensive. It's probably the best option for my needs, but it might not be for yours. The camera descriptions below will help you figure out which one is.
One advantage to shooting with a pro-level dSLR is the incredible processing speeds. This was a 45-minute-long exposure. The image processed in mere seconds; my camera was ready for more - plus my larger battery still had juice.
- Digital SLR: These cameras are tried and true. They're used by professional and amateur photographers around the world. The distinguishing feature of a dSLR is its interchangeable lenses. The two most popular brands are Canon and Nikon — but there are a handful of other manufactures on the market as well. dSLR's are a mature platform with hundreds of lenses available and tons of aftermarket accessories. They are incredibly versatile and are loaded with advanced features. However, they are also heavy, bulky, and expensive. Prices can range anywhere from $500 for a brand-new, entry level Canon Rebel T5 to nearly $7,000 for the top-of-the-line Canon 1Dx!
Daniel Bruce Lee took this photo of me while adventuring in Iceland. The torrential downpour of sideways rain forced me to keep my 5D packed up, but he was able to keep shooting due to the robust weatherproofing of his Olympus OM-D E-M1 mirrorless camera.
- Mirrorless: Mirrorless cameras are a relatively new platform, but they're quickly gaining in popularity for many reasons. They offer dSLR-like performance, in a package that's much lighter and more compact. This is achieved by ditching the mirror (as the name suggests). Instead, the images are recorded directly onto the digital sensor. Because these cameras are being built on a relatively new platform, they're often loaded with new technology, such as WiFi uploads and remote control via mobile phone. Mirrorless cameras can range in price from a few hundred dollars (Panasonic Lumix GF3) to several thousand dollars for the compact, full-frame Sony Alpha a7S. While they offer a lot of advantages in size and weight to a dSLR their biggest disadvantage comes at the expense of the platform's newness: there are far fewer lenses and accessories available when compared to their more established cousins. A unique feature of the Sony full frame mirrorless system (A7/ A7R/ A7S) is the ability to use almost ANY lens ever created with the addition of an adapter. An adapter takes the place of the mirror and allows you to use Canon, Leica, Minolta, Nikon, just about any lens you can imagine. Corey shoots with a Sony A7 for its compact size and incredible image quality.
If adventuring directly in the water, action cameras are a great choice for shooting due to their waterproofing. This shot was taken with an older GoPro Hero 2.
- Action: This category is popularized by GoPro. Action cameras are incredibly durable, versatile, and relatively inexpensive (when compared to a high-end dSLR), but they lack the image quality, adjustability, and ease-of-use offered by dSLRs or mirrorless cameras. I regularly use them in conjunction with my 5D for both photos and videos. They can be mounted anywhere, are completely waterproof, offer a ton of shooting and recording modes, and they can really take a beating. The new Hero 4 Black ($500) offers more power than ever before, but it comes at a price. The newest top-end model is $100 more expensive than the top-end models of previous generations.
Mobile photography allows you to quickly capture, edit, and share an image, all on one device.
- Mobile: Chances are, you already have a smartphone. And it probably takes pretty good pictures. It's lightweight, easy to carry - and to use. Your smartphone can be protected by a waterproof case - or if you have a phone like the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active - you don't even need one. Because you're shooting photos on your phone, it's incredibly simple to edit them and instantly post to social media. However, the image quality and versatility of your phone when it comes to photography is nowhere near the level of a dedicated camera, no matter how good your phone is.
A telephoto lens allows you to hone in on your subjects from afar and show intense displays of emotion.
Lenses: If using a dSLR or mirrorless camera, you'll have the opportunity to choose which lenses you'd like to use with your camera. There are two main categories for lenses: zooms and primes. Zoom lenses allow you to change the focal length with a simple twist of the wrist. Prime lenses (commonly referred to as "walking zooms" because you have to physically reposition yourself adjust the composition's z-axis) have a fixed focal length. Generally speaking, zoom lenses are more versatile, while prime lenses can produce sharper images.
Wide angle lenses allow for unique perspectives that maximize the view of not just your subject, but the background as well.
The second lens-choice consideration is focal length. Wide lenses have the ability to emphasize a subject in the foreground while simultaneously cramming a ton of background in the frame. Telephoto lenses allow you to really hone in on a tight area to create drama or show emotion from your subject, but they don't allow for the inclusion of much background. Some lenses, like the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L allow you to have both effects, in one convenient package.
Lenses with a fast maximum aperture will aid in shooting during fringe hours of darkness, when the sun is not out.
The final main consideration for choosing a lens is the maximum aperture. A larger maximum aperture (designated by a smaller number, for example, f/2.8 > f/5.6) creates a larger opening in the lens, allowing more light to pass through and reach the camera's sensor during an exposure. This is an incredibly important factor when shooting outdoors, because we're often shooting on the fringes of darkness — whether it's the pre-dawn start on summit day, or chasing the last rays of light to get the perfect campfire shot.
