What makes a truly great outdoor photo? Better yet, how does the camera (meaning the photographer) best capture the magic of the moment? As any hiker, traveler or lover of the outdoors knows, there are those special times when you want a permanent record of that transcendent experience in the wild. It could be an evening sky in the mountains, morning dew on the leaves, or the untamed energy of a river. A photo holds onto that cherished memory. To help beginning and amateur photographers channel their inner Ansel Adams, Planet Wild and RailRiders Adventure Clothing asked outdoor photographer Crystal Brindle for her advice on taking super snaps of the great outdoors. Crystal, who is a Team RailRiders member, is currently a hut warden in a New Zealand national park. All photos on this page are by Crystal. Her portfolio can be viewed here: www.inpursuitofthewild.com
Question: First of all, where did you grow up and go to college? What did your studies focus on?
Crystal Brindle: I didn’t grow up in one place; instead, I moved every few years with my family to national parks across the country. I was born in California, spent twelve years in various places in Texas, and went to college in Fort Collins, Colorado. I studied natural resources and parks at Colorado State University and graduated in May with a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism.
Q: When did you first start taking photos, and why?
CB: Just over two years ago I began taking photos of landscapes with a newly purchased DSLR camera (the same that I still use today). However, long before I dove into landscape photography, I had an interest in the power of photos. I have always loved sharing knowledge and telling stories about places and did so for many years without the help of a camera. Somewhere along the way I realized that the detail and emotion I so desperately wished to share with others was only possible through the use of tangible imagery. Photography went from only a tool to an exclusive hobby shortly after I received my first DSLR. In short, I started taking photos because I wanted to share the beauty of my surroundings (some of the finest protected areas in the world) with others in the simplest and most true-to-nature form.
Q: What was your first camera?
CB: My first and only camera is the Nikon D5100. This affordable, yet capable, camera has performed in every situation I have encountered. In the near future I would like to upgrade to a full frame DSLR, but currently, my Nikon D5100 does everything that I need.
CB: I currently use a Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8 and a Nikon 16-85 mm VR f.3.5 lens for my landscape photos. Both of these lenses are suited for cropped sensor DSLRs and perform well. The Tokina is my favorite because of its sharpness and wide angle capabilities. Also, its wide aperture is crucial for night photography. I recently purchased the Nikon lens in order to diversify my compositions and help me learn to compress certain landscape scenes.
Q: What are some common rookie mistakes that outdoor photographers make?
CB: From my own personal experience and lessons learned from professional landscape photographer friends, I think that over-saturation and poor composition are two of the most common rookie mistakes. Inexperienced users of photo editing software have a tendency to over-saturate landscape photos. It’s easy to do, trust me! Personally, I have often floated between fear of over-editing to dragging the saturation slider a little too far in frustration over a difficult edit. Both ends of the spectrum are negative. To combat the first problem of little post-processing I have learned that it is important to remember that RAW files need processing in order to reveal the natural colors of the landscape. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the controls in Lightroom and Photoshop. You’ll find that detailed photo editing will produce a photo that is very near the natural scene you captured. If you don’t take the time to post-process, your photos will lack the depth and striking qualities you first witnessed. To combat over-saturation, adjust vibrance and contrast instead of saturation in your photo editing software. Also, pay careful attention to colors that are prevalent throughout a photo because these have a tendency to overwhelm.
The second rookie mistake – poor composition – is most important in my opinion. I am often asked how I manage to take engaging photos with only my iPhone 5. Now, although I do not use my iPhone for landscape photography, I do take iPhone photos during outdoor activities just for fun. I am always surprised by the above question because, to me, my iPhone photos are nothing special! However, I think this example illustrates the importance of composition. You can produce interesting images with very low quality camera gear as long as you think through your composition. Follow the rule of thirds when you can but also remember to break this rule when you’re feeling creative. Most of all, remember to include all of the important elements of a scene in your shot. Don’t cut off landscape features in a distracting fashion and above all else – keep a straight horizon line! If you don’t feel that your photography improves after following these tips, try including more foreground and less sky in your image.
Q: Can an expensive camera overcome or compensate for any limitations on the part of the photographer?
CB:As is probably obvious from my above comments – I do not believe that the camera makes the photographer. After observing the work of many photographers of all different skill levels I can honestly say that it is the other way around. An expensive camera cannot make you a good photographer. Many people believe that if they have the best camera they will finally be able to capture photos in the way they have always wanted. This is simply not true! I think that you must start small and should only purchase new gear as your skill improves and once you have achieved mastery over the camera you owned before. Many wise and incredibly skilled photographers have told me to hone my abilities before purchasing new gear and so far their advice has not led me astray!
Q: What are some good entry-level cameras for amateur outdoor photographers?
CB: Good entry level cameras include the Canon Rebel, Nikon D3200, and my Nikon D5100 among others. Get whatever suits your budget!
