Remote Nature Photography Tips When Traveling Alone
I grew up 30 minutes west of New York City. Up until I was 23 years old, I had never spent a single evening sleeping on anything but a bed. Surprisingly, two weeks after graduating college in 1993, I packed up my Jeep and moved to Colorado. Moving opened the door to the Great Outdoors – and, consequently, remote nature photography – for me. I was so inspired that I bought a camera with my first paycheck. I spent 18 years in Colorado and now live in Jackson, Wyoming. A lot has changed in my life in the past 30 years.
Fast forward to today. I try to spend at least an hour out in nature every single day of the week. I have gone weeks without showering, living among brown bears and moose in the wilds of Alaska. I have photographed and skied from some of largest peaks in the lower 48, and mountain biked through some of most remote locations on the planet.
What I have learned from all this is that humans need a little nature to find resolve. Our lives move at the pace of a top fuel dragster and it is the pace of nature that allows us to refuel. This exploration lifestyle has me thinking about outside a little differently. So here are a few tips to get you out there just a little bit more.
Make Weather Checking a Daily Routine
Since I live in the heart of the Teton and Wyoming Mountain Ranges, there are a few things that I do before anything else every day. Before I even get out of bed I look at the weather report. Weather reports are truly only accurate within a 24-48 hour window and probably less where I live. Yes, a 7-day forecast is great for trends, but weather in the wilderness will change at a moment’s notice.
Next, I look at a series of local webcams. Some are operated by the Department of Transportation and others exist around town and at our local ski resorts. This gives me visual knowledge of what is going on in my surroundings. This is a great asset if you’re avoiding any crowds as well.
In winter I take one additional step, which is to read the daily avalanche report. I read this report EVERY day from the first day of reporting to the last. This builds my working knowledge of the winter snowpack in general. Only after all checking all this do I get out of bed.
Take Your Hour Outside Alone – But Safely
I am pretty fortunate. I can ride my mountain or road bike right out of my garage for an hour with little to no effort. If I am not riding, I will take my dog for a walk in the forest. If it is winter, I jump on my snowmobile and/or grab my skis. The further I go from civilization, however, the more planning, knowledge, and notification I integrate into my day.
If I am going to shoot nature in one of the two National Parks by my house, I verify weather in those regions and availability of where I want to go. Is the park even open? Do I need special permits for where and what I want to photograph? Is there an entrance fee associated with where I am headed?
Once I have the answers to all of these questions, I let multiple people know where I am headed and who I am headed out with. Sometimes I go solo, but other times, especially when backcountry skiing, I go with someone else. These days this is more difficult which is why it’s important to let people know via text where you’re going to be and for how long just in case. Have you ever heard the term “Safety’s no accident”?
Tools for Remote Nature Photography
When you head out into the wild, don’t expect your Apple/Google Maps to work AT ALL. You will require a little more app power when you are headed into the middle of nowhere. I use the AllTrails Pro app for most of my backcountry journeys. This app does have an annual subscription fee of $30 per year but it allows you to download topos into your phone which show your actual position on that map using the built-in GPS antenna of your phone. So when your signal goes down, you are still located on a map that has been downloaded to your device before ever leaving your house. Another resource to check out is Gaia GPS.
In more remote locations, I also carry an actual topo map of the region. Right now, National Geographic is offering free downloads of any USGS 7.5 minute topo map in the continental U.S. as a multi-page PDF. If I am exploring a specific state, I will keep a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer in my truck. DeLorme makes Gazetteers for all 50 states and I have found them indispensable when roadtripping someplace new. My truck also has a shovel, tow strap, sleeping bag, toolkit, and first-aid kit in it at all times.
Photography Gear for Landscape/Wilderness/Adventure Photography
As a photographer who focuses on the outdoors, I have multiple scenarios for deciding which gear to use. I have an avalanche airbag pack for backcountry skiing. This backpack has a built-in safety airbag that can be deployed should I ever be caught in an avalanche (again). Yes, I have been involved in 7 avalanche scenarios. Luckily no one was hurt in the first 6, but the 7th was really bad for me. I don’t want to go into the details here, but know that it took me 2 years to physically recover and 5 years to mentally recover from this accident.