I prefer the process of shooting on primes, but my weapon of choice for most adventure photography is the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM due to its versatility. The 16-35mm is an ultrawide to normal zoom lens with a fast maximum aperture. On the wide end, it allows me to capture vast, dramatic backgrounds. At 35mm, however, it makes a great lens for portraiture as well. The fast maximum aperture allows me to maintain my shutter speed and exposure when the light starts to drop.
Memory Cards and Batteries: I always carry extra memory cards and batteries when shooting adventure photography. On hiking/climbing trips, I usually average one battery (about 1,000 photos) per day. If shooting long-exposure night time-lapses, I plan on having one full battery for every shot I want to make. Memory cards are lightweight, so I carry as many as possible (usually 4-5 32GB cards.)
I was able to take this self-portrait by carrying a Joby Gorillapod with me to the summit of Mt. Hitchcock.
Tripod: A tripod is really useful for setting up long-exposure shots (star trails, the milky way, or the northern lights) and for doing self-portraits. I've been using the Manfrotto BeFree Compact Lightweight Tripod ($200). It's sturdy, packs down well, and is relatively lightweight given its robustness (I've been backpacking around Iceland with it). A lighter, less expensive option that works great for adventure travel is the Joby GorillaPod ($45) — though the GorillaPod is definitely harder to work with.
Intervalometer: A cheap remote, like this $30 generic intervalometer is incredibly useful for shooting timelapses or for triggering the shutter on long-exposures.
A circular polarizing filter allowed me to really capture the richness of the blue sky on a perfectly clear day.
Filters: Due to the nature of adventure photography, I always use a UV filter to protect my lenses from scratches. This is especially important if climbing or doing any other potentially hazardous activity. A circular polarizing filter is useful when shooting outdoors because it will darken the sky and suppress reflective glare from lakes and other bodies of water. A variable neutral density filter is useful for shooting video (it'll allow you to use a wider aperture in daylight when recording at slower shutter speeds) or long exposures during the day (think milky waterfalls).
The Goal Zero Sherpa 100 is my go-to solution for recharging big devices in the wilderness.
Portable Power: If planning extended, unsupported trips in the field, carrying a portable power source can be incredibly useful for recharging camera batteries, phones, computers, and any other electronic gear that you need. We recommend Goal Zero's solar-powered products, as the sun is an infinitely-renewable power source; their stuff makes great use of it. The Guide 10 Plus is a compact, lightweight kit that works great for recharging small devices like phones, action cameras, and GPS's. For recharging more power-hungry equipment like dSLR batteries and computers on the field, we recommend the Sherpa 100 Kit.
The Surface Pro 3 is a powerful tool for editing photos in the field. Photo of me by Daniel Bruce Lee.
Computer: Just because you shot a ton of photos throughout your trip doesn't mean that the adventure stops there. You're gonna want to edit them. This is where a computer comes in. If you need to do memory card dumps on-location, something portable is recommended. I've been carrying the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 while shooting adventures around the world for the last two months; it's continually proven itself in the field. It's powerful, portable, and has a pressure sensitive stylus that works great with Photoshop. Your MacBook will work fine too, though.
Software: Adobe Photoshop + Lightroom will provide the most powerful and integrated software solutions for photo organization, editing, and retouching of anything out there. And with the Creative Cloud Photography subscription, you can get them for only $10 a month.
Storage, Physical: A 20 megapixel raw image from my 5D weighs in at about 25mb on average. I can fit about 1,200 photos on a 32GB compact flash card. Depending on what I'm shooting - I can easily fill up a 32GB card in a day. Moral of the story: your computer's internal hard drives will fill up fast; you're going to want to back things up. G-Drives provide fast and reliable data storage for on-location file dumps; the G-Drive Mobile is great for on-the-go. However, when I anticipate shit hitting the fan, I turn to LaCie Rugged Mini hard drives. They're rain resistant, you can drop 'em from four feet, or even run over them with a car — and they'll still keep going.
Storage, Cloud: Whenever I export my RAW images to JPG for publication, I always back them up to the cloud. Dropbox works great across multiple devices, but recently I've been using Microsoft's OneDrive more and more. Free storage is incredibly easy to come by, you can upload files up to 10GB in size, and it's available on multiple platforms. An added benefit of backing up to the cloud is that it makes it super easy to share edited images on a variety of social media platforms, no matter where you are; no matter which device you're using.
Dry Bags: If you're planning any H2O-centric adventures, or even have the chance of getting caught out in the rain, get a lightweight dry bag. These aren't designed for full-submersion, but if you fall in during a river crossing, it'll protect your camera from a watery death. I always carry one when venturing out into the wilderness.
The important thing to remember here is that "it's not the camera, it's the photographer who takes a good picture." It doesn't really matter what gear you have, so long as you're going outside, adventuring, and taking photos.
@danielbrucelee hikes across a glacial river wash at Skaftafell, Iceland.
How to Get Started: This is perhaps the simplest part of shooting adventure photography:
Go on adventures.
