Expert Tips on Trek Photography — Be a Better Photographer

We are all photographers. We take pictures almost all the time. And we often wonder how we can become better at trek photography.

Digital photography has made the art of photography a lot easier than before. It gives us the freedom of trial and error until we get the best result. Yet, you can get a lot more than you bargained for by just learning a few things.

So in this article, I’m going to share with you some tips to click better pictures.

Trek Photography - Dayara Bugyal Indiahikes - The picturesque village of Barsu - Arjun Majumdar
A photograph with good composition and an excellent story. Picture by Arjun Majumdar

Know Your Camera

The best camera is the one you have with you right now. I am serious.

People see “photography” as the price of the camera and the number of lenses they have. But photography is not always about these. In fact, camera envy could be the one thing holding you back from taking better pictures.

A smartphone camera with a good photographer can produce better results than the costliest camera with an amateur. Learn the basics. Know how Shutter speed, Aperture, and ISO affect your pictures.

I’ll break it down to the basics.

| Shutter Speed

To put it simply, shutter speed is the amount of time the camera shutter stays open. DSLRs have varying shutter speeds starting from 1/8000 of a second to 30 seconds (more than 30 seconds in BULB mode).

To Shoot moving subjects, you should use higher shutter speeds, depending on the speed of the subject.

Using low shutter speed also helps in getting more light to fall on the sensor.

Trek Photography - Shutterspeed-Indiahikes


See the above pictures for example. The first picture is taken with a 20 seconds shutter speed, which lets the camera sensor capture the flow of water for 20 seconds. The second picture on the other hand was shot on 1/390 seconds shutter speed. This is higher than the speed of water flowing and so you have a sharp image of the stream.

Both images are good in their own ways, but the slower shutter speed image by Vignesh is adding a wow factor.

Note: For shutter speeds less than 1/30 seconds you must use a tripod or keep the camera steady somewhere.


| Aperture

Aperture can be described as the opening in your lens. It defines the amount of light entering the sensor at a particular point of time. Most lenses have apertures varying from 4 (f/4) to 22 (f/22). There are also lenses that provide 1.2 – 1.8 widest apertures.

Aperture also adds depth to the picture. All the background blur as seen in DSLR pictures is provided by wide apertures like 1.4, 1.8 and 2.8.

Aperture-diagram-Indiahikes
This Image gives a basic idea about how the “f-number” is related to the aperture and depth in an image

Coming to treks, photography here is mainly about landscapes. In order to make the image sharper, chose a higher aperture number like f/11 or f/16. Higher the f-number, narrower the aperture, and sharper the image.  

Consider these pictures from the Sandakphu Trek.

Aperture - Indiahikes - Vijesh Mohan, Sanjay Nargund
2 beautiful photographs. The aperture of the first image is 1.8 which gives a shallow depth of field. The second image, on the other hand, is taken with a narrow aperture, f22, making the image sharp

Using a narrow aperture leads to limiting the amount of light entering the sensor. Hence you should use a slow shutter speed in order to balance the exposure.

It took me at least 1 year to understand the basics of my camera and I still feel there are more to learn. So keep experimenting with all the settings and don’t try to understand everything by just reading the basics. Even if you are shooting in Auto mode, have an idea of the Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO.


| ISO

ISO is a measure of the camera’s ability to capture light. For low light situations, keep your ISO high to make your sensor more sensitive to light.

Finding the correct ISO can be tricky. Modern DSLR cameras have ISO ranging from 100 to 6400 (and 25600 in professional cameras). A low ISO like 100 is less sensitive to light but captures more details. As you go up in the ISO range, your image loses details and you can see a gradual increase of noise (grains) through the range.

ISO noise-Indiahikes
This is how ISO affects the amount of noise in a picture. These pictures were taken in a professional DSLR. So the noise produced is much lower than an entry-level DSLR

Cameras like Canon 700D, 1100D, Nikon D3200 etc that come under the entry level cameras start producing noise around ISO 800. Medium range cameras Canon 7D, 6D can give you good results even at ISO 1600.

Professional Cameras such as Canon 5D mark4, Nikon D810 will give you decent pictures at ISO 3200-4000. Then there are cameras which give really good low light results like Sony A9, you can go to ISO 12800 and still manage to get sharp images.

Most photographers develop a High-ISO fear once they know more about ISO details. In low light, you will have to either increase your ISO or reduce your shutter speed. Lowering your shutter speed might lead to shaky pictures if you don’t have steady hands or a tripod.

So do not be afraid of the noise in your picture. Make your ISO high if you don’t have enough natural light. Sometimes noise can add drama to the photograph. It’s about the content and the composition. Select your ISO according to the content. The camera settings are just there to help you capture the moment.

A normal daylight image can be shot with ISO 100, whereas a night shot of stars needs ISO of around 1600 or higher.

ISO-Indiahikes
These 2 images are perfect examples to show what ISO to use in different lighting conditions

The first image is a night shot and hence a high ISO like 1600. We need the sensor to be more sensitive to light in such situations. The second picture is a daylight picture. Hence the photographer was able to go to a lower ISO like 100.  

