Be An Outdoors Person

Improve your nature skills to improve your photography
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Sunrise on the Whitney Massif, Sequoia National Park, California.

An endless supply of unique, never-photographed locations awaits all of us in the more remote areas of our country. Getting to these locations is the challenge. I know that in my region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I have barely scratched the surface of photographic opportunities. However, I have been able to access new areas and photograph new locations because I have some basic outdoor skills I learned from friends and from various training courses. A lifetime of traveling through the outdoors has helped me further my skills each year. I have taken courses and have proficient skills in backcountry skiing, avalanche safety, winter survival, glacier travel, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, scuba diving, mountain biking, and topo-map and GPS navigation. All this helps with my confidence in outdoor situations and expands the horizons of photographic possibility. I also think that an outdoor photographer should be an outdoor athlete, and have the endurance and strength to hike miles from the road with his or her photographic gear and survive unexpected weather.

Good outdoor skills and fitness allow you to safely get to less-traveled landscapes. Most often, the areas that are farther away from roads will be more pristine. Wilderness areas close to their primeval condition have a rare beauty that can be more powerful and more photogenic than the “iconic” locations well known to all landscape photographers. Often, the journey on a trail to your photographic destination can offer better photographic opportunities and surprises than your final destination. In addition, knowing more about the landscapes you’re traveling through can provide valuable insights into how to get the best photographs.

If you want to kick it up a notch with your photography, set a personal goal to add a new outdoor skill to your résumé. There are so many opportunities for this type of training, from taking a vacation in snow country to learning how to cross-country ski, to scuba diving in the Caribbean, to signing up for a Sierra Club “intro to backpacking” course. The various REI store branches have a monthly calendar of outdoor-skills training, usually free or at very low cost. Be sure to get up to speed on the latest and greatest outdoor gear as well, including the new generation of lightweight down jackets, rain parkas and hiking boots. Once you have the training, be sure to put it into action—strap on a backpack and ski or hike to a new area, camp out, and get some great sunrise and sunset pictures. Most often, you can’t get great shots on a day hike. Our avocation is challenging because we have to capture beautiful places, in great light and during the right season, which doesn’t come easy.

Ultimately, photography is about experiencing our world in a deeper, more vivid way. This goal is enhanced by having the skills and confidence to reach more remote areas untouched by man. For women, especially, don’t be afraid to venture by yourself down a wilderness trail. Last autumn, I had a wonderful adventure in the Southwest, which involved solo hiking to The Subway in Zion, and then later driving by myself down the remote 60-mile dirt road to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I was able to bring back images from these adventures, which have successfully sold in our gallery as fine-art prints. What I enjoy most is sharing the stories behind these images with people in the gallery, who likely will never have the opportunity to see these sights with their own eyes. Remember that fear of venturing alone into the outdoors can be effectively addressed by skills, practice and fitness. I must also mention that I’m proud to count as friends some impressive outdoor athletes who don’t have use of their legs, but who can travel self-propelled through the mountains with specially adapted equipment. Find a way to work with any physical challenges.

My advice regarding fitness: Start walking. Go on longer weekend walks or hikes. Do some basic strength training. I have a set of kettle bells I use at home a few times a week for 10 minutes a pop—it doesn’t have to be a big, expensive deal with gym memberships, etc., unless you want it to be. I know this may seem basic to some readers, but I feel compelled to offer this advice after watching some of my workshop participants struggle with travel in mountain terrain with their camera gear. As we age, we have to be increasingly vigilant about our strength, endurance and health. If you need motivation, tell yourself to get fit for the sake of your photography!

The photograph I have selected to include with this column shows a shot I was proud to capture, since it was far from the road in a remote location. Sunrise on the Whitney Massif required a two-day hike into the high country of California’s Sequoia National Park, with a tentless bivouac at 12,000 feet below Arc Pass and an early-dawn climb to a 13,000-foot pass where I planted my tripod for the sunrise. The wind was brutally cold, requiring a down parka even though it was August. I relied on the generosity of my fellow hikers to help me haul my gear to the pass—they all received a copy of this print, of course.

Map out a program to buff out your outdoor-skills résumé and yourself. Find a location you have always wanted to experience and corral some friends into an adventure with you. You’ll come back not only with a deeper appreciation for our world, but also a healthier body, greater confidence and, hopefully, some wonderful new photographs and stories.

You can see more of Elizabeth Carmel‘s photography by visiting her websites, and Workshop information is available at

Elizabeth Carmel is a professional fine art photographer specializing in unique, expressive landscapes and "waterscapes." Elizabeth’s fine art prints combine dramatic photography, vivid colors and artistic touches to create new, captivating visions of the natural world. Using ultra-high resolution 50-megapixel digital photography, she’s able to capture the subtle details of the natural world and transfer them to large prints with stunning clarity and color. She does her own printing on fine art paper or canvas with long-life pigmented inks. Her award-winning images are in numerous galleries and private collections throughout the United States. Her prints have been displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., at the California Museum of Photography and the Nevada Museum of Art. Elizabeth published a book of her photography, Brilliant Waters, Portraits of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and the High Sierra with a foreword by Robert Redford.