Planning a Backcountry Photography Hike

Foggy mountain summit

Nearing the foggy top of Cascade Mountain in the Adirondacks

Hiking in the backcountry offers an incredibly rewarding experience and opportunities for photos you likely can’t take at home. However, an expedition can quickly turn into a not-so-pleasant day if you run into a thunderstorm or find yourself going off the trail. Be sure to make adequate preparation before heading off on a hike, whether you’re lugging photography gear along or not.

Check Weather Forecasts & Radar

Unless you’re intentionally planning to play the part of a professional storm chaser, you probably don’t want to get caught in a deluge or blizzard several miles out on a hike, especially when carrying expensive camera equipment. Pay attention to weather forecasts, and realize that in mountain areas weather can change very rapidly. While sometimes you can’t fully avoid the possibility of a rainstorm, if heavy rain or snow is predicted all day long, you likely should plan to postpone your hike.

Closer to the time when you’re planning your hike, you can check a radar map to see if any storms show up near the area you plan to go. Also, be aware when the sun sets, so you don’t get caught in the dark if you’re not prepared to spend the night.

Check Trail Conditions

In the Adirondack region, spring tends to be a time when snow melt creates flooding and trails get exceptionally muddy, and so a lot of trails and parking areas remain closed. Other times of year, trails may be closed due to storm damage or repair for eroded areas. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation provides information on current trail conditions. If you live in a different area, search online for information about your region.

In addition, try to be aware of the terrain of a trail. If there are stream crossings, you may want to wear waterproof boots and be sure to have hiking poles handy to get across easily. If a trail is exceptionally rocky, you’ll want better foot support than for a smooth, sandy trail.

Pack the Right Gear

I’ve learned over the years to invest in decent quality clothing and other gear for comfort, health, and safety reasons while hiking. Decent foot support, as mentioned under trail conditions, is a must. Realize that regular sneakers or running shoes probably won’t cut it for a trail that involves walking over rocks and through mud. Invest in a good pair of hiking shoes or boots (I’m a fan of Columbia shoes). Also, avoid wearing cotton, which will absorb and get soaked with sweat, and instead wear a material like polyester, which “wicks” moisture out.

If you’re lugging photography equipment along, use a camera bag or backpack large enough to hold your camera, lenses, and other accessories. Leave room to carry food, water, multitools, matches, flashlights, a first aid kit, and other gear that you might need when out in the woods far from civilization. I find a hydration pack helpful to carry enough water for longer hikes.

Know Where You’re Going

Research the area you’re planning to hike before heading out on a trail. Carry a topographical map that has all the trails in the area and major landmarks marked. You can find maps online or order a National Geographic map for your region.

A GPS will prove helpful if you have one as well, but be sure to bring extra batteries, and don’t rely strictly on the GPS! Bring a compass and know how to use it along with the map. Know where you’re starting on the trail, where you plan to end, and what direction you’d need to go to get to a road or other mark of civilization if you did happen to get lost.

Don’t Hike Alone!

To be honest, I will confess to have broken this rule occasionally, but it’s never a good idea to hike by yourself when heading out into remote areas. No matter how experienced in the outdoors you may be, you never know when you might injure yourself while out of cell phone range. You should hike with at least one other person, but ideally when venturing further into backwoods regions, you should be with a group of at least four people.

If you’re planning on venturing off to a backcountry area with your photography gear sometime soon, hopefully you’ll find this information helpful. Enjoy your time in the woods, but be smart!

Black & White Photography Conversion

While color photography can masterfully showcase the full spectrum of light in a scene, black and white photos still hold their own grandeur when the proper image is chosen. Most digital cameras contain a black and white mode for shooting, but with the abundance of post processing tools available, converting to black and white after the fact is extremely accessible and allows for greater control over the tonal qualities and contrast in a picture. I generally use Lightroom for this process, but free tools like Picasa do a decent job as well for the average photographer.

First of all, you want to select an image with high contrast. The picture I have chosen shows a few blades of glass against the blue sky on a bright day.

The next step is to convert the image to grayscale. Decreasing saturation offers the simplest way to remove color, but you should also pay attention to a number of other adjustments in order to improve its appearance in black and white.

Lightroom contains a specific editing area for black and white conversion that allows adjustments of several color areas within the image to modify how strongly places that were certain colors come through in grayscale. In addition, several black and white preset filters allow for quick conversion with varying levels of contrast. You should also play with levels for Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks as the black and white version may require different adjustments of these than color to properly stand out.

Here is the same image after applying a Lightroom black and white filter preset and adjusting a few other areas.

