May 28, 2018
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Taking better hiking photos

Brad Viles | BDN
Brad Viles | BDN
Bill Bentley takes an exposure reading on his favorite camera, a Nikon D-700. The Registered Maine Master Guide has been shooting photos for 45 years and has several tips to improve your hiking photos.
By Brad Viles, Special to the News

If your hiking photos are like mine, they could be better.

When I look around the walls of my apartment and see the best of my pictures hanging there, I often wonder if they captured what it was I wanted to see. There are a few that are passable, even some that I’d consider good.

Thumbing through albums of photos that depict landscapes, people, wildlife and moments that were meant to be remembered is an exercise that’s always rewarding. I recall the details the day I took a particular photo through those two-dimensional prints.

But, as satisfying as it is looking through them, most of the photos I take are lacking enough in technique to keep them from being considered professionally taken, which is OK with me. I’m usually satisfied if the picture just comes out. If I get a good one once in a while, well, I was lucky.

That’s probably how it is for most hikers. But, if you want to improve your hiking photos, one way is to talk to a professional photographer. That’s why I paid a visit to Bill Bentley last week at his home in Hope.

Bentley has been shooting photos for the past 45 years. When he first started shooting in 1966 it was with a Pentax Spotmatic, a film single lens reflex camera.

“Now,” he said, “I’ve changed over to entirely digital, and use a Nikon D-700.”

He sells his images to the public in the North Light Gallery in Millinocket as well as at other venues throughout the year. His images are offered as premiums for members joining the Friends of Baxter State Park. They also appear in some Baxter State Park materials.

The retired high school and college physics teacher started shooting photos for extra income. “I started teaching physics and was looking for more money and signed on as the school photographer,” he said. The walls of his home are covered with photos of him and his wife, Barbara, and their sons, taken from when they were all youths. Each one tells a story, and in aggregate, a history.

There they are in Pinnacle Gully on Mount Washington, ice climbing. Another shows the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Most are of great mountain landscapes, rock and ice, including on and from Katahdin. Some are of technical climbs. All are perfectly composed and technically superior. But techniques and skills are only part of what separates a good photo from a snapshot, he said.

We talked about a few technical tips, such as the rule of thirds, which is a way to compose the picture by dividing the photo into thirds; top, middle and bottom. A great photo is really about more than that, he said. “It’s really a rule of nines,” he said, “especially if you think of the photograph divided like a tic-tac-toe-grid. It’s much more interesting to the viewer to see a foreground, middle-ground and background, than to frame the subject stuck right in the middle of the picture. Then, left to right you want to position yourself in relation to the subject to find the right image and filling the frame.”

There’s a lot of thought put into Bentley’s photos and from talking to him, you discover the importance of thinking about the image that you want to capture.

“Philosophically, what we’re talking about is the difference between a picture and an image,” he explained. “The long distance hiker has an image, the rock climber has an image, the loner has an image and the social person has an image,” he said. To go out and capture that image is where the skill develops through practice.

“The most important tip I can give is be there,” he said. “You cannot get any great photos unless you are there in the outdoor classroom. None. You must find reasons for being there. Not just as a photographer. Rock climb, ice climb, long distance hiking, camping, fly fish, canoe, raft and sail. Photography is just a tool to catch light and ‘see’ the outdoors.”

There are a lot of mechanics to learn with today’s cameras, but with just a few basics you can still capture great images, he said. It doesn’t have to be an expensive camera, he told me, just as long as you “go for the best lens that you can afford,” he said. “You have to understand what the camera does to capture the ‘right’ exposure. Understand your lenses. Develop your own eye and, of course, understand the basic elements of composing an image.”

After talking with Bill, I got a lot of excellent photographic tips and techniques. He showed me around his home and the place is jammed with every type of outdoor equipment that you’d expect from someone who’s spent a lifetime outdoors.

He has a climbing wall set up on the tilted ceiling of the dining room. There are piles of rock climbing ropes, hardware, harnesses and rock shoes. Over doorways are more climbing holds anchored into the exposed beams of the house. This guy lives his art. He works as a wilderness emergency medical technician paramedic and had just finished a 36-hour stint over two days with the Camden First Aid Association.

If having an interest in the subject of the outdoors is the most important part of shooting great photos, it explains why Bentley’s photos are so excellent. He developed his interest way back when he wore mutton-chop sideburns, like in one of those photos on his wall.

Some tips for improving your photos:

Learn composition. Basic horizontal composition should show the landscape in threes, foreground, middle-ground and background. Vertically, left to right, also divide the frame of the photo into threes. Change your position relative to the subject to fill the frame accordingly.

Understand your camera. Learn the mechanics of what your camera does to capture light. Learn exposure setting and shutter speeds. It doesn’t have to be an expensive camera, but spend as much as you can on lenses.

Have an image in your head. Go out there with an interest in your subject. Find angles and shoot a lot of photos. Practice, practice, practice.

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