CB: I have not yet employed a lightweight camera system, however, I have heard from a good friend that the new Fuji system works wonderfully for backpacking and other active ventures. Backpacking with photo gear can certainly be difficult! Tripods are heavy but must be carried each time if you hope to capture sunrise, sunset, or night photos. When backpacking, I only bring essential camera gear – body, one lens, battery, memory card, two filters, cleaning cloth, and remote shutter release – in a small camera case that I attach to the outside of my 65-liter Gregory pack. Consider bringing a second battery if you have one or utilize the battery grip of your full frame camera if you have the option. If I go for two or three nights, one battery is sufficient for sunrise, sunset, and night photos. However, I tend not to shoot during the day. If you’re traveling into a wet environment – keep your camera gear in a waterproof bag inside your case. For instance, when I hike through the narrows of Zion National Park I carry my camera in two waterproof bags plus a Ziploc for added protection. Although my camera has been in pretty harsh conditions, the only wear and tear that I have noticed is the occasional build-up of dust. If you photograph in the desert southwest, pay particular attention to your camera while shooting. Do not change lenses outdoors to avoid dust build-up inside your camera and consider purchasing a dust blower for cleaning from a camera retailer.
Q: How do you work with light, especially in the outdoors?
CB: As any photographer will tell you – light is key to the creation of a stunning image. I use soft morning and evening light as most landscape photographers do. My photography improved instantly once I started shooting during these magic hours. I seek dramatic light beams, brilliant clouds, and golden rays constantly. However, even when the weather does not allow the capture of such phenomena, sunrise and sunset still provide alpenglow or the glimmer of a sunstar as the sun touches the horizon. Therefore, I find that I work with this light to enhance the colors of landscapes almost exclusively.
CB: Rocky Mountain National Park will always hold a special place in my heart as a great landscape for adventure and photography. I enjoy shooting this landscape because I know it so well and because its beauty continues to reveal itself. The sandstone landscape of Arizona and Utah is also a favorite of mine for its diversity and contrast. However, after traveling through and living in many world-class landscapes, I must admit that New Zealand’s South Island is my favorite. I could write books upon books about the photographic, intrinsic, and recreational value of this landscape. But, in shortened terms, the dramatic rise of New Zealand’s Southern Alps from the sea creates a wonderland of grandeur for the senses. New Zealand’s South Island is my favorite place to shoot because it’s my favorite place to be – simple as that! I have fallen in love with dramatic mountain passes, snow-capped peaks, towering glaciers, and mystical sea cliffs. This land holds a special kind of magic that cannot be explained until you feel it for yourself.
Q: What exactly does a hut warden do? Explain a bit about the New Zealand park.
CB: As a hut warden, I represent the Department of Conservation in New Zealand to hikers and other recreationists who travel along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. I assist with the maintenance of this track – known as a Great Walk and renowned for its beauty – by keeping the path to the standard expected by visitors. I live and work within Abel Tasman National Park at Whariwharangi Hut and ensure proper usage of the facility. I interpret the natural resources and cultural heritage of the area for visitors from around the world.
Q: Do you conduct photographer classes/tours?
CB: I do not offer photography classes or tours at this time – but I would love to in the future!
Q: Who are some of your favorite photographers?
CB: I have had the privilege of learning from many outstanding landscape photographers. Oddly enough, although I admire and respect the work of photographers such as Ansel Adams and others who pioneered the art, I am most influenced by photographers who are active in the practice today. My greatest influence in photography has always been a fellow Rocky Mountain National Park photographer – Erik Stensland. Erik’s attention to detail and relentless drive to photograph the most rugged corners of the park have won my complete admiration. His photos have inspired countless adventures to rise long before sunrise to climb into the mountains in the name of photography. Check out his work at www.imagesofRMNP.com!
Another brilliant photographer I have had the good fortune of meeting is David Kingham. David is committed to the spirit and freedom of photography in a way that is completely his own. His dedication inspired him to change his lifestyle and he now leads workshops teaching what he loves. Take a look at www.exploringexposure.com for more! There are many more photographers I could personally thank for putting up with my naivety and encouraging me to never lose sight of my goals – however, this would make for quite a long list!
Q: Your photos are magnificent! Where can one purchase them?
CB: My photos are available for purchase on a few different social media outlets – 500px and Snapwire being the most notable. I am in the process of redesigning my website in order to allow full control over buying and selling, therefore, for now I prefer personal contacts via email to request a print. I print with the professional print lab, White House Custom Colour, and can ship anywhere within the United States. For a look at all of my available photos and to contact me, check out – www.inpursuitofthewild.com. Also, connect with me on Facebook if you’d like at www.facebook.com/inpursuitofthewild and check out my profile on www.theoutbound.com for detailed write-ups on the adventures that go on behind-the-scenes. Happy exploring!
Crystal’s Favorite Gear: