Seven Tips for Planning Your Adventure Session

 A blog post about couples adventure photography in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia and West Virginia. We talk about couple's hiking sessions, and why I focus on unposed/candid lifestyle photography. 

To start off the Spring/Summer season, I hosted a giveaway for a Couple’s Adventure Session in the Shenandoah Valley. Madison won. We talked, made a plan and got excited. A couple of days after I announced the winner, Madison’s boyfriend, Alex, got in touch with me via Instagram. He wanted to know if we could turn the giveaway into The Proposal moment on Sunday morning. Absolutely.

On Saturday, the day before Alex’s planned proposal, another couple was scheduled for  their own adventure session elsewhere in Shenandoah National Park.). As I was leaving for that shoot, I learned that Skyline Drive near Luray was closed due to ice – in March! It gets cold in Virginia, but I’ve lived near Shenandoah National Park for the vast majority of my life and mid-March in Virginia is heading toward spring. It didn’t even cross my mind that Skyline Drive  – from which the park is usually accessed – would be closed at that time of year.

I quickly arranged to shift the other couple’s session to sunnier Roanoke on Saturday, two hours south of Luray, and then I waited to get in touch with Madison and Alex, HOPING Skyline would open in time for a Sunday morning sunrise session at Hawksbill. It didn’t. So late Saturday night, after I had driven from Roanoke to Luray, we decided to hike Mary’s Rock instead.

Mary’s Rock is one of my favorite hikes in Shenandoah National Park, along with White Oak Canyon and Old Rag. These three are the only hikes I know of that you can access without getting on Skyline. They all also happen to be longer hikes. Old Rag is a solid, steep four miles to the top and White Oak is not what I would call the ideal, early spring sunrise location – it’s mostly wooded and while the waterfalls are beautiful, you’re not going to want to get super near them (they’re cold even in the height of summer!) Mary’s Rock, though, when accessed from Thornton Gap, is about 2.2 miles up – it’s moderate, but steady.

We started around 5 am and it took us about 80 minutes to get to the top. Madison had come prepared to be photographed in both hiking clothes and a dress, so we took it pretty slow to try and prevent her and Alex from becoming overly sweaty. I mean, I love a good adventure in all of it’s forms, but I tend to sweat pretty profusely and I try to help my couples not follow in my footsteps on that count until after I’ve taken their photos.

Because it took us a little longer than expected to get to the top, the sun rose just before we got to the summit. I like to shoot sunrise sessions in the 30 minutes before the sun rises and the 15-20 minutes after. About 30 minutes after the sun has risen, the light can become pretty harsh. The images can still be beautiful, but they lose that sort of glowy softness that shooting near sunup or sundown provides.

As Madison changed into a dress, Alex and I walked on the last .1 miles to the top. I advised him that he should probably go ahead and propose because we had the best light now, versus waiting until later in the session. While Madison changed I scoped out exactly where I wanted to be and where I wanted them to stand. When she joined us, I had them face each other with their sides toward me and then...after a few brief snuggles, he got down on one knee, she said, “Yes!” and I took LOTS of photos of The Proposal. Then, we did a super-quick engagement session.

Being March, it was extremely cold at the top of the mountain. I’d anticipated its being chilly, but it was so cold that even shooting with my fingerless gloves, I’d have stick my hands between my legs periodically to be able to continue.

Madison, as I mentioned earlier, was in a dress. We rotated having her snuggle in Alex’s jacket, wear socks, and snuggle up in a blanket to get a few epic “dress flowing in the wind” shots, and then she changed into more practical leggings and a sweater and we continued the session in those clothes.

I’m telling you all of this because (A.) I like the story and (B.) it goes over all of the points we’ll be talking about in this blog post: location, activities, fitness, time of day, time of year, couple vs. family, and weather.

Location

Ok, this may be the most obvious point, but the entire vibe of your adventure session will depend on what location you choose. Is there a beautiful view? Is it a river walk? Are we waterfall chasing? But, sometimes, as was the case with BOTH of these sessions, we’ll have to change the location last minute due to weather and that’s totally fine. In both my Saturday and Sunday adventure sessions, I can’t imagine them going better  than they did and the plans changed pretty dramatically for both.

What helps is to have a plan A and then a backup date or location that works for both me and you. Backup dates can be tricky because as we head into the summer I’m becoming more and more booked. A backup date could be 1-3 months away. I have no problem shooting in rain or snow (and I’ll talk more about that below), but if we can’t access our original location, then we’ll have to shift gears.

I’ll write more about this as well in another post, but one of things I’m doing for my clients is building up an index of locations that I’ve already hiked or done so I know ahead of time how difficult, long and crowded those locations can be. If you want to meet at a location I haven’t done before, I make every effort to get there before the shoot to scout, hike and plan so we have the best possible experience when we get together.

Activities

For Madison’s and Alex’s session, we planned on a hike and then setting up a tent for some shelter to have breakfast in. It was way too windy to set up the tent at the top of the mountain, so we hiked back down a bit and got some snuggly shots of them in the tent on the trail. They then went back to Luray and had breakfast there.

Most of my adventure sessions are centered around hiking. But for me, adventure really just means doing an activity together that allows you to interact naturally and be fully present. We could go rock climbing, or canoeing or spelunking OR we could do pottery or explore a funky bookstore or have a picnic. My goal is to tell your story – whatever that story looks like. I want to draw out authentic interactions and emotions and provide space for you to be yourself and to be fully, completely comfortable with both me and one another. So often when we pick an activity for your adventure session, one of the main things I consider is how many other people will be there. If it’s a super public place, then let’s pick a time of day or year that isn’t as popular. If it’s always popular, let’s consider shifting to another place or activity where you won’t have an audience for your session.

Fitness

You do not have to be in ironman shape to enjoy an adventure session. There are plenty of short or flat hikes – we can walk by the river or visit a waterfall. What does matter is being honest with yourself about how much you can do. If you are not in good shape and have your heart set on a vista that’s four miles away from the parking lot, then we absolutely can do it, but we need to build in extra time. Maybe a hiking session turns into a camping one, or we delay for a few weeks/months while you get back in the gym for a bit.

What isn’t fun, is for you to pick something that’s WAY over your ability and then to get halfway in and feel terrible. When we consult about your session, fitness is one of the things I’ll go over. Fundamentally, I want you to have a really good time on your adventure, and so part of that is picking an activity and location well within your abilities so you’re focusing on your partner rather than on how tired you are.

Time of Day

For the vast majority of adventure sessions, there are going to be two “best” times of day to shoot: sunrise and sunset. This “rule” changes if the day is overcast or the adventure we are choosing is well shaded. But high sun generally means really dark shadows and really bright, brights – conditions that can be difficult to work with and will produce a certain kind of image with a lot of deep contrast that’s generally not ideal. So when you’re planning your trip, absolutely consider the time of day as well as location, activity and fitness level!

Time of Year

This one is sort of obvious as well. If you want greenery, spring is a good choice, if you want fall colors then aim for fall (at least here in the southeast/mid-Atlantic), but I also encourage you to consider winter or “off-season” for adventure sessions. Although the foliage won’t be as beautiful, you often get very popular locations to yourself. For me, that’s a fair tradeoff. Especially if you are looking at overlook hikes – mountains are mountains and bathed in the glow of sunrise or sunset, they are beautiful all year ‘round.

Weather

Rarely will I change a location or session day due to weather. I’ll shoot in rain, snow, fog, mist etc. These conditions, although hard, can make some really beautiful, dramatic images. Going into an adventure session, though, it’s important to not only think “I want epic images where my dress is flowing in the wind” but to bring an adventurous spirit that is open to whatever happens– because you’ve decided ahead of time that it’s going to be fun. If you can do that, it will be. Austin and I had photos taken in Iceland when we were there for our honeymoon in 2017. It was windy and rainy the entire time, but that shoot is one of my favorite memories from the trip and the photos are epic and beautiful. But we wanted to have a good time, so we did.

Couple vs. Family

In addition to adventure sessions with couples,  I’m enthusiastic about connecting with families for adventure or in-home sessions.. If you have kids and want memorable photos, let’s explore the creek, or go swimming or chalk paint the driveway...anything where you all are interacting together and falling into the natural patterns that make up your relationships.