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How to Photograph Faces on Trail

Turn your lens toward those we share the trail with. Adding people to your photographs helps to convey scale, a sense of place and a peek into the human experience.

By Ian Terry

Many of us take our cameras into the wild with the hope of capturing a piece of nature’s beauty. Sometimes, though, we get so caught up in photographing landscapes, wildlife and sunsets that we forget to turn our lenses toward those we share the trail with. Adding people to your photographs helps to convey scale, a sense of place and a peek into the human experience.

Photo by Ian Terry.


We’re all social creatures, and we use what we see in other people to gain information. Imagine, for a moment, a lonely piece of desert singletrack. Without people, we may not be able to tell much beyond the basics. But with people, we learn a lot. Are they in shorts and T-shirts or bundled up in sweaters? Are they hiking with big packs—perhaps suggesting a backcountry location—or is it a family, laughing as they stroll along? Images of people provide subtle clues that give context to an image.


Photographing people in nature also helps provide a sense of scale. Without a friend to hug that giant Douglas-fir, we lose the ability to show how massive it really is. Images of a mountain summit have much more impact if we can also see a tiny group of climbers below, slowly making their way to the top. Without scale, pictures lack intrigue and lose their magic.


While it’d be nice to have a slew of models to re-walk sections of trail until you get the perfect shot, most of us don’t have that option. Instead, line up your composition and set your exposure beforehand. Then, wait for someone to walk into the frame. If you’re with friends, walk up ahead of them and photograph from the front. Faces are important to include in your pictures because they provide the most important connection to viewers. Use a telephoto lens to compress your subject in with their surroundings.


Staged pictures can work in a pinch, but it’s impossible to recreate a truly candid moment. Photographs of someone laying eyes on a panoramic vista for the first time, smiling at the joy of walking through a meadow of wildflowers or wincing at the stinging cold of a river crossing are slices in time. Great photography tells a story. To give yourself the best chance of capturing a candid moment, place yourself somewhere along the trail that will allow you to see a person’s reaction to something. Thinking strategically about this will help you decide on the most interesting vantage point. Keep your camera out and available. Consider buying camera straps with rubber coating, which means your camera won’t slip off . Also, there is no reason to cover your lens with a lens cap when you’re not shooting—you may keep off a spec of dust, but you may also miss a great moment while you fumble with your lens cap.

Photo by Breanna Singleton.


  • Sunlight: Shooting with the sun at your back will fully illuminate your subject and provide a nice contrast in the image. But be wary as it can also look harsh and unflattering on people by creating dark shadows. When photographing faces in full sunlight, try to position yourself so your subject’s face is either completely sunlit or completely in shadow.
  • Overcast: Cloudy conditions are the most photographically forgiving because of the soft and predictable light. This is ideal for portraits and other scenarios where an even light is desired. Clouds may hinder viewpoints, but they make for great conditions to snap photos of your friends and fellow hikers.
  • Partly cloudy: If done correctly, photographs taken in uneven light can have incredible pop and an interesting look. By exposing for the brightest part of an image, photographers can highlight their subjects and allow all other details to appear solid black.
  • Time of day: Early morning and late evening are the best times to photograph people on the trail. The golden rays of a sunrise or sunset give your subject’s skin a healthy looking glow and deep vibrant colors.