As I already stated, I am not a professional photographer. So I must communicate what comes to my mind, more one the basis of empirical experience than on thorough technical knowledge. More direct communication can take place during our hikes ! I am aware that professional photographers will be horrified by some of my statements, and they are certainly true; but when hiking you need a compromise between what is optimal, or even fairly acceptable, and what is practical and feasible. I invite however people wishing to go more deep inside this subject to browse for professional photographers web sites; many of them also organise specific outdoors seminars and courses. Here I do not mention any of them, for two reasons: 1. I am not sure to present you the best; 2. I apply a mutual exchange strategy: when some collaboration relations will be established, it maybe that a reciprocal promotion and exchange of web links may occur.
What to photograph
Speaking about hiking, of course the more common subjects will be natural places, landscapes, plants, animals, when possible, but often also architectural elements, villages, buildings, churches etc. Also people, of course, but I am such a bad people photographer that I prefer not to compromise my reputation with this.
Photographing, using what ?
A camera. Many people also use a smartphone or a tablet. I do not use these devices, so I cannot be helpful with this is (but I will refer to this for some specific points, later on).
Which camera ?
For long time I brought with me my regular reflex, also together with some lenses. I felt a bit of load, indeed, not really in my backpack, but rather on my neck or my shoulder. But there were little alternatives. I tried the compact cameras, but I never got friendly with them. However, in some photo web sites you find pictures taken using compact cameras in comparison to which my pictures miserably fade. Yes, it is a matter of the photographer ! So, if you get friendly with them, do not exclude compact cameras; but they are not all the same, so read a bit further these general notes to make your choice; but, at least , they should allow a decent control of time of exposure and diaphragm; some of them are extremely sophisticated, with the size of a small reflex, of which they also have most functions, besides having often super zoom lenses.
But let’s come back to the point. The weight. Hiking all the day with a couple of kgs on your neck + you back pack can make you suffer a bit. With a reflex and a lens this can happen, even if nowadays you can make it with less weight, with some excellent entry models. At a point I discovered the mirrorless reflex and I’ve been conquered. I reduced the load on my neck to ¼ and I am happy with this. Now we are almost always together, at least for serious hikes. But, every now and then, I miss my regular reflex: its feeling of toughness, the speed, all the commands handy, and the possibility of holding it firmly; so I take it again, generally not when I have to go 30 km. For several things it is not easily replaceable; the range of lenses I have for my regular reflex, I do not have for my mirrorless.
An important characteristic: the viewfinder. Most compact cameras and some mirrorless only have the LCD screen. Help !!! With some light conditions (very frequent outdoors) you see almost nothing and so it is difficult to compose your subject. Then, the tendency (of beginners) looking in the LCD, is to hold the camera with the fingers, straight harms, and also arching the body backwards; this is the best way to have shaken images, even if the present day cameras do their best to help you, using them in program mode. But, program mode should be better avoided. In any case, people using smartphones or tablets without any basic information are candidates to take shaken images. So: on your compact or mirrorless camera, better to have also a viewfinder. An orientable LCD screen ? Of course it helps to take angled shots without the need of twisting your body, bending on precipices, or laying on the ground; but, when hiking, the less things you have that may open and cling somewhere, the best. So it is a not essential particular, in my opinion.
On compact cameras you cannot change the lens and you have to stay with what they have. There are however very different combinations: with some of them you can also do some close up shots. So you have to decide before buying. With reflex cameras, with or without mirror, you can change the lens.
For real beginners
Standard lenses. They reproduce an image with more or less the same size scale that you see with your eyes. For the classic 24×36 size their focal length is about 50 mm. For many digital formats, also reflex, and for almost all the mirrorless and for the compact cameras, the focal length of standard lenses is lower.
Wide angle lenses. They allow to include a wider angle of view in your shot; they widen your view, but make the subjects farther and smaller. At the beginning, there is a tendency, difficult to abandon, to shot landscapes always using a wide angle, and this can be disappointing; there is everything indeed, inside your shot, but everything is too small, eventually with a big foreground without any relevant subject. The fact is that we are deceived by our view: we have two eyes covering quite a wide angle of view, keeping the “natural” size of things (meaning the size that we area acquainted to see). The camera cannot do: as much as you widen your angle of view, the subject become smaller. So, a wide angle lens is a must, but it should be used with common sense.
Telephoto lenses. They do the opposite of wide angles; they magnify subjects and restrict the view. So they are ideal to shot subject far from you. The more extreme telephoto lenses are these sort of gun barrels that you see with nature photographers or sport reporters. They are fascinating but also them must be well understood. In the common way of thinking, it is enough to own a telephoto to be able to successfully shot all kind of animals. Unfortunately, this is not the case. To shot far things, the air must be clear, otherwise your images will be hazy. You must hold your telephoto very firmly, since the risk of shaking is increased. The focusing is much more critical with a telephoto.
