Walking photography

The walker’s experience is a rich one, for many reasons: it’s not just about the activity itself but the people we share it with, the places we get to, and the things we see. Which rather suggests that a walking photographer is also a portrait photographer, a landscape photographer, maybe a wildlife photographer, and more besides.

To be a versatile photographer, you may need a versatile camera. But we’ll turn the customary order on its head and leave all thoughts of gear to the end. Let’s think about walking and what sort of images we may want to capture. The usual – and usually posed – ‘enjoying the view’ shots are fine, but walking is about more than this; it’s about being in the landscape, moving through it, engaging with it. And what this means to me is that walking photography isn’t just something to dip into at summits and other rest stops.

Photography is a non-stop process. I don’t mean that you need to be taking photos continuously, or even have camera permanently in hand; I do mean that photography is always on your mind, or bubbling away at the back of your mind.

To me this doesn’t distract from the pleasure of the walk; it adds to it. It breeds alertness, which means I’ll probably see more than I would have done otherwise. Admittedly this does mean that conversations during walks can be disjointed. And it’s not just that my attention can seem to wander: I’ll regularly break off without warning to hurry on ahead, drop back, or slope off to one side.

However, interrupting a cosy chat is a small price to pay for better photos of your walking companions and of the places you’ve been together.  They should be grateful!

Stepping aside from the trail means you can show it in its setting and also that your photos of other walkers aren’t limited to front or rear views. Of course stepping aside isn’t always safe, or even possible – pick your spots with some common sense! Sometimes you don’t need to step off the trail – a bend or switchback can do the job for you.

The posed shot isn’t just static: it can all too easily look... well, posed: people often become stiff and unnatural. Sometimes they’ll relax after you take a shot and you can grab a second shot with a more spontaneous feel. In fact, many of the best shots are neither completely posed nor completely candid. You might call them ‘set up’ or ‘guided’ shots. 

For instance, you could simply ask someone to pass a certain rock on the left side, or to stay at the edge of a wide path, if it will help the shot. Often, just asking them to glance over at the view as they walk along a certain stretch will improve the shot – and it’s no real hardship for the ‘model’! The sideways glance is particularly beneficial for those rear-view shots, making the person less anonymous and connecting them more strongly to the landscape.

If you walk alone, there are two ways to get some human interest in the photos: shoot other people you happen to meet, or put yourself in the picture. This is usually done with a self-timer but many cameras also now allow you to trip the shutter with an infra-red remote control. With a little practice you can operate this very inconspicuously: you don’t need to have your arm raised and pointing straight at the camera!

Camera choices

‘A versatile camera’ we said at the start. A camera for walking photography may not have to tackle super-fast action as in mountain biking or downhill skiing, but it still needs to cope with a wide range of subjects and conditions. One of the most useful features is a good lens range. A long reach at the telephoto end is great for wildlife and for distant shots of walkers in the landscape, but my first priority is nearly always the wide-angle end of the range.

To me, 28mm-equivalent is the bare minimum. This eliminates vast numbers of compact cameras at a stroke. On most SLRs, 18mm gets you about the same angle of view but you can always go wider by fitting a different lens. The same is true of the growing number of ‘compact system cameras’, though you have to read the small print as the same lens focal length can give a different angle of view on different cameras. (For more on camera choice see ‘Body Language’ in June 2010’s OE–though of course the story has moved on since then).

These rapidly-developing compact system cameras are worth a serious look for any serious walker. They promise the same sort of image quality as more traditional SLRs, making them much better than any compact, especially in more difficult conditions, but in a smaller and lighter package. Shop carefully, though; some have an electronic viewfinder, while on others viewing is on the rear screen only. This can create problems in bright sunlight and is inevitably awkward and wobbly with longer, heavier lenses.

As ever, carrying the camera is a significant issue. A compact may slip into a pocket, but higher-performance cameras and their larger lenses aren’t quite so easily disposed of. Carrying the camera round your neck is OK on easy walking, but it’s vulnerable to knocks as soon as you have a bit of scrambling or even a stile to climb. Jacket-zips can easily scratch the camera – that vital rear screen is especially vulnerable. My preferred solution is a padded pouch on a waist-belt; it normally rides on my left hip. The camera’s well-protected but accessible in less than a second. Those great photo-opportunities won’t always hang around while you fumble with rucksack straps.

Camera settings

It seems perfectly logical to think that you’d use Landscape mode for the ‘places’ shots, Portrait mode for the ‘people’ shots, and Action mode for your action and wildlife photos.

However, these modes don’t just determine shutter speed and aperture, but also affect many aspects of the way the camera processes the shot, so that Portrait mode shots may have more subdued colours and lower contrast than Landscape ones. These shifts in the ‘look’ aren’t necessarily desirable when you’re shooting a whole sequence of shots which are intended to tell the story of the walk.

Also, some cameras make it far more fiddly than it should be to switch between modes; when you’re on a walk and you could be switching continuously between Portrait, Landscape and Action, this could become a real pain.

I prefer to shoot fairly consistently in Aperture or Shutter Priority, or even good old Manual. This means that the image processing (and therefore qualities of colour and contrast) will be consistent throughout the shoot, and I only have to worry about setting the right aperture or shutter speed.

Walking may not involve the white-hot action of other pursuits, but it is still action, and moving figures can become blurred if the shutter speed is too slow – especially when they’re large in the frame. For the average walker, 1/125 second will usually give a pretty sharp result, but for more energetic moves, like leaping across a stream, you’ll need something faster. Most cameras have a Sports or Action mode which aims to set a fast shutter speed, but Shutter Priority gives you direct control.