Photo Tips From The Field With Jess McGlothlin

This fall we're collaborating with several photographers in our hunting, fishing and outdoor community to bring you their insights for taking better images in the field. Taking photos that capture the spirit of our public lands and waters - and the experiences we have on them - is essential in communicating the value of our wild landscapes and the richness of our outdoor pursuits to the greater public. Whether you choose to publish your images in your own channels or support BHA's mission by submitting them to the 2020 Public Land Owner Photo Contest, we hope you enjoy this series. In this installment we hear from Jess McGlothlin, a professional photographer and writer in the outdoor industry. She has worked with some of the largest brands in the outdoor sector, in roles ranging from staff copywriter to annual campaign photographer to marketing consultant.

Text and Photos by Jess McGlothlin

Finding a balance between being an active participant in an outdoor activity and capturing awe-inspiring outdoor photos is harder than it would first appear. That boundary between participant and photographer can be a hard one of straddle, whether you are an aspiring professional photographer or simply wanting a killer image to show off to friends after a bucket-list trip. Thanks to the Age of Social Media, it “only happened if you have the photo,” and the fact most outdoor-lovers have a smartphone (and therefore a reasonably viable camera, at least for social media use) in their pockets, it’s now easier than ever to capture images of your time in the field.

I’m typically a one-girl band, which means I don’t have a support crew or another photographer following me around in the field. I also do a fair bit of work internationally, sometimes in destinations where the typical day-to-day amenities we take for granted aren’t available. So, what happens when a typhoon blows through a fly-fishing shoot in Japan the same week North Korea is firing missiles overhead? Or when the Russian Mi-8 helicopter has to make an emergency “landing” in the middle of the tundra? Or when, you know, the Peruvian counter-narcotics unit pops out of the jungle during a midnight portage in the Amazon?

Things happen. And if you keep a cool head, your feet under you, and the camera at the ready, you can come away with some pretty compelling images. And while many of our adventures are closer to home (I wouldn’t recommend a lot of my misadventures to anyone!) we can still be ready to capture the organic moments that make trips special.

Here are a few tips to help you do your adventures justice from behind the lens, without interrupting your time on the water, the mountain, or the road.

1) Utilize Outdoor Gear as Camera Gear

I learned early on in my career that carrying camera equipment that screams, “I’m expensive, come grab me!” is not a good move. I often fly with a Pelican case or two (the 1510 model is a carry-on workhorse) but in higher-risk locations, I’ll pile camera gear into an old roll-top waterproof fishing backpack that I’ve modified with an internal camera insert. From the outside, it looks like a simple outdoor bag (albeit one held together with a bit of duct tape) and doesn’t draw attention. It’s also hard for someone to get into while it’s on my back, as they’d have to unclip and unroll the bag instead of merely tugging a zipper.

Other outdoor pieces of gear that always go with me into the field are a SOG multi-tool, zip-ties, and a good medical kit that I’ve built myself over the years. I have yet to go on a shoot or expedition where someone in the group doesn’t need to reach into the medical kit, and I’ve taken mid-level field courses to be able to triage the basics.

Don’t feel like you’re unprepared if you don’t have the fanciest camera gear straight from the shop. Paired with a good camera body and lens, odds are many of your favorite pieces of outdoor gear can also find a useful home in your camera kit.

A look at my typical set-up on a fishing shoot. This campsite was home base for a few nights in rural Chilean Patagonia, March 2020.

2) Consider Positioning

Okay, so you've made it outside, your camera in hand. Congratulations. But don't just stand there and shoot from eye-level. Kneel. Climb something. Change the perspective. Stuck in the car for a road trip? Ask the driver to slow down and stick the camera out the car window. (Make sure you have your camera strap looped around your arm first!) Squeeze onto the floor and take photos of your seatmates. Hanging out on the tailgate while your friends sort gear? Climb up on your truck and start shooting. Something. The eye gets tired of seeing the same thing from the same angle. You'll be amazed at what a little positioning can do to spice up an image.

Grocery runs aren’t so simple on the Russian tundra. This season I was working at the Ponoi River Company, a top Atlantic salmon fly-fishing destination above the Arctic Circle in Russia. I carried the camera with me everywhere, capturing the day-to-day work moments guests don’t get to see, like this operation to stock a remote camp.

3) Think Happy Hour

Nope, not the celebratory, “we survived the day” one—I’d recommend leaving the camera at home if you're heading there. Think about timing when you are trying to capture strong images. The best photographers spend most of their working time between pre-dawn and 10AM or so, and then from several hours prior to sunset until dark. Midday light is harsh…get out and shoot early and late. Your images will thank you for it.

Usually, the weather on location isn’t what we’d exactly pick for ourselves. From sandstorms in the Middle East to snow in Tasmania, I’ve learned it pays to be prepared for any conditions. And, if you’re ready for it, bad weather can produce some outstanding images. Bring along some gallon baggies and a roll of rubber bands; if you’re in drizzly or sandy conditions, you can create a little protective cover for the camera and keep shooting. Carry a quality cleaning kit, so you can always tend to your camera in the field. My gear gets a thorough cleaning every night, and I keep a small cleaning kit in an old Altoids tin in my pack.

Right now here in Montana we’re blanketed with thick smoke, as is much of the Northwest and West Coast. I’ve been out shooting anglers and making the most of the smoke-heavy skies for eerie orange skies. Our eyes might burn and I’m scraping ash off my car, but the images are otherworldly. Make the most of your conditions!

Ten days into a multi-week first-descent stand-up paddleboard expedition in the Peruvian Amazon, this natural hot spring deep in the jungle felt like a five-star hotel spa. The guys and I were very happy with the find.

4) Explore Filters

Screwing a filter onto the end of your lens can make a world of difference. There are many fancy filters available on the market, so don’t be afraid to play around. I’ve found I like to stick to the basics; I typically carry plain UV filters, polarizing filters, and several grades of ND filters in the field.

If you’re outside in conditions not conducive to changing filters, simply leave on a protective UV filter as protection. If you’re shooting on a tripod in bright light, a neutral density (ND) filter works well, modifying the intensity of all light wavelengths and colors equally, while giving no changes in hue of color rendition. A circular polarizer acts like your favorite pair of sunglasses, controlling and removing reflections and glare. You can turn the polarizer to enhance or minimize the polarization; hence the “circular” part of the name. Be certain to pay attention to circular polarizers in bright, midday light—they can overly enhance contrast and work against you. 

Golden char in Hokkaido, Japan, a few days after the typhoon passed (you can see the water was still quite turbid). Missile sirens were still going off in the small local village as North Korea played unfriendly neighbor, which made for surreal fishing in the otherwise pastoral countryside of northern Japan.

5) Keep the Camera Accessible

This is the most important of the five. You can be in the most incredible environment, seeing the most amazing things, but if your camera is tucked in the bottom of your bag and not in your hand, it might as well be on the kitchen counter at home. 

Some will argue that keeping gear out, instead of tucked away nicely in a bag, is harder on it. It's true. But with a little love (and proper maintenance) your gear will keep up and get the job done. Keep a waterproof bag nearby, so if conditions go south you can stow the camera safely. But otherwise, keep it out. Keep it on your shoulder. On the campsite table. Slung across your chest. Whatever. Good images never come from inside the bag.

Rule one when shooting from an open-doored helicopter: strap everything to your body. I was shooting two cameras this day in Australia’s Kimberley region as we hopped from billabong to billbong fishing for barramundi and dodging saltwater crocodiles. After a day where the temperature crested 110F, the evening light was well worth every drop of sweat.

A Note on Gear

  • Camera equipment preferences vary widely person to person. It’s possible to shoot creative, quality images on an iPhone, though advancing to an entry-level DSLR camera will provide much more creative freedom. Don’t let the lack of fancy equipment hamper you from getting outside and shooting.
  • If you do choose to invest in camera gear, lens choice will have the most impact on your outdoor photography experience. Look at purchasing a quality wide-angle lens, as well as a 100mm+ lens. Wide-angle lenses (anything wider than 50mm on a full-frame system, or 35mm on an APS-C system) are a photographer’s best friend, encouraging new shooters to get up close and personal with their subject.
  • A lens with a bit longer “reach” (think 100mm+) will allow you to photograph subjects from a further distance, making it a valuable tool for outdoor athletes/adventurers. Many of the outdoor sports we love are not conducive to having a second person right alongside the first during activity. Longer lenses allow photographers to capture tighter images from further away and can provide a valuable tool for learning how to frame tighter shots.
  • Above all, just get outside! Keeping a camera at your side is an excellent way to share your stories, capture memories and document adventures. And with a little creativity, it’s an exciting challenge all on its own.

Jess McGlothlin is a fly-fishing and adventure travel photographer and writer based in Missoula, Montana. See more of her work at www.JessMcGlothlinMedia.comor on Instagram.

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