6 Tips for Taking Better Expedition Photos

For adventurers, travel does not mean following typical tourist routes; it means summiting remote mountains, exploring unmapped caves, and studying little known ecosystems. On these once-in-a-lifetime journeys, we want to come away with the best pictures possible, but we are also faced with some of the most challenging conditions for photography. After serving as a photographer on a number of scientific expeditions–most recently, a month exploring the rain forests of Borneo–I’ve come up with some strategies for making good images in spite of the challenges. Whether you are participating in field research, exploring a backcountry trail, or taking your family camping, these tips can help you create better images of your experiences in the field.

1. Remember to photograph the everyday moments

When you get back from an exciting adventure, people will ask about what you ate, where you slept, and who you travelled with. It is easy to forget to photograph people chilling out around camp, or warming themselves in front of the fire, but images like these are a critical part of the story. Include people in your images and put your camera on self-timer so that you will also show up in a few shots. These pictures will be personal treasures when you look back on your escapades.

2. Plan your shot list

Many photojournalists keep a shot list for projects they are working on—for instance, before heading out to Borneo, I wrote down a list of images that I knew I wanted to make. The list included literal storytelling images—like hikers in the forest and scientists collecting specimens—in addition to more creative images like the night sky over our hammocks. My notes helped me stay focused and also jogged my memory in the field.

3. Bring the right accessories

For me, accessories can make all the difference on expeditions. I always bring silica gel packets and zippered storage bags to keep moisture out of my gear. On the Borneo expedition, my essential accessory was actually a camera backpack. For years, I struggled with camera bags that hurt my shoulders or made it difficult to access gear. I recently started using the MindShift Rotation180 Professional backpack and love it. In addition to fitting like a great internal frame pack, the bag has a rotating hip belt that allows me to quickly access my camera while hiking. This was critical on the expedition when muddy conditions made it difficult for me to put my bag down.

4. Don’t be afraid to shoot at a high ISO

I started photography when people were still using film, and I was frequently advised to keep my ISO as low as possible (lower ISOs result in images that are less grainy). When I switched to digital, I kept trying to use low ISOs and often came back with images that were unsharp. Now I frequently shoot at ISO 3200 and higher in the field – my images may be a little grainy, but I rarely miss the shot.

5. Frame the shot, wait for the moment

Good photographers don’t just capture moments as they come; they anticipate moments and have their cameras at the ready. When photographing people hiking, I often run ahead to find a good bend in the trail, compose the image, and wait for the group to enter the frame. By framing my images ahead of time, I can check the exposure and have greater control over the elements I include in each image.

6. Go the extra mile

Expedition photography can be challenging because you are often participating in an activity (skiing, hiking, climbing) and taking photos at the same time. If your subject is rock climbing, chances are that you are also on the cliff face. In these situations, it is easy to talk yourself out of going the extra mile for an image. You might be out of your comfort zone or you might just be exhausted. In my experience, the key to good expedition photography is always making sure to go after that special image—get up before dawn, stay awake to photograph the stars and climb the last peak to get the view. It’s not as easy as shooting out of your car window, but imagine the stories you will tell.

To follow more of Gabby’s adventures, check out http://www.facebook.com/gabbysalazarphotography

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