Getting a perfectly exposed picture lies in the balanced use of these settings. Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO together decide the exposure of an image in a given lighting condition. Understand these, experiment with each setting and your path to becoming a better photographer can be simplified.


Composition and Framing

In photography, composition is the placement or arrangement of the subject and other visual elements in your picture. A slight change in the angle, height or depth can make a lot of difference in the composition of the image. Try giving a little attention to the composition of the image while photographing. Understand how colours, texture, symmetry, patterns and leading lines affect your image.

The Rule of Thirds is the most popular composition rule. Consider breaking your image vertically and horizontally into thirds making 9 parts in total.

Har Ki Dun -Indiahikes- Gautam Doshi
In this image for example, the photographer, Goutam Doshi has used rule of thirds perfectly. Picture by Gautam Doshi

Aligning the subject with any of these guidelines or the intersection points brings more interest in the subject than just randomly placing the subject in the centre. This can also be done while cropping, But you have to have the idea in your mind and leave only minor adjustments to Photoshop.

There are alternate rules to Rule of thirds like the golden Ratio rule, Golden Spiral Rule, Diagonal rule etc. But all these rules go along with each other most of the time.

Leading lines and S curves can be used carefully to bring interest towards the subject in photography. These lines help in creating a perspective in the picture. They give the viewer an idea about the geography of the location. Leading lines to a subject have always proved to bring more interest to the subject.

Gaumukh-Indiahikes-Hemat Gadape
In the given picture by Hemanth Gadape, See how the S curve is adding drama to the picture. Picture by Hemat Gadape

Also, starting the leading lines from any of the corners brings the viewers to the subject in your photography.

Leave empty spaces out of your picture. Include only what you think is relevant to your subject. Make a picture with a meaning.

The most common mistake in photography is the use of unwanted objects. These include irrelevant headspace, meaningless objects and unnecessary contrasting colours in the background.  These take the interest away from the subject and can destroy a photograph.

Keep your subject inside the frame. Don’t cut off any parts. Go a little wider than the frame you have in mind, so that you have the freedom to do slight straightening and aligning without cutting off any parts.

You will have to straighten your pictures most of the time to align the horizon. Keeping the horizon straight is another major Composition Rule.

Frames inside your frame. Capturing frames in your picture is another way to go about having a good composition in photography. Find natural frames and shapes from your surroundings.

Dayara Bugyal - Indiahikes - Yatharth Vibhakar-Never thought I could Tumblr
The photographer Yatharth Vibhakar brilliantly captures 2 pictures in a single frame. Picture by Yatharth Vibhakar

An image with a perfect composition need not always follow the composition rules. Being a good photographer means figuring out when to follow these rules and when to break these. It took me a long time to understand composition and that is when I started breaking some of these rules. Believe in your composition, but understand these basic rules and why they are important.

Create a story in your picture. Let the picture speak for itself.


Lighting

During treks, lighting is entirely dependent on weather conditions. The challenge is to get the most out of existing lighting conditions.

Always try to catch the morning and evening light. Morning and evening sun can help in creating brilliant back-lit images.

Trek Photography - Dayara-Indiahikes-SudheerHegde
The lovely forests of Dayara Bugyal. Picture by Sudheer Hegde

Even cloudy days provide dramatic results in photographs. Have absolute control over the light. For landscapes, you can’t change the position of your subject or the light source. So change your position. Shoot from different angles.

Try and use all lighting conditions. If a bright, sunny day is perfect for landscapes, cloudy days can be perfect for portraits. It provides a uniform lighting to your subject.

Understand How Soft light and Hard light affects your photographs. Soft light is the light source that provides no shadows or soft shadows. Hard light, on the other hand, results in hard shadows.

Lighting - Trek Photography - Vadiraj,UrivishJoshi-Har ki Dun-Indiahikes
See how different types of light affect pictures

Apart from these basics, a good photograph needs the photographer to be in the moment. Take pictures of anything that impresses you. Take pictures for yourself, not for social media.

There will be moments in your trek where you will be caught up in a beautiful scenery and forget to take pictures. Be in that moment. Take your time to start capturing. Whatever you are shooting, connect with the subject. Let the connection flow through the photograph. You have become a better photographer already.

Showing some of our best Trek photographs.


The Magic of One Lens — Learning from the Mistakes

My first DSLR came with a kit lens. It was a Canon 550D with 18-55mm lens. After two days I bought another lens because it offered more zoom, and I could afford it then. I hardly used the kit lens after that for almost a year. But I kept adding to my collection of lenses. Soon, I bought a 55-250mm, a 50mm 1.8, and a Tokina 11-16mm.

The irony is that I was not able to master any of these lenses. When I finally decided to experiment with each lens separately, I realised that buying lenses without experimenting with my old ones was one of my biggest mistakes in photography.

From the lessons I learnt, I am listing the ways in which using a single lens can improve your trek photography.

Taking one lens reduces the weight of your backpack and saves time on a trek

For the photographers out there, this might sound silly. But believe me, on a trek this matters. The extra batteries will anyway increase the weight of the photography gear that you are carrying. Losing that heavy 70-200mm lens can make a world of difference.

