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Trail photography 101

I love nature and hiking, but for me, it doesn’t feel right if I don’t bring my camera along to document it. Photographing mountains, lakes, and forests in all of their conditions and during every hour of the day is what makes me tick. Here are some tips and pointers if you feel the same way but are only just beginning your trail photography journey in the mountains.

Photo by Mats Verschueren

Which gear to bring for shooting landscapes?

Honestly, this may sound cliché (but it is the truth), but the best camera is the one you have on you. When you want to document the moment, anything is good to shoot with. That being said, it’s a lot more fun to have a full-frame or mirrorless camera compared to a 200 smartphone.

The second thing you need to bring is a good pair of walking legs. You won’t be able to shoot up in the mountains if you’re not prepared to take on the physical challenge. You will carry more weight on top of the average base weight of a hiker who won’t take pictures, so prepare for an extra 3-4 kilograms in your pack.

As far as my setup goes, I like to use a Nikon D780 paired with two lenses, a telephoto lens 70mm-200mm and a good 24mm-70mm. These will give you all the range you need to shoot beautiful landscape compositions. If you want to focus more on the landscape that is right in front of you, you’ll need a wide-angle lens as well. So I recommend taking these three lenses with you:

  • Standard 24-70mm
  • Any telephoto lens will do
  • A wide-angle lens
Photo by Mats Verschueren

Do you need a tripod?

Yes and No. Personally for me, it’s a NO.

Ask yourself, what kind of photography will I be shooting? Do you want night photography and long-exposure shots of waterfalls and floating water? Or do you want to take in the overall feel of the hike? If the second is your answer, leave the tripod at home. Do you want to shoot at night? Bring it.

If you decide to bring one, make sure you’re not attempting a big trail lasting over two weeks, because a decent tripod will weigh close to 2 kilograms. Of course, you can buy a mini one, but you might as well use a rock if you don’t want to buy those things.

SD Cards

Bring enough batteries and SD cards! I can’t say this enough. Cold weather drains your batteries! Buy the best kind that is durable for cold nights and buy plenty. I usually take 3-4 batteries for a 7-day hike. When hiking from hut to hut in Europe, I bring a portable charger pack as well. You’ll never run out this way. 

This also goes for SD cards. Buy the large ones that hold over 2k images and bring as many as you think is needed. For a 7-day trip, I’ll usually bring three. They don’t fill up, but we all take photography differently and you might click the button a bit more or less than me. But bring more than one, at least.

Photo by Mats Verschueren

How do I take the best shot?

In landscape, it’s all about natural lighting. This means you’ll need the sun and weather conditions to help out a lot. If you want a moody cloudy shot, you’ll have to wait for the clouds and mist to come in.

You’ve probably heard of blue and golden hour. These are the hours at sunrise and sunset with low light that give your pictures an amazing glow. My preferred time is sunrise because the orange glows hits the peaks and creates magical shadow contrasts. If you want a more analog feel to your photos, you can basically shoot all day with highlights. Midday is usually the most lackluster kind of light. Your photos will be very bland and without much shading or contrast. But of course, this is a personal preference as well! I’d suggest practicing all of the above. You’ll have fun 24 hours a day this way.

My best tip is to explore the options you have on your camera. Shoot with manual settings and learn how to work your ISO, diaphragm, and shutter speeds. Playing with the tools like this will give you more room to create your own style. 

Technical tips

For landscapes, I recommend you keep your ISO pretty low. I usually shoot with an ISO range between 100-400. At night, this will be bumped up to over 3200. But try out different things! Don’t shoot auto. It won’t teach you anything and your photos will be worse off in the end. And go out and shoot a lot! It took me four years to even become confident enough to start freelancing. Don’t think you’ll be a pro overnight. As with all good things, it takes up time and practice! It will be worth it!


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