12 Simple Tips For Taking Better Outdoor Photos
By Michael Lanza
Do you wonder how some people come back from national parks and other outdoor trips with fantastic photos? Would you like to take the kind of pictures that make people ooh and aah? It may not be as complicated as you think.
Sure, equipment matters, and the more time you spend shooting and learning how to hone your skills, the better your photos will be. (Read this to learn what I carry for camera equipment in the backcountry.) Shooting raw files—which record more data for each photo than jpegs and can be edited more extensively—and learning how to use a high-end editing program like Adobe Lightroom also greatly improves photo quality.
But the best camera gear and editing software cannot create a great photograph. That still requires skill—beginning with understanding some fundamental rules of composing images.
I’ve assembled here what I consider the 12 simplest but most effective tips for taking better pictures, especially landscape photos. Follow them and your family and friends will start asking to see your trip slide shows.
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1. Timing and Dramatic Light
We were on a family vacation in Yellowstone National Park, and after doing the sit-and-wait with the kids—and several hundred other tourists—for Old Faithful to erupt, I wanted to stop at Midway Geyser Basin. I had done the walk through Midway before, and thought that then—in late afternoon, with dappled, low-angle light coming through scudding clouds—would be a perfect time to shoot Yellowstone’s largest geyser, the wildly multi-colored and aptly named Grand Prismatic Geyser.
The timing could not have been more perfect. The light accentuated the contrast between the dark hills in the background; the fog rising from the geyser, brightened by low-angle sunlight slashing through it; the deeply blue sky; and the incredibly rich, kaleidoscopic colors of Grand Prismatic, whose waters also reflected their surroundings perfectly in that light. In about 30 minutes of shooting, I came away with the 19 keeper images in the gallery above—which for a serious photographer is a major haul.
The lesson: Dramatic light is what makes a landscape photo pop. Know your location and think about the best time of day and even the best season to shoot it to capture it in strong light.
2. Think About Your Foreground
Photos are two-dimensional, and if you just shoot a row of distant mountains, the photo will look flat. Shooting in dappled sunlight (described in tip no. 1) helps make a photo look more three-dimensional. But you can convey a sense of depth—of the three-dimensional appearance of the landscape—by shooting with a wide-angle lens and composing your photo with a person or object in the foreground, as I did in this shot of my son in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains. Position the camera close to, say, a big rock, a lakeshore, or a wildflower and frame the image so that there’s scenery in the middle distance (maybe a lake or forest) and far away (the mountains).
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3. Think About Your Background
The background may not be your primary subject, but it can either make your subject more prominent or swallow it. For instance, if the subject is a person or people in the middle distance who look small against a scenic backdrop (see tip no. 5)—as with the photo above from a peak named Blahnukur in Iceland—position the camera (yourself) relative to your subject so that there’s a bright backdrop behind the person, like a sky or lake waters or light-colored rock. A person who’s fairly small in the image would get lost against a dark backdrop like forest—unless that person is wearing brightly colored clothing (another trick for making the subject stand out against the background).
Conversely, if your subject is very bright—like a wildflower spotlighted in a shaft of sunlight, such as these geraniums (at right) in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park—position yourself to shoot so that there’s dark shadow behind the flower, to make it stand out better.
4. Follow the Rule of Thirds
Beginner photographers commonly place the subject smack in the middle of the photo (and, too often, they cut off a person’s feet—a no-no). Compose photos following the rule of thirds: Mentally divide your image into thirds along the longer edge, i.e., when shooting a horizontal picture, the imaginary lines dividing the photo into thirds run vertically. Place your subject—person, bunch of wildflowers, animal, whatever—in the right or left third of the frame (facing into rather than out of the picture; see photo above from Capitol Reef National Park).
For the same reason, do not compose a photo with the land-sky horizon cutting straight through the middle of it; give the sky one-third of the picture or place the horizon in the lower third of the photo and let a dramatic sky dominate the image.
5. Put a Person in There for Scale
You’ve seen many examples of this and probably done it yourself: Place a person or people far enough from the camera to make them appear small in order to convey a sense of the landscape’s vastness, as I did in the photo above from the Grand Canyon. Magazines use photos like this frequently because they know that readers identify with the person in the photo—the “I want to be there” effect.
The trick to doing this effectively is to make sure the tiny person remains large enough and visible against the background (tip no. 3) so as not to disappear, and to remember the Rule of Thirds (tip no. 4). Having just one person in the picture also introduces a powerful feeling of solitude that amplifies the sense of vastness.
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6. Look to the Sky
The sky is typically at least two f-stops brighter than the earth and sometimes much more than that—especially in early morning or evening, as in the photo above from Wanda Lake on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park. An f-stop is a full step in aperture settings as they used to appear on cameras in the pre-digital era, i.e., the different between f5.6 and f8, or f8 and f11, which represents a halving of the amount of light entering the camera as you move up the f-stop number scale, just as going from a shutter speed of 1/125 to 1/250 halves the amount of light entering the camera. Modern digital cameras increase aperture versatility by allowing adjustments of one-third of a full f-stop, for example, inserting two more partial f-stops (6.3 and 7.1) between f5.6 and f8.
