Where it all starts: Choosing a destination
Planning is always important in travel photography, and landscapes in particular. Sometimes it takes weeks, other times it takes months. When you’re shooting remote locations, it can even take years of planning, several trips to the same destination, and a few failed attempts before the images you shoot match your expectations and narrative.
I discover a landscape I want to photograph through other people’s imagery, through a story related to that place, a natural phenomenon, some personal history or a chance encounter. Sometimes, I’ll just be looking at a map and notice a place I’ve never been to, suddenly feeling an urge to go discover it.
Once I’ve set my eyes on a place, it’s always followed by a lot of research. How easy will it be to reach the location? Is it a protected area? Do I need to obtain any permissions to be or photograph there? What time of the year is best to visit for photography? How long would the trip take? What do I need to pack? What kind of transportation do I need? What panoramas and angles can I access? Finding answers to all these questions usually implies a lot of time spent in front of my computer.
For this guide, I want to share with you my process of planning, scouting and shooting remote locations. And for that I chose Alaska.
Alaska is a special place to me: I discovered it almost by chance, at a time when I really needed some time for myself, and I completely fell in love with it. I’ll go into more details about my special link to Alaska in the following sections, but the important point for now is that Alaska is a great destination to use as an example for this guide, because it’s particularly challenging to research, travel to and photograph. Over my multiple trips to Alaska, I’ve gathered quite a few tips and tricks that I’m very excited to share with you.
Mapping it out
I’ve travelled to Alaska in different seasons, but this time I wanted to go during winter, to capture the beautiful alpenglow light on snow-covered peaks in the Alaska Range. I knew I wanted to fly over the mountains, to see the steep mountain faces and glaciers both from above and on land. A photo trip in Alaska requires a long planning process, especially if you intend to go during winter. The days are hard, cold, and dark, and travel is difficult in most places, if not impossible. I used 3D maps on Google Earth to get to know the type of terrain we’d be in and understand how the light would interact with the environment. Although websites can be useful places to start, it is always better, if possible, to travel to locations to scout them/see them in person (especially for big commissioned projects). Of course it takes a lot more time, money and effort to go to places multiple times, but sometimes that’s just what it takes, and the preparation you put in will really show in the project. Notes from my previous trips helped me pin down specific locations I needed to reach to get the shots I had in mind. And experience from previous, photographically-unsuccessful flights, helped me to understand the terrain and the angles of the peaks that I would be aiming for on this trip. If you can’t base your plan on previous trips, you’ll have to rely on other people’s experiences and notes. The obvious challenge here is that the more remote your destination is, the less information there will be available. But with a bit of perseverance, you should be able to map out the trip, the landscapes you want to photograph, and how you’ll make it all happen. Many times, you’ll find other photographers that are just as passionate about a specific location as you and are kind enough to share their experiences. If you want to go even deeper in your research, I recommend looking beyond photography resources and into the work of nature writers and naturalists. Take John Muir, for example, known as "John of the Mountains" or "Father of the National Parks". He spent his life travelling through the wilderness of the USA and documented the beauty of the less explored areas of our country, and even wrote a book about his travels in Alaska. Another valuable source of information is local people from the place you’re planning to visit. They know their homeland better than any visitor. Making local friends or guides prior to and during your trip is essential, as you’ll most likely need help once you set foot on location. Locals can help you with everything from accommodation to transportation to staying safe in the environment. At the end of the day, the key is to gather as much knowledge as you can, from different types of people. Photographers, scientists, climbers, tour guides, locals - they all see the same place from different perspectives, each of them valuable to you when trying to build a story about that place. But make sure not to plan every second of your trip - leaving a bit of mystery makes the trip even more exciting and your discoveries more memorable!
Section in Review: Planning Resources
✓ 3D maps, such as Google Earth help to visualize the terrain
✓ In-person scouting trips help familiarize yourself before an important shoot
✓ Other photographers' experience is highly valuable - when it's available
✓ Nature writers and naturalists are commonly-overlooked planning resources
✓ Consult, or hire, locals and guides to help
Your gear checklist
Landscape photography is a genre where having less equipment is better. For one, you’re limited by how much you can physically carry with you on long trails and scouting expeditions. For another, when you find the right spot and moment to take a shot, the last thing you want is to unpack countless lenses, filters and other accessories, and get busy setting and switching things up only to realize, by the time you’re ready, that you’ve lost the right light, the clouds moved or the wind started blowing.
Don’t get me wrong, landscape photography requires a lot of patience. Sometimes you’ll spend days going to the same spot until you find the right moment to take the picture. But whenever that moment comes, you’ll want to be completely focused on the composition, immersed in the landscape and the emotions it brings about in order to capture them. Having a lot of complex equipment to work with will only keep you away from that needed focus and concentration.
