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Outdoor Photography

Even if you don’t make a habit of shooting scenics, chances are at some point you’ll encounter a mountain, river, or starlit sky that draws your eye and has you reaching for your camera. We’ve all seen photos of nature that express the beauty and mystery of the outdoors, and likely a multitude of snapshots that did not translate these qualities well at all.

When we step outdoors, the variables of light, weather, and season dictate subject matter, whereas in the studio we get to control everything. This lack of control can be frustrating at times but the unpredictability of nature is why shooting scenics can bring such great rewards. You never know what you’re going to get, the mundane or the sublime.

Sometimes your camera will stay in your bag, other times you might witness a unique scene that has you madly shooting for two minutes in unbelievable light that later becomes a striking print on a client’s wall. Regardless of location or the conditions you encounter, there are some guidelines you can follow to help improve your chances of capturing a great image. Here are 12 tips for making better scenics.

1. Appreciate the work of others and learn from them.

Check out coffee table books or peruse images online to get a sense of what makes nature photography work. Notice how photographers compose images and what type of light works best to complement certain scenes. There’s nothing wrong with imitating the work of others as part of the learning process, but it’s more satisfying to use the lessons they impart and then stake out your own creative territory.

2. Know your camera.

Shooting outdoors means that you’ll have to adapt on the fly to changing conditions. Let’s say you are on a hike and encounter elk grazing in a meadow. You’ll need a fast shutter speed to stop action, so how quickly can you adjust your camera to get a shot before the animals run away? Sometimes only seconds exist to make such adjustments. Develop an instinctive control of your camera’s functions so you don’t need to think when the time comes.

3. Shoot for the light.

Light is the great dynamic variable when shooting outdoors, and it will either make or break your photos (as in any type of photography). Because we cannot control the light we need to anticipate it and visualize its effect when planning a shot. Even if you have a particular subject in mind, notice where the best-looking light is falling and aim your lens in its direction.

Photo Courtesy of Elias Butler – Long Lake, Inyo National Forest, California

4. Use a tripod.

Even though cameras now pack enough high-ISO capability to accommodate many low-light situations, a tripod is often a necessity for certain types of scenics. You can’t blur motion such as a waterfall without a long exposure, and you’ll also use multi-second exposures for nighttime scenes of stars and moonlight. A tripod has many other uses of course, and for outdoor photography it’s a must.

5. Get up before dawn, skip happy hour, and probably dinner too.

This is the hard part! You’ll be working while other people are relaxing, eating, or just getting their day going. Warm, flattering light tends to occur where day meets night, so you’ll want to be ready a half hour before sunrise, and in the evening, until a half hour after sunset. The hours following sunrise and preceding sunset are excellent times to shoot using direct sunlight.

6. Realize that direct sunlight isn’t always best.

In the film days, this was more important due to tight exposure latitudes, but even the best digital cameras still fall far short of the range of contrast the human eye can behold. In diffused, soft light such as in a shaded canyon, or just before sunrise or after sunset, the landscape will be more easily photographed and the colors will be more saturated.

7. Choose a focal point and work your composition to complement it.

Let’s say you’re photographing a running creek in autumn that has trees lining the banks.  Make a decision about whether to anchor your composition in the creek or in the trees, and then move around while looking through your viewfinder to determine the best perspective. You can also stand tall or crouch low to the ground but moving your perspective while viewing the scene will help you arrive at a good balance between the various objects and line up your shot.

Photo Courtesy of Elias Butler – West Clear Creek Wilderness, Arizona

8. Choose your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture purposefully.

Using the manual settings on your camera will allow you the most creative freedom because you can adjust any of the three independently of the others. Many nature photographers prefer small apertures to maximize depth of field, such as when including a nearby foreground and distant background, but every shot demands a unique approach. Think about what you’re going for and select the best combination instead of allowing the camera to determine the settings.

9. Pay attention to corners and lines.

Before pressing the shutter button, look at the entire scene in your viewfinder instead of zeroing in on a particular section. Is there a pleasing arrangement of lines that lead the eye where you wish, or is it cluttered with opposing or unharmonious lines? Also look at each corner of the image and ask yourself if that is what you want to see there. Corners are often ignored so inspecting them will help you arrive at a better composition.

10. Use a polarizer and neutral density filter.

Although post work can alleviate challenges with polluted or drab skies and high contrast, there’s a limit to how much can be done. You can help your images greatly by using a polarizer which will deepen blue skies and eliminate the haze from dust or pollution. The effect can produce a surprising improvement in the clarity and color of your images. Also, neutral density filters are very useful for balancing bright skies with darker landscapes, and can be indispensable for certain scenes.

11. Use a standard fixed-length lens to practice.

I believe a limitation can open up creative possibilities. Attach a 50mm lens to your camera and see what you can do with it. Although nature photographers always have a wide angle and telephoto lens on hand, it’s good practice to work with a fixed-length lens so that you don’t rely on zooming to make a photo. This will force you to make decisions that ultimately strengthen your sense of composition.

12. Get outside and shoot more!

You will get better simply by being outdoors with camera in hand. Give yourself a personal project by going into a favorite area and make the best images you can. Not only will it be good for your health but you’re going to learn something about both your abilities and the world around you. And you might just come back with a fantastic shot.

Elias Butler

Elias Butler is a professional photographer and writer based in Arizona. He's written a book titled "Grand Obsession" and has been published in Sierra, USA Today, and Arizona Highways among many others. See Butler's website here.


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