Hiking and Photography
Part 1: Professional Landscape Photographers Never Hike
Here's the truth. Most professional landscape photographers are not hikers. Most great scenic photographs are shot very close to the road. Landscape photographers rarely or never hike to take pictures. Most of them don't even like walking.
There are of course some very notable exceptions like John Fielder, who hikes so much I sometimes wonder when he has time to shoot. And there are several other major photographers who hike, but they are in the vast minority.
Why is this? It's simple. Going on long hikes to get scenic pictures is really very inefficient. If you are spending all your time slogging through miles of deep woods or barren deserts you aren't going to get many good pictures. Also, most professional landscape gear is very heavy and bulky. A typical pro landscape photographer's pack can weigh as much as fifty pounds including his heavy tripod.
You don't get the great shots on forever hikes to nowhere. And even if you finally get to the great spot the weather and light will almost certainly be all wrong. The great light and atmospheric weather happened way back there when you were in the middle of a dense forest, deep in a valley with no even mediocre scenery in sight.
So, how do landscape photographers get their pictures? All of us pros know where the great scenic locations are in all the great scenic areas. These are spots where there is a wonderful scenic backdrop and all kinds of good foreground and middle-ground. They all face in the exact right direction for good dawn and sunset shots. There are no interfering roads or power lines or houses. And these spots are usually familiar to large numbers of potential customers who are looking for the exact shot where they stood on their honeymoon or whatever. And best of all, these locations are only a few steps from the car.
All the National Parks have their ready-made great scenic spots. In the Tetons it is Schwabackers Landing at Dawn and The Oxbow at Sunset, in Glacier it is the sunset view of Goose Island in St. Mary's Lake, in Zion it is the bridge over the Virgin River with the Guardsman in the background at sunset, in Rocky Mountain it is dawn at Sprague Lake with Hallet Peak in the background. In Aspen, CO it is the Maroon Bells reflected in Maroon Lake at Dawn; this is probably the most famous great shot in the world. There are probably 200 of these great shots all over the US. Professional landscape photographers show up at the exact, carefully calculated, right moment and wait for the perfect light and weather. If they luck into it, great, they get the shot. If not, they come back to the exact same spot over and over until they do get it .
By doing this, professional landscape guys maximise the chances of being in the right spot at the right time by eliminating as many variables as they can. Basically, they eliminate all the variables except weather and then wait until they get the right weather for the great shot. Great dawns and sunsets depend on the right clouds in the right place at the right time. Or maybe what is needed is a light fog, or maybe a just enough snow to create the right effect. If you do it right, weather becomes the only variable and your chances for a great shot become quite high.
And there is nothing wrong with this. This is really the only way to get the many great shots that every professional photographer has to have to put food into the mouths of his hungry family. I have shot a lot of my best pictures this way. I have been right in there with the rest of the pros elbowing my way into the forest of tripods at dawn at Schwabacker's Landing in the Tetons many, many times. And it does seem that the crowd of pros trying to capture the great shots at all of the great locations grows every year.
But finally the time comes when you gave gotten most of the great shots in some pretty decent light and it is getting a little old fighting for a tripod spot in the mob of photographs at dawn. Then you begin to wonder if this is why you really became a professional photographer in the first place. Maybe a little solitude on the long trail deep into the heart of the wilderness might not be so bad after all, even if you don't get lots of classic shots of the classic views.
Actually, I've been in the process of leaving the hordes at the great locations for many years now. For the past ten years I've been trekking into the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and the Bighorn Mountains also of Wyoming and the back country of Glacier as well as into the endless deserts of the Southwest. On many of these trips that took place a number of years ago, I took only a simple 35mm film camera with no tripod and never got much in the way of good, professional looking pictures. However, as digital cameras and lenses have gotten better and better, I have figured out ways of traveling into the back-country with much lighter loads. And I have figured out ways of quickly shooting some really quite good pictures as I walk.