Overexposing the sky so that it washes out—loses all or most detail—makes the photo look dull. In pre-digital days, photographers used graduated filters to darken the sky when shooting while keeping the earth brighter. Today, we can edit digital photos for the same effect produced by those old graduated filters, but it’s more difficult to restore details in an overexposed sky when editing than it is to brighten underexposed earth. So I often expose for the sky and brighten the shadowed land when editing.
Very simply: Point the camera toward the sky and depress your shutter-release button halfway to set the exposure. Then depress and hold the camera’s auto-exposure lock (typically marked AE-L and AF-L if it doubles as the auto-focus lock, and within reach of your right thumb) as you move the camera to compose the picture you want, and then shoot it.
7. Use an Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens
I take most of my photos in backcountry settings where I don’t want to carry a lot of weight, so I usually bring just one DSLR body and two lenses, including an ultra-wide-angle, 10-20mm zoom lens. At the wider end of that lens range, you can capture not only a greater breadth of landscape, but the lens enhances your ability to convey depth (tip no. 2) and to shoot in very tight circumstances and get more of your subject in the photo—as in the photo above from the slot canyon Peek-a-Boo Gulch in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Two cautions about ultra-wide-angle lenses: You have to train yourself to get closer to your foreground subject than with other lenses, otherwise they look too far off. And the lens distorts close subjects more, especially at the margins of the picture—making a person look unnaturally wide, or a closer person look unnaturally larger than the person immediately behind him, for example. Sometimes that’s a desirable effect, sometimes not, but be aware of it.
Lastly, an ultra-wide-angle lens makes selfies look much more impressive.
8. Visualize the Photo Before Shooting
The difference between a person who takes pictures and a photographer is that the picture taker sees something he wants a picture of, aims his camera, and shoots it; while a photographer sees a scene before her as the camera would see it, then chooses the lens and positions herself in order to capture the image in her mind. For the photo at right of a backpacker in the South Fork Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, I saw that ledge jutting out over thin air, with the mountain backdrop, and asked my friend to walk out and stand on it.
As you grow to instinctively anticipate how a lens will portray any scene, start thinking more in terms of which lens will best convey the drama of what you’re seeing, and where to position yourself to take best advantage of the light, foreground (tip no. 2), background (tip no. 3), and subject. When your brain starts visualizing your surroundings as a finished photo, you will take a giant step forward in the quality of your images.
9. Get Up High or Down Low
Just standing and pointing your camera gives your photo the usual perspective on a scene that we see with our eyes. Give an unusual perspective to lend an image more drama. Crouch down low, especially when you want to emphasize the foreground (tip no. 2) with an ultra-wide-angle lens (tip no. 7). Or get up on a rock or a downed tree or take a few steps up the uphill side of a trail to get above your subject, which also helps create a sense of scale (tip no. 5) and reveal more of the middle distance and background of your image, as I did with the photo above from the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
10. Shoot in Aperture Priority
Shooting in your camera’s aperture priority setting allows you to control for depth of field, or the amount of the photo that will be in sharp focus, while the camera automatically sets the shutter speed to create the correct exposure. Set the aperture wide open—at a low number, like f5.6—and use a telephoto lens or a zoom pushed out to a longer focal length (100mm or higher) when you want a very limited depth of field and to focus the viewer’s eye on one subject, like this broad-leaved willowherb (above) in Alaska’s Glacier Bay. Conversely, when you want the entire image in sharp focus—as in many of the photos in this article—close down the aperture to f16 or higher and, ideally, use a wide-angle lens (tip no. 7).
11. Use a Tripod and a Slow Shutter Speed
A slow shutter speed allows you to shoot in low-light situations like nighttime or dusk or a dense forest at a high aperture (f16 or above) for infinite depth of field (getting everything in the photo in sharp focus) without having to push your ISO higher, which can make a photo grainy. Using a tripod allows you to shoot at a slower shutter speed than is possible when handholding the camera without getting blurred pictures. (The general rule of thumb to avoid camera shake: Use a shutter speed equal to or faster than the focal length of the lens, e.g., a shutter speed of 1/125 with a 125mm lens or a zoom at that length, or 1/20 with a 20mm lens.)
The tripod and a slow shutter speed also allow for creating an effect like the silky blurring of moving water in a creek or waterfall—as with the photo at right from Mount Rainier National Park—or shooting a starry sky, or showing a brightly lit tent at night against a scenic backdrop.
A tip about shooting a lit tent at night like the photo above from the Grand Canyon (one of my 25 favorite backcountry campsites ever): Place one or two bright headlamps inside the tent, aimed at the back wall (the wall farthest from you when you’re shooting), so that their light reflects and disperses evenly throughout the tent. Shoot the photos at late dusk, when there’s still a little ambient light illuminating the landscape but you can also see a lot of stars in the sky. Bracket exposures to see what combination gives you the better image, but I often find I’m shooting at a wide-open aperture, like f5.6, and a shutter speed of 15 seconds or slower. When editing, you may have to brighten the sky a bit to bring out more stars and darken the tent a bit if it’s overexposed.
12. Keep On Shooting
On a backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, a friend and I camped two straight nights at Rock Slide Lake, which gave me two mornings and two evenings to shoot that very photogenic locale in widely variable light—and it kept getting better, as the photo gallery above illustrates. Never stop shooting a subject just because you think you’ve already gotten a few good photos of it.