The Guide to iPhone Hiking Photography

“What kind of camera do you use?” is something photographers get asked frequently. We like to talk gear just as much as any other hiker or backpacker. But, my answer more often than not takes people by surprise. Several of my photos don’t come from my fancy Canon EOS Rebel T5 DSLR, but my trusty iPhone 7.

Reason number one: It’s smaller, lighter, and always by side. For instance, when I’m on a trail run, I don’t typically carry along a big camera and lenses.

Secondly, the formula for successful landscape photography boils down to three things. While equipment, talent, and skill are essential, dedication routinely comes in as the most important. If you are truly motivated and dedicated to getting the perfect shot, and you are constantly putting yourself in position to do so, success will happen, even if you’re only shooting with a smartphone.

As well, knowing how to properly use your iPhone saves pack weight and space, as well as time and money. And, if you know what you’re doing, the shots will be just as impressive.

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Framing the Shot

In your photo, obviously pay attention to the framing and composition. Step one: Hold your phone sideways. One of the first mistakes many make when taking photos while hiking is holding the phone upright, in a “portrait” orientation. Typically, up-and-down shooting should be avoided in landscape photography, with few exceptions, like a waterfall.

From there, even out the photo with a good balance of background and foreground. As a guide, think about the rule of thirds. If you break your photo into three parts, both vertically and horizontally, you can line up your subjects and frame your shots. You can also turn these lines on through your phone’s settings menu, under “Photos & Camera.”

Also take into account where the horizon is. Keeping this as level as possible will result in a more realistic-looking photograph. For certain shots, you’ll want to achieve as much symmetry as possible, even though this may go against the rule of thirds. This can be tricky, and typically should only be used for certain shots, such as bodies of water.

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If you’re taking a photo of your hiking partner, you can apply the same rules to frame the photo. For instance, if you are shooting at sunrise or sunset, you can focus on the background to create a great silhouetted image. Or, if shooting during the day, try to face the sun’s opposite direction to allow both your subject and the background to be visible. Your phone will typically focus on both, resulting in a great image of your partner.

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Lighting

Lighting can make or break a photo. Pay attention to where the sun is in the sky in relation to your shot’s direction. Having the sun behind you is usually best, because facing it can result in glare or a more faded-looking image. As such, usually the best time of day for shooting is early morning or evening, when the sun is lower in the sky. Therefore, less “harsh light” will affect your photos.

If you are shooting a sunrise or sunset, you’ll want to be facing the sun. But, also take into account that anything but a direct shot focusing on the sun will typically result in a flare or similar spot.

A helpful iPhone tool, the HDR setting allows the phone to take two versions of the same photograph, usually with the HDR version resulting in better quality. HDR comes in handy when you are shooting things such as a mountain in the foreground and a brighter sky in the background. Typically, this results in a washed-out sky or a dark, shadowy foreground.

If set to “Auto,” HDR will bring both the background and foreground into focus with proper exposure, resulting in an image exactly as you saw it. While shooting, you can also use the slider next to the focus box to easily change the exposure value. Just tap where you want the camera to focus, and then, by sliding your finger up or down, change the exposure to brighten or darken to reach your desired result.

Editing Basics

The key to taking a good photo is simply that. But, it can also be valuable to touch it up and perfect your shot before throwing it up on Instagram. And, believe it or not, you don’t need fancy editing software for that. In fact, the iPhone has some pretty great built-in basic editing tools, available just by clicking the slider bar button below the photo.

For instance, to determine if the photo is level, select the “Crop” button first. Then, the iPhone will sense if the photograph is off from the horizon line, and will automatically correct the error for you.

As well, a dial button will bring up three different lighting modes: Light, Color, and B&W. Using the Light option slider, brighten your photo by automatically changing the shot’s various aspects (contrast, brightness, shadows, etc.), while the Color adjuster slider does the same thing with the different elements comprising the photo’s coloring (saturation, contrast, etc.). As a good rule of thumb for most landscape photos, increase both of these slightly in order to make your photo look more vibrant and colorful while still retaining a realistic look and feel.

But, be careful not to over-edit. Your photos probably won’t look nearly as beautiful as you remember the actual scene being, which leads to people overcompensating and editing far more than they should, including over-saturation or increasing HDR or other similar filters too much. Thus, try to keep the editing to the bare minimum, so your photos look realistic while matching the memory you have.

Happy shooting, and share your finished shots with us by using the hashtag #goEast!

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All photos credit: Joshua Myers