Capturing the extreme: How to go on an epic photography adventure

Zip up your coat, lace your boots and grab your camera -- we tell you how to get the best photos in the face of Mother Nature's extreme moods.

Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon Editor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
Expertise Smartphones, Photography, iOS, Android, gaming, outdoor pursuits Credentials
  • Shortlisted for British Photography Awards 2022, Commended in Landscape Photographer of the Year 2022
Andrew Lanxon
7 min read

When you're perched at the top of a waterfall, fiddling with the aperture on a giant camera and leaning to frame your shot just right, you're taking a risk. You might fall in. You might drop your camera. You might screw up the shot. You might get wet.

But if you know what it takes to nail this photo, you'll return home from your travels with the best souvenir there is: a phenomenal nature photograph. Last August, I headed out across rugged Iceland with its famously unpredictable weather. By taking the time to properly prepare, I was able to come back with some of my best work yet.

Before you start on your own wild photography adventure, here's the equipment you'll need and advice on what to do if things go wrong.

Preparation: Choosing your camera and lenses

Deciding exactly what camera gear to travel with is tough -- it's one of the things I pondered most before my flight to Reykjavik. Above all, no one wants to miss out on a great shot because you forgot a crucial lens. Don't overpack, though, as weight matters, especially when you're trekking across a field in the rain miles from your car. You'll feel every extra ounce when you're carrying your gear on your back.

To keep size and weight to an absolute minimum, a small, lightweight compact camera is a convenient option. But don't think taking something small means sacrificing image quality -- Sony's compact RX100 MkIV (about $950, £575 or AU$1,400) packs one hell of a punch, with a 24-70mm zoom range that'll let you snap scenes from closeups of flowers to sweeping mountain vistas.

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If you want to experiment with your photography beyond simple snaps, you'll likely be packing a more professional camera, such as a Canon EOS 6D. But then, what lenses? Think carefully about what sort of shots you expect to get on your trip. If you plan to seek out swathes of exotic plants, then a macro lens (I used Canon's 50mm f/2.5 macro lens) will let you focus in on the fine details of the flora. Snapping wildlife? A telephoto lens over 200mm will let you zoom in on the action from afar without disturbing the animals.

If you don't want to change lenses, a zoom lens like Canon's 24-105mm f/4 is a great all-rounder. It's wide enough to capture vast, sprawling landscapes, with enough zoom to help you get close up.

I took that lens, along with Canon's 16-35mm (very wide angle) and 70-200mm (a long zoom lens) on my photo tour of Iceland, as I hoped to capture a range of scenes from wide landscapes to up-close wildlife shots. Since I rented a car, I was able to pack more gear inside the vehicle, then selected only one or two lens options to carry in my backpack when I was out for a hike.

The essential extras

Always take extra camera batteries, especially if you spend long days away from electrical outlets. The more spares you cram into your case, the less chance you'll run out of juice right when a great photo opportunity rears its head.

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Protecting your gear is absolutely critical. If you'll be shooting in a continuously damp climate, take a good rain cover to keep your camera safe from water. The Vortex Media Storm Jacket ($38-$49, depending on color and camera size) is a great option. If you happen to be caught near the spray of a waterfall, however, then a plastic shopping bag will help keep your gear dry. Covers also will help protect your gear from mud and sand, and in either case, pack plenty of cleaning cloths to wipe off driving rain and dust from your lens.

Always carry your equipment in a high-quality photography backpack or roller bag with padded inserts that keep it safe from knocks and bumps and a waterproof cover stretched over the whole thing for when it rains. Tamrac's Corona 14 backpack ($160, £74 or AU$215) ticks all those boxes, or go for Manfrotto's Roller Bag 50 ($325, £230 or AU$339) if you want the convenience of a wheeled case.

Do you plan on taking low-light shots using long exposures? Then you'll need a tripod. Go for one that packs down to fit into a backpack, like Manfrotto's BeFree One (about $150, £120 or AU$200), which is small, lightweight and can hold a dSLR firmly in place.

It's easy to underestimate memory cards, but always take more than you think you'll need. 32GB SD cards are so cheap now (around $7, £8 or AU$17) that it's worth packing a handful. When you stumble across a great shot, it's easy to get carried away, rattling off a few hundred frames at a single location.

