Walking With a Camera, Part 2
Where and When to walk with a camera
Paintbrush and Grasses on Logan Pass in Glacier National Park
All of the pictures in this article were taken while walking with a camera,
rather than at famous scenic locations .
Hiking with a camera is a lot more fun and a lot more productive if you do it in the right places at the right times.
All hiking locations fit into a spectrum that has famous-scenic-locations at one end and blah-boring-nothing walks at the other end. If you choose walks near the famous-scenic-location end, you will most likely get some very dramatic pictures that everyone has seen before, zero solitude and a lot of hassles like no parking and mobs of tourists. If you choose the opposite end, you may or may not get good pictures, but you will get solitude, peace and quiet and maybe, if you are lucky and very imaginative, some very original and good pictures. Where you will walk, depends on where you want to be on this continuum.
I often will split the difference. I often show up at the famous locations at dawn or sunset, spend twenty minutes shooting and then move on to an adjacent hike where I can see variations of the great scenic location and still cash in on the good light. These kinds of hikes come in all kinds of formats and lengths. Sometimes I will choose a short hike that gives me differing view of the same famous location but where the crowds never seem to go. For instance I'll go to a great Grand Canyon overlook like Navaho Point, shoot the best of dawn there and then wander away on the Rim Trail for two or tree miles enjoying the early morning light and shooting whatever turns up.
Or I might begin dawn shooting on the shore of Swiftwater Lake at Glacier national Park where I know I'll get some very dramatic shots and then spend the rest of the day hiking around Swiftwater Lake and up to Grinell Glacier. Since this is a five mile hike one way, I'll take my time shooting the best of what I see as I walk up the trail. Then I'll take a long lunch and nap at the far end of the hike and then walk back down to Swift Current Lake in late afternoon and evening and get a lot of nice shots in the soft afternoon light after the sun is behind the mountains. It's good to carry a headlamp in your pack for this kind of hike since you are often not back to the car until after dark. Watch out for bears and moose etc in the dark and be sure and make a lot of noise to let them know you are coming.
And then there is a whole different kind of walking with a camera when you are walking around home, not in some gorgeous national park or seashore. For example when you are taking your daily walk and decide to take your camera along, you generally don't have much choice where you are going to walk, the scenery is probably just not going to be all that great. That's OK. As I said in the last newsletter, you will probably surprise yourself by the quite nice pictures you can take in very ordinary locations once you start paying attention.
I'm lucky, I live in small community in the middle of the New Mexico desert and have great scenery around me all the time. However, most people live in a more urban environment, usually a larger town or the city. Walking with a camera works here too.
I love walking with a camera in the small Maine town my youngest son lives in. I mostly shoot New England houses, and gardens, and flowers and fences and front yards and fall leaves and whatnot. Even here, in a very urban environment, there is a local trail that winds through the pine and hardwood forests that encroach into small towns everywhere in Maine. It is surprising what good shots I find on snowy, foggy days at the small ponds along this trail which runs through the woods a block from my son's house. It's not in the least wild, but I've taken some beautiful pictures there.
I also like walking along and clicking pictures in Boston, which is not far from where my son lives. I think I could take pictures in Boston Common or on the trails along the Charles river or around the Boston Harbour all day long. And I like scenes of the inner city even more, the funkier the better. In the city I'm not looking for wildflowers or sunsets, I'm looking for the lines and colors and shapes of the city in old houses and doors and windows and chimneys and people on the street. I happen to be a nature photographer and work most of the time in places like National Parks and Wilderness Areas. But this isn't the only kind of photography I do. I love to shoot in the city also.
But say you are planing to take some hikes on your next vacation to outdoor destinations, like Joan and I did in late September and early October of this year in Wyoming. Now you will have an opportunity to shoot in some very scenic, natural locations. But, just because you are in a national park, don't hike in just any old place, you can choose the best of the best places to walk.
At the beginning of our trip Joan and I spent two days hiking in and around Laramie, Wyoming where both of us went to college long ago. This was the old-times-remembered part of the trip. Since we were only in the Laramie area for two days, we picked our spots carefully.
We walked one morning in Vedauwoo, which is a beautiful area of stone towers and granite walls and pines east of Laramie where we used to do a lot of rock climbing when we were young and adventurous. Early the next morning we drove through the Snowy Range just west of Laramie and took a short hike in the typical high-alpine scenery there. The following day we drove on to Lander, Wyoming on the edge of the Wind River Mountains where we walked in Sinks Canyon. The next day we drove on to Togwotee pass, the last pass before Jackson Hole. Here we walked around Brooks Lake where we found some wonderful scenery and brilliant aspens. Even though we were shooting at mid-day, which made it considerably less wonderful than it would have been at dawn, with careful scene choice we did get some nice shots.
Next, we hiked for four days in the Tetons in Jackson Hole, one of our most favorite places in the world and then four days in Yellowstone before we headed for home. On our first day in the Tetons we walked all along the East side of Leigh Lake beginning in the early morning. I think this is one of the very nicest places in the Tetons to walk; don't miss it if you are ever in the Tetons. This is such a beautiful place that I can pretty much guarantee you that you will find some very nice shots no matter what the weather or light.
Unfortunately there are a lot of really boring places to hike even in great locations like the Tetons, The Colorado Rockies and the Wyoming Wind Rivers. You really don't need to do these hikes if you are in a great location with a lot of choices. Don't choose hikes that are hours and hours long slogs through dense timber. This, for me, is the worst. (But then there are a lot of New England hikes though miles of trees that end up at incredibly picturesque waterfalls and ponds which make the boring trees worthwhile. Several hikes to a number of picturesque waterfalls near the Swift River in New Hampshire are like this.)
