Backpacker Photo School: September Contest Finalists

Why does a certain photo win Backpacker's Photo Contest? Check out the winner and the almost-winners to find out why we liked them. Bonus: Watch a slideshow of the competition.

And the winner is... Don Sender, of Washington, D.C.! We published his Yosemite photo in the September 2010 issue. He snapped this homestretch view of Half Dome. “The guy with the hat was looking up at the climbers," he says of the photo. "His pose is one everyone makes when they first see how steep the hike’s last section looks.”

To get a similar shot: Use a wide-angle lens (Don used a 14mm), so you can fit the entire headwall in the photo. To make the subject loom larger, frame it all the way to the edges. Having tiny “ant people” in view conveys the grand scale.

Speaking of conveying the grand scale of Yosemite, almost everyone stops to admire Tunnel View along the drive into Yosemite Valley, but in order to gather it all into one image, Don Sender used his wide angle again. He fit in El Cap and Bridalveil Falls along with mountains bathed in sunlight to capture this photo, which became a finalist in the contest. But what really makes this photo unique and interesting is the rainbow. What good timing! The shadows and light play across the mountains, creating a moody feeling. The rainbow and the horizon of the mountains create leading lines, drawing a viewer deeper into the left-hand side of the picture and then the brightness draws the eyes back to the right again. The waterfall adds interest when your eyes move to that dark area. If this were just a darkened valley, only those familiar with Yosemite would know to appreciate the view of Half Dome way in the background and El Cap framing the edge of the picture to the left. But with the waterfall, any viewer is rewarded for looking a moment longer and letting their eyes travel through the photo. Great composition, Don.

The next finalist image is another example of using composition to create an inspirational image. Janice Anderson of Truckee, Calif. composed this shot on a five-day backpacking trip in Northern India. She filled the whole image with mountains, making it look as if they would explode out of the picture if they were any bigger. The person in the foreground is wearing red, a nice pop of color lit up against a clean, darkened background. He is placed off-center, balancing against all the mountains on the left hand side. That ridgeline angles down toward him, creating a line for the eye to follow. This photo uses layers to draw a viewer deeper. The hiker in the foreground, ridgeline in the middle, and peaks in the background are all interesting and inspiring elements that come together beautifully to make a dramatic photograph.

Peter Massini's photo of a bear in Glacier National Park is the only non-wide-angle shot that was chosen as a finalist this month. He came across this guy on the Bowman Lake Trail, capturing a moment that every backpacker simultaneously longs for and fears. His 200mm lens allowed him to get a close-up on the bear's face. The aperture was f/5.6, creating a thin depth of field, which is why the face of the bear is in focus, but the background is blurred out. The exposure is dialed just right to keep the highlight on the bear's nose from blowing out. Enough of the bear is lit up to see it clearly, but the shadowed side of the bear brings in an element of mystery and unknown, and a bit of uneasiness. This works well for a subject like a bear, which brings tension to the scene. It might not work as well with a less frightening animal like a horse or dog.

The last finalist this month is Sarah Metzger's ultra-classic wildflower photo from the Boulder Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. She underexposed 2/3 of a stop so that the bright flowers wouldn't get blown out and all colors would be rich and saturated. Like the India photo above, this image has a lot of layers that continually draw the viewer deeper into the image. The flowers on the left fall against a darkened hillside, so they stand out clearly, and then the eye travels to the big mountain in the center and finally to the background mountains far in the distance. This is definitely a place I would love to be.

For more inspiration, check out 10 more photos we loved from this month's contest—it's too bad they can't all be winners. To enter your favorite trail photos into the next photo contest, read the contest rules at and send them in.

–Genny Fullerton