Basics of Adventure and Travel Photography: Composition and Lighting

Whether you’re an aspiring photographer, explorer, adventurer writer, or just want to document your travels, the first thing you need to create stunning pictures is a solid understanding of composition and lighting. Composition and Lighting are the basic building blocks of Adventure and Travel Photography.

Hi there, a newer version of this blog exists.

One of the most common questions I get is “what camera/lens do you use?”. The truth is that a good camera will only get you so far. An expensive camera is the wrong place to start learning adventure and travel photography. Instead? Start here:

I’m going to break this guide up into two sections— the basics of composition and the basics of lighting. Composition is the visual elements that make up a photo and how they interact. Lighting refers to the light and how it affects your photo/camera. Both are important in adventure and travel photography. 

Keyhole Arch
Sea Kayaking in the Apostle Islands. Pay attention to the sense of balance

This is the first in a three part series. The second part will tackle editing & style, and only in that last, third part will we dive into camera gear.

Composition

  1. Choosing a Subject

Before you take a picture, you need to figure out what it is you’re taking a picture of— or plainly, your subject. If you’re shooting portraits it’s easy, but in outdoor or adventure photography it can be harder.  In general, the subject of your photo is the part that is in focus.

Sand and Sunset
Sunset at Little Sand Bay

For example, if you tell me you want to take a good sunset photo, you need to examine what that means. Are you taking a picture of the sun? Of the clouds? For example in the photo above, I knew I wanted a picture of dramatic clouds over Lake Superior, bit it’s the ruined dock that makes for an interesting subject, not the clouds alone.

  1. Background and Foreground

The front of a picture, or the bottom third, is the foreground, while the back of a picture, or top third, is the background. A lot of compelling pictures will have an interesting foreground and background, or foreground and middle ground. The foreground is usually what draws the eye into an image.

Basswood Island
Basswood Island, Lake Superior

Here, the foreground is the water, including the portion underwater. The trees and cliffs cliffs make up the back and middle ground, and are also the subject of the photo. A picture of the trees and cliffs alone would likely not be particularly interesting.

With the water and wave textures taking up the bottom half of the image, the picture as a cohesive pieces is more compelling than a photo only of trees and rocks, and people are likely to look longer.

  1. The Rule of Thirds

There’s some magic mathematics to what humans tend to find beautiful, and one of these is the rule of thirds. You might’ve noticed I already referred to the foreground as the front third of your image— keep this in mind when you’re composing a picture.

For example, you can see in the post above that the ice in the foreground, takes up roughly 1/3 of the image. The subject of the photo is the falls, but the rocks and ice provide interesting texture and leading lines (see crack in the ice) drawing the eye towards the falls.

Practice physically moving your camera/phone so that your foreground, with those interesting rocks and ice, takes up roughly one third of your image. 

  1. Leading Lines and Paths

Leading lines are straight lines that draw the eye into the image. They tell the viewer where to look, and make them want to look longer. In the waterfall picture above, the cracks in the ice are leading lines.

Leading lines aren’t always straight lines, sometimes they are a path through your image. Look at the image above. Can you find a clear path for this kayak through the image? Can you imagine motion, and exploring? 

Motion is really what makes adventure photography stand out, and understanding how to incorporate movement into your photos is one of the best was to cultivate that sense of awe so often associated with adventure and travel photos.

  1. Perspective

With adventure photography especially, including elements that allow the viewer to imagine themselves in the photo are sometimes effective. For example, in the photo below you get sense of the size of the cliff wall because the kayaker provides scale.

Another thing to think about is point of view. One of the reasons photos of the bow (front) of a kayak are particularly effective is the view can imagine they themselves are interacting with the scene. The kayak’s bow serves to ground the viewer in. It’s the same idea with shots of shoes dangling off cliffs. Look at a few of the examples below and think about perspective, and what elements serve to ground you as a viewer into the photo.

Canoeing in Montana

Compositions like the first image of a woman in the front of a canoe do well for a lot of reasons. Find the leading lines and the rule of thirds in this picture, but also notice that it is easy to imagine you are the second person in the canoe. You can picture where in this scene you belong .

Both of the bottom to images are older, iPhone shots that did surprisingly well on social media. In bottom left image, the small kayaker next to the large sea stack provides a sense of scale, and in the bottom right image, the legs/hiking boots serve as a grounding point for the viewer.

