Photograph your camping trip :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photograph your camping trip

by David Peterson 1 comment

Everyone loves camping. Well maybe not everyone - some of us love our showers more than we love the great outdoors. But the fact remains, camping is one of the most popular family pastimes. If you are a part of a camping family, and if you have ever had the experience of looking at all of your camping photographs and wondering why they all look the same, keep reading for some tips and tricks on how to capture unique camping photos every time you go on the road with your tent (and your camera).

What you need (and how to take care of it)

It's really a good idea to pack light (gear wise) when you're photographing your camping trip, mainly because you're not going to want to be lugging around a huge camera bag, especially if you're going to be doing something besides just hanging out at the campsite. If you're camping by a lake or beach and you anticipate swimming, consider bringing along a rugged or tough class camera, which are both waterproof and dirt proof, which means you can take it swimming and you can carry it around in the dirt and not have to worry about getting sand or debris inside of it. If you do bring a DSLR, bring only one lens so you don't have to keep swapping it out. Outdoor environments (especially campsites) are full of dust, sand, ash and smoke from the campfire and you don't want any of that getting inside your camera. If you must change lenses, do it in the tent with the zipper closed. Your tent is likely going to be the most dirt-free environment on your trip (unless you have kids), so it's a good idea to do all of your lens swapping there.

The preparations

If you're the guy who does all of the packing every time your family goes camping, I don't have to tell you how much work it is. The last thing that's probably on your mind as you're packing up the car with all those sleeping bags, mattress pads, and cooking gear is taking photographs, but the truth is that the packing experience is as much a part of the event as setting up the tent is. Try to take a few minutes out of your busy schedule to capture a couple of photos of the packing procedure. This could include the food prep (always an event unto itself), or it could include a photo of the car weighted down by all those sleeping bags, duffel bags and camping equipment. Excited kids also make for great additions to the preparation part of the photo series, so photograph them in the car getting ready to pull out of the driveway. If you leave early in the morning, those excited kids may be a lot sleepier — try to capture pictures of them dozing off in the back seat.

Capturing unique photos

Now the thing that is going to make this year's camping photographs different from last year's camping photographs is primarily the destination. So remember that your photos should include some context. Now obviously, that's going to be difficult to achieve with those preparation photos, but you can add some detail to individualize even the journey to your campsite. For example, you could shoot a photo over your wife's shoulder as she looks at a map of the destination. Or, you can photograph the pile of brochures that you obtained when you decided on your destination. When you're on the road, you can photograph the GPS on your car's dashboard, or you can photograph some of the scenery that you drive through, provided that it's in a different direction than you traveled on your last trip.

When you reach your destination you might be tempted to snap a photo of the campground sign or the name of the state park, possibly with your family posed nearby. Those are always fine images for the album, but they don't make for very creative work. Instead, try to capture images that really convey the ambiance of campground itself. A lakeside campground, for example, can be captured effectively by shooting through the trees towards the water. Try to include the tent or some family members in the photo so that it will resonate as a part of the camping experience.

Of course you always have to have a shot of the tent going up, and this is even more important if the process of putting the tent up is usually accompanied by frustration and words your husband really shouldn't be saying in front of the kids. Try to capture the emotion honesty, just don't be so annoying that your tent-builder decides to throw the stakes on the ground and stomp off towards the restrooms, though that might be a really good picture too.

Again, you'll want to make sure that you capture some context in a good portion of your photos, even if that means you're just including some of the native trees in the background. A single pine tree, oak tree or sagebrush can say a lot about where you were camping, so you don't even need to include a lot of scenery, just enough to give your viewer a feeling for the location.

It's a good idea to think ahead, and plan your shots before you even arrive. Think of what is unique about the particular trip you're about to embark on—for example, are you planning to hike to the top of a mountain? Are you trying some new camping recipes? Are you going to visit an event or participate in an activity that's unique to that area? Write down all the different things you might be able to photograph that will distinguish this trip from the one you took last year, or the year before. What if you always do the same thing when you go camping, or you camp at the same place? Now is your chance to plan something special, something that you might not have tried before. Rent kayaks or try some stand-up paddle boarding. Set your kids up with the challenge to build the biggest sandcastle ever. Instead of the standard s'mores, bring along the fixings for campfire cones (ice cream cones filled with marshmallows, strawberries and chocolate chips). In short, do some research, make some plans, and make a shot list. Remember that you don't have to photograph everything on that shot list, but it will give you a good baseline to work from.

