Making Your Outdoor Vacation Photos Look as Epic as They Feel

Nobody believes you. Sorry not sorry. In an era of fake news accusations and shrinking attention spans, you lack the credibility to spin a legendary yarn or find an audience receptive enough to make it past the first two sentences of your mass email nobody opted into receiving. How on earth are you going to convey Southern Utah’s crimson brilliance, or your astonishing heroics on the ski slope? It’s simple: photos, but they better be good. The internet’s already full of crap, so don’t fill our feeds with more garbage. Be part of the solution.

Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony behind my stance. Few, if any, people are likely reading these words because the associated photographs are far more captivating. Those diligent enough to follow along are about to be treated to some wisdom from professional adventure photographer Ross Downard on how to make your outdoor photos pop. Most among us know the disappointment of seeing stunning landscapes and death defying stunts reduced to flattened, uninspired images. Follow Downard’s advice, and you’ll be sure to make your high school ex jealous with your killer Instagram feed.

The Expert

Meet Ross Downard. He’s an accomplished outdoor and adventure photographer with work published in some of the most respected outdoor publications in the world—he’s even graced the pages of this prestigious periodical. Downard can shoot everything from red rock arches, rock climbing and deep powder skiing to fly fishing, cycling and family hiking while always making it look epic. You can follow his daily adventures on his Instagram page, @mtnranks.

The Big Picture

No matter your chosen outdoor activity or location, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help out any photo from the start. “Always try to create a sense of space,” Downard explains. “I know it sounds cliché, but that feeling of being small in a grand arena, almost making the person a very small piece of an enormous puzzle, usually works. Sometimes it can be as simple as getting a little further back than you think to get the shot.”

Downard also recommends finding inspiration in imitation. “Look through a magazine to find photos that capture your attention. Try to recreate those shots when you’re outside,” he says. “You wouldn’t pick up a guitar for the first time and start writing your own songs. Copy what others have done to help build a foundation.”

Kanarra creek slot canyon trail in Zion national park

Making Colors Pop: Photographing Red Rocks

The heavily saturated hues of Southern Utah are a large part of what make the environment so inspiring. It can be difficult, however, to recreate those colors through photography. “The desert has a really high contrast between light and shadow. The eye can process it, but the camera tends to pick up one or the other,” Downard says. “The two best methods to the madness are shooting in low light, meaning sunrise or sunset, and by shooting when it’s cloudy. If you try to shoot in the middle of the day, you’ll get harsh light that flattens the image.”

“The best camera is the one you have with you.” Banal proverb or not, it couldn’t be more true. Most of us will be more than happy with an iPhone and the Snapseed app, and that massive DLSR you’re thinking of purchasing is very likely to be the camera you don’t have with you. If you want to up your game, Downard recommends something in the middle like the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100. Behind that alphabet soup of a name is a compact digital camera that will fit in your pocket and won’t break the bank. It’s $449 at your local retailer—aka online electronics superstore.  

Adding Action: Shooting Skiers & Snowboarders

Skiing is frequently fun and occasionally terrifying. Unfortunately, most skiing photographs are neither. Downard stresses the importance of adding dynamism and movement to the image. “Composition is especially important, so don’t put the subject in the middle of the frame. It’s basic rule of thirds stuff. If you want something to look steep, for example, you have to shoot from a side angle with a foreground and background layer to represent the space, even if it’s just a small bush, a branch or a rock.”

“Try to avoid taking a ‘snapshot’ of what you’d normally see. Whether that means getting down to the level of the snow or shooting above from a tree, looking at things from a slightly different perspective than normal can add so much to what you’re portraying.”

It’s Not About You: Snapping Fish Photos

When it comes to the grip and grin fly fishing photo, remember it’s not about the angler. “It takes some practice not to look like a goober holding a fish, but it’s the classic pose,” says Downard. “Make sure your hands are behind the fish, and hold it out front so it’s closer to the camera.”

For shooting scenic and action shots on the river, Downard suggests dusting off the low light and time of day lessons from desert photography. “It’s even better if you can stay low to the water and shoot slightly backlit photos. That way, the line will kind of glow rather than get lost in the background.”


Tony Gill
Tony Gill
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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