1. Have your camera ready to shoot. Carry it on your chest, shoulder strap or hip belt. This is easy with a smartphone but a bit more challenging with a DSLR. Use a chest harness or shoulder/hip belt. Don’t rely on taking off your pack every time you want to take some photos. Simply using a neck strap and having your camera bouncing off your abdomen as you hike down the trail is awkward, uncomfortable and increases risk of damage to the camera.
2. Camp High. Most campers/backpackers like to nestle in shelter in lower lying areas, close to water. When camped in a valley, the sun goes behind terrain or stays behind terrain in the morning, long before or after the colors and light are at their best. Yes, being up high means risking exposure to weather. You need a bombproof tent and the knowledge to pitch it correctly but up high is where the best light and views are! It doesn’t always mean camping on ridge tops, but ideally, high enough to catch twilight and the very first and last rays of light hitting interesting terrain in both foreground and background. Even in desert locations like the Grand Canyon, we prefer to carry water a little ways to a high dry camp with better views and light.
3. Start early, end late. Duh! Sometimes you have to state the obvious but the best light is at the ends of the day! And if you are up high, you stand a better chance of capturing magical light than if you are in trees or canyons. We like hiking late or pre-sunrise to get the best hiking in the landscape imagery. Twilight, alpenglow and night images also work better in open terrain. If you have a sturdy but light tripod or you are in open country with rocks, you can stabilize your camera and take long exposures, say in the 1/4 second to 20 second range and capture the soft colors of twilight balancing with the light of a headlamp or tent light. It is not uncommon for us to hike to a pass or ridge for a sunset and return to camp or trailhead under headlamp.
4. Photograph people more and avoid direct sunlight on faces.Don’t just focus on the act of hiking within a beautiful setting. Focus on what happens before, in between, and after the action.
As far as lighting people goes, direct sun on faces is harsh and unflattering. Shadows under hat brims, eyes, under the nose and chin will appear darker and harsher in a photo than they do to the naked eye. The only exception to lighting a face with direct sun and getting flattering results would be when the sun is literally sitting on the horizon going through maximum atmospheric to soften the harsh sun.
The best natural light for peoples faces is on bright cloudy days. On sunny days, turn your subject away from the light (backlight) and place them against a dark background such as shadowed rock cliffs or dark forest. The goal is to keep the light even and soft on your subjects’ faces. (To avoid faces appearing muddy and dark, see tip 5 below.) Most backpackers do not carry a flash (strobe, speed light) with them on the trail. But, many point and shoot cameras and lightweight mirrorless cameras come with a little pop-up flash. If you have one, use it! They are great tools for filling in harsh facial shadows in hard sunlight. The trick is to stay close. When using a small flash the effective range is almost always closer than 8 feet.
5. Add light to bright scenes.Yes, you heard that right. Most landscapes involve lots of sky, water (we all love shooting alpine lakes) and/or snowy landscapes. All these surfaces are brighter than middle tone and can fool light meters even in pro level cameras. Even though high-end cameras divide the image area into multiple zones (referred to as “evaluative” or “matrix” metering) and average them, if most of the zones are bright, then your meter reading will be faulty. This is because your meter renders whatever it is averaging to be middle tone. Sky, even with dark clouds, reflective water, light colored rock and snow are all brighter than middle tone! So add exposure to your camera’s reading to bring the tones described above back to where they need to be.
When photographing faces as described in tip 4, where you turn your subject away from the sun, their faces will appear dark and muddy, unless you add light to your camera’s suggested exposure. Many cameras today, including DSLR’s and mirrorless, will allow you to dial in exposure compensation (adding light) when you are using a program mode such as full automatic, aperture, or shutter priority modes.