The Expert Tips That Forever Changed How I Take Vacation Photos
Beyond the technical aspects, it’s all about your mindset and approach.
Sylvain Terret doesn’t have a pet name for his 2004 Nissan Patrol Y61, but damn does he love that car. The photographer and avid outdoorsman regularly ventures far into the rugged heights of the French Alps behind the wheel of his trusty gray 4x4 for hiking excursions. He enjoys camping in the high-elevation wilderness using a badass tent accessory that connects to its roof. And, as you’ll quickly discover on his Instagram account, he captures gorgeous portraits of the diesel-powered beauty—often seen with the snow-capped Mont Blanc as the backdrop—on their many adventures. Just like his camera, the car is another extension of himself.
While on a recent trip to Megève, France’s Four Seasons Hotel Megève, I had the honor of off-roading through the beautiful mountainous terrain in Terret’s Patrol as part of a guided photography hike. It was the last day of my trip to the area for the hotel’s “Based on a True Stay” experience, and maybe it was the nostalgic metallic scent of the camping gear and hardware inside, but climbing into the passenger seat while the idling diesel engine rumbled made me downright giddy. We were still on paved roads when I started peppering Terret with questions—about his ride (he’s had it for just over a year now, I learned), but his chosen profession, too.
“I used to draw and paint my inner world, but in photography, it's the exact opposite—I create images starting from reality,” Terret said. “When I'm taking photography, I feel deeply connected with my environment, and as a mountain lover, being out with my camera, sometimes off the beaten track, it's like my senses are heightened tenfold. I'm here and now in an intense way.”
Unlike Terret, I’d never hopped into an off-road vehicle and ascended into the mountains to snap some photos, so I was admittedly a little intimidated. What should one look for when surrounded by a stunning landscape with an epic vista in every direction?
“Sometimes I go into the mountains only for hiking—I don't bring any photo gear, except my phone,” he said. “Other times, I go to take photos and the hike is just a way to reach some places. I’ll choose the time to get the light and weather conditions I'm looking for, even if it's not the best for hiking. For instance, when the weather turns foggy or rainy, most people don't go out, but I'll be somewhere in the mountains with my camera.”
Scroll through Terret’s nature and architecture photography and you’ll see what he means. Walking along a gravel road with the Patrol parked not too far behind us, he laughed when I described his style as “moody.” But he didn’t disagree.
Unfortunately for him, we didn’t have any gloomy mist to work with on that September afternoon in the French Alps. Though from my perspective, we definitely lucked out with the weather. Cold rains the night before frosted the surrounding mountain caps with a snowy glow, and additional drenching storms were just hours away. Of course, most visitors experience Megève, located in the Haute-Savoie region of southeastern France and best accessed via Geneva, under a thick blanket of powder during the winter ski season. But the peace and quiet of the off-season made the visit even more special for me.
Still on foot, we reached a high meadow at the top of a towering hill and paused near a dormant ski lift. Low clouds raced above us, and the afternoon sun projected an ever-turning kaleidoscope of vivid shadows and highlights against the rocky ridges. Looking down into the valley below, Megève showcased its most picturesque angles, as if the fairytale mountain town was posing for a postcard. My first instinct was to whip out my iPhone and drag it through the air for a panorama shot. It turned out nicely, but I noticed Terret was doing the exact opposite. Instead of trying to get an epic hero shot like me, he trained his lens on a tiny farm in the distance, and then, on the tall golden grass blowing in the chilly wind around us. I was clearly missing something.
“I advise to simply not try to capture everything in one shot, because you actually end up seeing everything and nothing at the same time,” he said. “Rather, frame something that resonates with you. It could be part of a mountain, a light and a shadow, a detail in the forest, the shape of clouds, anything that captures your attention.”
“Because of social media, people want to travel to a specific place and capture the exact same photo that went viral, but that doesn’t bring any value,” he continued. “How can you bring something different? A good photo, to me, is a photo that the longer we watch it, the more we love it, and we never get tired of looking at it.”
As Terret pointed out (at times with a flurry of camera clicks in a certain direction), there was a wealth of dramatic alpine scenery transforming in front of us amid the changing light—more than enough to keep our shutters busy as we hiked along, carefully avoiding the many, many cowpies hiding in the overgrown fields.
“Just reconnect with yourself and observe the nature around you,” Terret told me, great advice for a novice with a big camera and even bigger expectations for his travel photography. “Can you see how the light is changing on this part of the mountain? How about the shadows on the rocks? Or this little cabin lost in the wilderness? Look at the ground—there are many beautiful colors, textures, and details everywhere.”
“Is there something you feel connected with?” he added. “Capture it.”
So I did.
I found the shadows, shapes, and textures, including the subtle sparkle of meltwater trickling down the mountainside and shadows forming menacing tentacles across the forest’s expanse. I even came across some alarmingly red mushrooms that practically screamed up from their patch of fallen twigs and pinecones, demanding their close-up. And you can bet your ass that I got a glamor shot or two of Terret’s prized Patrol.
What I ended up with was a series of photos—hundreds that I edited down to dozens—that captured the essence of that autumn afternoon, ultimately linking together to tell the story of our little hike together. Looking back, a big part of my lesson was recognizing that my collection of photos from that day—panos, close-ups, texture shots, plays on shapes, plays on shadows—is far greater than the sum of its parts.