Dirt

There are no two ways about it—camping is a dirty experience (unless of course you're glamping, but even then those outdoor activities can still leave their mark on you). This is especially true for kids, who tend to attract dirt in the same way as your campground picnic attracts meat bees. I know as a parent the temptation to attack your offspring with a bucket of wet-wipes is almost overwhelming, but before you do I encourage you to capture a few shots of those dirt covered faces. Dirty children are busy children—they're kids who were playing and exploring (vs. those ultra-clean kids you know who would rather play on your smart phone). So embrace the dirt, at least until the camping trip is over. Shoot some portraits of those dirty kids, and don't forget details like dirty hands, brown shoes that only days earlier were a nice, bright white, and those muddy legs that always seem to appear right after your kids get out of the lake.

The food

Food is a huge part of the camping experience, but if you don't photograph it right it can just look like a mess. Not to mention the part where you can't exactly leave a big spread out on the picnic tables in bear country, or even in raccoon country, so you're going to have to be pretty systematic about the way you photograph it.

Try to arrange your table in an appealing way, and for the sake of the photograph include some of that scenery in the background of at least a few of those shots. Pile those paper plates up with burgers and potato salad, and try not to include too much detail on the paper plates or plastic forks—those are definitely symbols of camping, but let's face it, they don't really make for pretty photos. It's a good idea to choose plain white paper plates so that there isn't too much attention called to the plates themselves. Zoom in to exclude any unimportant details—depending on how close you are you may need to select a narrower aperture so you'll capture as much detail as possible. Again, you may want to include background so if you're shooting with a wider angle from further away, you'll need a wider aperture to help blur out some of what's in the distance. Don't go too blurry—you don't want to erase the background altogether or you won't be able to tell the difference between these photos and the photos you took last year at your backyard barbecue.

It's always a good idea to include shots of your family enjoying the food as well, but remember that faces that are obviously stuffed full of food are generally not that flattering—so it's better to go for that moment just before someone takes the first bite, or when he's just sitting down with that plate full of food.

The campfire

Campfire photos are essential but tricky—if you've ever tried to shoot someone by the light of a campfire you've probably been kind of frustrated by your results. It's easiest to get great campfire shots if you light the fire before full dark—that ambient light is going to make it possible for you to capture detail in the flames as well as in the faces of the people sitting around the fire. Remember that your meter is going to have a tough time with the lighting situation around a campfire because the fire itself will throw off the average, so switch to spot metering and try using your subject's faces to get the exposure right (note that your spot meter is looking for middle gray and not all faces are exactly the right tone, so take a few test shots and check your screen. If the faces are over or underexposed, add or subtract a little exposure compensation.) Don't forget that the light changes pretty rapidly at dusk, so you'll need to keep adjusting your exposure to compensate. Keep an eye on your shutter speed, too, and remember that if it gets much slower than around 1/125 you may get some motion blur in your subjects. Don't be afraid to turn up your ISO a little as the light falls so you won't have to worry about those very slow shutter speeds until you get to full dark.

Golden hour

Camping is the perfect opportunity to capture golden hour photographs—you're in the great outdoors and you're going to have some beautiful scenery to go along with that soft, golden sunset light. Try capturing some lens flare, whether it's beams of light breaking through the trees or that soft, low contrast veiling glare that you get when you backlight your subject at sunset. Don't squander this opportunity—I think you'll find that those golden hour photos will be some of your favorites from the outing.

Conclusion

Taking photos while camping can be just as much fun as the act of camping itself, but don't forget to join your family in th fun rather than just hanging back and taking photos. You want to capture the experience, but not at the expense of your own personal experience. So make sure you put the camera down long enough to roast a marshmallow or try out that paddleboard. At the end of the trip, you want to be able to look back on those memories both in your own mind as well as on those memory cards.

Summary:

  1. What you need
    • Pack light
    • Consider a "rugged" camera
    • Avoid changing lenses
  2. Photograph the preparations
    • Packing the car
    • Making the food
    • Ready to go
  3. Unique photos
    • Include some context
    • Make a shot list
  4. What to photograph
    • Putting up the tent
    • Dirty kids
    • The food
    • The campfire
    • Golden hour activities

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Comments

  1. Ronald Berman says:

    Thanks, David.
    This was a very nice summary of the essentials needed for good camping trip photos. Your suggestion for us not to forget to turn up the ISO a little (or more) as the light falls is good to remember. We all know that a low ISO gives great clarity and ability to make enlargements, however a low ISO isn't any good at all if the photo comes out to be a great big blur, so that's a point that we always need to be reminded of - if the shutter speed gets too low, remember to turn up the ISO. And the Golden Hour goes by very quickly, so guys and gals, when the Golden Hour starts, quit eating Smores and grab your camera! Pretty soon it will be dark.
    Great article. Thanks much!
    Ron

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
17 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.