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Home Go Outside Trail Smarts Don’t Miss the Shot: Tips for Capturing Spontaneous Outdoor Photos

Don’t Miss the Shot: Tips for Capturing Spontaneous Outdoor Photos

If you — and your camera — are ready, you can capture the spontaneous magic of hiking

Story and photos by Doug Diekema

We’ve all experienced it. Confronted with an amazing photographic opportunity, we fumble for our camera, turn it on, remove the lens cap, raise the camera, adjust a setting or two and … it’s gone. It has happened to me more often than I’d like to admit. Clouds cover up the sunlit peak before I can access my camera. An otherwise lovely photo is ruined because of a smudge on the lens. My battery dies just as I push the shutter release. Most recently, it was a great blue heron flying low over a lake only about 20 feet away. With my camera ready, it would have been an amazing photo. But the bird was gone before I could pull the camera out of the bag, turn it on and remove the lens cap.

Despite your best efforts, missed opportunities will remain a part of your life as a photographer, but there are some simple things you can do to enhance your chances of capturing those beautiful images that appear unexpectedly and disappear quickly.

A marmot sits on a rock off trail, enjoying the sunshine.
Wildlife moves quickly, so it's helpful to have your camera ready in case you come across some.

Prepare your gear

Whether you’re shooting with a phone or a larger dedicated camera, a little time spent on pre-trip preparation will spare you future regret. Take the time to learn how to use the features on your camera. Even camera phones have options, buried menus and control features that you should master before you get in the field. Fully charge the camera or phone battery before you hit the trail, make sure there is plenty of room on the memory card and carry a spare battery and memory card just in case. Finally, clean the lens (yes, especially on your phone) at the beginning of the trip and check it frequently for smudges and dirt during your hike.

Keep the camera close

Rainbows, pikas and sunbeams on a cloudy day don’t stick around for long. Keeping the camera in your backpack is not compatible with capturing wildlife photos, spontaneous and fun compositions of your hiking partners or rapidly changing lighting. If you find yourself in a situation where you hope to shoot a specific subject that you know will be fleeting, the camera should be in your hand. That is often not feasible or even safe when hiking, so having a readily accessible place to keep the camera is important. I use a front-facing hip belt that is just large enough to hold my camera. It keeps the camera in front of me and close to my hands. Unless I’m on unsteady terrain, the zipper is often open so that I can have the camera up to my eye within 3–5 seconds. I’ve missed several opportunities while fumbling to take the lens cap off, so when I’m in a situation where I may need to shoot quickly, I keep the lens cap off.

Have the camera ready to go

The camera should always be preset to those settings that are most appropriate for the expected conditions. My default settings include auto-focus, either auto white balance or the most appropriate setting for the conditions on that day, and an autoexposure setting. Plan for the photos you’d like to capture. If I’m expecting to photograph wildlife or moving people, I’ll use shutter priority auto-exposure to make sure I don’t get blurry photos. If I’m primarily shooting landscapes and want to be ready for changing light, I’ll use aperture priority to get a greater depth of field. My practice is to shoot several photos quickly using those default settings to avoid missing a shot altogether. Then, I’ll look at the histogram and image and refine my settings if the opportunity has not passed.

A view down a lush river valley with a mountain rising out from the end.
The clouds and lighting played together perfectly near Mount Olympus.

Expect the unexpected

Some of my favorite photographs are those that were completely unexpected. A sunlit peak isolated within dark clouds. The sudden appearance of a rainbow. A wolverine running across the Alaskan tundra. My hiking partners doing something completely fun and spontaneous. Those things often occur when we’re headed back from the “main event” and assume we’re done for the day. The only way you’ll be ready for those moments is to keep the camera accessible, set up and ready to go.

Anticipate and plan ahead

While we can’t control when an animal will appear or the clouds will allow the sun to break through, we can anticipate when and where these things are likely to happen and position ourselves to capture the composition we want. This is particularly true with photos of our hiking partners. While posed photos can be memorable and creative, the best people pictures are often those taken when the subjects are spontaneous and unaware that they are being photographed. That does require some preplanning. The best photos of hikers are taken from the front (not the back!), and you can plan for that by getting ahead of your group and finding a position that allows you to photograph your partners from the front with optimal lighting and a great background. I love a telephoto lens for those moments, since it compresses the scene, creates a nice background blur and makes your subjects less self-conscious.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.