I always take an external hard drive to back up my shots, just in case. Western Digital's My Passport Wireless ($220, £150 or AU$299) lets you back up to its hard drive straight from an SD card, so you don't need to take your laptop with you.

Lastly, and this should go without saying, make sure all your equipment is insured, along with all necessary health insurance for yourself.

Don't forget your clothes!

Outdoor photography isn't only about camera equipment; you also need to pack the appropriate clothes for any condition. A good rule of thumb? Plan for the worst, and then you won't be caught out if things take a bad turn. Although my Iceland trip took place in late summer, I was often in strong, cold winds and heavy rain.

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To keep warm, I took a North Face ThermoBall down jacket ($199, £112 or AU$280) with a North Face FuseForm waterproof shell ($199 or £148, which is around AU$255) to protect me from the rain. I wore both on most days and stayed dry even when shooting in the spray from Iceland's largest waterfalls. Sturdy, waterproof boots are another must (find a pair that has a Gore-Tex waterproof lining), particularly if you plan on walking on uneven ground.

Just like with your gear, don't overpack your clothes. If you're backpacking or changing locations each day, you won't want to lug a heavy suitcase purely for vanity's sake. Remember that you're going on an adventure, not a stylish city weekend outing. Black tie is definitely optional.

Getting your shot: Know your location

Do your research on where you're going. Guide books and travel blogs may inform you about a hidden gem off the beaten track that you may never have found otherwise. Also look for travel bloggers who have taken the same trip -- they may give you a critical piece of information that'll help you get your best travel shots ever.

Photography sites such as Flickr and 500px let you look at a map that displays all the shots taken at your chosen area. Search through sample photos to find the spots you want to visit and get inspiration for the shots you might want to take yourself. Look at the descriptions on the images, and you may find that the photographers have given handy advice themselves, such as what time of day they arrived at the location.

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The more you know about the area you're visiting and the opportunities for photography there, the more likely you'll come away with some stunning shots.

Become best friends with your camera

Familiarize yourself with your camera before you leave; learning on the fly as the sun is setting isn't an option. Get to know what all the buttons do and how to quickly change the settings. You don't want to miss a great photo because you can't figure out how to change the shutter speed.

Learn how to use manual mode as well. Sure, your camera might be able to take fantastic landscapes in automatic mode, but some scenes will fool the camera into choosing the wrong settings. You'll need to know how to balance shutter speed, aperture and ISO speeds to get exactly the shot you want and to turn off that pesky flash that keeps trying to pop up in low light.

Concentrate on composition

That beautiful sunrise streaking over the mountain range won't count for much if you've accidentally chopped off the top of the tallest peak when you framed your shot. Taking an extra moment to compose your scene is the best thing you can do to transform a simple snap into an artistic piece of travel photography. Remember: Unlike your photos' contrast, you can't fix composition when you're back at home using photo-editing software.

Changing your angle is another easy way to turn a generic image into a piece of creative artwork. Take a moment to look at the scene before you start shooting to find more interesting vantage points. Struggling to make your landscape pop? Look for rocks, trees and flowers to add foreground interest or roads, streams and walls to add leading lines that draw the eye into the picture. Even just kneeling down and shooting from below can make a difference.

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Start early, shoot late

You might hate the idea of waking up before dawn when you're on vacation, but beautiful early morning light can result in stunning vistas. If you can, scout your location early so you know exactly where to shoot when the magic hour comes. And don't forget to check the weather forecast the night before!

The golden light and long shadows of a sunset are unmissable too, but don't pack your kit away once the light goes completely. Break out your tripod and slow your shutter speed right down to capture alpine mountains lit by silvery moonlight rather than the midday sun. If you're heading north, then it's nighttime when you might get a glimpse of the magical Northern Lights. It was well past 2 a.m. when I was shooting the stunning aurora over Iceland -- I can assure you, that's definitely worth staying awake for, especially in midsummer when aurora sightings are rare.

Cross your fingers

As with any travels, a photography adventure will still require a certain element of luck. Your favorite mountain might be shrouded in mist, or sandstorms might put an abrupt halt to shooting. At the end of the day, you can't control nature so make the best of the hand she deals you.

So zip up your coat, charge your batteries and head out to get shooting.