Close-up (marco) lenses. All lenses have limits to take close-up shots. So, if you want to get very close to your subject, you cannot do with the lenses mentioned above; or, better, you can do this with some wide angle lenses, but your subject will be anyway too small. For close-up shots, you need specific macro (close-up) lenses. They are quite expensive, not easy to use, but they can give anyway great satisfaction. The subjects: insects, flowers, but also other natural things, or subjects, or details from everyday life. If you are not attracted by this kind of shooting, however do not expose yourself financially; rather use a standard lens or a small telephoto and then magnify a bit your subject in post production: nowadays this is possible and easy to do with the standard software of any computer. Also considering the fact that some standard or zoom lenses can get pretty close to the subjects and can be very useful: each brand have some and you must discover them. But, if you decide to buy, prefer a tele macro lens: insects fly away if you get too close to them.
Zoom lenses are notoriously the ones with a variable focal length. Nowadays they are known by all, even since they are standard in the compact cameras and even in smartphones, even if as electronic zooms. These are without any doubt practical lenses; find the one more suitable to you needs and you will hardly leave it home when you go hiking.
Shift (and tilt) lenses. These are a bit my favourites, even if, at the end, I make very little use of them, since I simply cannot carry them with me. Shift lenses allow, as main performance, to correct the convergence of the building vertical lines when you shot them from a not centred perspective (generally from below). You will read that this aberration is easily corrected also by means of post-production. But, you need to devote time to this and then, do not consider the satisfaction ? Shift lenses allow to change the perspective also when there is not the need of correcting parallel lines and this is also exciting. Tilt lenses do also different things, among which a selective focussing on specific parts of your shot. A small problem: these are extremely expensive lenses, with special respect to the last-generation ones.
Light hoods. This is an optional that you always find referred to as a must. And indeed it is, since light diffraction may ruin your pictures. But hoods have some faults. The nowadays hoods are perfect but bulky; one of these kind of things that, with your camera on the neck, as a minimum results will create you annoyance; then you will risk to break or lose them. Forget to put it on and off when you need them: you will never do, when hiking. Unfortunately, I got to the conclusion to leave them home; but be very careful, to screen anyway light spots (that you see in your viewefinder), using your hand or a map, that you will certainly have with you.
Tripod. This is a bit a story like the one of hoods, a bit more. A tripod is an optional using which the quality of your shots can only improve: you can read the reasons in all the photo handbooks. The most obvious one is that a tripod prevents shaking when using long exposure times. Then it helps to study well the composition of your shot. But, when hiking, you will never take a tripod with you, if not when you specifically go for shooting photographs. Luckily nowadays cameras have such a range of sensor sensitivity, that you almost always get through.
Filters. I am not an expert of filters. I can only tell that, holding your camera on your neck when hiking, and throwing it every now and then in your back pack, a neutral protecting filter for your front lens is almost an absolute must.
Soft cases. It is more or less a story like for filters. When hiking, we will not carry dedicated photographic cases, so a protective soft case is almost a must.
Flash. Most cameras have a built-in one, that can be very useful. Let’s say that the attainable sensitivity of the sensors now can make the use of flash less important than it was in the past. Taking good shots with artificial light, also outdoors and close up, however requires the use of external flashes, and is among the most difficult things to do. Generally we will not do when hiking.
If you are not yet acquainted, you will soon realise that going for rather serious hikes is little compatible with carrying loads of photographic materials. At the end, the light solution and the so-called all-purpose lenses, allowing to afford the more common situations, have a tendency to win. There are excellent combinations, allowing to do also some close up shots. But it may also happen to realise that something will not have the expected results. So you will be tempted to target some more specific lenses, that you will eventually bring with you only when going specifically to take shots or for light hikes.
An important note: you can change the lens of your reflex camera; however, when hiking, do this parsimoniously. It is enough to have some blow of air and something will get inside the body, spotting your sensor. Try, to believe (with a second camera with you): spring pollens are a catastrophe. At worst, if you do not yet have a zoon covering the focal lenses you need, a second camera body, with two different lenses would be better, if money and weight allow this. Costs are presently a problem but, if you want to build up your kit, do not neglect second-hand material, if guaranteed.
Finally, do not think about putting the camera in your back pack and taking it out when needed: 1) you will never do; 2) a time will come that you will miss some nice shots. You must hold your camera on your neck or on your shoulder. You will put it in your back pack only when you have to afford some difficult stretches, where it will be an annoyance or you risk to slam it here and there, or when it starts raining.
