Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Top 10 tips for better adventure photos

Photographer Scott A. Woodward shares his advice with WideWorld on how to make better travel and adventure photographs.
© Scott Woodward

Digital photography is one of the most accessible and democratic forms of artistic expression there is. The ubiquity of cameras – on mobile phones or small digital point-and-shoot cameras in our pockets, all the way to large, powerful digital SLR cameras – makes it ever easier to capture fantastic images. But the real secret behind original photography is in how you see a moment and interpret it in a still frame. Are you able to make something ordinary appear extraordinary by showing it differently? Are you able to make the viewer feel a physical emotion when they look at your photograph? Are you able to transport someone with you to a moment in time simply by pressing your shutter?

Photographer Scott A. Woodward – whose work has appeared in National Geographic Magazine, Travel + Leisure, Discovery Channel Magazine and The New York Times – shares his advice with WideWorld on how to make better travel and adventure photographs.

Tips for better photography

1. Have a plan

Research where your travels and adventures will take you. The more you know about where you will be shooting, the better prepared you can be. Try to have some ideas for the types of photographs you want to create beforehand. There is no shame in looking at how other photographers before you photographed a location or interpreted a scene. Use others’ work to get your creative juices flowing and inspire you to create your own unique photograph.

2. Only bring what you can carry

Once you have an idea where your trip or adventure will take you, and what you will be shooting while you’re there, then you will be able to plan what equipment will be necessary. Be judicious, however, with the amount of gear that makes it into your bag: there is no point in packing a bag full of hulking DSLRs and heavy lenses if the bulk and weight will hinder your ability to carry everything or safely get a shot. It seems like common sense, but many people underestimate how heavy photography equipment becomes after being lugged your shoulder or back for many hours.

3. Don’t underestimate the power of a point-and-shoot

If you anticipate that your heavy DSLR and lenses will be too cumbersome for the journey, then consider packing a point-and-shoot camera (or two) instead. There are many quality compact cameras that offer features previously only found on DSLRs. The Nikon Coolpix P7000 is a great example; it offers a 10-megapixel sensor, fast start-up time and short shutter lag, a wide-angle 7x optical zoom lens, HD movie recording and the ability to shoot RAW files. On top of this, it’s significantly smaller and lighter than Nikon’s top-of-the-line DSLR and lens combination (approximately 1/6th of the weight). Remember that great photographs are not created by great equipment – they are made by great photographers.

4. Regardless of your equipment, have it packed properly

A quality padded bag or backpack is critical, for both your personal comfort and the security of your expensive gear. And remember that no matter how big or small your camera it won’t take a lot of water to ruin it. To be safe, be sure that your camera bag is waterproof – or that you have large Ziplock bags in your pocket that you can stuff your equipment in at the first sign of rain.

5. Add life to landscapes

Beautiful landscape shots can be breathtaking. But if you’ve ever been subjected to a friend of family member’s holiday snaps, you know how dull they can become after you’ve looked at 50 or 100 of them in a row. Try adding people to your landscape photographs. A human touch helps make a more creative photograph: it gives scale to an image, offers perspective and adds drama.

6. Go shallow. Add depth

Good photographs provide a reference to depth. A photograph is 2D, but we want it to appear 3D, and there are some tricks to help achieve this. Although it’s always tempting to use a wide-angle lens, getting everything in focus and in the frame, this approach often renders boring images. Instead, zoom in and search for some representative detail in the photograph; something that gives the viewer a hint about who the subject is or where he is. Try experimenting with these shallow depths-of-field (large apertures/small F-stops) to draw your viewer’s eye into the frame and add drama.

7. Play with light

The most critical ingredient in all great photographs is the lighting. The best images always make interesting and powerful use of light. The angle of the sun significantly affects the warmth, contrast and texture of a photograph. As often as possible, shoot in the warm “golden hours” of early morning and late afternoon (one hour after sunrise or one to two yours before sunset when the sun is low and the light is soft and yellow/orange). Dramatic light can make even the most mundane subjects appear outstanding, so also be on the lookout for beams of light peeking through clouds, filtering through trees or shining through windows. Make use of long shadows cast during the golden hours, and try to use backlighting to silhouette your subjects.

8. Keep it steady

Whether you’re hanging out of a tree photographing a mountain bike careening down a hill or capturing a graceful traditional dancer as she moves across a stage, you’ll need a fast shutter speed to eliminate camera shake or freeze the action. If the light is low, and you cannot achieve a fast enough shutter speed, remember that you can always increase your camera’s ISO setting (the camera’s sensitivity to light) to achieve the desired shutter speed. Just note there will be a corresponding drop in image quality the higher the ISO setting (due to digital noise), so remember to set your ISO back after you’ve got your shot.

9. Use your closeness to the action to make compelling photographs

Just by being on the trip or adventure gets you closer to the action than many people ever will be. Use this to your advantage by taking the time to make interesting and creative imagery. I have been to Timor-Leste twice in the past year to photograph a cross-country mountain bike race and a marathon. Both times I photographed the athletes from the back of a motorcycle. It was a challenge to carry my gear, hold on to the bike, compose and shoot images. However, this position allowed me to get right in the mix of the race, and this closeness to the athletes enabled me to make unique photographs and show a point of view of the trip/adventure that only the athletes got to experience. This perspective would have been impossible had I been on the sidelines.

10. This advice isn’t only applicable to travel or adventure-related photography

Look for creative and dynamic angles all the time: shoot without looking through the viewfinder, shoot speeding traffic by moving the camera at the same speed as the vehicles, get on the ground and shoot up, climb a tree and shoot down, shoot without the flash, try long exposures… The more creative you get, the more you’ll learn about what works and what doesn’t work, and the better your photographs will be.

About Scott A. Woodward

My father is an avid and accomplished amateur photographer. When I was a young boy, he taught me how to operate a manual camera, skillfully interpret light and imaginatively compose an image. But more importantly, my dad instilled in me a sense of wonder and adventure; it is these traits that truly made me a photographer.

I once read that a camera is a great excuse to delve into a place deeper than we otherwise would. I like this description. Creating a special photograph forces us to look at our surroundings differently, to explore a place further, to look beyond the obvious and to hunt for something original and inspiring.

I call my photography style “Choose Your Own Adventure Photography”, after the books I used to read as a child. Literally and creatively, I can go one direction and discover a remarkable photographic opportunity; or I can go another direction and find something entirely different. It is this adventure that is the beauty of photography for me.

I love to photograph people: to capture real emotion and tell a story in a single frame. Whether I am creating fashion, reportage, lifestyle or commercial imagery, my narrative approach to photography is original and compelling and draws the viewer in. My unique and sensitive style has resulted in me being honoured by Luerzer’s Archive as one of the “200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide” and selected by Nikon as “One of Asia’s Finest Photographers”.

My photography has appeared in a broad selection of international titles, including the international edition of National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, Discovery Channel Magazine, GQ and Travel + Leisure. I have also photographed international advertising campaigns for Nokia, Adidas, Bacardi, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever.

See Scott’s portfolio at www.scottawoodward.com