Most trip photos are the same: smiling people on mountain summits, canoes in smooth water, a tent in an alpine meadow. These are great shots, but they’re the expected postcard moments. We’ve all seen them a million times. To get photos that tell a genuinely interesting story, it’s time to branch out into new territory.
Photo assignments are a way to help ourselves out of our photographic routines, refresh our creativity, and find the stories that are happening around us unnoticed.
Let’s break the routine. Here are 7 ways get your creative juices flowing and take photos that stand out.
Fear and Tension
Fear and stress are an inherent part of outdoor adventures, whatever our particular sport may be. We all know the gut-clenching feeling when we’re about to drop into a big rapid or the “here it goes” deep breath before a crux move. This tension is usually when we put our cameras away. Don’t. It’s a core part of our story.
Work and Hardship
Even when we’re not doing high-risk activities, the irony of outdoors is voluntarily hardship. A grueling climb uphill with a heavy pack, paddling into a gusting headwind, or a cramped campsite in the rain may not induce fear, but certainly involves discomfort compared to sleeping in our bed. Why we do this and what it brings out is a key part of our lives. Take photos when people are showing the strain or enjoying the adversity.
Photograph how your group works together. Sometimes we work together well—we’re drawn to the outdoors because we love the people we climb, camp, paddle or ski with. The nights of laughter around the campfire are easy stories to tell with images. But don’t stop there. What about making tough decisions about route, deciding to turn around before the summit, reassuring the person who’s not sure they’re up to the challenge? They’re less postcard-y, but equally common, just as true, and stronger images.
Every sport has a substrate we obsess over. How clean the rock is, how much flow is in the river, the shape of the wave, the condition of the snow. Since it matters so much, make the substrate your subject. This will be a challenge to convey to people who aren’t part of your sport, because non-climbers don’t pay such close attention to the texture of rock and non-paddlers don’t obsess about currents. Find a way to convey it anyway. It is your obsession, after all.
Photograph your gear. This may sound odd, but gear is a worthy story. Not because we’re a bunch of gearheads (which is possible), but because our equipment is a fundamental conduit for our experiences. Without skis, there’s no skiing, and our skis control how we feel the snow. Our packs ride heavily on our shoulders all day. We all spend hours waxing skis, coiling rope, and repairing tents and jackets. This wear and tear has it’s own story to tell.
Something You Do Every Day
Photograph something you do every time you go out. Pick any part of your routine: morning coffee, filtering water, collapsing tents, packing a kayak, listening to the forecast, hanging food. Tell this story in multiple images rather than just one. This brings the viewer deeper in. Instead of simply knowing that you do, they’ll get a feel for what the ritual feels like.
Sounds or Smells
This is the hardest assignment. We have five senses, but cameras only capture one. One of the greatest pleasures of the wilds are the sensory cues: the smell of the sea, the crisp morning mountain air, the heat of the desert, being lulled to sleep by a rushing river. Your task is to convey this in a creative, evocative, even abstract way. A photo of the beach won’t necessarily trigger the smell of the sea in the viewer’s mind unless you think hard about how to tell the story.
If all this sounds like you’ve got a fair amount of thinking and shooting ahead of you, you’re right. Remember that photography, like all our outdoor adventures, is a mix of challenge and reward. The ability to distill a complex story into a sequence of a few images is tough…but it also helps us feel the deep richness of our experiences and what ties them all together. That’s why photography is so powerful, and so much fun.