While I'm out there all by myself, stumbling along on some back trail and talking to myself as I tend to do, I've come to call this technique, "Walking With a Camera." Walking with a camera can be something as informal as walking around my one-mile-long block in Placitas, NM where I live, or a multi-day trip into the back-country of the Wind Rivers or the Tetons or the Big Horns.
Walking with a camera is neither regular old hiking nor a photo shoot specifically designed to get a lot of very good pictures. It is something in between, a pleasurable combination of the two that may turn out to be one of the most fun and creative things that you ever do.
Until the last several years I have always tended to break hiking and taking pictures into two pieces. If I was going to go out and shoot landscapes I usually went for two to four weeks and did nothing but shoot landscape images from dawn to sunset, eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, mostly at the great scenic locations, very close to the car. Oh I did walk some. But usually I would pick a location packed with good picture possibilities and walk maybe a half mile or a mile. In a place like Grand Canyon or Dead Horse Point in Utah I would quickly move from spot to spot shooting as fast as I could along the canyon rim before dawn faded into ordinary old light. But I never did anything like a real hike on shooting days.
The same was true with hiking. In the old days, when I went out to hike, that's all I did, I really walked and that was it. I did a lot of long backpacks and a lot of long, grueling day-hikes deep into the mountains. And of course, I took very few pictures since the real gear was too heavy to carry and also because no one I was walking with wanted to spend an hour or two waiting for me to set up a tripod and a large format camera for each picture.
So, picture taking was picture taking and walking was walking. I never really went out to do both at the same time.
Nowadays, cameras are so good that they can be shot at high speeds without tripods and they are light enough that a small camera can take pictures good enough to enlarge to very large sizes. So gradually I have been phasing into walking with a camera.
At home in Placitas, NM, most days I walk a mile or two in the New Mexico desert around my house just to keep from turning into a total couch potato, or in my case, a fat-bottomed-slug permanently attached to my computer. (Which unfortunately seems to be happening anyway.)
Often I take a camera with me even though I have no real intentions of capturing stunning new photos for my portfolio. As I wander along I shoot whatever catches my eye: some nice little yellow flowers beside a weathered log that I had never noticed before, some great thunderheads that came up while I was walking or a nice little vignette of cactus and rocks and sticks. I stop for a few seconds here and a minute or so there. Sometimes I dip down to one knee and occasionally I flop down flat on the ground to photograph some Indian Paintbrush in front of the dramatic thunderheads. I never spend more than a minute or two at most on a picture. And I often shoot three or four or five of six pictures of the same scene from different angles very quickly.
More often than not I end up having a lot better time than I had planned. In the first place I always have infinitely more fun with my camera than without it. Taking pictures is lots more fun than slogging around in the cactus and rabbit brush for exercise. And that nice solid ka-chunk my Canon makes when I trip the shutter always makes me feel good, like maybe this might be a great art shot after all. It almost never is, but it makes me feel good anyway.
But other stuff happens too. For one thing I tend to see much more than I ever do without the camera; I'm actively looking for pictures and it's often quite surprising what turns up. Sometimes I find some surprisingly good shots in spite of the fact that I'm not really expecting a great picture. In fact, more often than not I actually come home with several quite good pictures that often end up on my website and eventually on someone's living room wall.
And several times a year I expand my walking with a camera to more ambitious and more productive trips. Just the other day my wife Joan and I decided to turn our regular, very serious, hard working September-October fall picture shooting trip into a more relaxed hiking trip. We plan to take 17 days to to visit some of our favorite locations in Wyoming. Every day of the trip we plan to take some kind of a hike in a favorite scenic location and then move on to a new location the next day. We will each carry a simple camera and only one lens (Joan will shoot the long lens stuff and I'll shoot the medium lens stuff) and we'll shoot whatever crops up. I'm betting we will have a lot of fun as well as coming back with some pretty good pictures.
So, this is the first in series of articles about Walking With a Camera. In subsequent articles, I'll talk about the best places to walk with your camera, where and when you will have the most fun and get the best pictures, the proper equipment for walking with a camera, and techniques to insure you have the most fun and get the best pictures.
Teton Barn and Mauve Dawn, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming