A good route to success in outdoor photography is finding a niche that you love. Find your passion; focus like a laser. Be a big fish in a small pond.
My particular niche is sea kayaking. As a vehicle, the sea kayak transports a photographer to unique photo ops, sometimes just a stone’s throw out on the water. Importantly, I can plan and execute expedition trips at low cost. I love the human-powered aspect as well. We paddle the water planet sometimes weeks as a time, arriving daily at fresh locations for dusk and dawn magic-hour photography. Over time, the result is a portfolio of distinctive images.
Sea kayaking, you could say, is a road less traveled. But let’s approach nature photography with uniqueness as a goal. Let’s get off the beaten path; avoid those stock images on postcards. As an example, many of us have images of Mt. Rainier taken from roadside Reflection Lake, near Paradise in Mt. Rainier National Park. It’s an easy shoot: hop out of the car at dawn, find some foreground, click the shutter. It’s a shopworn image, though, and not even a particularly good reflection because much of the Mountain is blocked. Contrast the classic Mt. Rainier reflection—mirror pond at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground—a shot made famous by the Asahel Curtis postage stamp photo. Indian Henry’s is seven miles in and demands an overnight backpack. You see far fewer images from here despite the great appeal. So get the quads in shape, and make the trek. Last year, we took it a step beyond, getting a camping permit for the cross-country zone beyond the mirror ponds. We discovered a new reflecting tarn with high potential. Without the off trail permit, we wouldn’t have found it. It’s a road less traveled.
The first time I visited Tongue Point (Salt Creek County Park, Clallam County, WA) for tide pool photography, I gave it some thought beforehand and showed up wearing a wetsuit and beat-up running shoes. As the tide receded, I crisscrossed the intertidal, shoe lugs gripping the rocks, sloshing though pools of water. My camera gear hung from a non-waterproof belt pack, tripod slung over the shoulder (a waterproof belt pack came later). Images were few from that shoot, but the exploration set the stage for future work. One discovery was red-lipped goose barnacles—red glowing lips found only where the animal is affixed to the underside of boulders deep in slippery intertidal (Don’t ask me why). Getting the shot took work. If you keep looking in the intertidal here, you’ll discover blowholes, blood stars, or nudibranchs like Hermissenda Crassicornis. The wetsuit gave me access; access to a road less traveled.
Use the tools that you have to push for advantage. Take bird photography, a popular, well-traveled, passion that I share with many photographers. I feel I can’t compete with the 600mm f/4 shooters that are out day after day, chasing the latest internet sighting, using the car as a blind, shooting from the boardwalks of wildlife refuges. Where I can compete is shooting from a kayak, with backyard set-ups or in local legwork. The kayak is especially productive, producing unique views, and the coveted low angle. Without a kayak, you can still get low by lying on the shore to photograph ducks, grebes or shorebirds. By local legwork, I mean scouting, especially finding bird nests in the spring. Too, you can get a lot of mileage from a “short” 300mm f/4 or 400mm f/5.6 lens and a cropped-frame dSLR, combinations deadly for hand-held flight shooting. Press that advantage, take the road less traveled and figure out where to find approachable, flying birds. Cavity nesters like woodpeckers are a good start; or set up nest boxes in your backyard for chickadees, wrens and nuthatches.
Dozens of photographers are discovering thousands of fresh images by focusing locally, concentrating on their strengths. You don’t need a big budget, or a new lens. Get out every day and look, look, look. Often, leave the camera at home and scout. Find that fresh perspective that comes with a road less traveled.