Not just that, it saves all the time you would waste on changing lenses. Very often, you end up spending more time doing this than actually clicking photographs. In the Himalayas, the weather is unpredictable — clouds can suddenly block out views of a pretty lake or a peak.

It could happen in a matter of seconds. Similarly, you don’t want miss out taking a good shot of a bird or other wildlife because you are fumbling with lenses.

See these pictures taken with just a 16mm focal length. Click on them to see them enlarged.

After considering the increase in weight of the backpack, if you still feel that you have to take 2 or more lenses with you, I have more reasons for why you should consider taking a single lens for your trek.


Explore the Opportunities

Very often, we have predetermined ideas of which lens to use where. A wide lens for landscapes, a standard prime lens for portraits, a macro lens for flowers, a telephoto lens for wildlife, etc.

Have you ever tried shooting a portrait with an ultra wide angle lens, or a landscape with a telephoto lens?

These ideas come into your mind only when you explore more of each lens.

Think about going on assignments by taking only one single lens. Or at least decide that you will shoot with only one lens a day.

I know people who have taken this to another level by using a single lens for 2 whole years. They were able to master the lens and this changed their entire approach towards photography. I could see confidence in their composition, framing, and use of subjects.


Where do You Start?

Start with wide angle lenses with zoom (eg. 18-55 mm, which come with most of the basic entry level DSLRs), so that you still have the ability to change the focal length. Shoot everything with that single lens – landscapes, portraits, wildlife (the squirrels in your backyard, birds etc), macro and more. Explore all the angles and effects you can bring in using this lens.

Next, move on to prime lenses like 35 mm, 50 mm, 85 mm.

Using a prime lens is the best project you can assign yourself to improve your photography game.

Mastering a prime lens takes time. You don’t have an option to zoom in or out. The focal length is fixed. The only way around this is to take photos and crop them later. But the challenge is to capture the photograph as it is.

Among prime lenses, 50 mm is a must-have lens. It’s light, it’s cheap, it’s sharp. In fact, the master of candid photography, Henri Cartier Bresson used a 50 mm throughout his life. Imagine the challenges he went through. But his pictures are considered to be the best.

Here are some of our best 50mm pictures.


Experiment with Different Angles

Consider this scenario. You want to capture a tree and you only have the kit lens with you. The subject is too big to fit in the frame. You have to try out various angles to include the subject in the frame. You go for low angle shots that you wouldn’t have thought if you had wider lens.

When the possibilities are limited you will start trying out new options. Having only one lens with you will help in improving your creativity and composition skills. The kit lens is one of the best lenses to start using a single lens. Documenting an entire trek with only a kit lens is one project you can take upon.

When I finally started using my kit lens, I was amazed by the results. I used to shoot pictures with the widest aperture and complain about the lack of sharpness. But after using only kit lens for a week, I found out its possibilities. I was able to take landscapes, portraits macro and more with the same lens which I once stopped using.

All these pictures were taken with just a 18-55mm lens.


Bring Uniformity in Your Pictures

Using a single lens, especially prime lens, makes your photographs uniform.You will develop a signature in framing and composition. More than telephoto lenses, wide angle and ultra wide angle lenses help in bringing a uniqueness in every photographer. These lenses provide more depth to the subject. Let your audience recognise your pictures by the focal length.

Among prime lenses, 50 mm would be the simplest of lenses to try this out with. It is considered to be the closest focal length that resembles what we see with our naked eye. Wider focal lengths like 35 mm, 24 mm, 16 mm etc produce more dramatic results and are extremely hard to practice with. Start with your 50 mm and go wider.

I consider myself as a 35 mm person. You can shoot wide landscapes as well as close portraits with a 35 mm focal length. Hence this also can be a good option for your next trek.

See some of our pictures taken with 35mm focal length.

On treks, if you are not confident enough to take your pictures on a single focal length, you can always go for lenses that offer wide range of focal lengths. The quality of your pictures might be compromised, but you still get to take one single lens and click pictures with different focal lengths. Lenses like 18-135, 18-200 etc. are good to use.


Conclusion

These are some of the lenses you can take for your next trek. Remember, take just one.

1. Kit lens (The basic lens which comes with your camera. )
2. 50mm ( The lens with an opening f/1.8 is really cheap but the one with f/1.2 is almost more than 10 times costlier)
3. Sigma 35 mm f1.4 ART (My favourite lens)
4. Sigma 20 mm f1.4 ART (Extremely good with low light situations. A little more wider and difficult to be familiarised with)
5. Tokina 11-16 (A good option for Entry level and cropped sensor cameras)
6. Canon 16-35, Canon 17-40 (For professional Full frame cameras)
7. 18-200, 18-135 etc. (For getting a wide range of focal lengths)

Keep Clicking.

Harikrishnan

Harikrishnan

A photographer by passion and profession. Before joining Indiahikes, Hari has worked as a professional freelancer for many movie houses and NGO(s). His love for nature and mountains brought him to Indiahikes. With a bachelors degree in Physics, his area of interests include playing musical instruments and solo travelling.