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Backpacker Magazine – January 2014

Readers' Choice 2014: Skills - Photography

One reader learns how to make the most of his backcountry shots.

Put the camera very low to get a unique perspectve.
Put the camera very low to get a unique perspectve.


Fred Backhaus
Langhorne, PA

This enthusiastic shooter was drowning in too many bad hiking photos.

Compose and capture images thoughtfully and implement a simple editing and organization system.

Backhaus, 43, has the passion required for great backcountry photography. So much so, in fact, that he’d come home from hikes with hundreds of mundane shots of rocks, trees, and his frustrated kids. Once home, his unedited, unorganized photos piled up on his computer, never to be seen again. “It’s so tedious, it makes me not want to take pictures anymore,” he confessed in his application.

The Makeover
Backhaus consulted with BACKPACKER Photo Editor Genny Fullerton, who walked him through choosing better subjects, exposure, composition, photo editing, and filing his shots, whether he was shooting with a DSLR or a point-and-shoot. Last fall, he and Fullerton met up for a hands-on photography tutorial.

Shoot on the Go
Be ready for fleeting photo ops (and keep from annoying your partners with endless camera futzing) with these tips.

Have gear accessible. Carry your camera and lenses in a chest pack, not buried in your backpack. BACKPACKER’s staff photographer likes the Cotton Carrier Camera Vest ($150;

Speed up. Hike ahead of the group and get in position to shoot as they approach you for the most flattering photos. (Good: friends’ faces. Bad: friends’ butts.) Scramble above the trail to get wider shots that put your buddies in perspective with the scenery.

Use rest breaks. Breaks are a great opportunity for candids. Take them in scenic spots with even lighting (full sun or full shade, not splotchy). Snack on the go so that you’re ready to shoot when others stop.

Get the Most Out of a Point-and-Shoot
You don’t need an expensive DSLR to nail impressive shots—you just need to know your way around the camera you have.

Take your time. Most point-and-shoots need an extra moment to focus; hold the camera steady until the shot is complete.

Lock in settings. Press the shutter halfway down to lock exposure and focus. Fine-tune your composition, then press it all the way down.

Improve exposure. It’s tough to judge proper exposure on a small camera’s LCD screen, which tends to result in overexposed images. After taking a photo, check the image’s histogram: This graph shows the image’s distribution of dark tones (on the left) and light tones (right). Spikes on either edge indicate under- or overexposure. To darken, dial down the camera’s exposure compensation (many cameras have a button that looks like this:); to let in more light, dial it higher. Fullerton finds - is usually her best bet outdoors. 


Shoot in RAW (if your camera supports it). “You might think RAW is for experts, but really, it’s for people who mess up a lot,” Fullerton says. This unprocessed file format gives you more flexibility while editing (as opposed to a JPEG, which is already compressed and processed).

Master 3 Essential Edits

White Balance Neutralizes color casts and tints (like the blue tones that can creep into photos shot in the shade)

Contrast/Sharpness Darkens dark tones and brightens light ones to bring out detail and emphasize texture

Shadows adjustment Lightens the dark parts of the image without overbrightening the lighter areas.

Fullerton uses Adobe Lightroom ($149; for editing and organizing photos. Not only does this software serve as a catalog for your files, it’s a non-destructive editing program (meaning it won’t overwrite your original).

Organize Your Photos

The single most common mistake rookies make when sorting shots: renaming photos in a generic, hard-to-search way (“boys on the beach,” “summer vacation”). Here are two ways to keep photos in order:

Simple Create a new folder on your computer for every trip. Start with the date (year, month, day), then add a place descriptor: 2013 0312 Yellowstone NP.


Advanced Rename a given group of shots at once using your program’s batch rename tool when you upload them. Create a method and stick to it so your photos will autosort (Fullerton uses her name, date taken, then the file number assigned by the camera). If your software supports keywords, add them on import (ex. “Longs Peak” or “Sol Duc Falls”)—otherwise, you’ll never go back to organize them. This will make your shots much easier to sort and search later.

Dial in Exposure

Imagine the light in your camera is on a scale that needs to balance; if you add more light by slowing the shutter speed, you also must subtract some by narrowing the aperture and/or lowering the ISO*

-2 . . 1 . . . . 1 . . +2

Start by checking your camera's exposure meter (above) and bringing the arrow as close to 0 as possible. Check your histogram to see if you need to compensate higher or lower. Then, when you make an adjustment to get a desired effect (below), also change the other factors until your meter goes back to the proper exposure.

Desired Effect Primary Adjustment Also Change... Note
Motion Blur (silky water, fast-moving subject) Slow down shutter Close aperture and/or lower ISO Slower shutters up the risk for camera shake; use a tripod.
Freeze-framed action (fast-moving people or wildlife) Speed up shutter Widen aperture and/or increase ISO Wider apertures mean a narrower field of focus.
Selective focus (sharp subject, blurred fore- or background Open aperture wide (f/5.6 or lower) Speed up shutter and/or lower ISO Double-check that you're focused on your subject.
Low-light shots Increase ISO Widen aperture and slow shutter High ISOs up risk of noise (graininess)

The Trip
Last October, Backhaus and Fullerton hiked in Pennsylvania’s Evansburg and Lehigh Gorge State Parks to practice capturing bright fall foliage and flowing waterfalls. They chose the forest to take advantage of the cloudy day’s diffused, even light (which doesn’t cast harsh shadows). “I learned how to focus on what pictures I want to take, which makes me concentrate on quality over quantity,” Backhaus says. “I’ve been on several family hikes since the makeover, and my boys also appreciate the lessons I’ve learned!”

Winner Wisdom

Study your camera. “Using manual mode isn’t as scary as you think. Learn how to adjust shutter speed, aperture, and ISO on your camera before you do anything else.”

Get some coaching. “Ask a more experienced friend to join your next hike or take a workshop (or enter a makeover contest!). The information finally stuck when someone took photos with me.”

Don’t rely on editing. “Editing should involve a short range of adjustments. Follow the tips above, and the camera will do most of the work.”

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