Photo-hiking – a short introduction

We’ve all read about the pain and suffering landscape photographers have to endure to get that one killer shot - hiking long kilometres in the dead of night to reach a peak before sunrise, camping out in extreme conditions for days on end waiting for the right light, and generally pushing our bodies to the limits of exhaustion and starvation to further our art. I’m not about to deny that getting to the right place at the right time requires some effort, but I don’t really go for the living-on-the-edge mentality. If you’re out there shooting great landscapes but are really uncomfortable or are putting your safety second, then you’re doing something wrong. In this short article, and the one focussing on safety and comfort when hiking, I outline some of the tips I’ve picked up from my years of tramping around the Australian countryside.

Photo-hiking comes in two main varieties – out-and-back day-trips from a base camp or from home, and the more hard core approach of spending one or multiple nights out under the stars. Both approaches have their advantages and which one you choose will often come down to personal preference. Either way the principles that will lead to a happy and productive time are much the same, and revolve around good physical and mental preparation and having the right equipment for the job.

Most of us will cringe at the idea of leaving a warm bed at 4am on a cold winter morning to hit the trail in pursuit of photographs, but it’s an approach that will invariably deliver great results. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve been tempted to ignore the alarm and go back to sleep, but after resisting the temptation, been completely elated at the sunrise I’ve witnessed and the shots I’ve been able to capture. It only takes one or two of these experiences to put to rest that little voice in your head that tells you that you’ll be much happier if you stay in bed.

Preparation is the key to a successful early morning outing. All of your equipment, photographic and otherwise, needs to be checked, cleaned and packed the night before so there’s nothing for your sleep-addled brain to have to think about in the morning. It should be just out of bed, into your hiking garb, maybe a quick bite to eat and away you go. The last thing you want is to be fumbling around in the dark looking for your filters or spare memory cards as time slips away. I heard a story of one landscape photographer who, in his haste to get his kit together in the morning, mistook a two-piece pool cue in the wardrobe for his tripod, and didn’t realise his mistake until he came to assemble his gear some miles down the track. I believe there was some swearing involved.

Good preparation also includes finding out everything you can about a new location before you set out. Spend some time researching the area on the internet and in books and maps. Google Earth is a great starting point, and there are often useful tips on the website of the environment department that manages the area you intend to visit. A topographic map will help you identify hill climbs and creek crossings that might slow you down so it’s worth learning how to read one properly. It’s also a good idea to check on weather forecasts, and there are a number of websites that will give you a rundown of recent and forecast conditions for just about any location – I often use While I wouldn’t stake my life on the forecasts being 100% accurate, they’re usually not bad.

Timing is obviously a critical part of the equation. If you have a specific photographic location in mind, like a lookout or a waterfall, it really pays to have been there before so you have some idea of the track conditions and the time it will take to get there. If the area is new to you but you know the approximate distance, then you can reasonably accurately calculate how long it will take to walk. I usually work on about 4 kilometres per hour in flat terrain, and a little less if there are steep hills to negotiate. The aim should be to arrive well before sunrise so there is time to rest, get your equipment ready and scout around for likely vantage points. If you are a little early, then there’s the opportunity to capture star trails and moonscapes – that is a whole lot better than having to run the last 500 metres because the dawn lightshow has already started without you.

Sunset photo shoots are in some ways an easier prospect – a leisurely afternoon hike will put you on the spot with plenty of time to organise your gear and look around for compositions. The downside is that the walk home will be in the dark. Despite the early starts, I tend to prefer sunrise over sunset for landscape photography. By late afternoon, the atmosphere can often have a hazy look due to the buildup of dust, smoke and other pollutants throughout the day – morning light is more likely to have a clear, vibrant quality that will show through in your photographs. On the other hand, in my part of the world and at certain times of the year, morning scenes can be shrouded in mist. If this is the case, embrace it – mist can add wonderful atmosphere to landscape shots particularly when it begins to lift to let in golden rays of morning light.

Of course you won't be able to access more remote locations in a day-hike. If these places are on your agenda then it's time to dust off the camping gear and load up your hiking pack for some more serious trekking.

Camping out
Waking up in a remote spot and being able to crawl out of your tent straight into a photogenic landscape is one of life’s simple pleasures. Nothing will get you more in touch with your surroundings than becoming a part of them – the distractions of modern life and having to be somewhere by a certain time fall away until everything except the present moment is irrelevant. Okay, that’s the ideal situation and what we should aim for – the reality might include a sore back from sleeping on the ground, sore feet from the hike the previous day, bugs biting you and flying into your coffee, and drizzling rain that eventually seeps into everything you own. But the more comfortable you become with these annoyances, and that comes with practice, the more you’ll be able to focus on the here and now and translate that attitude into heartfelt photographic images.

As with out-and-back day hikes, preparation is the key to successful overnight or multiple day hikes and a lot of what I’ve already said above applies here. Find out as much as you can about the area you’re visiting, and make sure you have everything that you need with you and in good working order. There are some ideas on the equipment you should take with you in my article on hiking safety and comfort. Many of the areas you might want to target for an overnight or multiple day photo-hike lie in National Parks or reserves. Bush camping is allowed in a lot of National Parks, but you will usually need to register your intentions and itinerary with the local rangers and fees might apply. It’s in your own best interest that park staff know where you are going, and you’ll often pick up information from them on current track conditions and possibly photographic locations that aren’t widely known.

Queensland's network of Great Walks provides basic amenities for walk-in campers like
timber platforms, pit toilets and rainwater.

The biggest drawback of camping out is that to get to your chosen site, you’ll have to find room in your pack for a tent, sleeping and cooking gear, and extra food and clothes. Add this to your photographic equipment and safety gear and you might start to have second thoughts about your choice. Carrying a 20+kg pack any distance is no laughing matter, and is definitely not for the unfit. Some pre-trip training is a must, and the best training is to load up your pack and head out around your neighbourhood or to the nearest park....and just walk! Try and include some hills in your training regime, and make sure you cover a good distance – a quick walk around the block won’t achieve much. The fitter you can get before taking on the overnight photo-hike, the better state your body and mind will be in to take advantage of the photo opportunities that arise when you get there.

A good compromise
A good approach to accessing out of the way locations for landscape photography lies halfway between the out-and-back day hike and the overnighter. It involves setting up a base camp for a few days at a drive-in camping area, for example in a National Park, and then venturing out to areas of interest each morning and evening. This has the advantage of putting you in touch with your surroundings and close to photo-worthy natural features, without the disadvantage of having to carry your house on your back. It won’t suit every situation, but there are thousands of photographic opportunities within easy day-hiking distance of National Park camping areas in Australia. You might be sharing your base with other campers, but numbers drop off considerably in winter, and even at busy times you’ll invariably have a lookout or waterfall to yourself if you’re prepared to hit the trail before sunrise or stay until after sunset.

A simple base camp like this is a very comfortable way to spend a week photographing
in a National Park.

Well that’s a brief summary of the options as I see them for chasing landscape photography opportunities. Of course you can just drive down to the local beach or swimming hole and come away with very nice shots for very little effort. But if you want something a little different to the norm, it’s worth investing more of your time and energy and seeking out the wilder places this country has to offer.

Photo-hiking – safety and comfort


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Sunday, 26 March 2023

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