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How a Successful Travel Blogger uses Photography to Share and Inspire

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Through a mix of wide shots for context and close-ups to highlight details, Erika Wiggins, aka "The Active Explorer", incorporates visual storytelling in all of her articles. Photo by Erika Wiggins.

“From the riot of color at a Hindu festival, to the texture of Bedouin tents in the desert, to the joyful expression on a Jordanian school girl’s face, nothing shares it like a photo. I could tell you how I felt at Burning Man, but instead let me show you a photo of a newlywed wearing a bright skirt. She is looking at the playa opening up before her—much as her new life is now opening up. Seeing this image helps you understand the wonder of the place and her possible future in a way words just cannot convey.”

Writing Alone Cannot Relay Sense Of Space

As an outdoor and adventure travel blogger, sharing experiences is core to my life and profession. Several years ago I realized that writing alone cannot relay a sense of space like a photograph. My words felt incomplete when not paired with images.

At the start of my blogging career in 2009 I posted low quality images, but that’s only because I didn’t own a good camera. Those first photos were just not enough; I wanted to share not only better images, but images that reflected my creativity, so I took time to study photography at Crealdé School of Art in Winter Park, Florida. I took courses on everything from basic composition and camera control to environmental portraiture and documentary photography.

I also invested in gear I felt would best help me express a sense of place and space. I started with the Nikon D7000 because it offered the speed I needed to capture action, such as skiing, climbing and air shows. When I bought the D7000 I also purchased one all purpose zoom lens. This turned out to be good for avoiding lens swapping, plus it saved on weight. Also among my first trek purchases were a lightweight carbon fiber tripod, camera backpack with hip belt, chest harness, remote shutter release and polarizing filter.

Looking over a Bedouin camp at sunset in the Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan– Taken with the AW1, 1/160sec at f/3.5, 11mm, 200 ISO

Looking over a Bedouin camp at sunset in the Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan—Taken with the Nikon 1 AW1, 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6, 1/160sec at f/3.5, 200 ISO

My initial purchases were made to complement my hiking and traveling, so each piece had to fit in with my on-the-go lifestyle. For example, the right pack had to meet a few needs: must be multipurpose and comfy on hikes that often topped 10 miles duration. I ended up selecting a pack with compartments for my photography gear, laptop and a roomy area for food, rain gear, warm layers and water. The hip belt is critical to comfort on the trail.

Once the rugged Nikon 1 AW1 came out, I invested in that camera and opted to take it to places where I risked damaging my DSLR. Climbing, skiing, wet canyoneering, snorkeling and walks on the dusty playa were all activities where my AW1 accompanied me to.

Initially my lens purchase was driven by budget. I’ve since learned that buying the highest quality I can afford pays off with noticeably better images. I now include the AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR and an AF MICRO-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8D. For the Nikon 1 AW1, I have a 1 NIKKOR 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 and a 1 NIKKOR 10mm f/2.8. Both camera and lenses are waterproof and shockproof.

The Importance Of Photos

Photography plays a large role in my writing and blogging. Through it I can express creativity and give visual context to my words. Photography resonates with people in a way that I never imagined, and its pursuit has taken me to places I never expected.

The perfect photo for my blog should have:
  • A defined subject
  • A sense of place or person vs. being simply pretty
  • A unique angle or perspective

I incorporate storytelling in my images using a mix of wide shots for context and close-ups to highlight details. But I can’t say I’m always successful; my trips are fast-paced whirlwinds, which means I frequently have to capture what I can—quickly.

We had a dramatic sky right before sunset, so I wanted to capture images of the pup (Leeloo) shooting up from a low angle to show it off. Taken with the D7000, 1/400sec at f/10, 10mm, ISO 200.  Photo by Erika Wiggins

We had a dramatic sky right before sunset, so I wanted to capture images of the pup (Leeloo) shooting up from a low angle to show it off. Taken with the D7000. Photo by Erika Wiggins.

Hitting The Trail With An Active Photo Blogger

When traveling for work, the schedule is packed morning ’til night. There’s little down time for writing or processing photos until late in the evening. As a result, I shoot spontaneously and capture more than I may use so that I do not miss a moment. There’s usually no time to scout the perfect angle, so I get what I can, all the while watching composition. I don’t have a signature style, other than favoring images taken from a different angle of well-known subjects; I try to avoid recreating the shot that’s on every postcard in town. Sometimes I focus on people enjoying a space by positioning the camera low and shooting up. Other times I capture details that would be missed in a wide shot. I like strong foreground detail, but mostly my priority is sharing the feel of a place or activity.