For this trip specifically, it was absolutely crucial to me that the kit I was working with was light, compact, and portable, because we were going to be moving to many different locations in a short period of time. Within just a few days, we were going to be flying planes, riding snowmobiles, and trekking through snow and ice-cold weather. That is why I packed the Phase One XT Camera, ensuring I would have maximum portability without a single compromise in image quality. There’s just no better option for this kind of trip than the world’s biggest,
150MP sensor and the most accurate color reproduction in a travel-friendly size and shape. If that’s not an option for you, just make sure you go with a solution that maximizes portability and quality within your budget.
The lenses I brought along were matching Rodenstock primes: 23mm, 32mm, and 70mm. The 23 and 32mm lenses gave me wide angles with almost no distortion, while the 70mm was perfect if I wanted to draw my subject closer. Whatever you choose, try to not pack more than three lenses. If you feel you need more, then they’re not the right ones. If you make a shot list from home, you should be able to predict exactly which lenses you’ll need, without having to bring “just in case” options. Your back and shoulders will thank you for it.
Because I wanted to travel light, I also decided to bring a smaller, lightweight tripod. I used a Mefoto Road Trip tripod for this trip. It’s light and portable, yet strong enough to keep the XT completely stable no matter the weather conditions or terrain. I like to keep some Gaffer's tape on my tripod and water bottles, just in case I need tape for any reason on my trips!
And don’t forget about filters! Normally, on such a photo trip I’d bring UV filters to protect my lenses, ND filters for long exposures, and polarizers to enhance color and reduce glare (photographing snowscapes involves very bright reflections that can cause image-degrading flare). But the XT Camera has an automated frame averaging tool, which allows for any time long exposures and eliminates the need for ND filters. It also has incredibly accurate color rendition, so I didn’t need polarizers either. Any kit I can leave at home helps with the weight I am carrying around the rugged terrain.
Section in Review: The Gear Checklist
✓ Camera and no more than three lenses
✓ Sturdy travel tripod (with tape if you want to really be prepared)
✓ Filters - at a minimum to protect your lenses in harsh environments
Other accessories I always bring on photo trips to remote and harsh locations:
✓ At least 3-4 batteries - especially in cold conditions, plus hand warmers to keep them warm
✓ Extra storage options to back up your photos each night
✓ A small case with cleaning accessories
✓ Extra tripod plates
✓ Something to protect your camera in wet or sandy conditions
Let’s start with packing your equipment. If you’re flying or driving over long distances, you should be able to pack your camera in a hard case - ideally with wheels, like a Peli Case. When you’re travelling through extreme weather conditions, the equipment will also need to be protected against frost, humidity or condensation, dust or sand, etc. Think of solutions that will enable you to transfer the equipment from the main case to your backpack without exposing it to the elements, like well-made, waterproof organizing inserts. The XT Camera comes by default in a hard roller case with purpose-made protective foam inserts that contain each part of the system. I can easily take out those inserts and put them in my backpack, only to open each of them when I need them. Having your camera and lenses packed in individual bags will allow for rapid temperature changes (inside-outside and the other way around) without getting condensation on the equipment. It’s also good to have a couple of silica desiccant packs inside each camera insert, to protect the equipment against moisture. For clothing on this trip, I wanted to be able to stay mobile while keeping warm in biting cold. If you’re travelling to places with extreme temperatures, it’s essential to dress in layers and be prepared for all types of conditions and challenges: heavy rain or snow, strong wind, dust storms, high humidity, etc. Really research your destination and think about how to stay comfortable and safe in the environment you are traveling to. Sometimes, dressing for the environment it is about making a compromise in order to ensure you are able to shoot. NEVER make a compromise that could put you in danger. When planning for the aerial images, I chose a liner glove with touchscreen capability. It was a difficult trade-off to make, because in the airplane, with the window open, it was -40°F so the gloves were obviously not as thick and warm as I would've liked them to be, but I needed the extra dexterity while I was shooting. I made the decision to wear gloves that still kept me safe from the biting cold, but were not as warm as I would have chosen had I not been shooting aerial images.
Section in Review: Packing
✓ Hard case for long distance travel where you will not need to shoot
✓ Backpack for portability and when you need to be ready to shoot at short notice
✓ Inserts that easily go from one to the other to protect your equipment in all environments
✓ Silica packs to combat excess moisture
✓ Clothes suited for your extreme environment - layers are always a good idea whether heading to hot or cold climates. And always keep in mind how easy your wardrobe will be for shooting images.