There is a great set of hiking books written by Kathy and Craig Copeland with titles like Don't Waste Your Time in the North Cascades, or Don't Waste Your time in the Canadian Rockies. All of their books tell you which are the great hikes and which are the losers not worth taking. I highly recommend their books.
Look for hikes where you will find wildflowers, autumn leaves, picturesque little creeks, lakes, waterfalls or ponds. There is always a lot of stuff to photograph in places like this. Also, hikes along ridgelines with great long views, or trails with scenic backdrops like a line of mountains on the other side of a lake or hikes along the edge of a great canyon are most always wonderful.
Another way to really add interest and challenge and adventure to a hike, is to dispense with the trail and make your hike a cross country one. Nothing adds interest to a hike like wondering if this great route you are pioneering is going to get cliffed out before you arrive at the destination, or if this ridgeline or canyon is really going to work. One word of caution here. Before you leave the trail, you really need to know what you are doing or you may have a much bigger adventure than you bargained for. You need to have a compass and good topo maps or a good GPS system and you need to be very experienced in the use of these tools.
My oldest son Mike works for the outdoor department of a large private school in Albuquerque and he spends a large part of his life leading high school kids on wilderness backpacking trips in NM and CO as well as taking them on river running adventures. Long ago Mike got bored to death with trails, so most of his trips are off-trail and the most interesting part of the hikes he leads is learning wilderness navigation skills. The kids never seem to get bored on Mike's trips.
Of course you can't hike off trail just anywhere. This is generally frowned upon in National Parks or in delicate environments. The best place for off-trail hiking is in the large, wide-open western wilderness areas. The Wind River Range in Wyoming is a great place for this kind of hiking. A lot of the country is open meadow lands near and above timberline along a dramatic mountain range. Also, it is fairly difficult to get lost in the Wind Rivers as the country is so open you can pretty much see where you are most of time. It does take experience and skill though, so don't jump into this kind of trip until you are sure you know what you are doing.
Where you hike is not the only criteria for a great hike. When you go is also important.
Don't plan your hike for just anytime, choose the two best times of day, dawn or dusk. Mobs of tourists visit our great National Parks every year but most of them really don't see these wonderful places at their most beautiful, because they end up walking them at the worst times of the day, between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon. In my opinion, dawn is by far the best time to walk. The dew is on the grass, it is cool, no one else is around, and the light is often sublime. And you may even catch a glorious red and gold sunrise. A great sunrise isn't necessary though, dawn is always great. It is always a magic time, always a time of magical photographs and memories. By noon the same place is hot, boring, crowded, dusty and humdrum.
The best times not only apply to the right time of day, but also to the right time of year. Some right times of the year to walk are Wildflower Time, Autumn Leaves Time, and Wintertime (with skis or showshoes.) Of course, these times happen at different times in different areas. Plan ahead for the best times in your area. July is wildflower time in the Rockies, but in the Cascades it is more like the beginning of August. The end of September is autumn-leaves time in the Rockies while in Maine it is more like mid October. Get a book on your area and figure out the best times for that location.
Don't skimp on trail guides either. There are a million of them and most will make your hiking better with just a few minutes of study. I like the Falcon Guides. National Park Visitor Centers are also full of all kinds of guide books and picture books for hiking inspiration.
One of the very best places to take good pictures is in our National Parks. If you are traveling during the summer season, this means lots of people, but the parks manage things pretty well so you can get away from most of them. The farther you walk the fewer the people. My favorite parks are Teton, Glacier, Yellowstone, North Cascades, Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Yosemite, Canyonlands and Capital Reef. However, there are great hikes and wonderful pictures in any of the National Parks.
The next best areas to walk in are Wilderness Areas. Here you will find many more miles of walking than in the National Parks, fewer great pictures, a lot fewer people and a lot more solitude. The Wind Rivers of Wyoming is my favorite of the great Wilderness Areas, followed by the wonderful wilderness areas of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Washington. More and more I am moving away from the National Parks to the Wilderness areas for both my hiking and my picture taking.
The next best areas are the National Forests. The Forest Service makes a whole series of maps that are really great. These are the best guides to our National Forests. Forest Service headquarters make a great stop and a good place to buy these maps.
If you want some other good ideas for walking with a camera, you might subscribe to two magazines: Backpacker Magazine and Outdoor Photography Magazine. Both of them are full of great hiking adventures and great spots to find the best scenic photography. Both of them are quite inexpensive. Although both of these magazines are a little on the corny side and both tend to be a little more concerned with consumer issues than I care for, both of them do have a lot of good ideas hidden in amongst the ads. Also, they both have very good online reference libraries of best hikes, worst hikes etc, etc, etc. After having said all that, I have to say that I no longer subscribe to either as I like to discover my own places. It's more fun that way I think.
To find great places to walk with a camera, you don't really have to be in any kind of special scenic area. There are great hiking trails and great pictures to be found along the back roads of just about anywhere. Great pictures are all around us all the time, we just don't see them. The art of taking great pictures is not in having a great camera (although this helps), or in having a huge amount of photographic knowledge but in learning to see and in taking the time to see. And the only way to really see is to get out of the car and walk.
Deadhorse Point Dawn, Pink Rocks and Juniper, Shot from the Canyon Rim Trail
Rough Mules Ears and Red Earth, Capital Reef National Park, Utah
This is part two of a multi-part article on Walking With a Camera.
Part 1 is entitled Pro Photographers Never Hike