Really. You're not going to capture epic moments in front of stunning waterfalls while stars trail overhead from your living room. Jim Richardson, a renowned NatGeo photographer once said, "If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of better stuff." He's completely right; it's a lesson I've taken to heart. My entire adventure portfolio consists of images that only exist because I got up, went outside, did something, and photographed it.
Love the ocean and human-powered adventures? Try sea kayaking!
What adventures should you go on? Easy. Go on adventures that interest you. Love the ocean, or lakes and camping? Try kayaking to (or around) an island and camp on the beach. Tell that story, start-to-finish through images. Into climbing? Try setting up near a route and photograph people as they climb it. Be open to all types of adventures and experiences, you never know when you might fall in love with something new; if you do - it can be exciting to document that transformation within yourself.
I dragged my buddy Alan out on his first backpacking trip. We covered 55 miles of Catalina Island in two and a half days. He wanted to die then, but now he's hooked. Adventure buddy for life!
Who to photograph? A ton of the images in my portfolio are actually of my friends that I've dragged along for the ride. In a lot of cases, I curated and photographed their first-ever adventures. Most of them got hooked and want to go on more. Start there. As you venture out into the world (and the social space,) you'll meet like-minded people who can become not just subjects, but adventure buddies and friends.
You'd never believe that I took this shot just an our from Los Angeles. I captured it while hiking up Mt. Baldy the day after a snow storm.
Where to go? I'm a big believer in exploring local. It doesn't matter where you're from, there are state parks or national forest that are open for everyone to use. Within them, you can often find great hiking spots, campsites, off-highway vehicle areas, rivers and lakes, mountain bike tracks; you name it. National parks also offer tons of opportunities to capture human interaction with nature's most epic features. Yosemite for example — with it's towering waterfalls, expansive valleys, and massive rock faces — is an adventure photographer's heaven.
Here, I was leading a downclimb, kicking steps for my team, and photographing them at the same time.
What to do? As adventure photographers, we're often actively participating in the experience ourselves. If trekking, that can mean running ahead to capture someone as they walk over a pass. Whitewater kayaking? Chances are you'll be travelling downriver ahead of the athletes to set up your shots in advance. For those reasons, we're often working harder than the athletes themselves. In many activities such as mountaineering, the situation's context is often amplified by dangerous conditions, so it's important to maintain awareness and be at the top of your game. You may be shooting photos one second, and arresting your rope team's fall the next.
When processing my photos, I like to bump up the contrast a bit, while keeping details in the shadows and highlights.
Post Production: Shooting a photo is only part of the process. Post-production (often referred to as editing) plays a big part of bringing images to life. Cameras are incapable of reproducing the dynamic range that our eyes perceive, so we edit to make up for that difference.
This is where software like Photoshop and Lightroom come into play. I import, categorize/organize, and edit my RAW photos in Lightroom. If more advanced retouching is needed, I'll open the image up in Photoshop through Lightroom. Once I'm done retouching and save the image, it's updated in the Lightroom catalog and is ready for export to JPG (or whatever other file format I need). Seamless.
Another benefit of post processing is that you can use it to create a distinct look and feel for your images. Pay attention to what other photographers are doing and then do something different in order to stand out from the crowd.
Getting down low can sometimes allow you to capture a really unique perspective. Don't be afraid to experiment!
Publication: Social media can play a powerful role in getting your work out into the world. There are a lof of adventure photographers (such as Chris Burkard) who have distinguished themselves on platforms like Instagram and are able to sustain a lifestyle based around adventuring and photography. Find a brand voice for yourself and keep it consistent through the types of images that you share.
My brother and I left the Yosemite Valley at 4am on December 31st and hiked 19 miles round trip in a day to grab this shot (me, pictured.) To this day, it's one of my favorite moments and we could not have gotten it if we didn't force our asses up and venture out into the cold, dark wilderness.
Pro Tips: Below are some tips I've figured out from shooting adventure photography. They have been helpful to me; hopefully they'll do the same for you.
- Always shoot in RAW. This will allow for tons of latitude in post-production and ensure maximum image quality.
- Never switch your camera off. Instead select "auto off" from your camera's menu. This will ensure that your camera is ready to shoot as soon as you press down on the shutter button instead of having to switch it on. This will save precious seconds, which could be the difference between getting a shot or not.
- Keep your lens cap off. This is for the same reason as leaving your camera on — so it's always ready for action.
- Experiment with carrying your camera. I alternate between carrying my 5D around my neck, and with the strap wrapped around my wrist. Companies like Peak Design offer innovative carrying solutions, from clip-on neck straps to backpack brackets; each one is designed to improve on traditional carry designs.
- Experiment shooting from different vantage points. Photographing a subject from higher or lower could have a dramatic effect on the composition and overall affect of the image.
Adventure can be captured everywhere, if you're willing to go find it. Sometimes, that will lead you to places you've never been.
Time to go shoot! Remember - adventure photography should be fun. Having cool profile pictures is a byproduct of that; that alone is enough to convince friends to go adventure with you - a win in itself.
If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask in the comments below. No question is dumb.
Show us pictures of your adventures!
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.