I’m including these older, less polished images to show that adventure and travel photography isn’t just for your big name photographers, climbing Denali or paddling Patagonia— it’s something you can accomplish in your home state too.

  1. Playing with Scale

A lot of interesting images can be created by playing with scale. For example, it’s hard to tell the size of this waterfall without nearby trees— all you have for reference is the ice. Out of context, these falls can seem much larger than life.

Cascade Falls Winter

Scale can also be used to the opposite effect. For example, the person on the cliff in the picture below helps illustrate the size of the wave. 

  1. Finding Details

More often than not, there aren’t countless sweeping landscapes available to you to practice photography with, but there are beautiful little details everywhere that you can learn to see. The more that you practice finding small and pretty things, the easier it will be to capture incredible, big things when the moment arises.

frozen

For example, this frozen flower in ice is a small part of a much bigger landscape.

  1. Framing

This is something I’m still working to use more in my photography. Framing doesn’t come naturally to me. Framing is simply providing a natural frame for your work by creatively using the environment around you. Maybe this frame is foliage, or interesting ice, or geology, but it’s a great technique to add depth to your image.

Isle Royale National Park

Tents offer a classic example of framing, where the tent itself acts as a frame for your photo.

Lighting

Photography as an art is sometimes called “painting with light”, so it is no surprise that lighting is one of the two most important aspects of Adventure and Travel Photography.

  1. Sunrises and Sets

Sunrise and sunset are your photography freebies. Look for partially cloudy days, and head out to a spot you like. Any camera will take a good sunset picture, and the rest is up to you. With sun sets, I tend to play around and take a lot of pictures then decide after the fact what I like. 

Above, a fiery sunrise lights up Grand Marais. Notice the leading lines provided by the breakwater, and the glow of the lighthouse. This is an iPhone photo, so again, remember that you aren’t limited by your camera.

  1. “Blue hour”

The hour after sunset or before sunrise is often dubbed “blue hour”. This is my favorite time to shoot for the purple and blue tones, and to play with shadows.

Above, waves break on Lake Superior in a predawn blue hour. The early wakeup call is 100% worth it on mornings like these.

11. Cloudy Days

Cloudy, misty, and rainy days are all actually much better for photography than sunny days. Clouds are great for photographing waterfalls, and rain and mist can provide great mood to an image.

Avalanche Lake and Mist

Glacier National Park looks a lot more dramatic on a dark and rainy day than it does in the sun.

  1. “Golden Hour”

Golden hour is the hour before the sunsets, and the hour after sunrise, known for that lovely butter yellow color sought out by portrait photographers.

Appalachian Trail, southbound

This picture of the Appalachian Trail was taken at golden hour. It’s a great time to take pictures of people and landscapes both.

13. Nighttime

With photo camera technology progressing every day, you no longer need a DSLR to take stunning photos at night. The campfire picture below is an iPhone picture. Be creative with your composition and the light available to you, like using moonlight and the sparks from a campfire.

14. Water & Light

One last thing to keep in mind when playing with light is the ways you can use water. Water can reflect light, or if especially clear, catch it and hold it. The photo below was taken at golden hour, and uses light lines in the water to create a more compelling image.


There are a lot of things that go into creating quality, visually pleasing photography. There are even more elements when you start to work towards optimizing your images for various social media platforms. The most important thing that you can do as a beginner is develop your “eye”. Practice working with composition and lighting techniques. A good eye paired with a bad camera can still take a stunning picture. 

Feeling discouraged? Here’s one of the first photos I took on my DSLR, back in 2016. We all start somewhere, and the absolute best thing you can do to get better is not give up. Keep shooting, you got this!

For contrast, here’s one of my most recent iPhone pictures. Notice both the scale provided by the person, and the leading lines.

Wondering how I got from a basic iPhone photo to the image above? Stay tuned for a full breakdown of photo editing for beginners, coming in early March. Join my email list or follow me on Instagram to make sure you don’t miss the next update!


Hi there, my name is Maddy and I’m a writer/photographer from Michigan, currently loosely based in Northern Minnesota. I love to provide as many resources as I can for free, but if you learned from this post and want to help support my work, the best way you can do that is buying a print from my print shop!


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