Friday, November 5, 2010

Guest Feature: Bret Edge's Five Steps to Better Adventure Photography

By: Bret Edge

My interest in landscape photography evolved as a natural extension of my love for the outdoors.  I hike and backpack to gain access to high alpine lakes surrounded by jagged mountain peaks and deep desert canyons carved by raging rivers.  Why not use the time in between sunrise and sunset to expand your photographic horizons by shooting adventure images?

Hiker Gazing at Mountains

The words “adventure photography” conjure up images of daring climbers clinging precariously to granite cliffs and river rafters navigating huge rapids.  But such high adrenaline pursuits aren’t the only outdoor sports that make for dynamic adventure photos.  Day hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and even car camping can offer opportunities for interesting photography all day long.  With a little practice and a little knowledge you’ll soon be making photos on par with those in Backpacker, Outside and the now deceased Adventure magazine (RIP).  Here are some tips to get you started:

Spouses Make Great Models
Spouses work for free, they’re usually with us while out exploring, they don’t complain a whole lot and they won’t give you flak about signing a model release.  Just remember: even if you’re married to a professional model your better half will need a little direction during the shoot.  Be patient with them and explain exactly what you need them to do for you, i.e. turn left 1/4 turn and gaze lovingly at that big mountain.  Okay, maybe just gaze at that big mountain.

Storm Cloud Forces Hiker Retreat

Adventure Couture
Since we’re on the topic of models, let’s talk about what they should wear.  A photo of a hiker wearing jeans and a cotton flannel shirt isn’t going to make it into Backpacker magazine no matter how dramatic the scenery.  Your model should wear clothing and gear appropriate for the activity and environment.  Additionally, your model should know how to properly use any gear in the photo.  I once received an image request from an outdoor magazine for a “hiker fording a waist deep creek using trekking poles and wearing a pack with the hipbelt and sternum strap unfastened.”  Why?  Because it’s the proper technique when fording a creek.
Here’s the part your model spouse will really like - they’ll probably get some new outdoor clothing out of the gig.  Choose colors that will contrast with the environment.  For example, a hiker in the mountains wearing a bright red top will stand out dramatically from a background of green trees.  That same red top won’t contrast as strongly against the red rock of Canyon Country.  Maybe a green or blue top would work better.  Think camoflauge, in reverse.

Get Low.  Get High.
Just as in landscape photography, you can use unusual camera angles to create dynamic images.  Lay down on your belly or climb up above your subject.  Shoot from in front, behind and to the side of your subject.  One angle may work better than another.  The more you experiment the more creative your images are likely to be.

Get Low and Go Wide

Go Wide.  Go Long.
Altering your perspective isn’t the only path to creative adventure photography.  Get down low with a wide angle lens and shoot close to your subject’s feet.  Use a telephoto lens to compress the distance between a hiker perched on a rock outcrop and the snow capped mountain behind them.  There is no “right” technique.  Each situation calls for a different approach.  As you experiment in the field you will discover what works and what doesn’t.  Chances are you’re shooting digitally.  Carry lots of memory and don’t forget that it doesn’t cost you a penny to push the shutter button.

Go Long for Compression

It isn’t always easy to convey motion in a still image.  Using a slow-ish shutter speed and panning the camera with your moving subject works great for trail running, kayaking and mountain biking.  Your subject remains reasonably sharp while the background blurs into streaks that imply fast movement.  Or, set your camera to motor drive and fire off several images in a row and you might just capture your subject in transition with both feet (or both tires!) off the ground.  A human hovering in mid-air is pretty much a dead giveaway that they’re not standing still.

Mid-Air Motion

Show The Whole Story
The adventure begins long before you step foot on the trail.  Photos of friends setting up a tent, chilling around a campfire and performing seemingly mundane tasks like cramming gear into every available inch of the SUV are all part of the story.  Find a fun way to depict the action.  If your spouse or friends are willing to look a little silly, use a wide angle lens and photograph a tight composition of their puffy cheeks filled with air while blowing up an air mattress.

Tell the Whole Story

Location is a big part of your story.  Show it off in your photos.  Include a prominent, well known peak in the background with your subject hiking in the foreground or show a hiker standing in awe on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  Found a killer campsite near an alpine lake?  Scout out a composition that shows your tent surrounded by wildflowers next to that jewel colored lake and your friends who bailed on the trip will cry tears of regret.
While this primer is by no means everything you need to know about adventure photography it does give you a few things to consider on your next adventure.  Don’t waste mid-day.  Get out there and burn through some memory!

Show Off the Landscape

About the Author/Photographer

"Bret Edge is a nature and adventure photographer in Moab, Utah. His interest in photography evolved as an extension of his life long passion for the outdoors. He is an avid hiker, backpacker, mountain biker and canyoneer. A visit in 1999 to an exhibit featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, Jack Dykinga and David Muench stoked Bret's creative fire such that he immediately purchased his first SLR camera, a Canon Rebel. In the years since, he has traveled extensively throughout the American West creating a diverse portfolio of dynamic images. 

Bret's work has appeared in magazines, calendars, travel guides and advertising campaigns. His clients include Backpacker magazine, Popular Photography, the Utah Office of Tourism, Charles Schwab & Co. and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. 

While Bret enjoys seeing his work in print, he receives the most satisfaction by helping others realize their potential as photographers. He accomplishes this by leading several group workshops each year and guiding photographers on private photo excursions. For information about his workshops and guided excursions, visit To view a collection of Bret's images, visit

Bret lives in Moab with his wife, Melissa, their son Jackson, and two All-Terrain Pugs named Bierstadt and Petunia."

Check out more great articles from Bret Edge at his blog here.


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