We’ve all seen those beautiful travel and hiking pictures on Instagram (Join us!), and it is distinctly possible that you have tried to replicate those same awe-inspiring shots on your favorite hike. However, somewhere along the way, the beautiful sight that is unfolding before you doesn’t quite transfer into a beautiful photo.

Even if you are packing out a bulky, heavy, and probably pretty expensive DSLR camera, it doesn’t mean that your photos are going to be any better either. Cameras in their barebones basics are just point and shoot, but there is more to it if you are trying to take an aesthetically-pleasing picture. Would you believe that with the right amount of basic photography knowledge and a few select tips you can take amazing pictures? Would you continue to believe it if we told you that you can take beautiful hiking pictures with just your smartphone?

Well, you can. Your smart phone is compact and lightweight already, and chances are, you were probably bringing it anyway. These days most models come with pretty decent cameras as well. Leave your DSLR for shorter trips and planned photoshoots, instead use your smartphone to capture all those Instagram-worthy photos out on the trail.

Photography Basics Every Hiker Should Know

Guy taking cell phone image of himself while hiking
Cell phone image at top of mountain

Even if you don’t intend on going out to take a bunch of pictures, sometimes you just happen across a scene that is just so amazing, you want to show it to the world. Knowing just the basics of photography can help you figure out the perfect way to capture that same beauty without it getting lost in translation.

Composition

Composition is the art of arranging your shot. It could range from everything to picking where to stand when you take the shot all the way to what elements you want to focus on in the photo. The further you look into compositional technique, the more in-depth it gets, but you can get some truly in-depth and unique trails shots with a few basics.

Trail Photography Compositional Techniques

  • Creating Depth – Using depth is a fantastic technique for capturing landscape as it can showcase how truly vast nature is. Often the easiest way to do this is to focus on a few objects in the foreground (some nice rocks, a person sitting, or a few nice flowers) while the sweeping background continues on expansively to the horizon.
  • Using the Rule of Thirds – The Rule of Thirds is a simple, but effective compositional technique for creating balanced, interesting pictures. The rule is all about separating the shot in three sections horizontally and vertically so you have nine different sections throughout. The key is to position your subject so that it runs along the intersection of the left, right, up, or down sections. It creates a way more interesting shot than just your typical straight-on photo.
  • Following Leading Lines – Leading lines are typically more apparent in places like a narrow alley where the edges of the buildings guide your shot towards the focus further down the alley. However, many things have lines even in nature – the edge of a stream, the walls of a canyon, even the confines of a trail. If you can see the lines, you can use them to guide the viewer’s eye to what you want them to see.
  • Contrast – Contrast is often what makes nature so beautiful in the first place. For example, say you are walking through a snowy forest on one of the first days of winter and you happen across a young sapling with orange leaves still clinging to the branches. Wouldn’t the sight of those brilliant orange leaves against the backdrop of white slow and dark adult tree trunks be something to behold? However, contrast can be more than just color, it can be the contrast of man-made and nature, young and old, shadow and highlight, and even size. Contrast is what makes a photo powerful, so keep it in mind.

Honing Your Technique for the Best Hiking Pictures

Composition is the art part of photography, so technique is basically preparing and learning how to use your paintbrush. Not only is technique about all the various settings you can tweak to effect the outcome of your picture, it is about prepping your smartphone to do the job so you can get those high-quality hiking photos.

Setting Up Your Phone for Good Photos

  • Clear Up Space – It would be a shame if you didn’t have enough memory left for your memories.
  • Clean the Lens – The beginning of every beautiful picture is making sure there is no dust or pocket lint on your lens first.
  • Disable Flash – Flash has its place in photography, but while camera quality in smartphones has advanced greatly, the flash hasn’t been keeping up. The trade-off for not having flash is that you will need to make sure that your hands are steady when snapping shots, though.
  • Explore Editing Tools – Typically, you will want to save editing for when you are back home. After all, no hiker wants to be seen fiddling with their smartphone in the middle of all that beautiful nature. However, there are likely a few camera functions that might come in handy in the right circumstances like filters and blurs. Know what your options are and look up what any options you don’t know might do. One of the first steps to taking a good picture is knowing what all the buttons do, right?
  • Take Many Shots – Since you aren’t going to be editing right on the spot, take a number of spots so you can have some options when you do sit down to edit later.

Now that your camera is set up, you are ready to start taking shots. When it comes to actual shooting technique, there is no right way to do it. That’s what makes photography an art, but there are some tips to help you out.

Learn to Enjoy the Golden Hours

Hiking in South Carolina

The hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset are what is considered “the golden hours” for taking pictures. It is when you have the best light so you don’t get huge glares or really deep shadows. It’s great for capturing nature in some of its truest color.

Use Lens Flare, Don’t Avoid It

Amateur photographers find lens flare a nuisance, but while you can find ways around it, definitely don’t be afraid of it. Some of the most interesting nature photos are those that know how to properly utilize a lens flare. It can actually be a good tool for putting focus on the subject when placed behind them. That being said, use sparingly since any technique can become cheesy if it is in every single picture.

Try Different Angles

The beauty of photography is that it shows people things as they have never been seen before. There are probably thousands of shots of Mount Rushmore from the overlook, if not millions. However, how many shots do you think are taken from standing on Lincoln’s head? This doesn’t mean go sneak onto Mount Rushmore’s heads, but rather do explore different angles and vistas when possible. Just be careful not to trespass or go so far off trail you get lost.

Choose Your Subject Matter

Beautiful beach scene

Landscape pictures are nice, sometimes even mind-blowing. However, photo aren’t just Instagram follower-attracting fodder, they are memories, too. Don’t forget that the human face is the best way to create interest and emotion in a photo. So if you are hiking with some friends or meet an interesting person on a thru-hike, don’t forget to get a few shots for your memories.

Experiment

Technique and composition are both important when creating eye-catching photographs, but don’t be afraid to get a little experimental. Try a new angle, go for a non-traditional focus, search for that perfect contrast – whatever. The next great shot is the one that hasn’t been taken yet.