How to plan a trip to, and photograph, the wilderness

How to plan a trip to, and photograph, the wilderness

Glen Tarbert by Simon Willis

Top tips for taking trips to remote places in search of landscapes, nightscapes, wildlife and more

There are few better experiences for photographers than venturing out into the wild. An easy way to escape the monotony of daily life and be creative in a new environment, a wilderness photography trip can be the perfect time to learn new skills and take the kinds of shots you’ve only ever dreamed. However, the world is full of unspoiled wilderness regions waiting to be discovered, so how do you choose?

What do you need to know in advance and what gear will you need to pack? Here are some of our top tips to help you prepare properly for capturing stunning images of nature's wonderlands… 

1 Decide what you want to photograph

Red stag roar. Photo by Mark Bridger - f/4.5 | ISO 1000 | 1/640s

The wilderness is all things to all photographers. What do you want out of your wilderness experience? Maybe you’re a landscape photographer or perhaps it’s nightscapes, wildlife or remote abandoned buildings and outposts you’re after. For landscape photographers, the wilderness might conjure thoughts of mountains and lakes, or it might suggest rugged coastlines and beaches.

Wildlife goes through cycles, it migrates and during some seasons it’s hard to find, depending on the destination. Ditto the night sky, which is equally seasonal and, for example, only displays a bright Milky Way between March and September. Decide what you’re after and pick your destination accordingly.

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If you’re interested in wildlife photography then there are several wilderness experiences you can have, from organized photography-centric African safaris and trips to capture specific animals in specific places to DIY trips to areas where animals roam free. Either way, always respect the animals and their habitats, keeping a safe distance from the animals, never approaching them too closely and certainly never feeding them. The aim should always be to capture their natural behaviour in a wild environment.

2 Do your research

Glen Coe. Photo by Matthew Baxter - f/13 | ISO 100 | 1/8s

Heading off into the wilderness in search of something to take photographs is one way of doing it, but the more sensible way for the organized photographer is to do extensive research. Start by deciding what it is you want to photograph, then do some online research to identify wilderness areas that might work well. Narrow it down to a few then get into the detail. Get to know these potential locations both organizationally and visually.

Find some maps. Identify nearby lodging and campsites and, if necessary, book well ahead. Know when the peak times are for that destination and, if you're after lonely, empty landscapes, visit in the off-season. Learn about the geography, climate and wildlife. Check any regulations or permits required. It’s a time-consuming process and at any point, you may have to strike an idea from your shortlist, but you’ll be left with a few places ideal for you and your photography ambitions.

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Pack wisely. You’ll need to dress for the climate and conditions for the time of year you visit. Bring appropriate clothing, footwear and gear for hiking and camping. A great investment can be a camera backpack, though if you plan to also hike and camp then you’ll need something much bigger. Either way, make sure your backpack is waterproof and comfortable.

3 Buddy up or book a group tour

King penguins on South Georgia Island. Photo by Even Fusdahl Hulleberg - f/10 | ISO 100 | 1/500s

Visiting remote destinations is not easy and it can be dangerous, so it’s helpful to have a more experienced photographer with you, at least at first. That could be a fellow photographer friend – someone who you can go with and rely on to know where to visit and how to plan a trip – or it could mean finding an organized photography group tour.

Going on photography tours is not cheating. Yes, they are expensive, but if you go with a professional photographer they will use their wealth of experience of both photography and of the destination in question to plan everything for you. They’ll also help you get the specific shots you want. As a bonus, they’ll probably do all of the driving, too which can be really handy if it’s a demanding task – such as driving around icy roads in Iceland searching for clear skies to see the northern lights in winter. If nothing else, going on a group tour can prepare you for striking out on your own next time. 

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Some locations necessitate going on a tour, the chief examples being the Arctic and Antarctica regions, which are typically only accessed by booking cruise ships. It’s actually quite difficult to find photography-centric cruises for these destinations and they do bring challenges, not least because landings tend to be sporadic and brief. However, the best advice is to book cruises with as few other passengers as possible, preferably below 100 or so, but no larger than 300. That way you’ll have more time and flexibility. 

4 Plan your itinerary

Iceland sunset. Photo by Martyn Day

If you plan your own trip then come up with a basic itinerary peppered with specific places you want to visit at specific times. This will help you plan your route. However, make sure you allow plenty of time for hiking, exploring, and taking photos because you don’t want to become a victim of an itinerary that lacks flexibility. Nature is unpredictable – both in terms of weather and conditions and the wildlife you may or may not see – so be willing to adapt to changing circumstances to get the best shots.

Some days or nights may well be a write-off in terms of photography, though if you stay for plenty of time and you’re prepared for changing weather conditions and other unexpected events you’ll extract as much as possible from your wilderness trip.

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If you're going to be shooting at dawn and dusk, find out exactly when sunset and sunrise is for each day of your trip. You can then work out when the all-important blue hour and golden hour will occur each day. It's also worth doing an online image search on your chosen destination and poring over what other photographers are taking. 

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4 Cliché shots: embrace or avoid?

Sossusvlei, Namibia. Photo by Marchelle van Zyl - f/10 | ISO 250 | 1/1600s

During your research, you are bound to come across a cliche shot that almost every photographer who visits that destination has a go at. Does the world need any more photos of Yosemite Valley, Dead Vlei in Namibia or Icelandic waterfalls? Perhaps not, but you can still treat it as a photography challenge and have a go yourself. After all, some would say that photographing the same location over and over is what photography is all about because it will look different every time.

In doing your research, you'll be able to see what the cliche angle on a particular subject is, which you may want to avoid in favor of something slightly more unusual. Either way, do your research, and you'll see what is possible in different kinds of weather and at different times a day. That said, an easy way of avoiding any chance of cliche shots is to use a macro lens and take close-up photography, which guarantees you something unique every time.

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Bring all the photography gear you might need. Sure, your final camera bag may be heavy, but there’s nothing worse than being in an iconic location without the perfect lens or, worse, without a tripod just when you need it. Don’t forget essential accessories like filters, a shutter release cable, spare batteries and memory cards. If it’s wildlife you’re after then then bring the longest telephoto lens you can get your hands on – they’re worth their weight and you’ll not regret it. 

5 Going with family

Three Sisters Wilderness. Photo by Shane Kucera - f/8 | ISO 100 | 1/200s

How many photographers have the time and money to plan their own trips to the world? Very few. The reality for most photographers after spectacular landscapes is that they will encounter them while on a family vacation. This brings some challenges. You want to take some incredible photographs but you can't let your hobby interrupt valuable family time.

So what do you do? The most important thing is location. If you want to take your family to, say, camping in a national park, then choose one that you have always wanted to photograph. Either way, you’re going to have your photography time squeezed. Plan ahead of time and choose some specific places you want to visit to photograph. If you can visit a few locations – perhaps before the family wake-up, while they’re on a hike or after they’ve gone to bed – and you get at least some of your dream shots, then you’ll have had a successful trip.

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Battery power is important for photographers, but it’s hard to come by in the wilderness. If your camera can be charged-up using portable batteries then bring a few, swerving solar-powered gadgets, which aren’t efficient enough for photographers just yet.

The exception is a portable power station and a large solar panel, which can run and recharge virtually anything – including camera battery rechargers and laptops. Portable power stations tend to have a high price tag but can sit in the back of a vehicle and provide power for many days, even weeks. Another option is to bring a 12V charger for your camera battery, which can be used in any vehicle to recharge a camera while driving between locations.