Like many of us, my love of photography began with the wild landscape. My early years were spent emulating icons like Ansel Adams, David Muench and Eliot Porter. I followed the grand landscape dream all over the American West, and after years of chasing light and doing “pure” landscapes with no signs of humanity whatsoever, I began to feel a little boxed in, as if I was repeating my favorite lighting formulas everywhere I went, and missing something I could sense, but not see.
Eventually, I broke out of that mold by showing the friends and guides with whom I was exploring the natural world—on backpacking trips, river-rafting and kayaking adventures, climbing and every activity I could envision. Over time, these new images of landscapes with people meant far more to me, and not coincidentally, had more success in the world of magazine travel photography than the classic landscapes of my youth.
I believe that many viewers and readers react more strongly to photographs that show people like them, exploring and being challenged by their environment. We can imagine ourselves in their places—kayaking in a desert canyon, hiking through a rainbow in Yosemite, marveling at the Milky Way under an arch of granite or crossing a remote glacier in Alaska.
Over the years, I’ve evolved a set of principles that seem to work for me when shooting adventure travel stories and subjects. I don’t believe in rules, but I do believe in doing what works. So, perhaps start with these guidelines, but know that’s what they are. They’re merely a way to get started on your own adventures.
Way Beyond Scale
The classic idea of placing a person in a scene to provide some sense of the scale of a location is still valid, but you must go way beyond that truism to make dynamic images. The danger is having your friends model and render the scene static. I often look for ways to silhouette them for graphic impact, but most importantly, they have to be engaged in some tangible way with the landscape—seeming to lean into the sand-laden gale on an Australian beach, playing a haunting flute in a magical side canyon of the Grand Canyon or exuberantly reaching out to the sun while atop a sea arch on the Big Island. Watch and be ready for their moments of joy, discovery and awe, but be certain you’re in the absolute best place to compose for those reactions. Revealing moments vanish quickly and are never the same twice.
Dramatize With Gesture
I always watch very carefully for peak moments of gesture, pose and motion. I absolutely don’t want to have people posed in my scenes, as they will seem stiff and kill the energy and life of the image. Photography is about recognizing and capturing revealing slices of time, and moments of action or motion that cleanly energize a physical space are what I’m seeking. So, watch for spacing, stride, stroke and even expression, if your friends are close enough, and sometimes they will light up the scene with a look of wonder.
I would be remiss if I didn’t pay a debt of gratitude to Galen Rowell for his inspiration in showing how far one could push the limits of adventure photography. I had already begun to experiment with placing people in my landscapes, but seeing his work in the late ’80s surely accelerated my interest and development. He rejoiced in challenging adventures in the wild places of the planet, with his friends and family, and shared those “peak” moments with all of us. Photography has driven me to explore and shoot life-changing places and experiences, often for publications, and having a visual record of your friends is a lifelong treasure to both create and to share.
Activate The Adventure
When scouting a location, I consider the “explorers” I’m traveling with as a critical piece of the puzzle that makes up a successful composition. Find a way for them to graphically energize a location, and asking them to kayak or hike into a certain spot or along a precise path is a good way to start. Then wait for moments when they seem to become connected to the location in ways that are hard to anticipate or explain. You have to go with the flow of their activity and be open to serendipity. I see my travels less as a search for fleeting beauty and more as a discovery of the planet’s wonders and my reaction and understanding of those wonders.
It’s instructive to see paired images that show a scene purely as a landscape and then as a landscape with people. Do I still shoot pure, clean landscapes? Yes, I do, but I’m always thinking of how and who would best enliven that place with their presence. It helps to have attractive and well-styled friends for the activity!
Always Shoot Yourself
Sometimes you’ll find yourself out in the wild all by your lonesome, so what will you do then? By placing the camera on a tripod, and using either a remote trigger or a 12-second delay, you can get that explorer in a great place, and you won’t have to ask for a model release! Plus, it’s fun to show yourself working, even if it feels like play. A very wide lens can work as well, if used carefully.
You can see more of Kerrick James‘ photography at www.kerrickjames.com. Kerrick teaches workshops for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops (over 30 to date), plus his own branded Photo Safaris. Details at www.kjphotosafaris.com.