A newlywed wearing a bright skirt at the Burning Man. Taken with the Nikon 1 AW1, 1/250sec at f/4.5, 18.7mm, 320 ISO– Photo by Erika Wiggins.

A newlywed wearing a bright skirt at the Burning Man. Taken with the Nikon 1 AW1, 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6, 1/250sec at f/4.5, 320 ISO– Photo by Erika Wiggins.

Every blog post includes three to five images, and I write roughly three posts per trip. Much of what I capture is shared immediately from the point of experience via social media. As a travel blogger I must preserve engagement with readers. This is not always easy for an active lifestyle writer. It’s been one reason why I buy rugged gear that I don’t have to baby. Case in point—I once fell while rock climbing, flipping inverted and gaining some bruises. My gear, including the Nikon AW1 clipped to my harness, was fine.

What do I capture? I have a few standard shots. I start by photographing my room (before bringing in bags). I seldom post those images because my audience wants adventure, but I enjoy looking back at all the rooms I’ve stayed in. On hikes I grab a “boots and view” shot. It’s cliché, but the perspective is fun. I’ve also been including myself in more shots recently, which I suspect are popular because they show that a middle-aged gal can be fit and adventurous.

Sharing quality images was a challenge at first. I’d have to download them to my computer at the end of the day, which is not exactly the immediate sharing experience I was after. Today, I use a wireless adapter (WU-1b) to connect my AW1 to my mobile phone (loaded with the Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility app). This helps me rapidly transfer then share photos. Another great use for the app is controlling the camera via my mobile. This tool gives me a new level of selfie!

Being self-employed, my travels aren’t “vacation time.” So to continue working I use an online fax service, cloud storage, my smartphone, plus a slim laptop loaded with editing software. I ensure there’s Internet access wherever I’m staying. Of course I also have my camera pack that includes either the D7000 or AW1, or both, plus ample batteries and the charging devices.

Looking Forward To 2015

I’d call myself a passionate photo enthusiast who shares many photos immediately, even when I plan to later write about the experience. With photography, there’s always an opportunity to further your skills, so here are a few of my goals for 2015:

  • Video Production: My first goal is to add videos to my repertoire. Between my D7000 and the AW1, I have two excellent cameras for capturing HD video. What I lack is the skill, so I’ve signed up to take courses via an online education portal. This is a small investment to learn a new creative medium.
  • Improve My Winter Composition Skills: Winter sports, such as skiing and treks through the drifts, comprise a large percentage of my activities. Unfortunately the photos I have taken do not match my vision. With ski season here I’m already studying and practicing some winter white photography.
  • Instagram Tune-up: My Instagram images show a mix of quality shots and simple snapshots. In 2015 I plan to create more artistic and inspiring posts. I want my images to nudge people to get outside and play.

These three photography goals are actually part of a larger goal I have set for my blogging and social media. Promoting a healthy and active lifestyle is important to me, so I’m expanding my coverage to include more than just outdoor adventure. To play like I play takes an investment in personal health and fitness. A bigger overall goal is to inspire others to take care of themselves both emotionally and physically. I’ve already experimented with this new direction through my podcasts, and the response has been great.

My own photo files contain tens of thousands of images; each illustrates a memory I treasure. Many years from now, when I can’t travel, rock climb or ski anymore, I’ll have a beautiful record of my adventurous life to share with my grandkids.

Nikon - At the heart of the image

Gear Used:

About The Contributor

ErikaBioImage

Erika Wiggins

Erika Wiggins is a Salt Lake City based freelance writer who focuses on adventure sports, travel and dining. She backpacks, she rappels into caves, she skis the black diamond run and she explores regions where there’s great local cuisine and craft beers. Her blog, TheActiveExplorer.com, features a lively mix of tips, suggestions and travel reports, plus photos from the air, sea and land. You can follow her on Twitter (@Active_Explorer), Instagram (@Active_Explorer) and http://TheActiveExplorer.com


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  • James Cloud

    Nice to see a photographer who is using the very good Nikkor 18-105mm ED VR lens with her D7000. I’ve seen far too many posts on photography forums by Nikon enthusiasts who distain the 18-105mm lens in preference to the Nikkor 16-85mm VR DX lens. I bought my Nikon D7000 with the 18-105mm kit lens and I’ve been very satisfied with its performance and versatility. Despite having several other lens, the 18-105mm has become my favorite carry lens.