Consequently, my winter shooting setup weighs in at 35 pounds. This includes the airbag backpack, avalanche shovel, avalanche probe, 2-way radio with mic, rechargeable headlamp, food, water, first-aid kit, minimal tool kit, duct tape, extra layer of clothes, second lightweight layer of gloves, buff, multiple goggle replacement lenses, climbing skins for my skis, baby wipes, sealable plastic bag for trash, AND a Sony a7R IV, FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM, FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM, and FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lenses, plus 3 extra batteries, Breakthrough Photography X4 polarizers, Breakthrough Photography X4 glass graduated neutral density filters, and multiple lens cleaning cloths. I only carry a tripod if absolutely necessary.
My summer shooting kit is a bit lighter – tipping the scales at just over 20 pounds. It includes an 18L photo backpack, headlamp, food, water, bike tools/parts, duct tape, extra clothing layer, AND all the camera gear mentioned in the last paragraph as well. Again, I only carry a tripod if absolutely necessary.
Now, if I am headed out to just to photograph a bit of nearby nature, I will grab either of the above backpacks (season dependent) AND a tripod. My current tripod is a Gitzo carbon fiber one with a Colorado Tripod aluminum ball head. I am waiting for a titanium/carbon fiber tripod with titanium ball head from Colorado Tripod – this will be the lightest and sturdiest tripod I have owned to date. I will also add in my Sony 200–600mm f/5.6–6.3 G OSS lens sometimes in case I run into some animals but it’s a lot so it has to be a bit of a specialized trip. But you’ll have no trouble keeping your distance with that lens!
My Backpacking Setup
There is also one more scenario that I encounter when shooting outdoors and that is the backpacking trip. In this scenario, you need the lightest setup possible because you are carrying shelter, food, food prep tools, and clothes for an overnight to multi-day stay in the wilderness. If weight is the most important concern, I will travel with just the Sony a7R IV, 24-70mm lens, one extra battery, a polarizer, graduated neutral density filter, and this really old but super light Gitzo travel tripod. If I have more room, I will add the 16-35mm lens.
Remember, I am shooting stills. If you are shooting video, you are going to need and carry a lot more gear. I think if I were shooting video at this point, I would use a gimbal for just about all of my work – maybe a tripod in a few circumstances. Watching the video crews I work with on a regular basis, I see they are running around with cameras attached to DJI gimbals 95% of the time.
Remote Nature Photography Needs Some Strength
I am a bit of a “Type A” personality. I don’t ever sit still and I actually train to be a better photographer. During the off seasons here in Wyoming, I head to the gym and lift weights 3 days a week. This allows me to handle a 35 pound backpack while chasing down a professional athlete when the snow is deep or the dirt finally dry. My goal is to only keep them in my sight however — they do, in fact, have to wait up for me if they want me to photograph them. So if you’re stuck indoors for a bit, remember that it takes a certain amount of strength training to be a photographer. The gear – while getting lighter and sleeker every season – still majorly adds up. Add in some weight training where possible.
Alternative Physical Approaches When Practicing Nature Photography
What if you don’t have this “Type A” personality? Or even if you do, what if you don’t have the physical ability or you have a more severe physical limitation? If you fall into the lower physical output category, you can try walking any flatter trail near you. It doesn’t matter if you only make it 500 feet down that trail, that 500 feet gives you a separation from the parking lot and immediately sucks you into the natural world. Consider also exploring monopods over traditional tripods. They are lighter and double as a kind of walking/leaning stick. They also pack up nicely and fit in so many more places than a tripod can.
If you have a more severe physical limitation, you can seek out an area which is wheelchair accessible. I immediately think of some of the amazing river walks that I have done in Washington, Texas, and Colorado. I would also recommend a highway pullout or viewpoint. Some of the pullouts along our National Scenic Byways are unbelievable and if you time your visit to take advantage of low light, you are probably going to get an amazing landscape shot. One resource is TrailLink’s wheelchair accessible trails maps.
Ideas for When Venturing Out is Not Possible
Take a single photo every day from now until the world starts opening back up. Go out in your front yard and try and find 10 compositions within a 10 foot radius. Challenge your brain to find patterns, complimentary colors, and lines, and experiment with shutter speed and aperture. Shoot blurs or pans of cars driving by. Shoot the stars or the snow and rain falling from the sky. Document your plants throughout the day in changing natural light patterns.
The key here is to get outside, however you can. Regardless of where humans are in the evolution chain at this point, our bodies and minds need nature. We need to see that glimpse of a fox or witness the sun going down as a storm clears. It is those moments which we get to witness and capture as photographers that make us whole.