Some strategy (nothing new)
Holding the camera. Look at most people taking shots with a smartphone or a tablet, and do not do like they do. You have to hold your camera firmly, that is not using strength, but in the correct position, to avoid shaking. It is not true that small cameras are more easily held firmly. On the contrary, regular reflex cameras are better held, and oblige to hold them firmly, since you cannot handle them with three fingers. If you then use the viewfinder instead of the LCD, irrespective of light conditions, even better.
Composing your shot. I am still realizing how this is important. When hiking, there is a tendency to shot in hurry. The difference between a professional and an amateur (I am among the latter) is that professionals have the eye and the coolness to compose well, even doing this quickly, the amateurs far less. So: look well what your are shooting in order to: a) include what you want to be in (as an example, the feet of people); b) exclude what you do not want (example: the garbage trays); c) compose an overall nice subject (for this there are rules that you will learn reading handbooks or attending seminars). How to do ?
For static subjects, do not be in hurry; use your zoom; change a bit your position; if your camera has this option, activate the grid on your viewfinder.
For mobile subjects, it is also a matter of luck. If you expect to have to deal with such situations, be prepared; train yourself a bit; keep your camera switched on; use a rather high sensitivity; use an automatic mode of exposure or, even better a manual mode with automatic selection of the sensitivity: if you set adequate time and diaphragm you may also shoot by simply focusing.
Few notes about how and when to shot
It depends a lot on the subject
Animals. I always refer to extemporary shots that you may take when hiking. Consider that the wonderful images that you see in expositions or in magazines are hardly extemporary; besides the perfect techniques of the photographer, they are also the result of patient stalking, strategies to approach and sometimes to attract the animals. Mammals are becoming more and more confident to human beings; but they are still seen more frequently at dawn or dusk. Insects and reptiles are more easily shot when they are less mobile, so early morning or during cool days. All animals are mobile however, so a training to shoot quickly is fundamental. Having a telephoto lens is almost a must.
Close-up photo. It can deal with different subjects; most commonly, they are small animals, generally insects, spiders and similar, flowers, mosses, buds etc. The worst enemy of close up is wind, so also of insects laying on grass twigs or leaves. The depth of field, so the thickness within which the subjects are correctly focused, is notoriously low in close up photo. It is also known that this problem can be partially managed by closing the diaphragm; however this must be compensated by a longer time of exposure, and this is not always possible, even if the wide range sensitivity of present day sensors helps a lot. So some caution must be adopted:
– find the critical point of your subject and focus on it. Generally it is the head with the eyes, for insects or small reptiles; the centre, with stamens and gynaecium, for flowers, etc.
– keep your camera as parallel as possible, with respect to your subject, for example the body of an insect that you shoot from its side.
– if the subject is static, (so does not run away), take few shots by varying the composition and the diaphragm; with digital cameras this is possible..
All the rest will also depend on your personal likes. Some people like a lot a very low depth of field, that highlights a detail and leaves out of focus all the rest. Most people consider very favourably a background well out of focus, that allows sharpening the main subject. Personally I do not dislike a medium out of focus of the background, when it helps to catch the features of the environment where the subject is placed.
Landscape. For as strange it may sound, landscape photo is quite a difficult task. With landscape, I indicate all these subjects with a dominance of not specific details; they can be either far or close; so, as an example, also forests, where there is not any emphasis on individual trees.
As told, there is a tendency of abusing of wide angle lenses, when shooting landscapes, and this makes everything small and far. Our sight has a quite wide angle of view, but keeping what is for us the natural size of subjects. Wide angle shots are better if:
– the main subject is rather close and well in evidence (e.g. a gully, an individual mountain etc.)
– with the background of a wide landscape there is some subject in the foreground, like a group of trees, a rock, a water body etc.
– the landscape is composed of plains at different distance, rendering a sense of perspective.
In landscape photographs generally we want to have all the subjects well in focus. And, for this, wìde angle lenses do help. Shooting landscapes with a telephoto can however be a good idea, since it drastically compresses the space, introducing a “dramatic” perspective.
Light and atmospheric conditions are critical. Full sunlight days, with sharp contrasts between light and shade areas are generally enemy of good landscape pictures. But also those with humid air and mist, especially when using a tele lens and shooting at long distance. What you see by your eyes can be completely faded in the picture, unless you do some attempts tuning exposure and, in case, a bit of post-production intervention.
So, when to photograph landscapes ? Sometimes, when hiking, the answer is very simple: when you pass through places, there is no alternative. If you can choose, nice sunny days, but at times when the scattered light is more abundant, with less shades, so close to dawn or dusk, are the better options. Provided you can resist to shoot sunsets or sunrises, that are among the most difficult subjects, and the ones with the higher risk of being trivial. Also the days with veiled sky but clear air, like the ones preceding the arrival of a perturbation, are often perfect. If you have the possibility of being back and repeat the same shots in different conditions, this will certainly give you satisfaction.