Like anything else, the best way to learn is to get out and shoot a few picture you think would look great in black and white and play with them in an image editing program yourself! Feel free to share links to your work with black and white or other great examples you have seen in the comments.

Using Lightroom’s Graduated Filter for Landscape Photography

A problem faced when taking landscape shots is the vast range of light to dark, especially on a bright day. The sky may be incredibly bright, while land, water, and trees may look quite dark in comparison, making choice of the proper exposure difficult. One tool many photographers use to bypass this problem is a graduated filter.

A graduated filter is essentially a piece of plastic that is completely transparent in the bottom, transitioning to dark at the top to filter out some light (see some examples in this post). This can then be attached to a camera for use in the field. You can set it up so the light portion covers the land in the photo, while the dark portion covers the bright sky.

With the advent of readily available post-processing technology, however, this effect can easily be duplicated on a computer. You don’t even have to be a Photoshop pro; Lightroom offers a graduated filter with the ability to adjust exposure, color, and other factors while defining a precise area to cover in a photo. I find this built-in tool incredibly helpful when editing my images after a shoot in the outdoors.

Here is an example of a photo before and after having the graduated filter effect applied in Lightroom. This was taken on top of Buck Mountain in the Adirondacks of New York State, looking toward the Tongue Mountain range in the northern portion of Lake George. In the distance, you can even see the High Peaks covered with snow from a frigid Memorial Day storm.

This first photo is how it appeared straight out of the camera (well, technically RAW converted to a smaller size JPG, but no edits)

This second image is after some editing: sharpening, noise reduction, and color correction, before the graduated filter was applied

This final image is after the graduated filter effect was applied. You can see how the sky looks darker and the hazy area looking toward the distant mountains is a bit more visible.

What tips do you have for using a graduated filter in photography? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Fourth of July Fireworks Photography

What better way to celebrate our nation’s independence than by watching a local fireworks show at dusk? Of course, I brought along my camera and tripod to record the display.

Shooting fireworks is not difficult if you have the right equipment but does require extra attentiveness to detail in setting up your camera. Check out the images, and then scroll down to read a few tips I learned by gleaning from other photographers around the web and also experimenting myself:

Tips for Photographing Fireworks

  • Use a tripod! Stabilizing your camera for any kind of nighttime shot is essential, especially when shooting extended exposures like you’ll need to record fireworks in a visually pleasing manner.
  • Turn off auto noise reduction within your camera. This will speed up time between shots so you don’t miss the next incredible burst of fireworks. See your camera’s manual or search online to see how to do this for your specific model.
  • Remove lens filters, which will cause unwanted light blurs in images.
  • Shoot at a low ISO (200 or less) to avoid noise in photos, and avoid automated nighttime settings that may default to a higher ISO. A low ISO will also help you be able to use long exposures with the brightness of fireworks.
  • Experiment with various shutter speeds – use at least a second to be able to capture the streaks of light as fireworks explode, but test longer exposures of 10 seconds or more to get multiple bursts in your image.
  • If available on your camera, set it to bulb mode, which allows you to hold down the shutter as long as you like and release it when you want. That way you can time your shots with precision and let up as soon as another firework is launched in a position that may obscure a great burst shot you just captured.
  • Use an aperture of f/8 or narrower to keep light to allow for longer exposures without light washing out shots.
  • Turn off autofocus (useless in the dark) and focus at infinity. After a few shots, check and adjust focus if necessary, especially if you’re trying to zoom in closer.
  • Take lots of pictures! As timing is unpredictable, you’ll probably end up with washed-out highlights and little streaks of light in several shots before you get a nice looking shot.


Before & After Edit: Round Lake at Sunset

I’ve spent many evenings sorting through previously taken photos to choose the best ones for my website. In the process, I discover many opportunities to improve mediocre pictures with a bit of editing. I decided to showcase one example here.

While driving by Round Lake in upstate New York one evening in early fall 2011, I noticed a small access point, pulled off the road, and grabbed my camera. The time was perfect for a low light shot as the sun set, filling the sky with mellow color. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a tripod with me but still managed to get a few decent shots. While browsing through later, this one especially struck me with the ripple reflection of the tree and the low perspective in the foreground leading out to the lake.

Here is the original shot. While the ripple effect is nice, the photo is underexposed with low contrast and does not “pop” out as exceptional.

A little experimentation in Photoshop made this photo much more appealing. Levels adjustment increased the contrast for a wider range of light to dark in the scene. Addition of a lens blur made the photo appear as if it were taken with a tighter aperture, drawing the eye to the ripples as they fade into the background. See the final edit below: