Photography tips: the web is your friend

By Bill Hatcher 13 December 2012
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Award-winning photographer Bill Hatcher shares his tips for capturing that memorable shot.

The digital revolution now touches nearly every facet of outdoor adventure photography. 

Not just with cameras, but also super-compact laptops, flash drives, GPS devices, smart phones and post-PC devices like the iPad that you can load with apps and tether with cloud technology.

Today on the web you can find sites and chat forums that have answers for practically any subject or location on the planet. Ten years ago this digital magic had little or no part in our lives and now we can’t plan a trip without it.

Reflecting on the pre-digital days (I started as a pro photographer in 1987), I often wonder how technology has benefited my photography.

I only have to think of some of my past expeditions when things would sometimes go seriously wrong to realise that yes, the digital cameras, with photo preview in the field are great, but it’s the information and connectivity available today with social media – Skype and Google Earth, to name a few – that has impacted my photo shoots the most.

I’ll describe two photo shoots: one which failed dismally, but would probably have been saved if I started with more up-to-date route information; and the other, where the success of the shoot was largely inspired by a little web surfing.

Digital disaster

The disaster of a trip happened in Mexico in the 90s.

I joined a canyoning trip led by American canyoning explorer Steve Allen. Four of us flew from the USA to Chihuahua, Mexico.

Our destination was the Sierra Madre for a 14-day descent through the Barranca del Sinforosa, the deepest gorge in Mexico.

Steve had been to this region before to descend the nearby gorge formed by the Rio Urique and believed the Sinforosa would be deeper, longer and more challenging.
A handful of people had been through before us and they had confirmed that this was a worthy expedition. But except for those few words and some old topo maps, we had very little information.

The perfect ingredients for a good adventure, right? Wrong! Because while we had located on a topo map the perfect route into the canyon, we couldn’t find this trailhead even with the aid of our local guide, a compass and maps.
Our orienteering skills proved to be as useless as our guide’s sense of direction. After two frustrating days of driving we found ourselves lost in a maze of logging roads in some of the most rugged terrain in North America.

Our GPS coordinates indicated we were still 25km, as the crow flies, down-canyon from our planned drop-in point. Frustrated we opted for a different entry into the canyon. What we didn’t know was this effectively bypassed the narrowest and most photogenic segments of the canyon.

The gorge section we finally descended amounted to a  ‘Sunday-outing’, a casual 10-day walk down the lower Sinforosa. We had missed the wild upper sections of the canyon due to our navigational blunder.

Today, 15 minutes on Google Earth and the use of a GPS with maps would have sent us right to our intended trailhead.

Digital photography: Vernal Falls

In contrast, I chose the location of Vernal Falls for this hiking photo (above) by using information sourced from Google Maps while searching on the web for potential photo locations around Yosemite Valley National Park in northern California.

Looking at Google Images I discovered that there is an afternoon rainbow at Vernal Falls in the summer. I used a weather website to choose a clear day to hike to the falls. Once at the base of the falls, I only had to wait for the magic of the sun to make a rainbow appear.

This was shot with my digital camera setup – at the time, a Nikon D-300 with a 24-120 VR lens. The images were processed on my Macbook Pro laptop the same day.

After being lost and confused in Mexico I have embraced today’s electronics and the invaluable information stream found on the internet.

Sometimes the sheer enormity of digital information and gear can be overwhelming so I am selective with web sources, to avoid the trap of spending too much time planning and not enough time outdoors shooting photos.

As for gear, if it qualifies as better, lighter and faster than my old technology (and it’s affordable), I’ll find a way to include it in my photographic quiver.