So, if you learn well, then you may also tune the decision of the direction of your hike on the basis of the better light conditions for photographs.
Post-production or not ?
For me the answer is very simple: no, since I never had the time and the determination to learn well how to do. Only excluding some very simple tuning of contrast and brightness. As a principle, the camera is far less perfect than our eyes; so the picture is always different from what we see, generally with some more defects. Post-production should serve to bring the situation back to reality: but, to do this, one must be: a) very competent; b) very honest. Media are full of heavily processed images that, to be sincere, do not inspire me a lot; they could gain in appearance, but lose their soul. Let’s say that they are not only photos anymore, but a mix of personal interpretation; and, from an artistic point of view, this can obviously be an excellent approach.
Post-production could allow removing details that we do not want to see. Think about electric or telephone cables; they are everywhere; in certain situations you cannot get rid of them, whatever position you may find. With skill and patience you can remove them from your digital picture. But everybody who should be conquered by your picture and go there would find the cables, that were not in your photo ! So provided you are able to properly remove them, the decision is yours !
Post-production also allows to improve the visibility of under and over exposed areas in sharply contrasted images, especially if you shot in the proprietary format of your camera. It is one of the options that may recover a situation closer to the one you saw when shooting. If you are skilled enough and are able to stop at the right point, use it.
Finally, panoramic pictures. If you merge side by side different pictures, you may succeed in reproducing the landscape in real size, as your eyes see it. This is really a “harmless” processing; but you must be well aware of what you want from the very beginning, before planning your shots, otherwise there is no hope. I never seriously tried this.
Ah I was forgetting. You will find the following written everywhere. If you have pictures taken in the .jpeg format, before training yourself with post production, make a copy of them. In fact, you will be for sure very clever, and will often save you work, to avoid losing everything and all your precious time… A pity that each saving of a jpeg image reduces its quality, up to a point that they have simply to be thrown away. So, keep an unprocessed original !
Managing and storing your images
Forget that your effort is finished with your hike. The time you have to devote to your pictures is still a lot, also excluding post-production. If you enjoy taking pictures, they will soon become some hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. And, when you will seek for some, you will not be able to find them.
- Immediately download the images from your memory card to a different storage device; better an external disk than your computer hard disk, that can soon be filled. External storage device are now cheap and with plenty of space. But always have a multiple of two: it is absolutely necessary to have a full copy of everything. A simple strategy (then see further details below): download pictures to a directory with a generic name (e.g. “temporary”, this can also be on computer hard disk); once you finish working on your images, copy them on your final destination directory, with appropriate name, on both disks; or, transfer your photos in already existing thematic directories (see later) on both disks. This procedure will allow you to keep everything update and avoid doing frequent full disk hardcopies that, if you material is a lot, may also require several hours. However, it will for sure happen that sometimes you can’t cope and forget something; so always keep one of your disks as the main one, and every now and then hard copy it on the other one. If you want to be almost perfect: fill your disk to less than half its capacity and first do the new hard copy, tagging it with the date of the day; only after, remove the old hard copy.
- So, download your photos from the memory card of your camera, to the temporary directory and mercilessly cancel all the bad ones and also a conspicuous part of putative duplicates.
- Give a name to all your photos: it should contain, in a synthetic way, all the information you want to preserve and that will allow to find them using a search instrument. Examples: a) sister, cesenatico beach may 1013 (but pay attention, if you have two sisters rather use their names); b) sunset mount cimone july 2014 (but pay attention: the word “mount” is generic, and will not be of any use for your search; so you may omit it). Avoid capital letters: they are of no use. Important: try to use always the same name for the same subject; e.g. call a dandelion either “dandelion” or “taraxacum officinale”, otherwise you will have to perform double search; call your sister “elisabeth”, or “beth” or “betty” or whatever else, but always the same way. To avoid following the name with letters or numbers, in case of several images with the same subject, (so a, b, c, or 1, 2, 3) keep the tag and number given by your camera, at the beginning of the name. This will also allow to avoid unwanted duplicates if you will take pictures of the same subject later on. If you have different camera bodies, set different tag acronyms on each of them, so you will also be able to immediately understand which camera you used to shoot any specific picture; also set the numbering to sequential mode, so that it will not be reset to zero at each download.
- The choice of your storage organisation is a bit up to you. You can name your directories on the basis of a subject category (e.g. “insects”, where you will store all the insect pictures, wherever you took them); or, you can use a criterion of “block of activities” (e.g. eastern holidays 2012, where you will transfer all the pictures of this holiday, irrespectively of the subject). These can be both valid systems; the second is perhaps faster and less complex, even if apparently less precise. But consider: if you shot a nice insect on a nice flower, will you put this picture with insects or flowers ? The important thing is to give consistent names to all pictures, to be able to effectively search for them, according to different criteria, when needed.